In E.E. Evans-Pritchards’ work, `The Nuer Religion`, we are introduced to the concept of the symbolic cattle. This literary work emphasizes how symbolisms play a key role in the life styles of the Nuer tribesmen of Southern Sudan and Ethiopia. Via this text, Evans-Pritchard familiarizes readers with the concept of spirits and essential how those spirits play a guiding role in the every day lives of the Nuer. Readers are introduced to the concept of God, spirits of below and above, problems associated with symbolism, souls and ghosts, and sacrifice of cattle. This analysis will tie in the vital role of cattle in the lives of the Nuer and how its soul is symbolic of the whole Nuer culture and lifestyle.
This author establishes the idea early on in his work that for the Nuer God is “kwoth or Spirit” (1), which inhabits the sky above and is intangibly part of the sky and earth below. The concept of spirit presents how ethereal the omnipotent being is, and how air itself lacks substance. The Nuer derivation or definition of Kwoth indicates that they believe that the action involved in “intangible quality of air and the breathing or blowing out of air” (1) aids in their spiritual insight into comprehending how the Spirit inhabits the skies above and the ground below. For instance, the action of blowing air into an object or onto the object creates a reaction upon the object. Pritchard points out the act of blowing out the embers of a fire cause it to get stronger. The concept of air plays an intricate function because though air is all around you can not see or touch “air”; so, it is accepted based upon faith and its reaction in objects.
The act of blowing on food to cool it has a reaction upon the food, and lastly blowing into the uterus of a cow causes it to produce milk. The gust of air being propelled through an intangible area plays a central role in the Nuer religion and culture. The Nuer religion acknowledges that the invisible quality or essence of God can be seen in the appearance of the moon, the sun, the stars, a gust of wind, thunder, rain, lightening, and other such natural events. They insist that God is a spirit which rests in the skies above but whose presence can be felt throughout the world. The text states that “When Nuer pray to God, though often looking to the sky as they do so….. On the other hand, the word may be used for some particular spirit–an air-spirit, a totemic spirit, and so forth–without its being indicated by name, it being understood in the context that this particular spirit is referred to…. They also speak of a gwan kwoth, possessor of a spirit, and of a yang kwoth, a spirit’s cow…(106).
Upon hearing the statement, `[Cattle are] the link between the perceptible and the transcendental` (1956:271), by E.E. Evans-Pritchard who cites Father Crazzolara, my first impression was that the people of Nuer had associated their most precious tangible item with the invisible essence of a Godly spirit or essence. To the Nuer they have discerned that while God is a spirit in the heavens above, he has granted them cattle to make their livelihood with and to ensure their survival. The Nuer know that they would not be able to survive without their cattle and nor would the cattle be able to survive without the protection of the Nuer. They can then draw the conclusion that the Nuer would not be able to survive without the Spirit above and below. The idea of protection and survival are both intangible or transcendental concepts. For the Nuer they recognize that the cattle are vital to their continued existence and they perceive that this tangible asset is due to a powerful entity.
As their existence and everyday tasks is tied to cattle care and cattle maintenance their comprehension of the spiritual world is linked between what they know (the cattle) and what they can only do not (the invisible spirit of God). The distinguishable quality of cattle to the Nuer is discussed in depth in Chapter 10 where readers are introduced to how the Nuer are extremely dependent on the milk from their cattle herds, the meat for eating, the cattle hides for clothing and sleeping mats, the cow dung for fueling and warding off mosquites, and a variety of other essential parts for their lifestyle. While the cattle caregiving is for both Nuer woman and Nuer men, the responsibilities are clearly divided between men and women. Women are responsible for all milking and dairy household tasks while men breed and sacrifice the cattle as offerings to the spirits. Chapter 10 enforces the idea that “cattle are their great treasure, a constant source of pride, the occasion also of much foresight, anxiety, and quarreling, and they are their intimate companions from birth to death. It is not difficult to understand, therefore, that Nuer give their cattle devoted attention, and it is not surprising that they talk more of cattle than of anything else and have a vast vocabulary relating to them and their needs.” As the old saying goes, they live and breathe cattle. For the Nuer, the maintenance of the cattle is central to their lives, hence, their culture and religion directly correlate to this maintenance as well.
For the Nuer, even the sacrifice of the prized cattle entails the belief that such an act will satisfy the spirit and show an individual’s gratitude to God. The meaning of this sacrifice is detailed out in this work and is complex in nature. As readers we begin to understand that sacrifice is predominately done either on a social order/status level or to accomplish a moral or physical change in an individual’s life. The general idea associated with this sacrificial act is “idea of substitution of life of ox for life of man” (272-274). This work reflects that all sacrifices contain 4 prominent aspects: the formal presentation of the ox to the social group or spirits, consecration where ashes are placed on the man or beast, invocation when it is proclaimed why the sacrifice is being done, and lastly immolation of the beast. Dramatically, this act is both formal as well as symbolic in nature. For instance, when the invocation occurs the speaker holds the spear in his right hand. The spear itself is a symbol of the speaker’s virtue, vitality, and integrity. When the speaker is representing his family the spear then takes on the symbol of the whole clan or family lineage. (274-278)
When the Nuer prophets are possessed by a spirit they are delegated into performing sacrifices for either an individual’s specific need or for the communities’ benefit. Both the prophets as well as the sacrificing individual are done only by men. The text states that, “a sacrifice is made and in the invocation at it the guardian spirit of the lineage is asked to receive the Dinka into its care and the ghosts of the ancestors are informed of what is being done.” (287-289). This concept of spiritual possession is detected by an alteration of the character of the possessed individual. The Nuer believe that any individual possessed is “hollowed” out by the emphatic and strong force of the spirit. Such individuals will dream of spirits and become manifestations of the spirit when they awaken. Historically, the Nuer were guided into cattle raids and protected from cattle raids by such possessed spirits.
