An Analysis Of The “Sundiata: An Epic Of Old Mali”
The epic of Sundiata is told by the griot (storyteller and keeper of history) Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté. He begins with details of Sundiata’s ancestors, as the force of history is important in the tale of the man whose victory will create the Mali Empire.
Sundiata’s father, Maghan Kon Fatta, was king of the city of Niani. One day, a soothsaying hunter foretells that he will produce a great ruler through the marriage of an ugly woman. Later, two hunters bring a woman to offer as his wife, and he sees this is the foretold woman, Sogolon. The hunters earned her by defeating a monstrous buffalo that was terrorizing a land far away. Through showing kindness to an old woman, they were taught the secret of the buffalo and then given their choice of woman by the king whose realm was being terrorized. The old woman told them to choose the ugliest maid, and they did. The king takes Sogolon for his wife, but she refuses to let him consummate the marriage until magic powers help him to rid her of a wraith (spirit) that was making her resistant. Sundiata is conceived.
In childhood, Sundiata faces two obstacles: first, because of the prophecy, the king’s first wife Sassouma Bérété spreads vicious rumors about him and Sogolon in an effort to elevate her own son’s stature; and second, he is crippled and does not walk until the age of 7. Despite his physical limitations, his father sees wisdom in his son and gifts him griot Balla Fasséké, the son of his own griot. The king dies soon afterwards and his eldest son, Dankaran Touman, is given control by the elders, who do not see much future in the crippled boy. One day, when Sogolon is embarrassed by the queen mother, Sundiata uses a rod to help himself stand on two legs and from this day onwards, his strength is unmistakable.
Frightened her own son will lose his control, the queen mother Sassouma Bérété orchestrates exile for Sundiata, Sogolon, and their immediate family. For seven years, they travel from asylum to asylum, sometimes being shown great hospitality and occasionally being mistreated by their hosts. All the while, Sundiata learns of new peoples and customs, while impressing most people he meets. He spends a particularly long time with Moussa Tounkara at Mema, who helps raise Sundiata and teaches him the ways of war so as to potentially groom the boy as his heir.
Sundiata also learns during his exile about the evil sorcerer king Soumaoro Kanté, who is slowly forcing the cities of Mali and beyond under his control through cruelty. When Niani falls to the sorcerer king, a search party is sent to Ghana to find Sundiata and ask him to claim his mantle as ruler. Though his choice to return to Mali and battle the sorcerer king upsets the Moussa Tounkara, he is ultimately given his blessing and the first of his subservient armies.
Sundiata goes to many cities and lands that he visited during his period of exile, slowly building up his army. Finally, his armies come up against those of Soumaoro. Though Sundiata is successful in his battles, he cannot harm the sorcerer king because the latter has magical protections. Sundiata turns to magic for help, and through sacrifice is able to craft a magical arrow. In their largest battle, Sundiata nicks Soumaoro with the arrow and the sorcerer king loses his power. Soumaoro retreats and escapes.
Accompanied by Fakoli, Soumaoro’s nephew who revolted after being betrayed by his uncle, Sundiata pursues Soumaoro for several days. They finally trap him in a cave with nowhere to go; they have won. After his victory, Sundiata defeats the kings who stayed loyal to the sorcerer king. He then returns to Niani and founds the Mali Empire, splitting it up to show respect for all the rulers who promise to serve him. The griot ends the epic by praising Sundiata and his rule of the golden age of the Mali Empire. He tells the audience that Mali is eternal and that reminders of history are everywhere, but only the griot can know all.
History/Legacy: The griot makes no secret that his vocation is of paramount importance since he and his family preserve history to teach those that follow. It is an underlying assumption in the griot’s tale that men have “short memories” and as such will forget both their greatest foibles and greatest triumphs. And yet it is so important for society to remember its history, to celebrate itself and to remember what former leaders have done. In particular, peace is maintained amongst tribes by recollecting what alliances were forged before the present time, and a griot is fundamental towards keeping track of that.
Throughout the epic, Sundiata shows great respect for what came before, whether it be through his admiration of and wish to emulate Alexander the Great, or through his honoring of alliances created by his father Naré Maghan. The desire to live on through the recollection of griots guides many decisions that characters make, particularly the heroes. On the flipside, the worst punishment, like the one given to Sosso after its ruler’s defeat, is to destroy it and prohibit it from surviving through history. Lastly, the epic continues to survive precisely because of how highly Mali values its past.
Destiny: As a counterpoint to the pronounced heroism that runs through the epic, the griot makes clear that man is not in control of his own fate. Sundiata’s rise is foretold by soothsayers even before his birth, and much of his path towards the founding of the empire is painted as steps towards realizing his destiny. There is much irony in the way that characters try to hinder his ascent, but thereby enable the destiny to happen. For instance, the exile forced on Sundiata and his mother allow Sundiata to learn about other people and to make alliances with other empires, both important tools towards his defeat of Soumaoro and presence as a compassionate ruler. Throughout the epic, the griot laughs at those who would try to derail or work against destiny, for it is immovable.
Heroism: Amongst many other things, the epic is implicitly an exploration of what qualities define Sundiata as a hero, and by extension, what virtues are heroic. The most glaring is his strength. Even when he is crippled as a child and cannot walk, the boy has strong arms. But when he finally stands, he surprises everyone, bending an enormous rod to a bow and pulling a tree up by its roots. Another quality is his bravery, most clearly illuminated by his skill and grit in battle. But Sundiata has more than animal strength-he shows patience, interest in other peoples and ways, and humility before the magic of the world. Because of these qualities, he is more than a great hunter or warrior: he is a great king.
