Lienhardt’s Introduction in Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka

Godfrey Lienhardt’s introductory chapter to his book Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka gives the reader an overview of the Dinka way of life and moves on to focus on their complex social and linguistic relationship with cattle. Lienhardt makes particular emphasis through the chapter how cattle hold little economic importance and that ‘people do not play with cattle’ – cattle, alike to children, are gifts from Divinity and ultimately belong to the clan-divinity.

In the transition from boy to manhood young men take become identified with the colour of a particular ox, which he takes the colour name of in addition to his birth name. Although this name is only used by close friends, his ability to create songs that praise his ox and develop imagery can be considered as a mark of intelligence. A man’s metaphorical ox name does not necessarily refer to his personal appearance but it influences his actions, the songs he creates and the decorated ox can sway future brides. It is clear that the Dinka men identify with the oxen through names and language. It can be seen how important this identification is by the taboo that man should not eat the flesh of an ox of his colour name. It demonstrates a kind of spiritual link between the two.

I found the part interesting how a ‘malicious gossip’ may have ‘numbered’ a man’s cattle and caused his marriage negotiations to break down. From a British reader such a superstition has little importance whereas walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror would be blamed for any unfortunate events in following weeks. The close relationship between cattle and man is also held in every day superstitions. Dinka number neither their children nor cattle as they both are riches given into human care and should not be highlighted economically.

A man’s wealth in cattle directly links to the remembrance of his name and thus hopefully the continuity of generation in their line. Every bull or ox is ultimately destined for sacrifice and it represents the community of people present and whom it provides for. As Lienhardt expresses ‘relationships between human beings and the divine are regulated by the transfer of cattle in dedication and sacrifice’. This shows the on-going relationship between the two and highlights how ‘a man cannot be fully Dinka without them’.


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