Godfrey Lienhardt ‘Divinity and Experience’

Lienhardt’s account of the Dinka of South Sudan is an attempt to show how the tribe perceives the world by explaining their religious beliefs. His introduction portrays the Dinka as a people obsessed with cattle: he notes that because of their importance to the survival of the tribe (who live in harsh conditions on the margins of subsistence), cattle play a huge part in their culture and personal identities: people’s names, personalities, self esteem and social standing, the continuation of lineage, and men’s attractiveness to women, are all heavily linked with cows. Thus because of their special signification to the Dinka they are prime objects for sacrifices, as the killing of cattle is not just the killing of an animal but it becomes a symbolic act. This alone highlights human tendency to add symbolic importance onto objects and phenomenon as the basis of religion, which is entirely imaginary (but still culturally relevant) to the believer, and completely alien to the non-believer. To anyone else, killing a cow is just killing a cow, but to the Dinka it is far more important than that. This brings to mind what Sartre writes about art: that the painting you look at is actually just made of bits of paint on a canvas, and the image of the flowers you see is in the imaginary world (therefore if you haven’t seen flowers before you won’t recognise them in the painting).

In the chapter ‘Divinity and Experience’, Lienhardt explains the ‘Powers’ that affect life for the Dinka, who have a different concept to us of the reflective mind and the mind that immediately experiences phenomena. To the Dinka, any thought on a previous experience is said to influenced by external forces – the Powers – thus a guilty conscience is attributed to a Power that is put upon the guilty party by the offended (not necessarily willingly). If there is a sickness that can’t be explained, it is because the person cannot separate the immediate experience of sickness from the reflective experience (and the ability to do so would indicate what the Power was that was acting on the sufferer, and where the Power comes from) and thus a diviner is called in to find out. This effect that the Powers have on the reflective memory of a phenomenon (termed by Lienhardt the ‘image’)  thus makes any future thought on the phenomenon affected by a power exerting it’s influence. This is an incredibly interesting viewpoint on what ‘memory’ actually is: a common criticism of source material based on people’s memories is that their version of events often change over time – not because they forget, but because they interpret events differently as time goes on. An easy example of this would be the whole ‘school is the best time of your life’ thing people often say – for most of us it certainly wasn’t at the time but to many people it beats working a boring job 9-5 so they interpret their memories differently, thus you could say that the power acting on their experience is their rubbish job. 


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