Piety/Religion/Magic: Mali has a very complex relationship to magic and religion. While the society is infused with Islam, it maintains a polytheistic view of the world in the epic. There are jinns (spirits) all throughout nature, and gods are mentioned constantly. The great sorcerers in the work-Sogolon and Soumaoro among them-are in touch with these spirits, and yet Sundiata prevails because he learns to bow before them. Sundiata is an arrogant warrior, understandable because of his strength and bravery, but when he is unable to harm Soumaoro, he does not double down his aggression but instead allows himself to doubt his strength. As a result, he is open to prostrating himself before the religious/magical forces in nature, and they come to his aid and allow him to defeat the sorcerer king. It is worth thinking about religion, magic and nature as all part of the same realm in the epic, since all three are intertwined in Mandingo philosophy. They all comprise the realm higher than the human realm. When the griot speaks of “secrets” of Mali not available to all men, the secrets of magic are likely amongst those.
Fickleness of People: Throughout the epic, the griot shows a disdain for “mankind.” Sometimes it is manifest in direct address to his audience, in which he will lambaste them for their short memories, for believing they are above nature, or for attempting to learn secrets beyond their perspective. However, it is most clear in the way that the public is so ready to follow whatever show of strength they see. Many know the prophecy of Sundiata, yet when his birth appears disappointing (he is born crippled), the public is quick to grow contemptuous because the new ruler, the queen mother, sows seeds of gossip. They turn on their future hero quite easily, but when they are in need and learn he is now strong, they are ready to honor him again. The griot does not paint a pretty picture of mankind in general, but rather makes the implicit charge that mankind is weak and hence needs the right king or strong leader if they are to realize their better qualities. Otherwise, they will end up following a poor leader and emulating his negative qualities.
Loyalty: Perhaps the most important virtue apparent in the epic is that of loyalty. Loyalty exists both between allies in the war that Sundiata wages against Soumaoro, and also between individuals and tribes. What makes Sundiata a great king capable of building an empire is his ability to inspire tribes to stay loyal to one another and follow his laws. Part of what makes him successful in the war against the sorcerer king are the friendships he cultivated in youth with princes who have become kings. These old allies offer their armies to his cause. During his exile, Sundiata impresses many kings with both his strength and his charisma, and hence lays the foundation for his empire. On the flip side, those rulers who show a lack of loyalty either to their guests or their own people-like Soumaoro or the king of Diaghan-are punished most severely. Finally, perhaps the strongest loyalty, which is stressed incessantly, is between a king and his trusty griot. By staying loyal to the griot, the king assures the griot’s family will be loyal to the memory of his accomplishments.
Music: When the griot asserts the superiority of oral over written history for its “warmth of the human voice”, he is in large part paying homage to the power of music. Throughout the work, long sections are devoted to the celebrations of song and dance that accompany achievements. Music provides an important way not only of bolstering community for the Mandingo, but also in preserving their history. After all, the griot’s story itself would have been told as song. “Hymn to the Bow”, which Balla Fasséké composes when Sundiata first stands, becomes a symbol of the hero’s strength, and appears to be known throughout the land. Music and life are intertwined; indeed, Balla Fasséké saves his life by improvising an ode to Soumaoro. Whether as metaphor for community and history, or simply as an integral part of Mali society celebrated by all, music is one of the most integral themes in the work.
In his preface, historian D.T. Niane (who is credited as the author of the book) explains his sources. He attributes the version of the story he tells to “an obscure griot from the village of Djeliba Koro.” As he explains, griots in the present day work as professional African musicians, but in the day of medieval Africa, they were incredibly important figures. They were counselors to rulers, preservers of constitutions and laws, tutors to princes, and markers of tradition. In short, they were integral to medieval West African tribes and empires. He then points out that the tradition of griots does persist in those areas today.
Niane then addresses the Western tendency to “scorn oral sources” as unreliable. Since griots carry on history through performance and song, rather than written document, they are often seen as inferior sources. But Niane describes how, for griots, “all true learning should be a secret.” They travel amongst their people, learning traditions and showing restraint about what should be shared with whom. It is an utterly distinct way of preserving tradition, and cannot be understood by Western standards of written history.
Niane ends his preface by offering that his eyes have been opened through his travels, and hopes that his relation of this epic tale will do the same for other readers.
Niane’s preface is useful in setting up the reader’s expectation and understanding of the griot as integral to Mali-which does not refer solely to position in the caste system (which the griot himself will stress in various ways through the epic itself). More than that, understanding the importance of the griot will help the reader to explore the central themes of memory, history, and tradition.
As Niane points out, the griots were expected to preserve law and tradition through their remembrances and history songs. Without the fulfillment of their duties, kings could not be counted on to remember their own constitutions, laws and precedents. The very stability of society relied in part on their living documents. The epic that follows is itself a griot’s song transcribed by Niane, and its messages of peace, understanding, heroism and duty are in part meant to remind a listening audience of Mali’s virtues, not just to relate a history.
Heroism will be defined several times in the epic as that which engenders remembrance. Niane takes the time in his preface to drive home that this act of remembrance is dependant on the work of the griots who are trained for their duty as keepers of history.
The griot, Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté introduces himself as a “master in the art of eloquence.” He briefly introduces his ancestors and tells that the Kouyatés have always served the Keita princes of Mali. He describes their duties as harboring old secrets, memorializing the names and deeds of great kings, and preserving “the memory of mankind.”
He claims to know the names of all kings who ruled Mali, how the tribes were split, and why they were named as they were. All information he learned from his father. He teaches kings their history so that they might use precedent to guide their choices, as “the future springs from the past.” He also preemptively explains that “royal griots do not know what lying is.” As a result, they have often been called to mediate tribal differences, which they do by reminding the parties of oaths their respective ancestors took.
He then introduces his task: to tell the tale of the king who “surpassed even Alexander the Great.” He introduces the “man of many names against whom sorcery could avail nothing,” the hero Sundiata. He lists the following names for the great ruler: the son of the Buffalo, the son of the Lion, Maghan Sundiata, Mari-Djata, Sogolon Djata, Naré Maghan Djata. (NOTE: For consistency’s sake, the spelling in this note will be “Sundiata.”)
