Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary and Analysis of The Empire, Kouroukan Fougan or The Division of the World, Niani, and Eternal Mali

Summary of The Empire

Sundiata's next target is Diaghan, a kingdom that had stayed loyal to Soumaoro even after the birth of the rebellion and the subsequent defeat at Krina. The city is quickly taken, but it is not a massacre. He spares the city and its people; they become allies. Sundiata then splits his army into three sections, one his and the other two ruled by Fakoli and Fran Kamara respectively. They are given separate targets while Sundiata marches upon the great city of Kita.

The king of Kita, Kita Mansa, is protected by jinns of a great mountain and its magic pool, and so he is dismissive of Sundiata's demands that he surrender his power and his city. Urged by his soothsayers, Sundiata sacrifices many animals to the jinns, who receive his offering. While singing Balla Fasséké's "Hymn to the Bow", they march the next day and easily take Kita and kill its king. Sundiata spares Kita's people, so the city becomes his ally.

The next day, Sundiata sacrifices more in thanks to the mountain jinn, and then goes alone to confront the pool jinn. He tells the spirit how he chose not to destroy the city, then drinks of the pool three times. He is transfigured by the jinn and thereafter his eyes have "an unbearable brilliance" as he "radiated like a star." He stays at Kita for a while, enjoying the hunt, and awaiting the return of his other commanders. Sundiata is the only man who will hunt in the mountains, because others are afraid of the mountain jinn.

Next, Sundiata and his army head to Do, the country of his mother. There, he is welcomed and he and his griot visit the spot where the buffalo died long before. He sacrifices a rooster there in thanks, and a great whirlwind grows and heads in the direction of Mali. It is a clear sign that it is time to return to his homeland. From Do, he orders his entire army to meet at Ka-ba, in the land of Sibi on the Niger, where they will march together to Niani.

Summary of Kouroukan Fougan or The Division of the World

A messenger has brought word ahead of Sundiata's arrival, so Ka-ba awaits him as he and his army arrives. It is a small village that the griot tells us will grow and become a Mandingo city because of Sundiata. In a nearby plain, huts are built to house the army and a great meeting is planned.

Sundiata dresses in the style of a great Muslim king, and all gather. Silence comes quick when Balla Fasséké begins to speak. Balla celebrates the peace brought by Sundiata, and then thanks each ruler by name for his help. He retraces the story of their oppression under Soumaoro, and praises Sundiata for the bravery to lead everyone to fight. When he makes clear that Sundiata is their savior, all cheer in agreement. The rulers give their spears to Sundiata in submission, and Balla improvises a new song called "Niamia."

The festival begins, featuring much dancing and music. The most popular song is "Hymn to the Bow". Each section of the army and each of the tribes get a chance to present a show. In the afternoon, prisoners and booty are paraded through the crowd. The prisoners are all ashamed and keep their dishonored, shorn heads down, including Sosso Balla, who marches surrounded by his father's defunct fetishes. Sundiata is troubled by the remembrance of Soumaoro's disappearance, but Balla comforts him that "the son will pay for the father".

After the march, Sundiata gathers everyone together again, and graciously returns the kingdoms to their respective kings. In hopes that alliances will be cemented this way, he thanks his friends and allies and thereby strengthens the empire. He only keeps the magical city of Kita for his tribe, but allows his allies who already inhabit it to maintain the soil. Sundiata then pronounces the laws to govern tribal relations. These are very specific, involving which tribe must intermarry with which, which would provide the great divines, which would rules which land, etc. The overall intent is to provide guidelines to maintain peace. Finally, Sundiata names Balla Fasséké "grand master of ceremonies", and pronounces that all future Mandingo griots will be chosen from his family.

Sundiata has, for the purposes of the African griot, divided the world. The griot reminds the audience that a tree grows on the place where this pronouncement was made.

Summary of Niani

Sundiata stays a few more days at Ka-ba, and the feast continues for any who wish to partake. Meanwhile, the wealth of Sosso is split amongst the tribes who no longer had surplus because of the tyranny of the sorcerer king.

