#23 Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear

When a master of the fishing-spear has fallen sick and is becoming weak, he will call all his people and tell them to bring his whole camp (tribe or subtribe) to his home to bury him whilst he lives. His people will obey him quickly come, for if they delay and the master of the fishing-spear dies before they reach him, they will be most miserable…

[An informant relates…]

…I first saw a master of the fishing-spear called Deng Deng buried alive in the land of the Majok tribe across the river. I was only a boy…

The master of the fishing-spear Deng Deng was becoming very old, and when his years were finished and he was very old indeed, so that he could not see well and all his teeth had fallen out, he told his lineage that he wished to be buried alive, and that they should go and tell the people of the country and see if they agreed.

They prepared the ground for his burial at a very ancient cattle-camp site called Malwal, which was also hard by the homestead of Deng Deng and near his cattle-byre. So it was at his very own original home [panden nhom, literally ‘the head of his home’]. The clan which cleared and dug the ground was Padiangbar; it is that clan which buries a master of the fishing-spear alive in my country.

They dug a very big hole on the highest point of the cattle-camp site, in the middle of the cattle. Next to it were two bulls, a big white one and a red one. They were the whole beasts of the clan-divinities Mon Grass and Flesh. When the hole had been dug, they made two platforms [frameworks] of akoc wood, which had been fetched by the young men of Padiangbar from far away in the forest, as much as a day’s journey distant.

They worked for three days, and the old man was still above the ground. They honoured the bulls with songs for two days, speaking invocations each day in the morning and the evening. Then the masters of the fishing-spear of Pakedang, along with those of Paketoi and Pagong, slit the throats of the bulls at about 10 o’ clock. Deng Deng’s mother was the daughter of a woman of Paketoi and his mother’s father was of the clan Pagong. So they were all there together, to join together his father’s and his maternal uncle’s families (bi panerden mat kek pan e wun).

Deng Deng made invocations over the bulls, and the horns of the first bull, the white one, sank forwards to the ground. When the bull had been killed, they took its skin and cut it into strips, and made a bed from it on the framework. And every day they made a feast (cam yai) and danced inside the cattle-byre during the daytime, and outside at night. And men slept in the byre with other men’s wives, and everyone agreed to this [literally ‘and there was no bad word’].

They then placed a war-shield, made from the hide of a bull of the clan-divinity which had been killed in the past, on the top of the bed. It was a war-shield which had for long been kept in the byre, and which the people had anointed with butter every spring and autumn, during the ‘dividing months’. They placed Deng Deng on the shield and lowered him into the grave.

The red (brown) bull remained. When Deng Deng had been lowered into the hole, they made a platform over him, and so arranged it that the top of the platform was level with the surface of the ground. They sang hymns, and after the singing was finished they made an enclosure of dhot wood around the grave. The enclosure was about twice the area of the surface of the grave, and of such a height that a man could just see over it if he tried. Then they took cattle-dung and partly covered over the top of the grave, leaving part uncovered so that his voice could be heard. From his grave, Deng Deng called the older men together outside the enclosure, and all the women and children, even his own wives, were sent away…

While the master of the fishing-spear still speaks, they do not cover the grave with dung. But when he no longer replies when they address him, they heap up the dung over him. And when it has all sunk in, they make a shrine. Some people may then say ‘The master of the fishing-spear has died’, but they will usually say ‘The master has been taken into the earth’. And nobody will say ‘Alas, he is dead!’ They will say ‘It is very good.’…

The fundamental principle, clear in all accounts, is that certain masters of the fishing-spear must not or should not be seen to enter upon physical death and the debility which precedes it in the same way as ordinary men or domestic animals. Their deaths are to be, or are to appear, deliberate, and they are to be the occasion of a form of public celebration.

…the ceremonies described in no way prevent the ultimate recognition of the ageing and physical death of those for whom they are performed. This death is recognized; but it is the public experience of it, for the survivors, which is deliberately modified by the performance of these ceremonies. It is clear also that this is the Dinka intention in performing the rites. They do not think that they have made their masters of the fishing-spear personally immortal by burying them before they have become corpses or, in some accounts, by anticipating their deaths by ritual killing. The expressions used for the deaths of masters of the fishing-spear are euphemisms for an event which is fully admitted. In my experience they are not even inevitably used, though a Dinka would prefer to say gently ‘The master has gone to the earth’ or ‘The master has gone to sit’, rather than ‘The master has died’, particularly at the time of death. These euphemisms replace the involuntary and passive connotations of the ordinary verb for ‘to die’ (thou) by expressions suggesting a positive act. Similarly (though this point is not specifically made in any of the accounts) when we hear that the people ‘bury their master of the fishing-spear’ it is as an alternative to ‘letting him die’. In other words, the deliberately contrived death, though recognized as death, enables them to avoid admitting in this case the involuntary death which is the lot of ordinary men and beasts. Further, it is not the master of the fishing-spear who ‘kills’ himself, though he requests or receives a special form of death. The action to avoid, for him, the mere deprival of life which death represents for ordinary Dinka, is action taken by his people. And, as we see in most of the accounts given, their intention is not primarily to undertake the special ceremonies for his sake, but for their own.

[#23] Dinka: “Burial Alive: The Master of the Fishing-Spear,” from Godfrey Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961, pp. 300-303, 313-314; quotations in introductory passage from 304, 309.

Additional Sources

Account of traditional African values in introductory section from Robert A. Lystad, Encyclopedia Americana, 1998, vol 1, p. 298; of languages, estimate from Barbara F. Grimes, ed., Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 13th ed. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the University of Texas at Austin, 1996; see also Bernd Heine and Derek Nurse, eds., African Languages: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 1; concerning slavery, Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853; reprint, London, Frank Cass, 1966, vol. 2, p. 27; concerning methodological problems, Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 53-54; quotation concerning the Asante empire, from Roland Oliver and Anthony Atmore, Medieval Africa 1250-1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 78; quotation from Samuel Johnson, from Toyin Falola, “Ade Ajayi on Samuel Johnson: filling the gaps,” chapter 7 in Toyin Falola, ed., African Historiography: Essays in honour of Jacob Ade Ajayi, Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1993, p. 86. Concerning the Ashanti, also see “Public and Private Offenses,” in K. A. Busia, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of the Ashanti. London: Published for the International African Institute by Oxford University Press, 1951, pp. 65-71. Concerning the Fante story of Adjuah Amissah, see also “Expected Suicide: ‘Killing Oneself on the Head of Another,'” from A. B. Ellis [Alfred Burdon Ellis, 1852-1894], The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast of West Africa; their religion, manners, customs, laws, language, etc. London: Chapman and Hall, 1887, reprint Chicago: Benin Press, Ltd., 1964, pp. 287, 302-303; and T. Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, London: John Murray, 1819, reprint London: Frank Cass, 1966, ftn. p. 259.   Quotation in introductory passage concern Yoruba abiku in repeated pregnancy failure from William Bascom, The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969, pp. 74. Also see S. O. Biobaku, Sources of Yoruba History, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973, p. 5. Account of Frazer’s theory of regicide and its critics from Benjamin C. Ray, Myth, Ritual and Kingship in Buganda, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 10 et passim; quotation on Akan principles of justice from Kwasi Wiredu, Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 164-165. Jocelyn Murray, Cultural Atlas of Africa. New York: Equinox, 1981-1982; James George Frazer, The Golden Bough. A Study in Magic and Religion, New York: Macmillan, 1922.

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