Though the griot’s opening might seem cursory at first glance since it does not provide any story detail, it is important to grasp its meaning in order to best understand the thrust of the epic.
The griot really establishes the central theme of memory in his introduction. While the tone stipulates the natural importance of remembering one’s past and ancestors, the griot goes one step further by providing a practical value to such remembrance. He tells of how griots have solved disputes by remembering the oaths that tribes have made to one another, and all of the politics, historical geography and decisions that have shaped Mali. This theme of the power of ancestral knowledge will continue to resonate throughout the epic, and is inherent to the telling of the story. For not only is the story of Sundiata important, but so is the actual telling of the story important. It must not only be studied but also told, since griots maintain the history of Mali within themselves.
The griot’s opening also provides the first reminder that, while Niane’s translators have prepared this edition as prose, that the story is meant to be performed alongside music played by the griot. It’s worth noting that the griot defends his value in this passage (and will do so many times), as though to remind his audience that he is more than just the evening’s entertainment. The end of the section also introduces the device of the epithet. An epithet is a descriptive phrase that expresses a quality of the person being described, and they are frequently used by epic storytellers who have to refer to their subject countless times in performance. As a result, Sundiata will be referred to through this work by many, many names. Partly this is to show his prominence, but the griot also does this to vary the rhythm and structure of the tale. Some of the epithets mentioned here will refer to the king’s past or destiny (son of buffalo or lion), while others refer to his father (Maghan Sundiata), and others to his tribal heritage. All in all, it’s a reminder of the linguistic power a griot was expected to show as a “master of eloquence.”
The griot again tells his audience he will speak of Sundiata, “the last of the great conquerors.” But first he wants to tell of Mali’s past. The people of Mali, who he calls Mandingo, came from the East. Their ancestor was a faithful servant of Islam, and the griot traces and names his descendents. He gives special attention to Lahilatoul Kalabi, “the first black prince to make the Pilgrimage to Mecca.” On his return trek, he was robbed by brigands, and his entourage split. God saved his life and made him a king once he returned to Mali after seven years of wandering.
Lahilatoul Kalabi himself had sons, who in their turn invented the hunter’s whistle (an important tool in hunting, a prevalent pastime in Mali), communicated with the jinn (spirits) of forest and bush, and ultimately attracted enough followers to assemble a great army. Slowly, the descendents of Lahilatoul Kalabi created a “vast country.” The griot then traces the lines of descent down to Maghan Kon Fatta, father of Sundiata. He ends this address by listing Maghan Kon Fatta’s family, the members of which will be introduced as they enter the narrative rather than through a superfluous listing here.
The most important element to identify in this section is the griot’s focus on the past. Both because it is his duty and because it would likely inspire pride in his audience of Mandingo (inhabitants of Mali), the griot names several figures whose importance to the tale itself is tangential at best. But as with other great epics, one of the intentions of the form is to glorify the civilization it represents. And so the remembrance of these figures and the past they were a part of is crucial for the Mandingo.
One practical effect of tracing the line of descent is, of course, to justify Sundiata’s ancestry as blessed. Because he comes after so many who have already accomplished so much, it justifies his place in history, and suggests a theme that will be made explicit later: Sundiata’s greatness lies not just in his character, but in his destiny. He was intended to be king before he was born.
This section also illustrates the first indication of religion. For the Mandingo, religion would not have been an institution like in contemporary times; instead, it would lie in the recognition of magic in the world. The word jinn, mentioned here for the first time, refers to a spirit that interacts regularly and fundamentally with the physical world. The griot also indicates here the presence of Islam in medieval Mali, by linking one of its great ancestors with the religion. While many Mandingo would certainly have practiced a hybrid of polytheism with Islam, the latter certainly has an impact that Sundiata will recognize, and which would historically become more important to the Mali Empire under his descendents.
Maghan Kon Fatta was both a beautiful man and beloved king, who ruled his people from his capital city of Niani (also called Nianiba). He frequently would sit at the foot of a great silk-cotton tree and reflect, surrounded by his kinsmen and his eight-year old son Dankaran Touman.
One day, while sitting under the tree, the king and his companions see a man approaching. Both the man’s clothing and his bow speak to his position as a hunter. The man addresses the king and shares that he is a hunter who has traveled from his home in search of game. Having killed a great doe in the borders of Maghan Kon Fatta’s kingdom, he wishes to share a portion. The king’s griot, Gnankouman Doua, then speaks, and tells the visitor that since he respects their custom, he will be allowed their hospitality. He is invited to sit and then asked to share stories of the lands he has visited. The king agrees, especially because he is told that the hunters of Sangaran (from which land this man hails) are the “best soothsayers” and hence might the man teach them great secrets.
The man accepts the invitation to sit and share, and though he apologizes for his lack of eloquence, he boasts of being “a seer among seers.” He then removes from his bag 12 cowries (snail shells) and uses them for to soothsay. As he performs his magic, the king’s griot points out to the king that the man is left-handed, which is can be a sign of evil but also great skill in divination.
After rolling the shells around and muttering some words, the visitor addresses the king. He evokes the mysteries of the world and shares that “Kingdoms are like trees; some will be silk-cotton trees, others will remain dwarf palms.” Nobody can know who will be great. However, he is able to see two visitors approaching, which confuses the audience who sees no one on the horizon. The visitor tells them that Mali will soon “emerge from the night,” at which point the griot asks him to be clearer in his predictions.
The visitor then says that the king’s great successor has not yet been born. Instead, he will come through the aid of two hunters who will one day bring with them a hideously ugly woman with “monstrous eyes” and a humpback. The hunter tells the king he must marry this woman, for she will give birth to his successor, who will wield “more might than Alexander.” But in order to enable this chain of events, the king must sacrifice a great red bull. The hunter then ends his address and returns the cowries to his bag. After a quick farewell, the hunter leaves.
