In earlier times, animist tribes in the Sudan worshipped a variety of animals, objects, and sometimes natural phenomena, as part of their totemic and religious systems. Many of these revered entities were believed to influence people and their health, and were consequently invoked in distress and disease.
The Nuba tribes, for example, venerated several rocks with phallic shapes as symbols of fertility. To such one among the Tira, young girls whose breasts have been slow to mature and boys who have been late in showing the signs of puberty come for help. The supplicant holds a small stone, and with it strikes the rock, hoping thereby to hasten the coming of maturity. Similar beliefs exist among the Atoro, Korongo and Mesakin tribes.
Several animist and animistic relics of these old systems may be identified in present-day practices. Several historians and anthropologists have also reviewed these remnants in many social systems in the country. Darfur tribes worshipped trees and stones; while the tribes of Kordofan worshipped snakes. They venerated them, feared them and offered them sacrifices and offerings. Many places where these sacred objects are found, became sites for pilgrimage. Trimingham quotes E. Lampen as saying about the Midob tribes of western Sudan that:
“Their recent and still lingering religion seems to have focused on three points, sacrifice and worship before sacred stones and trees, a great harvest festival, and resort to wise women as oracles. There is one magnificent tree near Malha with a small enclosure round it which I have always believed to be a sacred tree, but I could obtain no definite information of it or of any other. Sacred stones are more common. I have spoken of that in Malha crater. Another I have seen in a gorge of the Wadi Goldonut. It was covered with smaller stones which passers-by placed on it for good luck. There are several such . . . The sacred women or todis, who used to divine by throwing shells on the ground, still exist and no doubt are still consulted. All Meidobis are very shy of speaking of their old faith, and are ashamed of their backwardness in the practice of Muhammadanism. But there is no doubt that the great majority of the tribe are still animists at heart.”
Concerning the Dajo of western Kordofan, S. Hillelson writes:
“Though strongly permeated by Arab influence, and nominally and perfunctorily professing Islam, the Dago maintains rites of a purely animist nature with which the togonye (or kujur) are particularly associated. In charge of the togonye there are shrines dedicated to the High God of the Dago, Kalge, whom they identify with Allah.”
Trimingham also described the cult of Soba Stone among the Hamaj of Jebel Guli. We read the following:
“They claim a queen-ancestress called Soba and the stone was her throne. It is still the ‘throne of the kingdom’ (kursi mamlaka) and plays its part in the ceremonies when the manjil assumes office by the ceremonial washing of his feet upon it. This and other Soba stones play their part in other rites, such as the dance in honour of the first time a newly-delivered mother leaves her house, and offerings are placed on the stone at the first cutting of the grain. Soba is also invoked to cure illness.”
G.W. Murray writes of the Bisharin tribe of eastern Sudan that:
“They have still a few sacred rocks and cliffs, to which ceremonial visits are performed and sheep sacrificed. Such a place is Kanjar Aweib, the runaway stone,’ in Wadi Kajuj, a tributary of Wadi Irib.”
Basil Spence wrote notes on stone worship among the Zaghawa tribe of Darfur, western Sudan. He extracted the notes from his diary of 27th February 1917 when he was working in that region. He described a sacred place, a collection of rocks in Idugili, 7 miles north of Masabat, northern Darfur.
The word Idugili in the Boeli (Zaghawa) dialect means ‘Gods’ village. The ceremony of rock worship takes place annually, usually at the end of the dry season. Young men and young women and young married women proceed to Idugili, taking with them fat, flour, and milk. On arrival at Idugili the party divides, the young men going to the most northerly tunnel and the young women to the other side, which has a vaulted cavern with four openings. Some of the flour and milk is sent to the young men’s cave; they eat part of it and offer the rest by smearing it on to a particular part of the roof called He gweila (Stone holy).
The young women in their cave first take fat in an earthenware jar and smear it on the holy stone in a particular place, repeating some chants. Secondly, milk from a plaited grass vessel is splashed on the roof, and thirdly, flour and milk from a similar grass platter is smeared on the roof, with similar chants.
