The introduction and notes have been prepared by John Terry (2021). Note: at the time of writing there is not currently a good open-access translation of the Epic of Sundiata known to me. As soon as I can access one, I will post it here with footnotes.
Until then, here are a list of resources for teaching the Epic:
- D.T. Niane and G.D. Pickett, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (Harlow: Pearson, 2004)
- Berkeley ORIAS (Office of Resources for International and Area Studies), Sundiata
- Columbia, Epic of Sundiata
- Cora Agatucci (Central Oregon Community College), Synopsis of the Epic
Who was Sundiata Keita?
Born around 1210, Sundiata Keita (also known as Sunjaata or Sunjata) is credited by oral tradition with founding the powerful and wealthy Mali Empire in West Africa. Sundiata was the “lion prince” of the Malinke people of West Africa and the various oral traditions, collectively known in English as the Epic of Sundiata, describe him variously as a warrior, able administrator, magician, and hunter––themselves considered to possess supernatural powers “through their communication with the spirits of the bush.”1
Sundiata’s legend is passed down through the efforts of griots, or professional storytellers who in different periods of Malian history also served as important political advisors and official historians. While a legendary figure, Sundiata’s existence is corroborated by the famous traveler and writer Ibn Battuta in the following century.
According to the tradition transmitted by the Epic of Sundiata, Sundiata selected a capital city at Niani and the leaders of clans also decided that Mali’s rulers would be drawn from Sundiata’s new dynastic line. The stability of this new empire meant that it could enrich itself by taking advantage of local gold deposits and trans-Saharan trade networks.
By drawing a comparison from the same region just a century and a half earlier, we can get a better sense of how religious syncretism––the practice of different traditions simultaneously––could work in medieval West Africa. The ruler of Malal, a predecessor state to what would later become known as Mali, Wâr-Djâbî ibn Râbîs (d. c. 1040), was among the first rulers in the region to convert to Islam and received religions instruction from one Alî, a member of his court. Rulers of Ghana would become Muslim in the middle of the next century: through missionary work and the efforts of the ulamas (or Muslim clergy) “these conversions affected the top of society: the king covnerted first, then his entourage, while perhaps waiting for the rest of his subjects.”5 According to the later Arabic sources on this incident, apparently at least some of the king’s subjects begged him, “do not change our religion” even though the elite had decided to convert. In the analysis of François-Xavier Fauvelle,
“This certainly allowed the converted monarch, even if he himself rejected the idols, to listen to his subjects when they said, ‘Do not change our religion’––to remain, in their eyes, the protector of the traditional cults. There was no contradiction here, either for him or for hte population that remained ‘pagan’: in Malal’s case, it was precisely the efficacious intercession of the God of the Muslims that allowed the king to preserve his traditional role as guarantor of the rain and the harvests. As the sovereign’s legitimacy was everyone’s concern, . . . it was particular important that the monarch was a good Muslim, even if Islam was dnot the religion of his subjects.”6
In other words, the king’s Muslim faith was an admirable addition to the region’s religious traditions as long as the harvests remained adequate. We probably have good reason to see this as an instructive parallel to the conversion of Sundiata, who continued to be a protector of Mali’s indigenous faith traditions.
By 1255 Sundiata was dead but his legacy was cemented. Future kinds (or “Mansas”) would draw from his legacy to bolster their own legitimacy, as is especially the case with the fabulously wealthy and pious Mansa Musa, whose hajj of 1324 took him through the greatest cities of the Islamic world and put Mali near the center of that world’s map.
Themes and Contents of the Text
African historian Michael Gomez details three central themes in the Epic of Sundiata7
- The Epic, while a legend similar to the Iliad or Odyssey, contains discussions of some "historical developments corroborated by independent sources yielding high probability." These include an early connection to Islam and a general outline of the career of Sundiata.
- The Epic concerns itself mainly with "dynastic rivalry and troubled familial relations, problematic aspects of Sunjata’s character, and the acceleration of gender-dominated political office.” This includes the treatment of Sogolon, Sundiata's mother, as well as the trope of rejection/exile.
- The Epic focuses on “Mande values and perspectives featuring extensive, everyday interactions between the physical and noumenal, social stratification, interclan relations, gender protocols, parenting, and the etiquette of power.” These include Sundiata's relationship with his own disability, Sogolon's struggles at the court of Nare Maghan, the Mande king, as well as descriptions of the wars Sundiata wages against (what he sees as, and what the audience of the Epic should see as) the illegitimate rule of his relatives.
The Epic of Sundiata is meant to be performed with musical accompaniment and while “there was necessarily drift over time in content and performance . . . the need to faithfully reproduce the songs remained a priority, placing constraints upon intentional emendation while reducing susceptibility to improvisation.” In other words, “the songs police the process.” [F = Gomez, Dominion, 64] While the earliest written versions of the Epic are from the seventeenth century, the form and tradition of this oral epic practically ensure that the main messages, values, and plot points would remain in place across the centuries.
Here is a general outline of the excerpts that are included below:
- "The Buffalo Woman." A hunter arrives and brings the king Nare Maghan part of his kill, which is customary. He delivers a prophecy: two hunters will arrive with a "hideous" women (Sogolon, Sundiata's future mother), but the king should marry her because the offspring "will be mightier than Alexander." (6)
- "The Lion Child." This section deals with the birth of Sundiata.
- “Childhood." Sundiata cannot walk, but is given a griot named Balla Fasseke: "From his mouth you will hear the history of your ancestors, you will learn the art of governing Mali." (17)
- "The Lion’s Awakening." The queen mother persecutes Sogolon after Nare Maghan's death. After these insults to his mother, Sundiata forces himself to walk and Balla Fasseke sings to mark the moment: “But what can one do against destiny? Nothing. Man, under the influence of certain illusions, thinks he can alter the course which God has mapped out, but everything he does falls into a higher order which he barely understands.” (20-22)
Questions for discussion and reflection:
1) In what ways is Islam present in the Epic? What do you think the authors/composers of the Epic want their audience to understand?
2) What agency is Sogolon given in the Epic? Does she get to make her own decisions, or does she appear to be driven by fate? Is this her story, or Sundiata's?
3) What gender roles seem to be in place in this society? In what ways are they challenged?
4) How is the audience of the Epic supposed to interpret Sundiata's disability? What role does disability have in the construction of the narrative?
5) The Epic, like many legends, contains a trope of rejection and return. When does this occur, and what is the importance of this trope? What is the meaning, for example, of Sundiata's exile when it comes to understanding the history of the Mali Empire?
6) In "The Lion's Awakening," what would you say are the main principles of Mande culture that help bring about an empire?
 Nehemia Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980), 57.
 Michael Gomez, African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 70.
 Gomez, Dominion, 70.
 François-Xavier Fauvelle, The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 71.
 Fauvelle, Golden Rhinoceros, 71.
 Gomez, Dominion, 63.