The Epic of Son-Jara

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The Epic of Son-Jara

as told by Fa-Digi Sisòkò


An epic set in the Manden and neighboring regions of Western Sudan in the thirteenth century ce.; performed by bards of the Manding peoples; recorded, transcribed, and published in English in various versions from around 1960 to 1986.


The Manding hero Sunjata founds the empire of Mali.

Events in History at the Time the Epic Takes Place

The Epic in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Epic Was Performed/Recorded

For More Information

When told orally, an epic, as is true of a legend, a folktale, or a ballad, can have as many different versions as there are individual performances of the tale. Among the several renderings of the Sunjata epic that have been recorded and published in English are Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (1965), as told by Mamadou Kouyaté and translated by D. T. Niane; Sunjata: Three Mandinka versions (1974), told by Bamba Suso, Banna Kanute, and Dembo Kanute, and translated by Gordon Innes; and The Epic of Son-Jara (1986), as told by Fa-Digi Sisökö and translated by John William Johnson. Although these versions vary in many particulars, they all relate the story of the founder of Mali’s Manding empire, who goes by many names, but who will be herein known as “Sunjata”—his most common nomenclature. The Epic of Son-Jara, the version focused on here, is a linear translation of a taperecorded and transcribed performance that occurred in 1968 in the town of Kita in the modern Republic of Mali. Since this version is a linear, or line-for-line, translation, it provides more of the feeling of an actual performance than would a “reconstructed” version. Also, as the most recently published version of the epic to date, The Epic of Son-Jara reflects the most current standards of scholarship regarding the Sunjata story collection.

Events in History at the Time the Epic Takes Place

The Western Sudan

The Epic of Son-Jara takes place in the Western Sudan, an area with roughly the same boundaries as the West African savannah, the grassy plain that separates the Sahara desert in the north from the lush tropical rainforest in the south of Africa’s northwestern bulge. Unlike the Sahara, the savannah enjoys enough rainfall to support plant life, but not enough to encourage the dense vegetation characteristic of the rainforest. The Arabic name for this region is sahel, a word meaning “shore,” and indeed both desert to the north and jungle to the south may be likened to the sea, while the towns of the sahel serve as ports, centers of travel and trade. Suitable to the transport of goods or troops, this is open country traversed by several navigable rivers that also provide irrigation for agriculture.

These factors, in addition to the region’s wealth in gold and iron ore, may explain why, between the third century and the eighteenth century c.e., several great kingdoms and empires existed in the Western Sudan, not the least of which was Mali, the empire said to have been founded by the epic’s hero, Sunjata.

The Empire of Ghana

Ghana was the first empire to arise in the Western Sudan. According to some accounts, it began as a small kingdom around the end of the third century c.e., swelled to a vast empire by the tenth century, and fell into obscurity by the middle of the thirteenth century. The territory of old Ghana is quite different from that of the modern nation-state of Ghana, which was named after this ancient empire. Old Ghana occupied a section of what is today the Republic of Mali, and was situated roughly between the Niger and Senegal rivers. Medieval Arab writers of North Africa described Ghana as “the land of gold,” and indeed the land of old Ghana was rich in gold deposits. Perhaps even more lucrative to the empire, however, was its monopoly of the trans-saharan trade, the main article of which was salt.

It has been conjectured that Ghana overextended itself to such an extent that its diverse population was divided not only by physical distance but by ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences as well. In 1203 Sumamuru, king of Kaniaga, one of Ghana’s subject states, rebelled and conquered the empire. In 1224 Sumamuru extended his domain to include Kangaba, a small kingdom to the south of Ghana. In 1235 Sunjata, king of Kangaba, rebelled and defeated Sumamuru at the battle of Krina, annexing the territory of Kaniaga and all its subject kingdoms. The Empire of Mali Sunjata ruled from approximately 1234 to 1255; he established a town called Nyani as the center of his power. Later, this town came to be known as Mali,“the place where the king resides” (Buah, p. 15). After the defeat of Sumamuru, Sunjata expanded his domain to include many vassal kingdoms, and the Empire of Mali was born.

Accounts of Sunjata and Mali come from two kinds of sources: from medieval Arabic writers and from oral tradition, or the epic of Sunjata itself. The medieval Arabic writers downplay the greatness of Sunjata and focus much more attention on the founder’s second successor, Mansa Musa, a generous benefactor and zealous proponent of Islam. In oral tradition, however, it is Sunjata who is upheld as the hero of the Manding peoples. Because he is a larger-than-life hero, accounts of Sunjata’s exploits have a legendary quality and can vary greatly from bard to bard. As sources for historical fact they must, therefore, be taken with a sizable grain of salt. A basic version of Sunjata’s founding of the Empire of Mali as given in Manding oral tradition might run thus: Sunjata, the son of a Manding king, leaves his home in the Manden as a result of a conflict with his brother, Dankaran Tuma, over who shall inherit their father’s kingship. Sunjata gains occult power while away from home, and his brother becomes king back in the Manden. When he learns that the supernaturally powerful Sumamuru has invaded the Manden and stolen the throne from Dankaran Tuma, Sunjata returns home. Because his occult power is stronger than that of the usurper, Sunjata defeats Sumamuru, becomes king, and expands his kingdom into an empire.

