Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard (1951) describes the religion of the Nuer tribe as “spiritual” in that they conceive God to be Kwoth, a “being of true spirit” who is everywhere and in everything. The Nuer believe that everything they are and everything they have and everything that happens is so because it is his will.
The Nuer do not think of God as having a specific form or residing in a particular place. He is a superior being existing high above in the heavens, but that does not mean that he is solely to be found there. The Nuer’s God is like the air, all pervasive and essential for life. He manifests through what happens around them.
“He falls in the rain, shines in the sun and moon, and blows in the wind.”Evans-Pritchard on the Nuer tribe religion and their perception of God (1951)
Kwoth nhial – a supreme being with three hypostases
In much the same way as Christians believe that there is one God with three hypostases – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – who are distinct entities yet are one in divine spirit, the Nuer talk of different spirits that are hypostases of the supreme spirit, Kwoth nhial.
These include kuth dwanga, the spirits of the air they believe are gaat kwoth, the children of God; and col wic, the spirits of people killed by God’s fire, lightning, who subsequently ascended into the heavens to live as one with Kwoth nhial.
Kwoth nhial – the creator and protector of everything
The Nuer recognise Kwoth nhial as the creator and protector of everything. They believe he is the father of all men. This relationship is clearly expressed when they pray to gwandong (“our father”) and in the fact that each tribesman traces his family tree all the way back to Kwoth.
God’s creation also includes the universe and the earth, all the animals and plants that he made for man’s sustenance, the traditions the Nuers live by and the power differences between different societies and tribes. Everything is the way it is because Kwoth willed it to be so.
An interesting dichotomy in the Nuer tribe religion and beliefs is that although they believe the spirit is all around them, they also perceive an immense chasm between lowly human beings and God on high. The Nuers understand God to be all-knowing and all-powerful, while they are doar, ignorant and helpless, and would not be able to survive if it were not for his divine protection and mercy.
“We, all of us, have the nature of ants in that we are very tiny in respect to God.”
Kiggen 1948, as cited in Evans-Pritchard 1951
Evans-Pritchard – the Nuer tribe has a complex religion and philosophical beliefs
The Nuer’s acceptance that everything they have has been given to them by God leads them to accept misfortunes with resignation. They accept that what Kwoth gives then Kwoth can also take away. This ties in with their humility when it comes to comparing themselves to God, for who are they to complain or question God’s will? By debasing themselves, praying and offering sacrifices they hope to avoid his displeasure and the misfortunes that that might bring.
They are also careful not to appear proud or boastful, or to attach too much importance to anything or anyone, out of fear that this will lead to God sending them bad luck in order to even out fortune and misfortune fairly amongst men. And finally, they are careful to obey Kwoth’s laws by observing their tribe’s traditions and honouring their obligations to God and their fellow man, to avoid angering God and suffering retribution.
The above led Evans-Pritchard (1956) to conclude that the Nuer tribe religion and their complex philosophical and religious beliefs, which were developed over hundreds of years, could by no means be considered simple or primitive. In this he directly contradicts Durkheim (1915), who had posited that such tribal religions were basic, constituting the first stage of the evolution of a religious system of beliefs.
Evans-Pritchard’s criticism of Durkheim’s theory of religion
Furthermore Evans-Pritchard categorically disagreed with Durkeim’s theory that such tribes are in fact not worshiping God, but rather a representation of their own society, with the main function being the preservation of the social order and prevention of individualistic behaviour that would threaten the cohesiveness of the tribe.
Evans-Pritchard argued that while the social order of the Nuer tribe impacts their religion, forming the basis of the their understanding of their duties and obligations, as well as what is moral and upstanding behaviour, it was clear that the religious beliefs of the tribesmen were sophisticated and built on a strong tradition of spirituality which transcended the collective and constituted a personal and trusting relationship with their God.
“It was Durkheim and not the savage who made society into a god.”Evans-Pritchard 1956
He was scathing in his criticism of Durkheim’s theories, which he dismissed as “for the most part pure conjecture” that expose “the conceit of the assumptions on which they were based.” This might sound overly harsh, until one considers that Durkheim never conducted any fieldwork and formed his opinions solely on third party accounts.
In 1915 Durkheim published a book called “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life”. It was based on the work of Baldwin Spencer, who had studied the aborigines in their natural environment. Spencer had been convinced by James Frazer (who had also never conducted any fieldwork) that the natives were merely practicing “magic.” He came to believe that the tribe had still not progressed to a system of beliefs that constituted a religion. This was in fact incorrect, because the Aboriginal tribes had a very sophisticated system of beliefs and supporting rituals. (Charlesworth 2009)
“The natives have nothing whatever in the way of simple, pure religion.”Spencer, as cited by Charlesworth 2009
Conclusion – “Nuer Religion” by Evans-Pritchard
In conclusion, the book “Nuer religion” is a seminal work by Evans-Pritchard that for the first time ever analysed a primitive religion based on painstaking first-hand research and analysis. His insightful description of the truly “remarkably sensitive, refined and intelligent” beliefs of the Neurs was ground-breaking, disproving previous assumptions and theories regarding such religions. The theoretical implications of his work charted a new course for the anthropologists who followed him, transforming our understanding of such indigenous religion and philosophy.
Brandon, S.G.F. (1957). Nuer Religion. Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. For the London School of Economics.
Carls, P. (2019). Modern Democracy as the Cult of the Individual: Durkheim on religious coexistence and conflict. Critical research on religion, 7(3), pp. 292-311.
Charlesworth, M. (2009). Anthropological Approaches to ‘Primitive’ Religions. Sophia, 48(2), pp. 119-125.
Crazzolara, J.P. (1935). The African Explains Witchcraft: Nuer. Africa (London.1928), 8(4), pp. 504-509.
Diamond, S. (1957). Nuer Religion. American Sociological Society.
Evans-Pritchard, E. (1956). Nuer religion. Clarendon.
Evans-Pritchard, E. (1951). Some Features and Forms of Nuer Sacrifices. Africa (London.1928); Africa, 21(2), pp. 112-121.
Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1951). Some Features of Nuer Religion. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 81(1), pp. 1-13.
James, E.O. (1957). Nuer Religion. OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS.
Lessa, W.A. (1958). ETHNOLOGY AND ETHNOGRAPHY: Nuer Religion. E. E. Evans‐Pritchard. Oxford, UK: Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Salazar, C. (2015). Religious Symbolism and the Human Mind: Rethinking Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Method & theory in the study of religion, 27(1), pp. 82-96.
For Further Reading
- What are the key components of the anthropological perspective?
- “Cultural values are a web of linked concepts, fixed in time and space.”
- Evans-Pritchard and the Religion of the Nuer Tribe
- How do economic and residence practices impact women’s status and power?
- What are the different marriage wealth-exchange practices?
- Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structuralism and its Influence on Anthropological Thought
- Clifford Geertz and the Thick Description of the Balinese Cockfight
- Bronislaw Malinowski, the Trobriand people and the Kula
- Why did Marxist ideas only start being applied in Anthropology in the last half century, and what are some of the key ideas that influence Materialistic Anthropology?
- Dance as Ritual – an anthropological perspective
- How Residence Customs After Marriage Vary Around the World
- Compare the operations and implications of Bridewealth and Dowry
- The impact of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) on Anthropology
- “The two-gender system is neither innate nor universal” (Towle and Morgan 2006)
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