One day the king and the griot are sitting under the great tree when they see a woman being escorted by two men, both of whom appear to be hunters. The men greet the king, introducing themselves as Oulamba and Oulani, two Mandingo who are returning from travels to the land of Do. They have brought from Do a woman they believe would make a fine wife for the king. All try to see the woman, who hides her face in supplication but who cannot hide her hump, her “muscular arms, and her bulging breasts pushing stoutly” against her clothing. Remembering the soothsayer’s words, the king silently expresses embarrassment to Gnankouman Doua, who understands. The griot then invites them to sit, drink, and tell their tale.
They tell of how, once the harvest was complete, they set out on adventures and hear of a monstrous buffalo that was ravaging the countryside near Do, taking several lives daily in its rampage. The king of Do had promised great reward to whoever killed the buffalo, and the young men decided to try their luck. While exploring the land, they came across a distraught and starving old woman by a river. She had been ignored by all others, but they are moved and share with her their food. After she ate, she told them she knows of their intentions and would help them defeat the buffalo as a reward. She confessed that she herself is the buffalo, and has been vanquished by their generosity. She gave them a staff and an egg and sketched out the following plan: when they see her transformed, they must first use the staff to point at her three times. This will make her susceptible to their arrows, which they will then fire. She will fall but rise again, and then pursue them. They then must throw an egg behind them, which will cease her charge and allow them to kill her. They can then cut off the buffalo’s gold tail to bring to the king as proof. She ends by sharing her reason for punishing Do: she was the sister of Do’s king and was robbed of her inheritance.
The young men were glad to accept the staff and egg, but she adds one final condition. When the king offers them their reward-which has been advertised as choice of any woman under his rule for a wife-they must search for the ugliest maid in the crowd, one with a hunchback. She is called Sogolon Kedjou, and will serve as the buffalo woman’s “wraith,” or spiritual double. The old woman promises that Sogolon will bring greatness. The young hunters agree to this condition.
They traveled to the plain that the old woman had specified, and there followed her instructions to vanquish the buffalo. When they brought its tail to the king, he called a great assembly, and offer them their choice of women. They searched the crowd for a wife, and amongst all the beautiful women, they identified Sogolon and chose her, which caused much laughter and mockery.
The hunters complete their story, and the king decides to fulfill his marriage to Sogolon quickly so as to assure the soothsayer’s prophecy. A large wedding is planned. In the meanwhile, Sogolon lives with an old aunt of the king’s. She stays hidden there despite the public’s desire to inspect her. Before the wedding, the king’s first wife, Sassouma Bérété, begins to spread ugly rumors about her.
On the day of the wedding, the celebration begins with drumming. In the aunt’s house, Sogolon is distraught. The king’s sisters are cruel and suggest her youth is over, while her hairdresser argues she will become queen and mother, which is most beautiful of all. Outside in the square, dancers and musicians from throughout the king’s lands perform for the king. When night comes, Sogolon is brought out and the party reaches its apex as more dancers perform through the ceremony.
That night, the king is unable to consummate his marriage because of her refusals. When his griot finds him exhausted the next morning from his efforts, the king confesses he is also frightened by her long hairs. He tries to call upon his own wraith to aid his efforts, but he cannot overcome hers. The king remains hidden from the populace for a week, trying to consummate the marriage, and the public is confused by his absence.
One night, the king arises and attempts to find a message from some divining sand. When that doesn’t work, he meditates until a vision comes to him. He takes his sword and wife and tells her that he misunderstood the prophecy-she is the virgin he was meant to sacrifice, not the wife to bear his child. In fear, she faints and thereby releases her wraith. Maghan consummates the marriage and when she awakes, she “was already a wife” and conceived that very night.
In this section, the story of Sundiata truly begins. There is much in this chapter that conforms to the purpose of epic: to glorify the civilization of which it speaks. The depiction of Maghan Kon Fatta certainly reflects the impulse for glorification, as his reign is praised so highly. But more than this, what is exhibited in this section are the many customs and beliefs of the Mandingo.
Destiny is perhaps the most central theme here. The words of the soothsayer hunter are quite telling. Before giving the prophecy, he speaks of how nobody can know what will be. His example is that the smallest seed can engender the largest tree. What emerges is a distinction between how things appear physically and what they truly are spiritually. This idea of opposites will continue to resonate through the epic, and is clear here in the tale Sogolon. Her ugliness makes her undesirable as a mate, and yet she has within her the seed of Mali’s great ruler. There is then the implicit reminder that we ought not assume our eyes can capture the truth of the world, since the destiny of each of us is far more profound.
There are other magics that surface in this section, and it indicates how important magic is to the Mandingo. It’s worth thinking of their magic as being inexorable from the natural world, which explains why certain landmarks-like the silk-cotton tree under which the king sits-are so important. Other magic in the chapter includes the soothsayer’s prophecy, the relevance of his left-handedness, the agency of Maghan’s and Sogolon’s wraiths, and the old woman’s power as a buffalo changeling. None of these elements are considered supernatural; on the contrary, they are simply a part of the natural world that lies behind that which the eye can easily see.
Of course, because magic is part of the natural world, human qualities do have some effect on it. Seen is this chapter are two Mandingo virtues. The first is strength. Hunting is clearly indicated here as a superior pursuit, understandable since hunters would be largely responsible for feeding their tribes. Another custom emerges in this regard: that of young men who travel seeking adventure and hunt after the harvest was complete. This tradition indicates the value of strength.
But perhaps equally important is the virtue of generosity and hospitality. The impulse to share what one has and to expect reciprocation is represented in this section. Most obvious is the old woman who helps the young men defeat the buffalo because of their generosity. But the virtue is also expressed in the visitors to Maghan Kon Fatta. Once they offer their presents, they are invited by the griot to join the king’s entourage, for by valuing the “custom” of giving gifts to their king, they can expect the reciprocity of his hospitality.