Expansion of the empire continued after Sunjata’s death and reached its peak under Mansa Musa, when it encompassed more territory than the Empire of Ghana. By the end of the fifteenth century Mali, in turn, was superseded by a more powerful empire, that of Songhai. Like Ghana, Mali had grown to an unmanageable size, including diverse and far-flung populations that chafed under such distant control. This situation was exacerbated by disputes within the royal family.

The Manding

Sunjata and those who sing of him belong to a group of linguistically and culturally related peoples known as the Manding. The Manding homeland is the Manden, a region on the upper Niger river where Sunjata’s hometown of Nyani lies, and from which all Manding peoples are believed to have dispersed. By the end of the twentieth century, the Manding peoples—among whom are the Mandinka (or Maninka), the Bamana (or Bambara), and the Dyula—were spread throughout a region extending from the Senegalese coast to modern Ghana’s eastern edge.

Traditionally Manding society allows a man to marry more than one wife. The polygamous household consists of a circular thatched house for the male family head and similar separate houses for each of the head’s wives and their respective children. A typical village includes several such household compounds, each enclosed by its own wall, in the midst of which one finds a lounging platform, a shaded place for village men to meet. Just beyond the circle of household compounds are garbage heaps, used as compost in the women’s vegetable gardens that abut them. Here at the border, fetishes to protect the village are hidden under the garbage, or nyama, a homonym of the Manding word for occult power. Beyond the vegetable gardens are toilets, and farther on are cultivated fields where the village men work collectively, sometimes while entertained by songs of a bard. Beyond the fields lies the wilderness, a dangerous place avoided when possible; the villagers often carry protective amulets when venturing into it.

Out of the polygamous family structure come two concepts important to understanding Manding culture: fa-denya or “father-childness,” and ba-denya, or “mother-childness.” In a family consisting of one husband, several wives, and children of varying parentage, it is expected in Manding culture that one will have a different sort of relationship with one’s half-siblings—the children of one’s father but not one’s mother—than the relationship one has with one’s full siblings. The fa-denya or half-sibling relationship is supposed to be one of rivalry while the ba-denya relationship is supposed to be one of cooperation and affection. Fa-denya rivalry can extend to one’s father—for boys must surpass their fathers in Manding culture before they can be considered important members of society—and it can also exist between rival co-wives. In the epic, the rivalry between Sunjata’s mother and the mother of Sunjata’s half-brother is fierce, and while the hero is opposed by his half-sibling, he is helped by his full siblings. Ba-denya and fa-denya are moreover conceived as extending beyond the family to become the forces that respectively hold society together and pull it apart, and even as the two aspects of God. While ba-denya ensures the survival and cohesion of the group it is only through fa-denya that the individual can gain power and prestige. Since society sometimes needs strong individuals, both ba-denya and fa-denya are valued in Manding culture.

Related to the concept of fa-denya is that of nya, or “means.” The person who has much nya, which is inherited from one’s forebears, has the ability to do great things, and although nya can refer to the means to do anything, it most often refers to the possession of occult-laden knowledge, tools, and power. The Manding believe the universe to be animated by a force they call nyama, which is present in varying degrees in all living beings and in inanimate matter. The performance of certain acts considered powerful or taboo unleashes nyama in dangerous amounts. Those who have nya are strong enough to perform these nyama-releasing acts without danger to themselves, and can even harness the resulting nyama and use it to further their own ends. Those who lack nya, however, might be destroyed by nyama if they foolishly attempted, for example, to smelt iron ore or commit murder. Sunjata has nya; he is destined to be a hero. When Sunjata sacrifices a human baby in the epic, much nyama is released and the hero becomes more powerful. Sunjata’s accomplice in murder lacks nya, however, and is soon destroyed. Nya and nyama can be viewed as fa-denya forces in that they enable the individual to gain power, often at society’s expense.

Manding society has a class of people who are specifically sanctioned to perform nyama-releasing acts. These people, the nyamakala, are divided into at least three professions: blacksmiths, bards, and leatherworkers. It is believed that the members of these professions possess nya that enables them to perform their nyama-releasing crafts. One must be born into the professions; the nyamakala are careful to preserve their nya by practicing endogamy, or marriage within one’s group. Their innate nya allows the nyamakala to be supernaturally powerful in ways that can be both helpful or harmful. Consequently, attitudes toward them are ambivalent: the nyamakala are both feared and revered.

