Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali About the Epic Form

While the genre of "epic poetry" is most frequently associated with Western canonical traditions* (particularly Greek and Roman work), the epic of Sundiata reveals that the form existed and flourished in many other civilizations as well.

Interestingly enough, the qualities associated with traditional epics are found in Sundiata as well. These include:

• Structure as a long narrative poem (often sung by a qualified storyteller)

• Concern with communicating the greatness of a civilization

• Centered around a hero who epitomizes the qualities of that civilization

• A reflection of both the high and low qualities of man

• Catalogues of the many heroes who are part of the tale

• The frequent use of gods or supernatural figures

While the form of the Sundiata story you are reading has likely been translated to prose, the griot would have originally sung it in a verse, accompanied by his instrument (the balafon). It is very clear in the work that it is meant as an address to an audience, and that the speaker's desire to entertain helps shape the dramatic rhythm. There are sections where the griot pumps the audience up or draws out the suspense of episodes. In the way that Homer was a professional bard who sung The Odyssey and The Iliad, so is Mamadou a griot by family lineage. To sing these stories is his vocation.

While Sundiata is clearly the focus of the work, the griot makes constant attempt to tie his particular greatness to that of the Mandingo people. Sundiata's qualities – his compassion, his justice, his piety, his hospitality, and his strength – are all qualities that are associated with the Mali Empire after his reign. Further, the story takes its time to establish the customs that are important to Mali. It is clear that the purpose of the work is not just to remember Sundiata the man but to celebrate the Empire of Mali in total. In the same way, Homer celebrated the greatness of the Greek people through the story of their victory at Troy.

Both the high and low qualities of man are in abundant display in this epic. The fickleness of the common man competes with the cruelty of Soumaoro for the griot's most pointed contempt. But on the other hand, not only Sundiata but the many princes who help make up his army are examples of human dignity and strength. There are several sections where the griot halts the story to list the heroes who had joined Sundiata, and what great deeds they performed to prove their own strength. Perhaps this was to give an audience time to consider their own particular ancestors (i.e. a descendent of Fakoli might well have been in the audience), as well as to remind all of how many great people made up the Empire of Mali.

As far as the use of supernatural forces, the incessant importance of magic and religion to the Mandingo is apparent in the way the gods influence the story and ultimately aid Sundiata's victory. Likewise, the centrality of destiny can be attributed to these forces.

So using the epic form to understand Sundiata's story is not only an interesting academic exercise, but also a way to place the work in a larger, worldwide context. The realization that all people at some time or another found similar ways to celebrate humanity speaks to history, mankind and to the way man wants to remember his greatness - the very quality that makes the griot so important to the Mandingo.

*Notable epics: Beowulf, The Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and The Epic of Gilgamesh.