Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Themes


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.