NUER SACRIFICE


The Nuer are a cattle-herding people dwelling in the Nilotic Sudan. Their religious practices and beliefs have been studied with great care and understanding by E. E. Evans-Pritchard. The results of his twenty five years of research have been published under the title 'Nuer Religion,' from which the following selection is taken.

Nuer sacrifice on a great many occasions: when a man is sick, when sin has been committed, when a wife is barren, sometimes on the birth of a first child, at the birth of twins, at initiation of sons, at marriages, at funerals and mortuary ceremonies, after homicides and at settlements of feuds, at periodic ceremonies in honour of one or other of their many spirits of a dead father' before war, when persons or property are struck by lightning, when threatened or overcome by plague or famine, sometimes before large-scale fishing enterprises, when a ghost is troublesome, etc.

When we examine this variety of occasions we see that Nuer sacrifices fall into two broad classes. Most sacrifices are made to prevent some danger hanging over people, for example on account of some sin, to appease an angry spirit, or at the birth of twins; or to curtail or to get rid of a misfortune which has already fallen, as in times of plague or in acute sickness. On all such occasions Spirit intervenes, or may intervene, for better or more often for worse, in the affairs of men, and its intervention is always dangerous. Any misfortune or grave danger is a sign of spiritual activity. Such sacrifices are made for a person or persons and not for social groups, and they involve ideas Of propitiation, expiation, and related intentions. As they are the most common and the most specifically religious sacrifices I shall devote chief attention to them. There are other sacrifices which accompany various social activities, mostly of the rites de passage kind, such as initiation, marriage, and death. We cannot make an absolute distinction between the two sorts of sacrifice. A sacrifice of the rites de passage kind may contain elements of meaning characteristic of the other type. Sacrifices in marriage ceremonies-at betrothal, at the wedding, and at the consummation-are the best examples of the second type. A sacrifice to ward off the consequences of serious incest is a good example of the first type. A sacrifice to end mournings is an example of the blending of the two. It is a routine sacrifice in a rites de passage context, but it is also intended to get rid of the contamination. of death and any evil there may be in men's hearts. For the purpose of discussing the meaning or meanings of sacrifice it is necessary to make the distinction, even if there is some overlapping. I shall speak of the one type as personal sacrifice and of the other as collective sacrifice. These terms draw attention to the formal distinction between sacrifices offered for persons and those offered on behalf of social groups, but we shall see that they differ also in intention, the first having primarily a piacular intention, and the second a confirmatory one; or, to use Hubert and Mauss's terms, the first are sacrifices of 'desacralization' (they make the sacred profane, they get rid of Spirit from man) and the second as sacrifices of 'sacralization' (they make the profane sacred, they bring Spirit to man).
The primary purpose of collective sacrifices, and also their main function, is to confirm, to establish, or to add strength to, a change in social status-boy to man, maiden to wife, living man to ghost-or a new relationship between social groups-the coming into being of a new age-set, the uniting of kin groups by ties of affinity, the ending of a blood-feud-by making God and the ghosts, who are directly concerned with the change taking place, witnesses of it. The ceremonies are incomplete and ineffective without sacrifice, but sacrifice may be only one incident in a complex of ceremonies, dances, and rites of various kinds, which have no religious significance in themselves. Its importance lies in the fact that it sacralizes the social event and the new relationship brought about by it. It solemnizes the change of status or relationship, giving it religious validation. On such occasions sacrifice has generally a conspicuously festal and eucharistic character. . . .

It is indicative of Nuer religious thought that these sacrifices -performed as part of social activities are concerned with relations within the social order and not with relations between men and their natural environment. We are often told in accounts of African peoples that their sacrifices are concerned with weather, rain, fertility of the soil, seed-time, fructification, harvest, and fishing and hunting. Generally no rite of any kind is performed by Nuer in connection with these processes, certainly no regular and obligatory rite; and if in certain circumstances one is performed, as before large-scale fishing, it is rarely a sacrifice, and if it is a sacrifice it is not regarded as either necessary or important. All this may be due to some extent to lack of interest in agriculture and hunting, but it is also because Nuer take nature for granted and are passive and resigned towards it. They do not think that they can influence it to their own advantage, being merely ignorant folk. What happens there is the will of God, and that has to be accepted. Hence Nuer are little interested in ritual for bringing rain and even consider it presumptuous to think of asking God for rain before sowing. This mentality is illustrated in one of their stories which relates how death came to a girl who asked that the setting of the sun might be delayed till she had finished her work. Nuer rather turn their eyes inwards, to the little closed social world in which they live, they and their cattle. Their sacrifices are concerned with moral and spiritual, not natural, crises.

