Lienhardt’s ‘Divinity and Experience’

The Dinka spread over a very wide area and come to a total of 900 000 people. Given the vast amount of land they inhabit it is considered very striking how they are able to maintain a uniform of cultural homogeneity. Although Lienhardt is writing about the Dinka in general he claims that for any experts in the field would recognise that his writing is slightly orientated towards the Western Dinka of the Bahr-al-Ghazal Province of Sudan.

What I find most striking about these chapters is the significance cattle hold in the lives of the Dinka and how dependent they are on them. Their main food source consists of soured milk and curd, when cows die they use the hides of cow’s to make rope, use as sleeping skins or shields and eat the meat. Not even the cow’s urine is wasted as it is used to curdle the milk and as disinfectant. The faeces of the cows also has many uses for the Dinka like being used as fuel for the fires that protect both the men and the cattle from mosquitoes at night, the Dinka men then rub themselves with the ash from the fire to identify themselves with the cattle and as a symbol of them looking after and protecting the herd. 

It seems as though the DInka build their life around the cattle as in July, during the heaviest part of the rainy season, the young men herd the cattle to the savannah forest leaving the girls and older people to watch the crops. It is here that they remain for months, moving around the forest to allow to graze on the forest vegetation. It is not until around October when the rainy season comes to an end that the young men return to help with the harvest.

Sacrifices play a central part in the Dinka’s religion and cattle are seen as the perfect sacrifice. The importance of cattle to the Dinka is further …… when Lienhardt explains about the vast and complex vocabulary the Dinka have due to their cattle. It is from the way they describe their cattle in colour, shape, sex and stage of maturity that they gain most of their words, The DInka are so dependent upon the cattle and their colour that if they were taken away they would be left with very few ways of describing visual experiences.

In a contemporary society like Britain it is hard to draw any parallels with the Dinka’s dependency on the cattle, especially to the extent to which if a cow was eaten just for the meat it was believed that the person would be forever haunted by the cow. The best comparison I can draw is the dependency people in the UK and similar societies have on technology. There is not a single day when people are not on the internet or glued to their phones. Although I can see that there is not really any religious significance with technology that there is with the cattle but it seems impossible to conceive of the world without computers, smartphones or televisions because they all seem to play such an important part in most people’s every day life.


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