Distinct from the nyamakala are the hòròn, translated as “freemen” or “nobility.” The hòròn’s designation as freemen relates to a time in the past when the Manding practiced slavery. In early West African society, people conquered in battle were sometimes taken as slaves by the victors, though they could eventually regain their freedom and become rightful members of the new community. Leadership in a Manding community is drawn exclusively from members of the horon, specifically from members believed to be the direct, patrilineal heirs of the founder or conqueror of the community. Hence lineage is very important in Manding culture, and most performances of the epic of Sunjata begin with an extensive genealogy tracing the current leader’s ancestry back to the founding hero.

Apart from the nyamakala and the hörön are the hunters. Just as hunters operate in the wilderness outside the boundaries of a village, they operate outside society’s bounds in other ways too. Like the nyamakala, hunters are considered to stand apart from the hierarchy of lineages that vie for power in the Manding community, and like the nyamakala, hunters are associated with the occult. The wilderness, particularly the forest, is linked in the Manding worldview to the supernatural; both are dark and dangerous and beyond the circumference of the everyday world. Hunters engage in a dangerous activity in this supernaturally charged environment, yet they have no special nya to protect them, and so must seek other means to control the dangerous nyama that threatens them. Ways to acquire occult power in Manding society include the use of fetishes, objects that are charged with much nyama and sometimes inhabited by spirits. In some versions, the epic of Sunjata begins with an episode wherein two brother hunters make a sacrifice to a fetish before hunting a supernaturally powerful buffalo. Because hunters’ societies are secretive and do not share their knowledge of the occult with outsiders, they are feared, but they are also called upon to aid the people or the individual in times of need. When Sunjata joins a hunters’ society on reaching manhood, it is probably to gain extra occult power that will help him to achieve political power outside the restrictions of the lineage hierarchy.

Islam in the Western Sudan

Islam is the religion based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, born around 570 c.e., in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca. After Muhammad’s death in 632, Islam began to spread and within a century all of northern Africa had become Muslim (that is, practiced Islam). Soon Islam crossed the Sahara Desert with the trading caravans and took root in the “port” cities of the Western Sudan. Both the Arabic and the oral sources indicate that the royal Keita clan of Mali, to which Sunjata belonged, was Muslim, and even claimed as an ancestor one Bilali Bunama of Mecca, believed to be Bilal ibn Rabah, an important figure in Islam who, according to Muslim teachings, was a companion to the prophet Muhammad, the second convert to Islam, and the first muezzin, or caller to prayer.

Although Islam had exercised a presence in the Western Sudan since the eighth century c.e., by the time of Sunjata’s reign in the thirteenth century the religion had taken hold only among the merchant and ruling classes of society, and even here it was combined with traditional Manding beliefs and practices. In the epic, elements of Islam appear alongside elements of Manding religious tradition and thus, in order to understand the epic, it is important to understand some of the basic tenets of Islam. At the center of Islam is the belief, central also to Judaism and Christianity, that there exists but one supreme God, known to Muslims as Allah. Muhammad, Muslims believe, is the last in a series of prophets, including Moses and Jesus, who have related the word of God to humankind. As the final prophet, Muhammad relates God’s final word, superseding all that came before. The main points of Muhammad’s revelations, in written form known as the Qurʾan, or Koran, are that God is one and that submission to God is one’s primary duty. Muslims are, furthermore, required to perform five actions, which are considered the “pillars of Islam.” These include regular recitation of the shahada (“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet”); praying five times daily in the direction of the holy city of Mecca; giving alms to the poor; fasting for the month of Ramadan each year; and pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once in one’s lifetime.

According to Muslim theology, human beings are affected by the presence or absence of barakah, divine good will or grace. The prevalance of claims of descent from Muhammad and from other important Islamic figures in West Africa may be traced to the belief that barakah is inherited from the Prophet’s descendants or from his close companions. People are also affected by jinns, invisible spirits who inhabit the earth and are sometimes helpful, sometimes hostile to human beings. In Manding belief, jinns may inhabit fetishes. Muslim holymen, or moris, lead prayers and teach the Qurʾan, and in the Western Sudan they also perform spells and create potions.

The Epic in Focus

Plot summary

The epic of Sunjata as told by Fa-Digi Sisòkò begins with a lengthy prologue praising the hero and establishing his genealogy as well as the genealogies of many of the major clan families that will play a part in the epic. Sunjata’s ancestry is traced all the way back to Adam, the first man to be created by God according to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theology. More directly, Sunjata (along with all the Manding peoples) is said to descend from Jon Bilali, a Manding form for Bilal ibn Rabah, companion to the prophet Muhammad.

In a land called Du, a man referred to as “Leader-of-the-People” becomes father to a son. Following tradition, Leader sends the boy to live with his childless aunt, Leader’s sister, Du Kamisa. When the boy, named Magan Jata Kòndé, grows up, he must ritually sacrifice a white spotted bull before he can succeed his father as king. Du Kamisa is for some reason excluded from this important ceremony and becomes enraged. In her fury she transforms into a ferocious wild buffalo who will henceforth slay seven men each day in the land of Du.

