Unit 2: Apes & Humans

Nuer Marriage

From "The Nuer", in Profiles in Ethnography by Elman Service

In general, the Nuer marry within their own tribe, so that relationship ties do not transcend the tribal boundary. On the other hand, kinship extends, in one way or another, far beyond the local villages, as a consequence of the Nuer concept of incest, which includes an extraordinarily wide range of people in its prohibition. First of all, one cannot marry within one's own lineage or clan. Inasmuch as clans may be very large, a wide segment of the population is thus prohibited from intermarriage. The rule also prohibits marriage with any of the mother's lineage, though not with other lineages in her clan, and even with those considered kindred by a fiction or analogy, as for example, in the case of a boy and girl whose fathers are in the same age-set. There is no exogamy explicitly by locality, but a village is such network of various kinds of kinship ties, real or fictional, that usually a mate must be sought outside one's own village. Ideally a marriage should take place between persons whose families are of villagers within visiting distance.

Marriage, a home, and children are the goal in Nuer life for both males and females from early childhood. After puberty, boys and girls have a good deal of freedom in experimental love-making and usually find their lovers without any particular interference from their respective families, but marriage is the purpose behind every romance. In the final choice,..the girl's family must approve of the suitor's family. They should be steady, agreeable people with a sufficiency of cattle.

The actual marriage is made by a payment of several head of cattle [the bride price] from the groom's family to the bride's family. Normally, three periods of payment and associated ritual are involved, which could be considered betrothal, wedding, and consummation. At the time of the betrothal ceremony at the bride's home, the groom's family makes a token gift of a few cattle and the groom's friend, a sort of Best Man acting as negotiator, reaches an agreement with the bride's family on the number of cattle to be given later and the dates for the subsequent ceremonies. Then singing, dancing, and feasting on an ox follow. A few weeks later, after prolonged discussions and even apparent arguments have resulted in an agreement on the complexities of how many cattle will be presented and what proportions will go to particular kinsmen of the girl, the marriage feast is held, again at the girl's home, with great numbers of relatives of both families present.

The true marriage occurs when the third feast is held, this time at the home of the groom. This ceremony is the significant one; it celebrates the final binding of the union of families, and not until this occasion does the husband have full conjugal rights over his wife; that is, he cannot punish or sue in case of the wife's adultery, for example, or prevent her from going to the dances held by unmarried people. High points in the ceremony are the first night, when the bride and groom presumably have their first sexual encounter; and in the morning, when an ox is sacrificed and a great feast is held, shared by the two families except for the bride, who is not allowed to eat in the home of her mother-in-law. On this occasion the bride is anointed with butter, and her head is shaved to signalize her change in status.

Nevertheless, the married couple do not actually live together until a child is born. The girl is given a special hut in her own family's homestead, and the husband remains with his own family, making overnight visits to his wife whenever he can. After a child is born, the husband is fully accepted as a member of the girl's family. They stay with her family, however, only until the child is weaned, and then go to live in the husband's village.

Husband, wife, and all of their respective kinsmen are most anxious for a child to be born. This is not only because they love children but also because the marriage is not stable until a child is born. Should the marriage break up because of infertility, all of the cattle have to be returned; consequently, none of the cattle may be disposed of in other bride prices or gifts in all this time.

After weaning of the first-born, the husband builds a hut for his wife and child in his father's homestead. [patrilocal residency] One of the wife's first acts in her new home is to build a mud wind screen to be the dwelling place of the spirit of her lineage. For the wife this signalizes a great change; she will now grow her own millet and milk her own cattle. The husband's father gives him a few head of cattle with which to begin his own independent household.

Sooner or later, in a normal course of events, bride prices in cattle flow into this homestead as some girls,sisters, perhaps of the husband, go through the various stages of marriage, and he begins to acquire more cattle from his father. Eventually, if all goes well, the new couple will have both sons and daughters, so that the herds as well as the extended family maintain a balance. It should be apparent that, over time, nobody loses in the payment of bride wealth. The group receiving cattle at any particular time divides them among relatives, and when one of these later makes a bride payment, all of the relatives contribute.