We have now first to ask to whom sacrifices are made. This brings us again up against the problem of the one and the many. When a sin is expiated or pollution is wiped out by sacrifice it is made to God alone. Likewise in major calamities, such as plagues and murrains. Also when a person is struck by lightning, in connection with death, and in cases of sickness not attributed to a specific cause. We are here dealing with circumstances common to all men and with universals with the moral law which is the same for all men, with effects of common interest and concern, and with dangers and misfortunes which fall on each and all alike. Sacrifices may, however, be made on some occasions to one or other spirit, for example, to a spirit of the air before battle or when it is thought to have brought about sickness in a man or if it is feared that it may do so; or to a totemic or other spirit of the below in circumstances already mentioned in earlier chapters. We are here dealing with something more particular and specific, the relation of certain persons to Spirit figured to them, and not to others, in one or other special form as a spirit. Nevertheless, as I have earlier explained, these spirits may be regarded as hypostases, representations, or refractions of God, and in the already defined sense in which this is so we can say that a sacrifice to any one of them is a sacrifice also to God. . . .

The sacrificial animal par excellence is an ox, and in important social ceremonies, such as weddings and those held for settlements of feuds, the victim must be an ox. Oxen are also sacrificed in times of general calamity, sometimes when people are dangerously ill, and occasionally to spirits. A barren cow may take the place of an ox. Bulls are only sacrificed in one of the rites dosing a blood-feud, and occasionally, though only old beasts, in honour of a dead father. Except in these instances a male victim must be a neuter. If it is not, it is castrated before the rites begin. Fertile cows are only sacrificed at mortuary ceremonies, and then only for senior persons, as a tribute to their position in the community. It does not matter what is the colour of the victim, though in certain sacrifices there is a preference for beasts with certain markings. . . .

We have discussed to whom sacrifice is made and what is sacrificed. We have now to ask by whom it is made, and when and where. We have first to distinguish between the person (or social group) on whose behalf it is made, whom we may speak of as the sacrificer, though with some danger of misunderstanding, because he may not take an active part in the rite performed on his behalf, and those who act on his behalf, the actors in the drama. There may be a number of these. Several people may take part in the consecration and several men may deliver invocations. One man may present the victim, another consecrate and make the invocation over it, and yet another slay it. Nevertheless, there are always one or more prime actors, those who make the consecrations and invocations, which, rather than the actual killing, constitute for Nuer the main acts in the series of rites making, up a sacrifice; and we may therefore speak of anyone, who, after consecrating the victim, makes an invocation over it as the officiant. There may be several of them. In certain sacrifices, particularly those of the collective kind, whoever else may invoke God, one or other particular functionary either must do so or it is thought highly desirable that he should do so. Normally any senior man, usually the bead of the family of the sacrificer, can officiate at personal sacrifices. He would generally be one of the sacrificer's paternal kinsmen but it would not matter if he were not. The sacrifice is to God and not to ghosts, and it therefore does not matter who officiates. A youth would not officiate if there were an older man present, but this is a matter of social convention only: there is no ritual bar to his acting. Women do not sacrifice. They may assist in the act of consecration with ashes and they may pray, but they do not make invocations or slay victims. Neither the sacrificer nor the officiant has to be in a state of ceremonial purity. This is an idea entirely unknown to Nuer.........

Almost all sacrifices, whether personal or collective, have the same general features. A description of one is therefore, apart from details, description of almost all. The victim is brought to the place of sacrifice and there are performed in succession the four acts which compose the sacrificial drama: presentation, consecration, invocation, and immolation. Other features may be added, such as libations and aspersions and, mostly in sacrifices to spirits, hymn-singing, but these are supernumerary acts. The essential rites of the sacrifice proper are the four I have mentioned. They form what might be called the canon of sacrifice. . . .

God takes the yiegh, the life. Man takes the ring, the flesh, what is left over after the sacrifice. The carcass is cut up and skinned as soon as the animal falls. In most sacrifices the meat is consumed by members of the family and kin of the person on whose behalf it was made. In marriage and most other collective sacrifices it is divided among relatives, both paternal and maternal, in traditional portions; and the age-mates of the owner of the beast and representatives of lineages collateral to his may also have rights to shares. If the principal officiant is not a member of the family or of the dose kin but a master of ceremonies of the family or a priest or a prophet, he also receives his share. This part of the proceedings is of general interest and not merely for those directly concerned in the rites. If it is at all a public occasion people, whether they are concerned in the matter or not, gather round to watch the meat being cut up and banded to those to whom it is due, and there is often much shouting and argument as the distribution is goodhumouredly disputed and men tug at the carcass and snatch or beg pieces of meat. Even outsiders who get in the way and beg persistently enough are likely to receive pieces of it. According to the circumstances those who on such an occasion receive meat take it to their homes, maybe in different villages, for cooking and eating, or it is cooked by women of the homestead in which the sacrifice took place and eaten there by groups, according to sex, age, and kinship. The meat is cooked, served, and eaten as would be that of a wild beast slaughtered in hunting. It is boiled, though tid-bits may be roasted in the embers of a fire. I want to make it dear indeed that the cutting up of the victim, the preparation of its flesh, and the eating of it are not parts of the sacrifice. To regard the eating of the animal as part of the sacrificial rite would be like regarding a wedding feast as part of the marriage service in our own country. But if it does not form part of the rite and has no sacramental significance it forms part of the whole ceremony in the broader sense and has a social significance. We have always to remember that a sacrifice, even piacular sacrifice, furnishes a feast and that in the circumstances in which Nuer live and by convention this means that neighbours are likely in one way or another to share in it.


E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), pp. 197-215

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