Finally, Sundiata takes his leave of Ka-ba and leads his own people across the Niger. There, once he is finally in Mali, he makes great sacrifices and thanks God for allowing his return. The villages of Mali welcome him with great fanfare as he passes, so that his return to Niani takes far longer than it otherwise would have. Each village hosts a celebration and some spectacle to offer thanks and submission. Alongside the great army that marches sits Sundiata dressed as king, Balla Fasséké in ceremonial garb, and Sosso Balla alongside his father's fetishes.

The army is singing "Hymn to the Bow" when they arrive to find Niani ruined. When Sundiata sees his fallen city, Balla Fasséké instructs, "Rejoice, for your part you will have the bliss of rebuilding Niani." Great happiness greets the king on his return, and he rebuilds the town to greater heights than it knew before.

The griot tells how Manding Bory continued to increase Sundiata's empire to the south. He also tells how Fakoli grew too independent and had to flee to avoid Sundiata's wrath. Every year, Sundiata holds a great assembly at Niani, where he and his subservient rulers can stay in touch and reaffirm their alliance. "He had made the capital of an empire out of his father's village, and Niani became the navel of the earth."

"Djata's justice spared nobody. He followed the very word of God. He protected the weak against the strong and people would make journeys lasting several days to come and demand justice of him. Under his sun the upright man was rewarded and the wicked one punished." Mali became a safe and prosperous empire under a ruler people both feared and loved.

The griot ends the section with a mention of the many great cities that prospered under Sundiata's empire.

Summary of Eternal Mali

The griot tells us "kings have succeeded kings, but Mali has always remained the same." It keeps its secrets wisely, in the minds of griots, who will never betray those secrets.

He then shares what followed Sundiata. Many kings ruled as time went on, and great deeds were accomplished, but none to match those of their progenitor - the last conqueror. He challenges the audience that "Mali is eternal" and offers proof through the mention of landmarks that still bear the roots of Sundiata's exploits. But he also warns, "never try, wretch, to pierce the mystery which Mali hides from you…Do not seek what is not to be known."

He reminds us that we are small in the face of our ancestors and history, and that we can only glimpse the profundity of what lies in time. He ends by telling us he learned what he has through significant learning and travel. "Mali is eternal."


As the epic wraps up, the griot makes special effort to make sure we understand his theme: that man is by nature small before both the gods of the earth and the expanse of history. The great men are those who learn to accept this. As Sundiata learned to bow before magic to defeat Soumaoro, so does his greatness stem partly from a willingness to allow his empire to build a history bigger than just his rule.

First, Sundiata shows great piety in his humility before magic forces. He offers sacrifices many times, not only to defeat cities but also to thank the gods for their help. He is given special power by the jinn of the pool because he is humble before it, and does not demand it. Sundiata continues to exhibit this humility in the way he rules other kings. Though they show humility in offering submission to Sundiata, he shows a superior humility by returning their rule to them. By doing this, he sows the seeds of alliances that keep his kingdom peaceful.

This attitude also reflects the virtue of loyalty. By splitting his army into three parts, each of these commanders is empowered and becomes a great solider for him. Fakoli will later show a lapse in loyalty by growing "too independent", but he is punished for it through his exile. Sundiata creates a kingdom by being willing to give parts of it away to allies. It is the irony that lies at the heart of the epic: the strongest hero is he who is willing to be weak and merciful before others who deserve it. The way the griot describes his rule – particularly his protection of the weak – also reflects the theme.

Notice how "Hymn to the Bow", the song first sung by Balla Fasséké, becomes a rallying cry and theme for Sundiata. This emphasizes how central the griot's purpose is. The amount of time he spends on the celebration does not necessitate significant summary here because of its incredible detail, but do realize that its purpose would be to excite the audience who wants reminder of the greatness of their past and their civilization. All want to worship and remember those who came before, and so the griot allows that.

But the griot's final address reveals again his attitude towards mankind and serves as one final reminder of his importance. He calls the listener "wretch" for wanting to uncover the secrets of Mali, a direct charge to remember that we must be humble not only before the gods but before history. We remember because only by doing so will we not repeat what came before and yet we are all petty and easily swayed. Our memories are small. We need constant reminder that we can grow and become better, and so do we rely on their history, told with the "warmth" of the human voice by our trusty griots. We can never know the true secrets of the universe – we are too small – but it is our way to want to approach them, and so we do so in ways of which we are capable by constantly reminding ourselves of our expansive past. This is why the griot sings. This is why we should listen.