Many hunters try to put an end to the terrible scourge of Du, but are unsuccessful. Then, two brothers of the Taraware clan resolve to kill her. Together they journey into the deep forest, where they sacrifice groundnuts to a jinn inhabiting a fetish. In return the jinn instructs the brothers to give some rice to an old woman who lives to the west of Du. The brothers comply, and the old woman reveals to them that she is the buffalo. She gives them detailed instruction on how she must be killed when she is in buffalo form, and then commands them to swear an oath that binds the clans of Taraware and Kòndè in friendship.

The brothers follow the old woman’s instructions, and when Magan Jata Konde learns that the buffalo has been slain, he presents the Taraware brothers with half his kingdom. The brothers refuse the gift, however, on the advice of a talking dog they meet beside a rubbish heap on the way to Magan Jata Kòndè’s compound. Magan Jata Köndé makes a second offer—this time of a maiden of their choice from among the populace of Du. Luckily, the talking dog has advised the Taraware brothers which maiden to choose; it is Sugulun Köndé, a girl with the unappealing nickname “Sugulun-of-the-Warts.” The Tarawares must choose Sugulun, the dog explains, because she will bear a son who will one day rule the Manden.

After following the dog’s advice, the Tarawares begin their journey back to the Manden, with Sugulun in tow. The first night of the journey, the elder Taraware brother attempts sexual intercourse with Sugulun, but she magically grows to an intimidating size while two spikes project from her breasts. “My husband’s in the Manden,” she tells him, and so he is. Meanwhile, in the Manden town of Nyani, Fata Magan the Handsome is accosted by a jinn who tells him that two youths will bring him an unattractive young woman whom he would be wise to accept because she will someday bear him an heir who will be a great ruler. Fata Magan follows the jinn’s advice and when the Taraware brothers make the offer, he accepts Sugulun as his wife.

Some time later, Saman Berete, one of Fata Magan’s wives, gives birth and sends a messenger to inform Fata Magan of the event. The old woman entrusted with the message tarries along the way, however, to accept some food that is offered to her. As the old woman eats, Sugulun also gives birth, and sends a messenger of her own to inform her husband. Sugulun’s messenger is offered food but declines and announces the birth of Sugulun’s son before the old woman arrives to announce the birth of Saman Beret’s son, who is named Dankaran Tuma. Thus, although Sugulun’s child is born second, he gains the birthright of the first-born, and is recognized as his father’s heir. Sugulun’s child is given the name “Son-Jara” (Sunjata), translated as “lion thief,” because he was born covered with hair, like a lion, and he has stolen his brother’s birthright.

Saman Berete is enraged by this turn of events and seeks the services of a mori, or Muslim holy man, to curse Sunjata so that he cannot walk. The spells are successful—for nine years Sunjata can only crawl. During this time it may be assumed that Fata Magan, who is never again mentioned in this version of the epic, dies, and his throne passes to Dankaran Tuma, who is hereafter referred to as “king.”

At the end of the nine years, Sugulun is cooking couscous and goes door to door asking for some baobab leaf as a condiment, only to be turned away at every door, cruelly mocked because her “lame” son cannot get the baobab leaf for her. Sugulun returns home and tearfully berates her son for his handicap, whereupon Sunjata tells her that he will stand up, provided she bring him an iron staff forged seven times. Sugulun gets the blacksmiths to make such a staff and brings it to her son, who grasps it and attempts to rise. He gets only halfway off the ground, however, then stops, asking for another staff, twice the size. When this second staff is also ineffective, Sugulun cuts her son a staff from a custard apple tree (a tree believed to be supernaturally efficacious), and, with this staff, Sunjata is able to rise. He directs his first steps toward the biggest and best baobab tree, which he uproots and brings home to Sugulun, planting it in front of her house. Now all women wanting baobab to season their food must come to Sugulun and ask her permission.

After this triumph, Sunjata becomes a hunter, and whatever animal he kills, he gives the tail to his brother and rival, Dankaran Tuma. The tail is a prized trophy of the hunt, thought to have strong occult powers; by giving the tail to his brother, Sunjata symbolically acknowledges his brother as his better, and thus gives up his claim to the birthright of the first-born that was wrongly bestowed upon him. Nonetheless, a jinn soon warns Sunjata that Saman Berete and her son are still hostile towards him and plot against him. It is likely they fear that Sunjata became a hunter in order to gain occult power that would enable him to take the throne from his brother. In the face of open hostility from Saman Berete, Sugulun advises Sunjata to depart on a journey that will take him to several kingdoms in search of refuge.