At one stage in the ceremony dung gets thrown on to the roof, probably by the very small children. When the offerings are over they play games with pebbles kept in the caves.
At other places in the Boeli (Zaghawa) country there were venerable trees and particular stones at which similar ceremonies took place. Reasons given for the performance of the ceremony before rocks and trees are to procure children, to increase flocks and herds, and to ensure a bountiful harvest. Spear heads are blessed in the same way before proceeding on a raid.
In a preliminary account of the Ingassana, Edwards Evans-Pritchard states that these people worship tel, the sun, who made the world and men an all living things in it. Tel seems to be regarded as a beneficent but distant being. The Ingassana appeal to Tel when they want rain, they appeal to him when someone is ill, or when a woman is infertile. When a man dies they say that Tel has killed him. Thus it will be seen that they appeal to Tel in the important emotional crises of life, such as in conception, in illness, at death, and when they are threatened with some natural calamity such as the absence of rain.
Of all natural objects and phenomena, the Nile, the Moon and to a lesser extent the Sun, feature frequently in most ritual processes in the Sudan. In many initiation rites, people visit the Nile or face the Moon, and invoke one or the other to protect and bless them. They offer sacrifices and gifts. It is uncertain whether these entities are ancient deities or not, though it seems highly likely that they were.
The Nile is probably revered because of the people living in it: banat al-hur or huriyyat and malaykat al-bahr (Angels of the River). The first are said to be small, white with long flowing hair and to shrivel up when they are taken out of the water. They have families, homes and villages in the bottom of the Nile, and several men who were seized by these huris have come back to tell this story. The second are the holy ones or al-salihin or mariya in Dongolawi tongue. Men, women and children make offerings and pray to them for health and strength. In Donqola it is said that no child can be born unless an angel from the river assists at the birth and when a smile crosses the infant’s face it is a sign that the child has caught a glimpse of the angel.
Several rites de passage in Riverain Sudan revolve around the Nile. People of the Nile Valley have clearly been moved by the furies of the river in its yearly flooding. They have watched in distress how it disrupts peaceful life. They must have also noted its unpredictable temper. Sometimes it is peaceful and bountiful, and at other times violently destructive. When it overflows, it submerges everything in its path, but when it is quiet, it hardly holds enough water to maintain crops.
In 1959, Tigani Al-Mahi, a notable Sudanese psychiatrist, reported that some cases of mental breakdown have occurred in patients when the Nile inundation is imminent. The patients involved showed previous histories of psychological disturbances, and some of them were suffering from anxiety. All collapsed in the mere expectation of breakdown when the flood was near.
Tigani Al-Mahi did not detect organic abnormalities in these cases. He said that the breakdowns could be due to the vestiges of ancient beliefs. Unfortunately, he neither described nor documented these cases in more detail. People living along the Nile Valley believe that mental cases relapse just before an inundation. Indeed, the phrase al-bahar mifar’in (the river is furious) is a common idiom when talking of someone who has had a mental breakdown.
Sudanese people offer the Nile sacrifices to pacify it. The sacrifices are of several kinds, but do not include the sacrifice of young women, as has been unjustifiably reported. Ancient historians have circulated this myth of the Nile maiden in the Sudan, Egypt and other African countries.
Plutarch, Herodutus and others say that the ancient Egyptians used to sacrifice a young, beautiful maiden to the river every year. Other historians reported that the Muslim conqueror Umar Ibn Al-’As banned the practice.
Ni’mat Ahmad Fouad, an Egyptian folklorist, discredits the myth in her book Al-Nil fi Al-Adab Al-Sha’bi. She quotes the views of many historians and Egyptologists; all agree that the custom never existed. They do not find any evidence for it in Pharaonic times, nor do they consider that Christianity could have condoned such a brutal practice during the Christian eras in Egypt. Dr. Ni’mat believes that the myth of sacrificing a beautiful young woman arose either from early Greek legends or due to some misinterpretation of early Egyptian writings.