One final element observed here is the importance of music. The long description of the singing and dancing that precedes the wedding ceremony (a full day!) reveals how important music was. Also, the central place of Gnankouman Doua amongst the king’s entourage reinforces the griot’s importance.
Lastly, one theme of the epic surfaces here, though it will be clearer later: the fickleness of the public. One of the epic’s most central themes is that of heroism, and how heroes unite people. On several occasions, the griot will reveal how the public in general does need such guidance. Here, they are represented as something of a mob, easily led to believe the rumors spread by Sassouma Bérété.
Sogolon grows comfortable with her place in the court, even as Maghan Kon Fatta’s first wife Sassouma Bérété grows to disdain her. Sassouma Bérété sees the attention the king paid to his new wife, and she worries that her own boy, the king’s eldest son, would be overlooked. She resolves to kill Sogolon, but all of the sorcerers she tries to recruit to that purpose admit they cannot defeat Sogolon, who herself is known to have great powers of sorcery. She decides to wait to enact her scheme.
When Sogolon’s labor begins, the king recruits the greatest midwifes of Mali to her aid. The king and his griot pass the time anxiously, and even the griot’s music cannot heal his worry as they await news of the birth. As they wait, a thunderstorm begins, and then stops suddenly. At this moment, the news is brought that Sogolon has given birth to a boy.
The griot makes an announcement via drum, and many come to the palace to celebrate. There, Gnankouman Doua sings a song in honor of the new father, and other griots follow with their own original songs. Several days of celebration follow, during which time Sassouma Bérété is outwardly happy but suffers inwardly. Meat and rice are given to heads of families by the king. The child is named eight days after his birth, while his first crop of hair is cut. The griot and king exit their own chamber and the griot announces that the child will be named “Maghan after his father, and Mari Djata, a name which no Mandingo prince has ever borne.”
The griot begins the section with a small lecture on fate-“God has his mysteries which none can fathom. You, perhaps, will be a king. You can do nothing about it. You, on the other hand, will be unlucky, but you can do nothing about that either.” Then he jumps right back into the story.
Sundiata’s childhood is difficult. He suffers from a disability that left him still crawling at three years old. He has a big head, large, strange eyes, and is extremely taciturn. Sogolon Djata, as he is called partially after his mother, becomes a subject of gossip, especially as other children, when required by Sogolon to keep her son company, are beaten by Sundiata’s “already strong arms.” Sassouma Bérété is particularly happy with the child’s infirmity, since her son Dankaran Touman, a healthy and virile 11 year old, looks kingly in comparison. She makes a point of mocking Sogolon, saying her son was promised nothing extraordinary by the jinn, but that he nevertheless is able to walk on two legs.
Sogolon is disheartened by her son’s troubles, and her sorcery does nothing to help him. The griot points out “how impatient man is,” focusing specifically on the king’s impatience even in the face of Gnankouman Doua’s reminder of the prophecy. Over time, Sogolon gives birth to a daughter, Kolonkan, after which the king removes Sogolon from his house, and she lives in “semi-disgrace.” He meanwhile takes an additional wife, the “legendary” beauty Namandjé, who gives birth to the son Manding Bory, who will later become a great friend and ally of Sundiata.
All through this time, the king’s griot advises patience. One day, the king visits the old, blind blacksmith seer Nounfairi, who confirms that the prophesied seed of greatness was planted. Reassured, the king returns Sogolon to her favored position, and they have another daughter, Djamarou.
Sundiata grows to 7 years old and still cannot walk on two legs. Meanwhile, his half-brother Dankaran Touman grows to become a strong boy. The king calls Sundiata to him and speaks “as one speaks to an adult.” As a gift to his son, the king promises to him Balla Fasséké, the son of his own griot. He tells the two boys to “be inseparable friends from this day forward.” The boys agree, and the older men are happy.
Sundiata’s childhood does not seem like that of the hero everyone expected. Again, we see the recurring theme of a disconnect between what we perceive and what destiny has in store, since the boy seems to embody the opposite of what the prophesy promised.
In fact, the griot’s presentation in these sections really drives home the central themes of destiny and time. The tone of his address at the top of “Childhood” is stern and disappointed. He takes for granted that humans are impatient and as such prone to judge greatness poorly. This sense that people tend to judge based on their immediate concerns and perceptions, unable to stay patient to behold the unfolding of destiny, runs through the epic.
As a repository of memory and legacy, the griot is a figure who boasts an evolved sense of time and how a situation can become its opposite. The king shows an impetuous impatience in the way he exiles Sogolon from his quarters, and is counseled towards valuing the future hero’s mother only by his griot and another magical practitioner, the seer. Destiny cannot be perceived in the day to day, and so it behooves us to be patient.
Perhaps because of these qualities (or perhaps because the performing griot wanted again to validate his importance), the import of the griot is apparent here. In “The Lion Child” he says, “the generosity of kings makes griots eloquent”, but there is reciprocity in the ceremonial giving of Balla Fasséké to Sundiata. The griot is of great value to the king, not only as a courtier, but as a wise ally. As keeper of ancestry and history, the griot is also part of the kingdom to be bequeathed to a prince. In essence, the son of Doua-who was himself gifted as a boy to Maghan-represents the gift of history to be inherited by Sundiata, the future king. Together kings and griots uphold history. There is a sense of duty that binds kings and griots; duty will become a central theme as a virtue worthy of heroes.
Finally, “Childhood” introduces the motif of Sogolon and Sundiata as alone and misunderstood. Before claiming his mantle, Sundiata will spend much time alone, and he gets his first taste of this in childhood. The hero’s journey often involves great loneliness in the epic form, as though to suggest that man knows other men best only if he knows what it is like to live without them.
