28 Nov 2020


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The Name |Demography and Geography |Environment, Economy and Natural Resources | Mythology and History | The Language | Society: Social Events, Attitudes, Customs and Traditions |Marriage | Birth | Naming | Divorce | Relationships |Death |Social and Political Organisation, Traditional Authority, etc. | Spirituality, Belief and Customs | Culture: Arts, Music, Literature, Handicraft | Neighbours and Relationships | Latest Developments | Diaspora

The Name

The people call themselves Murle.
The Anyuak call them Ajibo, while the Dinka and Nuer call them Ber.

Demography and Geography

The Murle number about 300,000 to 400,000 and inhabit Pibor County in southeastern Upper Nile (Jonglei).
The plain Murle (Lotilla) are predominantly agro-pastoralist, while the mountain Murle (Ngalam) living in Boma Plateau are predominantly agrarian.

Environment, Economy and Natural Resources

Large parts of Murle country are flood prone plains dissected by numerous perennial streams drained from the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. The topography suddenly changes to the Boma Plateau as does the rainfall regime and vegetation. This environment has influenced the social and economic activities of the Murle.

The plain Murle are predominantly pastoral and their socio-economic activities centre round the herding of cattle. They practice subsistence agriculture; they also fish and hunt extensively. The Murle are extremely skilful in the arts of hunting and stalking game. In Boma where there is high rainfall the Murle practice agriculture cultivating maize, sorghum, simsim, tobacco and coffee.

Mythology and History

Tradition claims that the tribe was created at a place called ''''''''Jen'''''''', somewhere beyond Maji in Ethiopia. The Murle have a number of myths and songs about Jen.
Another tradition claims that the Murle was part of a larger group that migration from around Lake Turkana. The memory of the separation from the Didinga, Lorim and others over soup of a gazelle is vivid in the minds of most Murle.


The Murle language is spoken by both the Ngalam and Lotilla Murle. This language is closely related to the Didinga and Boya languages.

Society: Social Events, Attitudes, Customs and Traditions

The Murle society is primarily inclined to and interested in their present rather than the past. However, the respect for their traditions and customs (ker ci Murlu) is so great that many of these customs have the force of law, which can be taken also for custom. The Murle social structure is explained in terms of drum-ships, clans, lineages, homesteads, and households.

A group of households combines to form a homestead; a group of the homesteads form a ''''''''tatok'''''''' or minimal lineage, a group of tatok form a lineage, ''''''''bor''''''''.
A clan, ''''''''bang'''''''', is formed of a group of lineages, and each drum-ship consists of a branch of the chiefly Bulanec clan and its attached commoner-clans.

The Murle social and cultural life is centred round their cattle. They breed them, marry with them, eat their meat, drink their blood and milk, and sleep on their hides. The Murle compose songs full of references to the herds captured in battle or raids from their neighbours. Raiding and stealing of cattle is a question of honour and valour. Every important social event is celebrated by the sacrifice of a bull in order to ensure the participation of the ancestral spirits as well as to provide food for the assembled guests and relatives. Kinship obligations are expressed in terms of cattle.

The Murle language has a considerable vocabulary of cattle terms. There are special words for every colour and colour combination; for cows and calves, bulls and oxen, at every stage of their growth; for different kinds of horns and for all the conformations to which their horns can be trained to grow. Every young man is given an ox by his father or uncle when he reaches man’s estate and spends hours singing to his special ox from which he takes his bull’s name.

The Murle stress the importance of the web of kinship ties. They are more interested in the links between living people than in their descent groups, clans, and lineages. Marriage relationship (kaavdhet) is considered most important, and the respect paid to parents-in-law is emphasized.


When a young man wishes to marry, he looks to his father and his mother’s relatives to provide the marriage cattle. The bride price is transferred in a ceremony to the girl’s homestead. Once the bride’s parents are satisfied with the dowry she is then presented to the groom.
The dowry is divided among her relatives. The Murle speak of relatives as ‘people who have cattle between them’ (atenoc). The Murle regard incest (ngilidh) with great horror; in the past the offence was almost invariably punished by death.

Initiation into Adulthood

Among the Murle there is nothing special to mark initiation into adulthood for both boys and girls. However, boys of the same age could group and give themselves a group name which is then recognised.


The Murle consider death as a natural culmination of life. There is mourning for the dead and in the past, the body was not buried but left to the birds and wild animals. Only chiefs are buried in a ceremony.

Spirituality and Beliefs

The Murle are extremely conscious of the spirits. Nevertheless, they do not distinguish between the religious and secular aspects of life. They emphasise the immanence of God as well as the significance of Jen. Anything they can not explain such as the rainbow, is considered to be ‘one of God’s things’. Every Murle family undertakes - every 5 to 6years - a pilgrimage to a sacred spot along River Nyandit to pay offerings to ‘Nyandit’.

Socio-Political Organisation, Traditional Authorities

The Murle country is divided into 2 kidongwana (districts or military regiments in the past) namely: Tangojon (south) and Ngarrothi (north). The chiefly system, the age-set system, and the kinship-system are fundamental to the Murle social and political organisation.
The outstanding feature of the political system is the position of the Drum-chiefs (Red chiefs) at the head of the four drum-ships by virtue of their guardianship of the sacred drums, their spiritual powers are paramount. The formal pronouncements of Red-chiefs are treated with the greatest respect.

Culture: Arts, Music, Literature and Handicraft

The Murle have evolved a culture centred round cattle and which is expressed in songs, poetry, folklore and dance. They adorn their bodies with all kinds of scars and drawings of different animals and birds while wearing different types of beads. Murle literature is invariably oral.

Neighbours and Foreign Relations

The Murle neighbours are Nuer and Dinka, whom they call collectively (jong koth); the Anyuak, whom the call (Nyoro) and the Toposa, and Jie they call (kum). The relationship with their neighbours is by no means cordial due to their cattle raiding practices.

Latest Developments

The Murle are least affected by modernity because of deliberate neglect, marginalisation and political exclusion. The exception was the recruitment of young men to fight alongside the government army. The civil war divided the Murle between SPLM and GoS administrations.


 Very few Murle people left their home;with some in East Africa and overseas.

Further Reading

B. A Lewis ‘The Murle- Red Chiefs and Black Commoners’, Oxford at the Claredon Press, 1972.

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