She quotes the Harris Papyrus (1198-1167 BC) as a possible source of this myth. This Papyrus states that food was offered to Habi, the Nile God, and that, Egyptian priests also made six idols out of wood for the Nile God and an equal number for Rabit, the Nile bride. Other idols were also made of silver, gold and precious stones. These were all thrown into the Nile just before flooding to celebrate Habi’s festivities. The priests then made another set for the next season.
Nile Valley people, namely those living downstream, revere the river, just as northern Sudanese and Egyptians do. It has been, and still is, their only source of water. It has supported man and livestock, and maintained the yearly crops. This life-giving water is, therefore, blessed. It gives life. Unlike other water, it not only washes out dirt, but also symbolically cleanses ritual pollution. It also heals, by washing away disease.
Burckhardt (1816-1817) reported a similar practice of young woman sacrifice among the Bornu of West Africa during the inundation of the river that crossed their country.Butler reported similar practices among the Sudanese far to the south and among the Nubians. It is said, Somerset reports, that among the Lotuko human victims, chiefly of the ‘Kang Lomini’, were formerly sacrificed to the River Gos, but that Chief Ngalamitiko abolished the practice.
Naom Shuqair recorded in his book Gugrafiat wa Tarikh Al-Sudan the following formulas the Sudanese utter when they face the new crescent moon: “O, God, grant us its blessing and ward off its malice”; and they address each other by saying: “Blessed be the new month upon you” and the reply would be: “upon all of us.”All these formulas invoke Almighty God to keep a watchful eye on the inferior deity—the Moon—so that it does not harm the weak. Shuqair mentions that when the Region is swept by an epidemic, people boil dura (sorghum) at sunrise and sunset. They reason that the disease will leave with the escaping vapour.
The veneration people give to the Moon is not confined to the northern part of the country. Evans-Pritchard noticed similar practices among the Nuer, a Nilotic tribe in southern Sudan:
“When Nuer see the new moon they rub ashes on their foreheads and they throw ashes, and perhaps also a grain of millet, towards it, saying some short prayer as ‘Grandfather, let us be at peace’ or ‘ah moon, nyadeang (daughter of the air-spirit deng) we invoke (God) that thou shouldst appear with goodness. May the people see thee every day. Let us be (akolapko).’ He concludes: “Mgr. Mlakic says that they mark their foreheads with ashes in the form of a cross and that it is called ngei kwoth, God’s sign. I must add that the language is here figurative, even playful. They may address the moon, but it is God to whom they speak through it, for the moon is not regarded, as such, as Spirit or as a person.”
Causes of pestilence
Many pestilences have been recorded in history, and belief in their divine origin persists. Prevention thus takes the form of prayers, incantations, charms and sacrifices. All of these are directed to supreme beings and other unforeseen forces. Several other endemic life-threatening or disfiguring diseases have also been treated with awe. Leprosy among the Nuba tribes has been considered as a sanction for kinship offences, and syphilis—probably quite widespread—may be caused by a smell as among the Lamagyan clan of the Tira as we will mention in a while.
When a lay person identifies diseases, he also labels some of them as serious, contagious or epidemic. He dreads many of them and avoids coming near the afflicted. Many of these diseases carry a social stigma. Examples include baras (leucoderma), juzam (leprosy), judari (smallpox), ta’oun (plague), sul (tuberculosis), sara’a (epilepsy), abu-farrar (cerebro-spinal meningitis), and some venereal diseases, namely sayalan (gonorrhoea), and sass (syphilis).
It would appear that, quite apart from infestations of rodents and insects, the last two centuries have been plagued by drought and disease, famines and floods. History tells of many fatal epidemics of smallpox, plague, yellow fever, cerebrospinal meningitis, and influenza.
