The Concept of God in African Nuer Religion

Author: E.E. Evans-Pritchard

The Concept of God in African Nuer Religion

By E. E. Evans-Pritchard

(E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) was professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford from 1946 until his retirement in 1970. His studies of the Nuer (pronounced Nu-er, with the accent on the last syllable) were made in the late 1930s. He lived among the Nuer for three years. The Nuer were a cattle-herding tribe living by the Nile River. He became a Catholic in 1946.)

Whether they are speaking about events which happened in the beginning or long ago, or about happenings of yesterday and today, God the creative spirit is the final Nuer explanation of everything. When asked how things began or how they come to be what they are, they answer that God made them or that it was his will that they have come to be what they are. The heavens and the earth and the waters on the earth, and the beasts and birds and reptiles and fish were made by him, and he is the author of custom and tradition. The Nuer herd cattle and cultivate millet and spear fish because God gave them these things for their sustenance. He instituted their marriage prohibitions. He ordained that there should be totems. He gave ritual powers to some men and not to others. He decreed that the Nuer should raid the Dinka and that Europeans should conquer the Nuer. God has made one man black and another white, one man fleet and another slow, one strong and another weak. Everything in nature, in culture, in society and in men is as it is because God made it so. Above all else, God is thought of as the giver and sustainer of life. He also brings death. Nuer say that since it is his world he can take away what he has given. It is true that Nuer seldom attribute death-- in such cases as death by lightning or following the breach of a taboo--to the direct intervention of God, but rather to natural circumstances or to the action of a lesser spirit; but they nevertheless regard the natural circumstances or the spirit as agents of God; for it is he who causes a man to die and the final appeal in sickness is made to him. Nuer have often told me that it is God who takes the life, whether a man dies from spear, wild beast, or sickness, for all these are "instruments of God."

In the Nuer conception of God he is thus creative spirit. He is also a person. I have never heard Nuer suggest that he has human form, but though he is himself ubiquitous and invisible he sees and hears all that happens and he can be angry and love (the Nuer word is nhok, and if we here translate it "to love" it must be understood in the preferential sense of agapo or diligo: when Nuer say that God loves something they mean that he is partial to it). As a person he is the father of men.

God as the Father of Men A very common mode of address to the Deity is "Gwandong," a word which means "grandfather" or "ancestor," and literally "old father," but in a religious context "Father" or "our Father" would convey the Nuer sense better; and "Gwara" or "Gwandan," "our Father," are also often used in prayers. God is the Father of men in two respects. He is their Creator and he is their protector. God is also the Father of men in that he is their protector and friend. He is "God who walks with you," that is, who is present with you. He is the friend of men who helps them in their troubles, and Nuer sometimes address him as "maadh," "friend," a word which has for them the sense of intimate friendship. The frequent use in prayers of the word rom in reference to the lives, or souls, of men indicates the same feeling about God, for it has the sense of the care and protection parents give to a child and especially the carrying of a helpless infant. The Nuer habit of making short supplications to God outside formal and ritual occasions, also suggests an awareness of a protective presence, as does the affirmation one hears every day among the Nuer, "God is present." Nuer say this, doubtless often as a merely verbal response, when they are faced with some difficulty to be overcome or some problem to be solved. The phrase does not mean "there is a God." That would be for Nuer a pointless remark... God's existence is taken for granted by everybody. Consequently when we say, as we can do, that all Nuer have faith in God, that word "faith" must be understood in the Old Testament sense of "trust" and not in that modern sense of "belief," which the concept came to have under Greek and Latin influences. There is in any case, I think, no word in the Nuer language which could stand for "I believe."

A Nuer either knows (ngac) or he does not know (kwic). But though God is sometimes felt to be present here and now, he is also felt to be far away in the sky. However, heaven and earth are not entirely separated. There are comings and goings. God takes the souls of those he destroys by lightning to dwell with him and in him they protect their kinsmen; he participates in the affairs of men through divers spirits which haunt the atmosphere between heaven and earth and may be regarded as hypostasizations of his modes and attributes; and he is also everywhere present in a way which can only be symbolized, as his ubiquitous presence is symbolized by the Nuer, by the metaphor of wind and air. Also God can be communicated with through prayer and sacrifice, and a certain kind of contact with him is maintained through the moral order of society, which he is said to have instituted and of which he is the guardian. But in spite of these communications and contacts the distance between heaven and earth is too great to be bridged.

It is in the light of their feeling that man is dependent on God and helpless without his aid and that God, though a friend and present, is yet also remote, that we are to interpret a word the Nuer frequently use about themselves when speaking to or about God: doar. It means "simple" or "foolish" or "ignorant." Nuer say that they are people who do not understand the mysteries of life and death, and of God and the spirits and why things happen as they do.

When they use the word doar in a religious context, they are speaking of themselves being foolish in comparison with God and in his eyes. I think that the same idea is expressed in speaking of themselves as cok, small black ants, in their hymns to spirits of the air, that is, they are God's ants, or in other words what a tiny ant is to man, so man is to God.

Humility Before God

In speaking about themselves as being like ants and as being simple people, the Nuer show a humbleness in respect to God which contrasts with their proud, almost provocative, and towards strangers even insulting, bearing; and indeed humbleness, a consciousness of creatureliness, is a further element of meaning in the word doar, as is also humility, not contending against God but suffering without complaint. Humbleness and humility are very evident on all occasions of religious expression among the Nuer; in the manner and content of prayer, in the purpose and meaning of sacrifices, which are generally made to avoid, stay, or restrict misfortunes, and, perhaps most evidently, in their sufferings. Here I want only to say that when misfortunes happen, Nuer accept them with resignation.. Whatever the occasion of death and other misfortunes may be, whether they be what the Nuer call "Dung cak," "the lot of created things," or whether they be the result of what they call "dueri," "faults," they come to one and all alike, and Nuer say that they must be accepted as the will of God. The best that can be hoped for is that God will hear the prayers and accept the sacrifices of those who suffer and spare them any burden.

Nuer do not complain when misfortunes befall them. They say that it is God's will (rwac Kwotl), that it is his world (e ghaude), and--I have often heard Nuer say this in their sufferings--that he is goagh, good. When a child dies women lament, but only for a little while, and men are silent. They say that God has taken his own and they must not complain; perhaps he will give them another child. This is a common refrain with the Nuer, especially in their invocations at mortuary ceremonies. They say of the dead man that God has taken him and that he was in the right in the matter, for it was his man; he has taken only what was his own. Also, when a byre is destroyed by lightning, Nuer tell him that they do not complain. The grass of the thatch is his, and he has a right to take what belongs to him. Likewise if a cow or an ox of your herd dies, Nuer say that you must not complain if God takes his own beast. The cattle of your herd are his and not yours. If you grieve overmuch, God will be angry that you resent his taking what is his. Better be content, therefore, that God should do what he wishes, seeing not that he has taken one of your cows but that he has spared the others. If you forget the cow, God will see that you are poor and will spare you and your children and your other beasts. I cannot convey the Nuer attitude better than by quoting part of the verse in the Book of Job: "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." Selection I, (London, 953), edited by Hastings and Nichols, condensed from pp 24-31.

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Winter 1995, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.