The payment of cattle is therefore not literally the purchase of a bride; cattle go out of a settlement and cattle come in. The most significant aspect of these movements of cattle in one direction and women in another is their stabilizing function. It is very complicated and difficult to dissolve a marriage, inasmuch as all of the widely dispersed cattle must be returned. Thus the wife's family uses all its influence to make her remain with the husband. It is in order to avoid difficulties that so much time and so many discrete stages are involved in the making of a marriage. People want to be as certain as possible that the marriage will be stable before they fully commit themselves.

A young man must be exceptionally deferential to his in-laws , but after the birth and weaning of his first child, his status changes and he tends to become accepted as a relative rather than a mere suitor. The girl's parents call him father of _____ (the child's name), and social relations become structured in kinship terms. The boy does not avoid his mother-in-law any longer. They can now converse openly, though not informally, and he may visits her from time to time. Only two stringent prohibitions still obtain: the husband may not eat in his in-laws' home, and he must never appear naked before them.

A form of levirate is practiced among the Nuer in the event that the death of a man leaves a wife and children surviving. Normally, a younger brother of the deceased takes over the responsibility for the wife and her children; 'he provides a hut for her." He becomes the guardian of the children primarily, for the arrangement is not, strictly speaking, a marriage. No ceremony is performed, and the widow retains her original name as the wife of the dead man.

Occasionally a man has more than one wife. The first wife has no special status; the Nuer believe all the wives should be treated equally. It is, of course, a situation which contains many possibilities of friction between the wives, and the Nuer know this well, for the word for the condition of being co-wife is also the word for jealousy. A common cause of polygynous marriages, in addition to the levirate, arises when a man dies without male heirs, for it is believed that a man's name should continue in his lineage and that his ghost will be angry should this fail to occur. Such a situation is commonly remedied by a sort of ghost marriage, whereby the dead man's younger brother or close kinsmen takes a wife in his name. The dead man's ghost is regarded as the legal husband, and the children take his name.

There is also a kind of marriage between two women, one of which, the "husband," is usually barren. Children are begotten to the couple by the service of a male kinsman or friend. The "husband" administers the family just as would a man and is the "father" of the children. There is no evidence that this institution...[involves homosexual behavior.] The fact that a third person is the actual begetter is of no consequence to the Nuer in this situation, nor even in other more normal kinds of marriage, for physiological paternity is of no consequence compared to legal paternity.


For a Nuer boy, the most important event that occurs before his marriage is his initiation into his age-set. This, like initiation or puberty rites in many societies,involves a series of severe ordeals and complicated rituals which move him from childhood into the grade of manhood. Boys between the ages of 14 and 16 are put through these rituals together, whenever there is a sufficient number of them in a village. After successive groups of boys are initiated over a six year period, a four year interval is kept free, after which initiations may begin again. A difference of from 4 to 10 years in age thus separates the members of any one age-set from the adjacent one. Boys who have been initiated together have a lifelong comradeship, and all the groups of a particular age-set are set off in behavior from each of the others.

The most notable ordeal in the initiation is an operation which consists of making six long cuts from ear to ear across the forehead. After the operation the boys live in partial seclusion and observe various taboos. The operation, rituals, and festivities are attended only by the fathers and their age mates. The opening and closing of the initiation period is simultaneous throughout the whole tribe and is signalized by a ritual performed by a specialist called Man of the Cattle.

Boys who have been initiated are eager to engage in a raid in order to prove their manhood and valor, but the age-set organization is actually not a warriors' organization, as it is among some of the other African herding societies, nor are there any other corporate activities. Even in the initiation rites themselves there is no educative or oral training; they seem to have no other meaning than to stratify the society into groups which will explicitly structure the behavior of men to one another in terms of relative age. It is chiefly in local domestic relations that the initiation of a youth into his age-set is of great importance. At this time a boy's father or uncle gives him his first spear, which elevates him to warrior status, and his first ox. At this time he takes his ox name; i.e. he is called by the name of his ox. From this time until he marries and becomes a father--a true man--he is heavily engaged in proving his worth as a potential head of a family and in dancing and love-making in quest of his wife-to-be.

The Nuer are meticulous about showing proper deference to older people, but except for this kind of social stratification there is no pattern of subordination or superordination; the society is eminently egalitarian, as is manifest in nearly all actions.