Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali Summary and Analysis of The First Kings of Mali


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.