First Sunjata goes to the blacksmith patriarch, Jobi the Seer, but the supporters of Dankaran Tuma bribe Jobi to cast him out. Next Sunjata goes to Tulumbèn, king of Kölé. King Tulumbén has been entrusted with the pregnant wife of another patriarch who is away making his hajj. Sunjata has a fetish that accepts only offerings of unborn babies, so Sunjata convinces Tulumbén to help him slay the pregnant woman and make an offering of her child. When the patriarch returns from his pilgrimage and realizes the outrage, he cries out to God who, hearing his protestations, punishes Tulumbén, who lacks the nya to protect himself against such a nyama-releasing act. While Tulumbén is wrapped in chains and cast into a lake to drown, the nya-possessing hero Sunjata flees to the nine Queens-of-Darkness, who are feared by all.

Back in Nyani, King Dankaran Tuma now has a daughter named Caress-of-Hot-Fire. He instructs Dòka the Cat, Sunjata’s bard who is in Dankaran Tuma’s employ, to take this daughter to Susu Mountain Sumamuru, a mysterious king who wears clothing made of human skin and lives in a village called Dark Forest. In exchange for his life, Dankaran Tuma offers Caress to Sumamuru. Sumamuru asks Döka to also remain with him, but the bard refuses, saying that he cannot serve two kings, whereupon Sumamuru severs both of Döka’s Achilles tendons. Sumamuru declares war on Nyani, and soon conquers the land, ousting Dankaran Tuma, who flees. Sumamuru puts “gourds in the mouth of the poor and the powerful,” meaning that he silences all criticism through force (Johnson, Epic of Son-Jara, lines 1905-06). Next, Sumamuru sends an offering of a bull to the nine Queens-of-Darkness, asking them to slay Sunjata so that he cannot come to claim the Manden. Seeing this, Sunjata, who is living with the nine queens, transforms himself into a lion and kills nine water buffaloes, dragging them back to the lair of the witches as a counter-sacrifice. The nine queens prefer Sunjata’s sacrifice and spare his life.

Back in the Manden, Sunjata’s younger sister, Sugulun Kulunkan, receives word that her brother is alive and well in Mèma (on the west bank of the Niger River). She removes the gourds from the mouths of three heroes of the Manden, and together they set forth to Méma disguised as merchants. In the Mema marketplace, the four offer for sale goods peculiar to the Manden. When Sunjata’s mother, who is now living with Sunjata, hears of the fresh okra and eggplant leaf for sale, she realizes that these must come from home and summons the merchants selling these items so that she can hear news from the Manden. The “merchants” tell Sunjata of Sumamuru’s usurpation of the Nyani throne, and urge him to return to his homeland.

To increase his power, Sunjata wishes to sacrifice shea butter to a fetish of his that will accept no other offering. There is only one shea tree in Méma, and it bears no fruit, so Sunjata’s mother recites an incantation over it and the next morning the tree is fruitful, but Sunjata’s mother is dead. She had prayed to God that she might die because she knew that Sunjata must return to the Manden and she was too old and infirm to make the journey with him. Sunjata buries his mother in secret to evade grave-robbers who would seek to steal from the supernaturally powerful woman’s grave any fetishes that might have been buried with her. He then chops down a tree to bury publicly in his mother’s stead. He asks for a plot of land for his mother’s grave, but is told he must pay for it, so Sunjata presents the Prince of Mema with a bag containing broken shards, wild grasses, and feathers, among other things. The Prince asks his sages to interpret the meaning of such a payment, and the sages reply that if Sunjata is not given the land, he will reduce Méma to ruins—a place of broken shards and wild grass that will serve as fodder for the birds. The land is given to Sunjata, who buries the log and then departs for the Manden.

Sunjata engages Sumamuru in battle at the village of Dark Forest, but Sumamuru repulses the attack, and Sunjata leaves in defeat to found a town that he names “Anguish.” Again he attacks Sumamuru and again is defeated. This time he founds a town called “Resolve.” The cycle repeats, and the result is a town called “Sharing.” Sugulun Kulunkan goes to the fortress of Sumamuru and offers herself as “bed companion” to the king (Epic of Son-Jara, line 2690). Ignoring his mother’s advice, Sumamuru accepts Sugulun Kulunkan’s offer, and reveals to her that he has gained power in the Manden by making various sacrifices and burying them in the earth. He also gives her precise instructions concerning the only way he can be vanquished. After a week Sugulun Kulunkan asks to return to the Manden to get the household implements that are her dowry.

Meanwhile, despite having 100 wives of his own, Sumamuru steals his nephew Fa-Koli’s only wife, who is especially desirable in that she has the ability to supernaturally increase a small amount of food into enough food to feed 100 warriors. Fa-Koli becomes enraged and joins forces with Sunjata to overthrow his uncle. Sugulun Kulunkan has told her brother all, of course, and Fa-Koli volunteers to make the counter-sacrifices necessary to deprive Sumamuru of his occult powers. When this is done, Sunjata attacks, and Sumamuru flees on horseback. Sunjata’s troops give chase and repeatedly capture Sumamuru who, now that he lacks occult power, will not engage in battle, each time saying, “I am not ready!” (Epic of Son-Jara, line 2845). Sunjata lets him go each time, saying, “Prepare yourself!” (Epic of Son-Jar a, line 2847). At one point during the chase Sumamuru dismounts to take a drink from a river. Just as he is about to drink, Sunjata’s troops overtake him and he dries up and becomes a shriveled fetish of Kulu-Kòrò, the village where he is defeated and where he remains a fetish to this day.