Soon after the gifting of Balla Fasséké, the king dies. Shortly thereafter, Doua dies as well. The prophecy means nothing to the council of elders, who convene and, under the strong hand of the “queen mother” Sassouma Bérété, choose her son Dankaran Touman as king. “As men have short memories,” the griot explains, the public thinks of Sundiata only “with irony and scorn,” even if the jinn did choose him.
Using her new power, the queen mother banishes Sogolon and her son to a palace backyard. She invites any who wish to visit and gawk at Sundiata, where they mock him. Sogolon’s only bright star is her daughter Kolonkan, who understands her mother’s misery and helps with housework. Though they are mostly dependant on scraps from the queen mother’s table, Sogolon grows a small vegetable garden out back that gives her joy.
One day, when short of baobab leaf (used for flavoring), she went to beg some from Sassouma Bérété. The latter gladly grants her some, since it provides occasion to mock her, saying “your son is unequal to mine” and hence incapable of collecting leaves for his own mother. Mortified and disgusted by such strong hatred, Sogolon returns to find her son “blandly eating,” and she strikes him. He presses her for an explanation, and when she tells him of the insult leveled against her by Sassouma Bérété, he tells her “Cheer up-I am going to walk today.” He asks her to visit the former king’s smiths and ask for the heaviest iron rod they can make. He also asks if she wants simply baobab leaves or the entire tree. She says the insult would best be negated by the entire tree delivered to her hut. He then sits and continues to eat, as though nothing has happened. When they hear Sassouma Bérété laughing outside again in mockery of them, Sogolon returns to crying and Sundiata sits alone outside. “What was he thinking about? He alone knew.”
Balla Fasséké runs to the smith to order an iron rod, and finds that Farakourou, the son of Maghan Kon Fatta’s soothsaying smith, has been holding onto just such a rod since his father’s time. The smiths carry the bar and drop it in front of the hut, where it makes a frightful noise. The griot instructs his companion, “Arise, young lion, roar, and may the bush from henceforth know it has a master.”
Sundiata crawls to the bar and with no apparent effort, lifts it vertically. With a violent jerk, he pulls himself up with his arms. It takes great effort to straighten himself out, but he achieves it, in the process bending the great bar into a bow. In celebration of the accomplishment, Balla Fasséké improvises a song, “‘Hymn to the Bow.” Sogolon follows his song with her own prayer of thanks.
As Sundiata catches his breath from the effort, people flock to see the miracle. There are many around when he throws the bar down and takes his first steps: “those of a giant.” He walks to an enormous tree outside Niani and pulls the entire tree from the ground. He plants it outside his mother’s hut, adding that now women must come to her to beg for their supplies.
Now that Sundiata walks, the queen mother grows anxious, but “what can one do against destiny?” He grows popular amongst the crowd that had previously despised and mocked him, he becomes a popular hunting partner, and his mother is spoken of as pleasant contrast to the “pride and malice of Sassouma Bérété.” Sundiata’s greatness is considered by the populace as proof of Sogolon’s valor. As Sundiata grows more popular, so does the blandness of Dankaran Touman, who is understood to be his mother’s puppet, grow obvious to everyone.
Sundiata is drawn particularly to a few friends who stay with him throughout the epic: Fran Kamara, son of the king of Tabon; Kamandjan, son of the king of Sibi; and his half-brother Manding Bory. It was common custom for princes from other kingdoms and tribes to spend time in other courts to both ensure peace and sow the seeds for future alliances, and these princes are drawn to Sundiata. All the while, Balla Fasséké is actively educating the boy.
Using a bow shaped by Farakourou, Djata (as he sometimes is called) proves himself an excellent hunter, and inspires crowds to sing his griot’s “Hymn to the Bow” when he hunts well. At night, Sogolon tells her son stories that help him to distinguish between strength and weakness of different animals, to admire the exploits of Alexander the Great, and how to use medicinal plants to his benefit. By the time he is 10 years old, the hero is on his way.
This of course inspires the envy and fear of Sassouma Bérété, who calls the nine great witches of Mali to her aid in assassinating Sundiata. In reward, she promises each of them a cow and her calf and, in advance, large sums of rice and hay. The eldest of the witches, Soumosso Konkomba, insists that “all is interwoven-life has a cause and death as well”, and so they cannot murder Sundiata unless he personally mistreats them. So the queen mother concocts a plan to entrap the hero: she instructs them to steal from Sogolon’s garden, at which point Sundiata will give them a “good thrashing,” thereby disrespecting their position as elders.
The next day, Sundiata and his companions hunt. On their return, Djata stops by his mother’s garden and finds the witches stealing from the vegetable patch. When they stage a mock-escape, he stops them and tells them not to run, for “this garden belongs to all.” Soumosso Konkomba tells him of the ruse and admires him, since “nothing can be done against a heart full of kindness.” He bears them no ill-well and instead gives them some of the meat from the ten elephants he and his troop killed that day. For his generosity, the witches promise to watch over him.
That night, his sister Kolonkan teases him for being frightened of the witches and he admits he was. Unbeknownst to Sundiata, his sister watches over him as well.
In the ascent of Sundiata to his place as hero, much of the Mandingo culture is on display. But perhaps most apparent in this section are the qualities that emerge once Sundiata is no longer a subject of mockery. They are the qualities that mark him as the epic hero of Mali.
There is much at play in the final scene with the witches. First, the use of witches indicates again how heavily integrated magic is in Mandingo life. But again, culturally, magic is not a supernatural force, but rather an extension of the natural world and as such follows certain rules and guidelines. As Soumosso Konkomba explains, “life hangs by nothing but a very fine thread, but all is interwoven here below. Life has a cause, and death as well. The one comes from the other.” Despite their position as great sorcerers, they cannot control nature but rather only exploit it. They remain subservient to it-as evidenced by Sundiata’s kindness which both thwarts their murderous plan and affirms his destiny.