From a symbolic perspective, the Nuer prophets symbolized the characteristics and personality traits of the Spirit or God. In section 4 of the text, readers are guided into understanding how there is a distinct difference between the spirits of the air, the spirits of below, and how they vary from God himself. The text iterates how the spirits of the air are numerous and are refered to as “kuth nhial, or spirits from above” whereas the spirits of below or “ kuth piny” belong to the earth. The Nuer reference to God himself is “kwoth nhial” while the other spirits exist they are only reflections of god in different “ways and figures”. As the Neur do not “claim to see God, nor do they think that anyone can know what he is like in himself” they are defer to using adjectives such as “great” or “good” to describe him. They also take metaphors or symbolic references from the world in which they interact and exist to explain his chacteristics. They “liken his invisibility and ubiquity to wind and air, his greatness to the universe he has created, and his grandeur to an ox with widespread horns. (123-125)”
Based upon the cattle themselves they are considered to be dedicated to spirits and may also be owned by the spirits. This implies that any sacrifice made will reflect the intent of the Nuer to get closer to the spirit and portray ones’ appreciation for either a recovery from sickness. Such an act of gratitude is also observed in the matter of trading cattle for a bride as a commodity. Historically, these creatures to the Nuer serve as symbolic, religious, and economic assets to the Nuer. One of their common roles is as bridewealth, where they are presented to the future wife’s family from the husband’s as a bride gift. This act ensures that the offspring of the relationship between husband and wife will belong to the husband’s bloodline and be direct descendents of his. This implies that a man can “father” children after his passing because of cattle exchanges which define the relationship of kinship and descendents. Furthermore, the male children of the relationship will in turn be allowed to marry and the family line will continue because of the cattle exchange.
The Nuer religion itself is deeply engrained with religious connotations and symbolic attachments to their cattle. From a young age, Nuer children are exposed to this symbolism and trained to become responsible and respectful of their cattle herds. The cattle livestock play an powerful role for all members of the Nuer clans. For instance, upon reaching manhood a Nuer boy is given a ox for his initiation. This act symbolizes that the boy, who has now become a man, is attached to his ox and must derive all his responsibilities from nurturing, providing, and caring for his livestock. The boy himself then acquires a derivation of the ox’s name into his own: symbolically they are now one essence. The clan itself owns jointly a cattle herd, and the herd is also named as part of the clan name. This association by name indicates that the Nuer consider the cattle to be members of their family and vice versa. This cultural point of view about the role of cattle in their lives shows that the Nuer are preoccupied with protecting their lineage by incorporating their main treasure or source of lifestyle into every aspect of their lives from an early age.
E. E. Evans Pritchard’s The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People further emphasizes that “The importance of cattle in Nuer life and thought is further exemplified in personal names. Men are frequently addressed by names that refer to the form and colour of their favourite oxen, and women take names from oxen and from the cows they milk. Even small boys call one another by ox-names when playing together in the pastures, a child usually taking his name from the bull-calf of the cow he and his mother milk. Often a man receives an ox-name or cow-name at birth. Sometimes the name of a man which is handed down to posterity is his ox-name and not his birth-name…..Nuer tend to define all social processes and relationships in terms of cattle.” This passage shows that all components of the Nuer life is governed by this ‘obsession’ with cattle. All talk and interaction between the social clans is predetermined by cattle and cattle numbers. Any sacrifices which occur, or marriages of sons led to a decrease in those numbers and must be increased again to keep one clan richer than another. (http://faculty.dwc.edu/wellman/cattle.htm)
Another symbolic characteristic of the relationship between the Nuer, the spirits, and the cattle is the belief that they can communicate with the spirits and their ancestor ghosts via the sacrifice of the cattle. By rubbing ashes on the backs of cows which have been dedicated to explicit deceased relatives or spirits, they can use the sacrifice as a communication channel to aid in having their petitions or pleas for aid answered. For the Nuer, these sacrifices in all important ceremonies are necessary to their lifestyle and culture. Without such acts, the ceremony would be incomplete and their requests for aid or protection would remain unanswered. As the Nuer steadfastly believe that the spirits of the deceased can either positively or adversely affect their current life they are diligent in making sure that the spirits and ghosts are pleased and that sacrifices occur often. The act of sacrifice can be any number of items for “when there is a sudden danger for which immediate action has to be taken and there is
no time for formalities, or when a man is in the bush and cannot lay his hands on a beast or even a cucumber. The suppliant asks God to take the offering and spare him (197).” Here readers are introduced to the concept of simple symbolism where the cucumber which is of high importance in this time of need for the Nuer can represent a cattle because it to the Nuer about the spirit it represents not the symbolism itself. As an object, any object has a spirit and its spirit can be offered for petitions and favors in the Nuer’s time of need.
For the Nuer, the spirits above were actually once people. They refer to them as colwic, and these ancestral spirits are led by a patron colwic which represents a family’s lineage. Believing that when a person dies their flesh, life, and soul go through a separation; they believe that the flesh of the individual is dedicate do the earth whereas the breath or life returns to God. As for the soul, this part represents the human individuality and personality which remains alive as a shadow or reflection of the individual. This shadow then departs along with the cattle which is sacrificed in their honor to wherever the final resting place of souls lies.
Spiritually, the Nuer believe that such sacrifices can also be used to appease or honor the spirits, God, and their deceased. For them their most important possession is the cattle and their activities symbolize how sacrificing the cattle draws them closer to the transcendent: God and the spirits of below and above.
E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Nuer Religion. Oxford University Press, 1956
E. E. Evans Pritchard. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Retrieved on February 20th from website http://faculty.dwc.edu/wellman/cattle.htm
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