Sunjata claims the Manden as his own and finds his bard, Döka the Cat, with his Achilles tendons severed. He places Döka upon the shoulders of Sumamuru’s eldest son, who must now serve as the bard’s legs. Sunjata sends a party to Dark Jòlòf to buy horses, but the king of Dark Jölöf insults Sunjata and sends his messengers back with dogs instead. Sunjata declares war and his troops slay the king of Dark Jölöf and several other kings as well, claiming their lands for Sunjata.

Heroes and bards: Manding epic tradition

When Sumamuru asks Döka the Cat to remain with him and be his bard, the mysterious king threatens to steal from Sunjata more than just an entertainer. “We are vessels of speech,” explains a jali (the Manding word for “bard”; the plural is jeli).“[W]e are the repositories which harbour secrets many centuries old. The art of eloquence has no secrets for us; without us the names of kings would vanish into oblivion, we are the memory of mankind” (Mamadou Kouyatè in Niane, p. 1).

Expert speakers such as bards play an important part in an oral society. In traditional Manding culture, bards are typically allied to hörön families who provide food, clothing, and shelter in exchange for such speech-related services as praise-poetry, the maintenance of genealogies, entertainment, oral history, blessings, curses, and advice. The bard’s power is indicated by the fact that he or she is a member of one of the hereditary nyamakala professions who are both feared and revered for the nyama they generate. The nyama that bards generate through their speech can be beneficial, as in the case of praise-poems that fill the recipient with positive nyama so that he or she has the power to do great things. Or it can be harmful—if, for example, the bard spews out curses or when too much nyama renders the recipient of praise-poems intoxicated or crazed. Bards perhaps wield their greatest power as oral historians, since a person’s reputation in life and after death depends upon the good will


A half-century after the events central to the Epic of Son-jara occur, the famous tourist to the area, Ibn Battuta (see Ibn Battuta in Black Africa, also covered in African Literature and Its Times) explains a function of the bards on feast days: “They stand in front of the sultan… and recite their poems. Their poems exhort the king to recall the good deeds of his predecessors, and imitate them so that the memory of his good deeds will outlive him…. I was told that this practice is a very old custom amongst them prior to the introduction of Islam, and that they have kept it up” (Ibn Battuta in McKissack and McKissack, p. 71).

and talent of bards. Accordingly, one of the bard’s most important functions in Manding society is the performance of historical epics such as that of Sunjata.

In general, epics tend to be condensed expressions of the worldview and identity of a people. In the same sense in which Homeric epic conveys what it is to be a Greek, Manding epic concerns what it is to be a Manding. On one level, the epic of Sunjata helps unite the Manding people in a sense of common origin. Although they are dispersed over the Western Sudan, the people regard the Manden, where the epic of Sunjata takes place, as their homeland, and most belong to clans that trace their ancestry back to Sunjata or one of his close companions. On another level, the epic provides a charter for Manding culture—the relations between different segments of society are explained and justified in the epic of Sunjata. The clans of Taraware and Köndé are bound in friendship because of an oath the buffalo-woman of Du made the Taraware brothers swear. Likewise, the actions of the characters in the epic of Sunjata are sometimes offered as explanations for certain Manding customs. The Manding custom whereby a wife returns to her parents’ home after the first week of marriage to obtain a dowry in “useful containers” is said to arise from a ruse employed by Sunjata’s sister to leave Sumamuru’s fortress.

Another common aspect of epics is that they tend to be about heroes, extraordinary individuals who upset the status quo. The Manding hero, as scholars Charles Bird and Martha Kendall suggest, is a fa-denya figure who acts outside of and sometimes against the group in order to achieve personal power. In the epic, Sunjata’s life begins in competition, as his mother and the mother of his half-brother race to announce their sons’ births. When Sunjata unjustly attains the status of first-born that rightfully belongs to Dankaran Tuma, he has gained a personal advantage by upsetting the cultural order. As a young man, when Sunjata becomes a hunter, he goes outside the bounds of village society and hierarchy to gain occult knowledge and power. Later, as he flees from one haven to the next, his occult power continues to increase until the day he learns that the Manden has been conquered by Sumamuru, an outsider and an unjust ruler who must be overthrown. Only then does the force of ba-denya pull Sunjata back into the group, to aid it in its time of need. The Manding have a saying: “The hero is welcome only on troubled days,” and indeed, the Manding hero’s fa-denya pursuit of personal power without regard for law or the rights of others makes him difficult to live with in more secure times.

