Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary and Analysis of The Words of the Griot Mamadou Kouyaté


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."