Indeed, human quality has a place alongside the magic. Sundiata is not recognized as hero by the witches because of his great power, but because of his generosity and respect. The Mali custom of respect for elders is very much on display in his treatment of the women, who he must have recognized only as elderly women trying to feed themselves. Though it was within his rights to punish robbers, he relied on his compassion, which is an important counterbalance to his physical strength. A marriage of these traits will make him a great leader rather than a tyrant.
This is not to suggest that physical strength is not equally, or more, important. Sundiata is only accepted once he displays physical strength, first in the bending of the bow and then in the acquisition of the tree. His mother’s stories, which teach him to discern between weak and strong animals (the latter of which include the lion and the buffalo, both parts of his identity), are meant to shape his understanding of humanity. By being able to recognize weakness, he is greater. He shows this in the face of weak old women by not flaunting strength over them unnecessarily, and as such defeats the queen mother’s simplistic assumptions.
The importance of memory and legacy continues to resonate here. There is a reason that an insult is of such grave import, as it is to Sogolon. In a society dependant on the griot to preserve memory, one’s reputation affects not just one’s life but legacy. Sogolon’s pain at the queen mother’s insult is indicative of her desire to protect her own legacy. Accordingly, this insult finally spurs Sundiata to act, as the insult also reflects negatively on his family. Notice, however, that it is not an insult to himself that drives him up-on the contrary, he withstands the throngs of ogling onlookers and only decides to stand when his mother is insulted.
Sundiata’s respect for his elders is a crucial component of his growth as a hero, which reinforces the cultural weight of such respect for the Mandingo. As the griot tells us, “each is the child of his mother; the child is worth no more than the mother is worth.” This is particular in its relevance to Sundiata, but also metaphoric in the sense that it reminds listeners that our own strengths or weaknesses are not ours alone but are instead shaped by our legacy and by what came before us. This implicitly argues for the importance of remembrance-and the role of the griot. And of course, there is “Hymn to the Bow,” a griot’s song, reminding us that music serves as a repository for greatness and a way to preserve what is done. This song will resurface throughout the epic.
Finally, the contrast between the hero-who stands because of slights to others, who shows patience both in awaiting his destiny and in judging others-and the fickle masses is apparent again in this section. The griot is particularly harsh on the public here. They are behaving wickedly and cruel towards Sundiata when the queen mother convinces them he is an aberration, but as soon as he shows strength, they begin to love him and turn upon the queen mother. “Men have short memories”, the griot tells us, as though to indicate that mankind requires heroes to lead them towards valor, since otherwise they might just as easily be led towards pettiness and vice. And since heroes die as does everyone, they also need the trusty griot to remind them of those heroes so that future generations may not lose the lessons learned by ancestors.
Sogolon knows well that Sassouma Bérété is plotting against her family, and so she tells Sundiata they should leave Niani, since the queen mother will otherwise direct her vengeance towards his half-brother Manding Bory or sister Djamarou, who are not sorcerers and cannot protect themselves. As Manding Bory is his best friend, Sundiata finds the plan wise and agrees.
Balla Fasséké begins to plan the escape. However, Dankaran Touman arranges an embassy to be sent to Soumaoro Kanté, king of Sosso. He chooses to send the Balla Fasséké as head of the embassy. Sundiata recognizes that his brother’s motive is to separate him from his griot, and he is understandably extremely angry. But Sogolon cautions patience and assures her son that his destiny will be fulfilled.
Sundiata chooses not to use violence, but he and Manding Bory do confront Dankaran Touman about the slight. Manding Bory tells him that since he has committed such a great fault, they will leave Mali. Sundiata adds that he will return, in a tone that frightens the king. He tells his mother he wants to appease the situation, but she emasculates him with her cries, and he decides to have his brothers killed if they return to his kingdom. “He would reign, alone, for power could not be shared!” Sundiata flees Mali with his mother, sisters, and half-brother Manding Bory. Sassouma Bérété spreads the word of their exile, and many towns refuse to house the band of travelers, frightened of angering the ruler of Niani. For seven years, they travel as exiles.
After Niani, the exiles stay with Mansa Konkon, the sorcerer king of Djedeba. Sundiata and his siblings become friends with the other children there, and one day the king’s daughter and Manding Bory begin to argue over whether her father (Mansa Konkon) or Sundiata is the greater sorcerer. That night, the two boys exchange proverbs to debate Manding Bory’s crush on the daughter, and the griot tells us “Men’s wisdom is contained in proverbs and when children wield proverbs it is a sign that they have profited from adult company.”
The next day, Mansa Konkon orders Sundiata to see him. The boy walks through his labyrinthine palace to find the king in a dimly lit room with great weapons along the walls. The king sits in wait. Sundiata, impressed with the weapons, compliments them and plays with a sword. Once it is returned to its position, the king makes a proposition: they will play wori (a game that involves pebbles and sorcery), and if Sundiata loses, he will die. Sundiata requests the sword if he wins, and the king agrees.
The king goes first, improvising a poem as he plays. When Sundiata plays, his own improvised poem includes the line “but the gold came only yesterday”, which angers the king. Sundiata counters, “God is the guest’s tongue”, but the truth is that he learned through the king’s daughter that the queen mother of Niani had sent gold to the king to bribe him to kill Sundiata. Though Sundiata has won the game, the king reneges on his deal and banishes the exiles again. Before leaving, Sundiata again promises to return.
The party of exiles heads west to Tabon, the kingdom in which Sundiata’s former playmate Fran Kamara is prince. But the king there, who is old, worries about incurring the wrath of Niani. He houses the exiles only a short while, in the meanwhile devising a plan to gain them travel to Ghana via traveling merchants. The king delays the merchants’ exit a few days to grant the exiles rest, during which time Sundiata and Manding Bory reconnect with Fran Kamara. Before leaving, they exchange promises: on his return to Mali, Sundiata will visit Tabon and make Fran Kamara (who will then be king) a great general in his army, while Fran Kamara promises in return to pledge his military support to his friend.