As a hero, Sunjata is a fa-denya figure who lives outside the bounds of society’s laws, even committing infanticide with impunity. He is also, in a sense, a ba-denya figure in that he brings the Manding people together and his story is regarded as the model for relationships and customs in Manding culture. He is thus simultaneously outsider and insider, and in this he is like the figure of the bard. Although they are often allied to a single family, as nyamakala, bards themselves stand outside the hòròn or noble hierarchy and are thus trusted to arbitrate disputes between clans. The sending of Dòka the Cat as emissary to Sumamuru reflects the role of bards as intermediaries between different groups, because bards are conceived to be outside any group but their own. They are, in a sense, officially recognized outsiders who are relatively free to express unpopular opinions and criticize those in power. Emblematic of their separateness, in the past dead bards were not buried alongside other Manding but rather placed in the hollow trunks of dead baobab trees, so that bardic nyama would not infect the earth. At the same time, bards are also, in a sense, the ultimate cultural insiders, since their job is to preserve, transmit, and arguably even create Manding history, values, and customs through their performance.

In the Janjon, a Manding epic related to the Sunjata epic, Sumamuru’s nephew Fa-Koli hears Sunjata’s bards singing a song of praise to Sunjata and demands that the song be sung for himself. The bards agree to sing for him but first require Fa-Koli to perform a series of brave feats, after which the song becomes his exclusively forever more. Manding heroes need bards just as bards need heroes. In performing heroic epics, Manding bards celebrate the power of fa-denya and perhaps encourage individuals in their audiences to go beyond family and village, to break with the group in order to achieve the kind of greatness remembered in song. Thus, Sumamuru’s attempt to take Sunjata’s bard can be understood as an attempt to take the hero’s place in history. In the epic, one of Sunjata’s praisenames is “Lion-Born-of-the-Cat,” and one explanation offered for this sobriquet is that it refers to the hero’s status as hunter, one who gains occult knowledge through observation of wild animals like the cat (Epic of Son-Jara, line 32). Sunjata is, however, in a sense, a lion born of another cat, his bard Doka the Cat and bards like him, who inspire heroes to acts of greatness and preserve their memory in epic song.

Sources and literary context

Like epics from around the world, the epic of Sunjata is formulaic. In other words, performers do not memorize the epic verbatim, but recreate the story on the spot using certain stock expressions, or formulae, to describe people, places, and events. These formulae allow the epic performer to maintain poetic flow or meter while composing the epic extemporaneously. Unlike the Homeric epics of Greece, such as the Illiad or Odyssey, in which meter is rigidly defined, the epic of Sunjata gets its poetic rhythm from the interplay of the singer/reciter with his musical accompaniment.

The epic of Sunjata is perhaps the defining epic of the Manding people, but it does not stand alone. Other epics performed by Manding bards in the Western Sudan include the “Monzon” epic cycle of the Bambara, which recounts the deeds of two kings, Monzon and Da Monzon, who ruled the kingdom of Ségu in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Epics are also performed in West Africa by non-Manding peoples (such as the Fulani) and in other parts of Africa (such as Zaire and Zambia).

Events in History at the Time the Epic Was Performed/Recorded

Change and continuity

The continued performance of any piece of oral tradition raises the question, “Why?” Why was the epic of Sunjata, a heroic poem about a medieval ruler, still being performed in West Africa in the latter half of the twentieth century? Did the epic still fascinate audiences, was it merely endured for the sake of tradition, or was it regarded uncomprehendingly as a curious artifact from a time long ago? It seems clear at least that at the time these performances were recorded, Manding epic poetry was a genuine, living tradition.

Obviously, much had changed for Manding society in the centuries since 1200 c.e. Trade with Europe, which began in the fifteenth century, led to economic and political domination of West Africa that culminated in its division into European colonies in the nineteenth century. After World War II ended in 1945, West Africans overthrew the colonial powers and formed their own nation-states. Ghana and the Republic of Mali are two such modern nations with names inspired by the past glory of ancient empires. Perhaps behind both the reclaiming of these names and the performance of the Sunjata epic is the same sense of pride and interest in African history before European colonialism, when the Manding peoples had empires of their own.


The performance of a Manding epic is not restricted to any particular time or place, although it usually occurs outside and at night. In this culture, an epic is a lengthy poem that is sung either entirely or in part, and its performance may be drawn out over several nights or continue uninterrupted for as long as ten hours.

The bard is usually aided in his performance by musicians— who may be other bards or apprentices, singers—who take the singing parts of the epic, letting the bard concentrate on the recitation—and a naamu-sayer—an individual who shouts encouraging words like “yes” (na’am in Arabic) or “that’s true” after each line of a bard’s performance. Performance style varies greatly among bards, who may choose to dance, gesticulate, act out certain episodes, or simply sit still and tell the story. Most bards don special garments for the event and some hold props like a scepter or spear to help them embody the hero of the epic.

