Shilluk - Sociopolitical Organization



At the hamlet level, the primary political figures of traditional life were settlement "chiefs," who, ideally, were nominated from the diel, or founding lineage. The position of village "chief is subject to the approval of the reth, or "king," of the Shilluk. All Shilluk settlements collectively comprise a dual division of Shillukland, between Luak in the south and Ger in the north. The reth of the Shilluk is a living symbol of the unity of Shilluk history, culture, and polity, and each succeeding reth is thought to be possessed by the spirit of Nyikang, the Shilluk culture hero and first king. Nyikang is intimately associated with the spirit the Shilluk call "Juok," and, in consequence, each reth is though to be an incarnation of the past within the world of the present. Because of this association between a spiritual power and a mortal human being, the Shilluk reth has sometimes been referred to as a "divine king." The selection and the installation of a new reth are woven in a complex web of ritual and symbolism. Modern anthropologists still do not agree on the process through which a reth was selected in precolonial days. It is certain that the final candidate to become a new reth had to be approved by both northern and southern Shilluk. Civil war would erupt unless unanimous agreement was achieved. Evans-Pritchard (1948) suggested that the reth of the Shilluk reigned but did not rule. What he meant was that the reth was the incarnation of a sacred order of an ideal Shilluk society. His "kingly" status derived from sacred authority rather than secular power. The present reth of the Shilluk is the thirty-first in succession since the origin of Shilluk polity. His status and authority have been transformed in the twentieth century, first by British colonial policy in Sudan and second by the strictures created by the independent government of Sudan.

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