The local people have named several years in their local calendar after these tragic incidents. Hamilton-Grierson, a district judge working in the town of Geteina town in the White Nile Province during the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, quotes an interesting experience. He said that in 1923 when he was in the course of deciding land cases, he found that it was impossible to get dates according to the number of the year, either Arabic or English. He found it useful to compile a calendar of the years as they are known by their local names. This calendar, though not very accurate, nevertheless, served the purpose.
The calendar he drew covered the period 1877-1918. It included years named sanat al-judari (the year of smallpox), 1883 & 1886, sanat al-far (the plague of rats), and other years named after famous floods, famines, and locust visitations, for example.
Ahmad Bayoumi has reviewed the epidemics that have swept the Sudan in the last three centuries. He has described at length the history and traditional treatment of smallpox. In his book, The History of Sudan Medical Service, we read the following:
“Of all the serious epidemic diseases which haunted the land, smallpox was unique in lending itself to traditional control efforts and was perhaps the first to be subdued by modern medical techniques. More than one method of traditional variolation was practised by the people of the Sudan, among other local cures for disease, long before the Turks introduced modern-style Jennerian vaccination into the country after 1820.”
Al-Tabaqat covers the period (1504-1821), that of the Islamic Funj Kingdom in the Sudan. In this chronicle, Ibn Daif Allah narrates several anecdotes describing several epidemics. He gives accounts of afflictions resembling smallpox, which killed many sufferers, and left scars on all those who survived. Other descriptions one finds in various Sudanese traditional literature.
In his account of the supernatural achievements of shaikh Hamad Wad Um Maryom, Ibn Daif Allah mentions the following potent curses. Shaikh Hamad Wad Um Maryom was so angry with a man called Hamad Ibn Abd Al-Jabbar Al-Haiyazni that he cursed him and afflicted him with baras (leucoderma) of the whole body. Not only that, but he also cursed Awlad ‘Agib (‘Agib’s sons) and some people of the Funj, and inflicted them with judari (smallpox), of which they all died the same year.
The story of the supernatural achievements of shaikh Sharaf Al-Din Ibn Abd Allah Al-’Araki, who apparently had halaq (tertiary syphilis), sums up the lay knowledge of the disease, its stages, and we note two methods of contiguity—topical and coital (see also page 235 for more discussion of syphilis).
The Nasri Island community, where the shaikh lived, most probably voiced suspicion that he had contracted the disease through an obscene act. The shaikh did not like this accusation, and invoked the baraka of shaikh Ali Wad Barri, to curse them all. This time, the curse caused halaq (circles) and daradim (papules) on human beings, animals and trees; none escaped. Ibn Daif Allah supported the shaikh’s innocence. The shaikh, he said, was anointed with oil brought from a man who had halaq.
Syphilis can have magical causes. The Lamagyan clan of the Tira inflicts the disease on any outsider who as much as smells the incense used by that clan. Anyone suffering from syphilis, on the other hand, can be cured by the Lamagyan clan, by being given some of their tabu-surrounded daraba (okra) to eat.
In northern Sudan, bit-iblis (nocturnal emission) is believed to be a prodromal sign of venereal disease, al-boal al-harr. The alleged causes are many; they include exposure to the hot sun, walking bare-footed on hot ground and riding animals for long distances.
Entering Omdurman city as a child, my parents asked me to bray, and I did. Later, I found out that this was an old Arab custom that should be followed on entering any new community to protect against scourges, epidemics, and even minor diseases. To ward off the evil spirits, people yell and make loud noises. They beat drums and tin vessels loudly, and bray. They think this noise protects them against diseases and epidemics in new communities. The Arabs called this practice ta’shir. Clearly, they believed that the noise scares away harmful spirits.
On seeing a rainbow the Fur smear their heads with pot soot to avert a calamity. Gourds are rattled in pots when a distant boom—of remote thunder or of wind echoes in the hills—is heard; the boom is called rise foye –(Rise has fallen); it is believed that evil spirits periodically attempt to scale the heights of heaven by clambering up on one another’s shoulders until the load proves too great for the lowermost unfortunate and his wriggling to extricate himself causes his fellow to tumble with an audible crash.