Epics are, for the most part, not restricted to any particular audience, but are attended by a large, mixed group that participates in the performance by singing, dancing, playing percussive instruments, clapping hands, and shouting remarks.

In Mali of the 1960s and 1970s, more than 90 percent of the population still lived in rural villages, less than 30 percent of children were receiving a classroom education, and patrilineal hierarchy remained an important, albeit unofficial, source of authority. Islam had grown from a religion primarily of merchants and royalty into a religion of all the people, yet elements of traditional Manding religious belief and practice remained prevalent. The Manding bard, although in general no longer fully supported by a single patron family, could still earn a living through freelance performance or sometimes through government funding. Some bards performed on radio shows or allowed themselves to be recorded while others played their instruments in dance bands. Yet despite changes in the ways in which the bard survived economically, and although the Manding had developed a literary tradition, the role of the bard in Manding culture remained intact.

The performance of epics, which is considered the bards’ most important function, also remained intact. The epic of Sunjata continued to be performed because Sunjata is central to the Manding peoples’ understanding of who they are. He is the hero who leaves the group on a fa-denya quest for power that allows him to serve the group in its time of greatest need. He is the hero who returns and reunites the group, providing the ba-denya model for relations between individuals and exemplifying rules for behavior through his actions. In late twentieth-century Mali, the epic of Sunjata was still cited as rationale for the customs of Manding culture.


The simple fact that Manding bards continue to perform the epic of Sunjata, and that people continue to listen to them, speaks volumes for the oral tradition as a whole. Critics have reviewed all three English texts—Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali by Mamadou Kouyaté, translated by D. T. Niane; Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions by Bamba Suso, Banna Kanute, and Dembo Kanute, translated by Gordon Innes; and The Epic of Son-Jara by Fa-Digi Sisòkò, translated by John William Johnson. The reviewers have not generally critiqued the quality of the story or the eloquence of the bard who relates it. Instead, the texts have been reviewed according to three main criteria: the quality of the extensive notes and introductions, the faithfulness of the translation to actual bardic performance, and the readability of the epic.

Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, the earliest of the three texts, is considered to be more readable than it is faithful. First published in French in 1960, Sundiata is regarded as “a pioneering effort… undertaken before standards for faithfully reproducing oral narratives were in place” that is marked by “European-style literary phrasing” (Conrad, p. 674). Perhaps for this reason, Sundiata is “extremely readable and entertaining for a non-African audience” (Conrad, p. 674). The English version of Sundiata, although it does contain many informative notes, lacks the thoroughgoing introduction to Manding culture that marks later, more scholarly, publications.

Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions, published in 1974, is a pioneering work in that it was the first linear, or line-for-line, translation of recorded and transcribed performances of the epic to be published in English. Translator Gordon Innes is nonetheless faulted for high-flown “expansion” of the text at times—for example, in rendering a poetic line that literally translates into “I am the child of a king” as “I am a scion of the royal line” (Bird, p. 362).

The Epic of Son-Jara is the most recently published version of the three (1986), and also the most faithfully rendered, down to the responses of the naamu-sayer given in parentheses after each line. Son-Jara, however, can be a challenging read for those unfamiliar with Manding culture. It too is a linear translation and also offers extensive introductory sections on the Manding and copious notes that might daunt the non-academic, yet one reviewer characterizes the text as “leaving interesting material without necessary context” (McDougall, p. 351). The version has nonetheless been singled out for praise. The Epic of Son-Jara has received accolades for offering a more “accurate representation of oral discourse” than its predecessors (Conrad, p. 674).

—Kimberly Ball

For More Information

Bird, Charles S. Review of Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions. Research in West African Literatures 8 (1977): 353-69.

Bird, Charles S., and Martha B. Kendall. “The Mande Hero: Text and Context.” In Explorations in African Systems of Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Bourboune, Mourad. “L’amour, la fantasia.” Jeune Afrique Magazine, 15 April 1985, p. 31.

Buah, F. K. A History of West Africa from ad 1000. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Clarke, Peter B. West Africa and Islam: A Study of Religious Development From the 8th to the 20th Century. London: Edward Arnold, 1982.

Conrad, David C. Review of The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition. International Journal of African Historical Studies 26, no. 3 (1993): 673-75.

Dieterlen, Germaine. “The Mande Creation Myth.” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 27, no. 2 (April 1957): 124-37.

Innes, Gordon. Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions. London: University of London, 1974.

Johnson, John William, trans. The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition. Text by Fa-Digi Sisòkò. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

McDougall, E. Ann. Review of The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition. International Journal of African Historical Studies 22, no. 2 (1989): 350-53.

McKissack, Patricia, and Frederick McKissack. The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. New York: Henry Holt, 1994.

Niane, D. T. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Trans. G. D. Pickett. Essex: Longman, 1965.

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The Epic of Son-Jara

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