On the road, the merchants are very kind to their guests, and worthwhile to Sundiata through the the many tales they share. Amongst these are stories of the ruler of Sosso, Soumaoro Kanté, the richest and most powerful king, known for his cruelty in extracting tributes from other kingdoms. It was to him that Dankaran Touman had sent Balla Fasséké.
The griot gives a short history of the dry region Ghana. Once it was the most powerful land, but when its princes broke their taboos, their power progressively declined until now even they pay tribute to Soumaoro. When the travelers arrive, they notice not only the great forest that surrounds the great city of Wagadou, but also how poorly maintained Wagadou is. They are also surprised to see a surplus of traders from other lands. Other things they notice in Wagadou is its great religious nature (represented by several mosques), a different style of house construction, and that many of the common people do not speak Mandingo.
The king is at prayer, and so the exiles are welcomed by his brother, who speaks Mandingo. When the king arrives, Sogolon reminds the brother how her late husband once sent goodwill embassies there, and in exchange, she begs asylum. Both the king and his brother watch Sundiata a while after her story; he remains collected. The king then offers them his hospitality and asks Sundiata to introduce himself. In his introduction, he introduces his entire party, to which the king replies, “There’s one that will make a great king. He forgets nobody.”
Sogolon recovers well thanks to the comfort of Ghana, and both she and the children are treated as honored guests. Sundiata in particular is held in high esteem by the king. However, after a year, Sogolon falls ill and the king decides to send them to Mema, the capital of a great kingdom under his cousin Tounkara, since the air in that region was reputed to be restorative.
Again, the exiles travel as guests of a merchant caravan, during which time Sundiata learned more about the world outside Africa, as well as more about Soumaoro, “the sorcerer-king, the plunderer who would rob the merchants of everything when he was in a bad mood.”
A messenger had informed the royal court of Mema, so they send out a welcome party. The king is absent, but his sister welcomes the guests. As with the former city, Sundiata quickly becomes a favorite amongst children in the court. He and Manding Bory are able to resume hunting too. The air is indeed nice for Sogolon’s sickness, and the people are very welcoming. The king’s sister shares with Sogolon that her brother is childless, and that he is currently warring against mountain tribes that otherwise raid their countryside.
Later, the king, Moussa Tounkara, returns with an impressive escort drawn from booty and slaves taken from the mountain tribes. Once he’s settled, he reiterates how welcome his guests are. Moussa Tounkara takes Sundiata on his first campaign, and the boy impresses everyone with his strength and bravery. His ability in battle is matched only by his incredible gusto; the king even fears for his life, so unyieldingly Sundiata charges. Because of these qualities, the king bonds with the boy, who doesn’t leave his side.
Both that strength and the “lucidity of his mind” lead the public to begin talking about whether Sundiata has been sent by God to alleviate the king’s childlessness. Three years pass, and Moussa Tounkara makes Sundiata his viceroy. He grows into a man, impressing the entire community, and though he seems ready to realize his destiny, Sogolon cautions further patience since his destiny is meant for Mali.
This section sees Sundiata growing into a hero, and yet he still must stay patient. The griot’s central message of destiny is extremely clear. Sundiata is growing into the man he will become not in spite of but through his patience. By allowing destiny to unfold as it will, he gathers crucial qualities: he learns about the ways of the world and other peoples from the travelers; he grows strong through myriad hunting and fighting experiences; and he gains the admiration of many cities that will be central to his defeat of Soumaoro. In a sense, there is an irony between what humans expect and what happens.
Sundiata continues to show his heroic qualities. His ability to win at wori demonstrates his intelligence, and in Mema, soldiers admire the “lucidity of his mind.” But he seems to also possess a certain charisma. Kings take notice of him in their first interview, even though he says little, messengers share their stories, and he makes friends amongst the princes everywhere they stop.
However, it shouldn’t be understated that despite his virtues and his intelligence, what really distinguishes the boy is his strength. His quick rise to Moussa Tounkara’s viceroy is mainly due to his ability on the battlefield, and his willingness to put himself in mortal danger. After all, it is said Sundiata knows no fear, as he is confident that the prophecy of adult greatness will be true.
The importance of hospitality amongst the tribes is central to this section as well. When Mansa Konkon betrays Sundiata in their game of wori, it is a severe fault not only because he refuses Sundiata his reward but also because he was plotting the murder of his guest. Notice how important it is for all the other kings to insist upon their hospitality. The virtue of ceremony and politeness seems to maintain peace amongst various tribes. The exiles are welcomed to the kingdom of Ghana because Naré Maghan had sent gifts long before. And through hospitality do these kingdoms endear themselves to Sundiata. It is telling that the Ghana king mentions that Sundiata will make a great king because “he forgets nobody.”
Remembrance of history is a crucial function of epic, and the griot makes explicit his value as a repository for the past. The history of Ghana in this section is interesting in this regard. Ghana is considered the first great empire of medieval West Africa, which fell into decline after being sacked about 200 years before Sundiata’s arrival. While the remembrance of its rise and decline in this epic might seem fanciful-their decline is attributed to the princes of Ghana breaking their taboos, a supernatural prohibition-it is worth remembering that nature and the supernatural would have been understood as linked, and so the epic does fulfill its function of remembering what was.
Finally, it is in this section that the main antagonist of the epic, Soumaoro, is introduced. Notice that one of the terrible actions used to characterize him as a “cruel” sorcerer is a lapse in hospitality (he killed a traveling merchant). It’s more than a little implicit that Sundiata is getting an idea about what he could do to best this supposedly unbeatable sorcerer.
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