 Bell, G. Nuba Fertility Stones [Note]. Sudan Notes and Records; 1936; 19: 313-316. With plates.
 E. Lampen. Sudan Notes and Records. 11, 60-1.
 S. Hillelson: viii. 63-4 (quoted by J. S. Trimingham: Op. Cit., p. 178)
 S.J. Trimingham. Op. Cit., page 178.
 G.W. Murray. Stones of Ishmael, p. 157.
 Spence, Basil. Stone worship among the Zaghawa [Note]. Sudan Notes and Records; 1919; 1: 197-199.
 Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. A preliminary account of the Ingassana tribe in Fung province. Sudan Notes and Records; 1927; 10: 69-83.
 These are invisible, wingless like sky angels, have no names, but have a passion for kohl (antimony eye liner).
 Crowfoot, J.W. Angels of the Nile. Sudan Notes and Records; 1919; 2:183-197.
 MacMichael, Harold A. A History of Arabs in the Sudan: and some account of the people who preceded them and of the tribes inhabiting Darfur. Cambridge: 1922: 1, 117.
 Ni’mat Ahmad Fouad. Al-Nil fi Al-Adab il-Sha’bi. [Arabic] Al-Haya Al-Misriya Al-’Amma lil Kitab, 1973: 180 pages.
 Abd Al-Majid Abdin. Tarikh Al-Thaqafa Al-Arabiyya fi Al-Sudan [Arabic]. Beirut: Dar Al-Thaqafa; 1967: page 110.
 Quoted by Ni’mat Ahmad Fouad. Op. Cit. 149.
 Somerset, Major the Hon Fitz. R. R. The Lotuko. Sudan Notes and Records. 1918; 1: 153-159.
 Naom Shuqair (1819-1922), a Syrian who emigrated to Egypt, and was first in the Sudan in 1884 as part of the Nile expedition. He was then in the army service on the frontier of the Sudan, and later in the Intelligence Department of the Egyptian army (1890-1900). When the department was transferred to the Sudan Government, he was appointed Director of its Historical Section, a post he occupied until his death.
 Naom Shuqair. Gughrafiyat wa Tarikh Al-Sudan The Geography and History of Sudan. (1903) [Arabic]. Beirut: Dar Al-Thaqafa; Many editions, 1972: 280-1.
 Naom Shuqair. Op. Cit.
 The Messenger 1943-4 (quoted with no page numbers).
 Evans-Pritchard, E.E. Nuer Religion. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974, page 2.
 Hamilton-Grierson, P.F.A. Local Calendar. Sudan Notes and Records, 1923: 6, 118-121.
 Other years are: sanat al-ba’ouda (plague of mosquitos) 1877; sanat al-diq (famine year) 1888; sanat abu-baid (a high Nile, the people were attacked with boils under the armpits) 1889; sanat um-sikaikoun (plague of small grass hopper) 1900; sanat al-saila (high flood) 1901; sanat abu-farrar (year of stiff neck) 1901, and so on. See P.F. Familton-Grierson. A local calendar (reference).
 Ahmad Bayoumi. The History of Sudan Medical Service. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1979: 44-65.
 Muhammad Al-Nur Ibn Daif Allah. Op. Cit.
 Muhammad Al-Nur Ibn Daif Allah. Op. Cit. Page 180.
 Muhammad Al-Nur Ibn Daif Allah. Op. Cit. Page 230.
 Nadel, S.F. The Nuba: An anthropological study of the Hill Tribes of Kordofan. London: Oxford University Press; 1947: 199-201.
 Tigani Al-Mahi. An Introduction to the History of Arabian Medicine. Khartoum: Misr Printing Press, 1959: 185 pp (in Arabic).
 Beaton, A.C. The Fur. Sudan Notes and Records; 1948; 29(l): 1-39.