(Also transliterated as Son-Jara, Sun-Jata, and Sundiata) Thirteenth-century West African epic.
The Sunjata is named after the founder of the thirteenth-century Mali empire. The heroic narrative relates the life and adventures of Sunjata (also known as Son-Jara or Sundiata) from his childhood when, because of a curse, he could only crawl, to his exile with his family, and finally to his becoming the triumphant King of the Mandinka and expanding his empire. Scholars agree that the mythic Sunjata is an embellished version of the historical Sunjata but accept that, with no documentary evidence whatsoever from his time, it is impossible to entirely sort out the fictional from the historical elements in the tale. Existing exclusively as an oral epic for centuries, the Sunjata continues to be performed in the present day in western Africa by griots, or bards, who exercise wide latitude concerning which features of the epic to emphasize. With the advent of transcripts and assorted print versions, the text of the Sunjata has garnered further academic attention and become the most critically acclaimed of all African epics.
Plot and Major Characters
There are many variations to the Sunjata epic, but the gist of the story remains the same in all of them. Sunjata is the son of the King of the Mandinka, Maghan Kung Fatta, and one of his wives, Sukulung, a pagan with occult knowledge. Sunjata's chief rival is an older half-brother, Dankaran Tuma. Dankaran Tuma's mother puts a curse on Sunjata that renders him unable to walk; he crawls on all fours until his adolescence, at which time his mother gives him a staff made from a sacred tree and commands him to rise. Upon the death of the King, Dankaran Tuma rules for a brief time before the sorcerer Sumanguru usurps the throne of Mali. Sumanguru is warned by soothsayers, however, that Sunjata is destined to become king. To try to prevent this, Sumanguru sends Sukulung and her children into exile. Sunjata performs many daring feats and gains the respect and admiration of assorted monarchs who will later come to his aid. Sunjata and his enemy engage in battle (historians believe this occurred in 1235). Sunjata's sister seduces Sumanguru in order to trick him into revealing the secret of his sorcery. She passes the knowledge on to Sunjata, who promptly uses it to destroy Sumanguru, but not before Sumanguru saves himself by changing into a bird (or a stone in some versions). Not content with the size of his new kingdom, Sunjata proceeds to expand it at the cost of his neighbors' lands.
Sunjata is an entertaining recitation of tales of daring and bravery that champion the Mande value of courage in the face of opposition. Scholars also note an emphasis on female characters and their essential roles in the family. Some scholars assert that the Sunjata played an important role in binding together diverse groups of people into one nation by giving them a common story.
Sunjata studies largely focus on the characteristics of its accounts of Sunjata's deeds and on its transmission through generations. John William Johnson ponders the question of the historicity of the story of Sunjata and whether or not it is more appropriate to consider it a myth. In another essay, Johnson studies the griots and their roles as chroniclers, entertainers, and mediators. Thomas J. Sienkewicz examines the epic's relation to Greek tales, finding that they share some aspects of incorporating myths into social and cultural contexts. In trying to make use of the Sunjata for historical purposes, David C. Conrad consults many variations of oral accounts. He notes: “Several centuries of history have been telescoped into the period of the few generations mentioned in the Sunjata epic, so to look there for references meaningful to Western-style chronology will rarely if ever be rewarding. Depending on the variants consulted, episodes of the Sunjata epic address issues dating from times that are now described only in mythological terms, through the recognizably historical period of Mansa Musa (1312-37).” Gordon Innes contends that the Sunjata's historical significance is secondary to its literary value and that whether the events described actually took place or not is irrelevant. He believes that the work has survived for so long because it fulfills “some deep emotional need among the Manding people.” Charles S. Bird suggests that while the Sunjata instills a sense of pride and honor in Mandinkans, it can produce anxiety at the thought of not measuring up to their forebears. Stephen Bulman examines the section of the epic known as the Buffalo-woman tale and finds that popular themes borrowed from hunting practice and folklore have been combined with a “wandering” story pattern. Stephen Belcher examines some of the chief plot elements of the Sunjata and their variants. Isidore Okpewho analyzes the dynamics of the griots' balancing of the retelling of the heroic past without making present-day audiences skeptical of its truthfulness. Jan Jansen reports on rehearsals for a major performance of the Sunjata and concludes that “the recitation of the Sunjata epic is not necessarily in the first place the product of the griots' imagination and literary creativity, but a highly standardized oral text that is carefully reproduced by its ‘owners.’” He contends that perhaps too much importance is ascribed to the dynamic literary variations of griots.
Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions (edited by Gordon Innes) 1974
Sunjata (compiled and edited by B. K. Sidibe) 1980
Son-Jara: The Mande Epic (Mandekan/English edition; text by Fa–Digi Sisòkò, transcribed with the assistance of Charles S. Bird) 2003
The Epic of Son-Jara: A West African Tradition (translated by John William Johnson) 1986
Sunjata: Gambian Versions of the Mande Epic (recited by Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute; translated by Gordon Innes) 1999
Sunjata: A West African Epic of the Mande People (translated by David C. Conrad) 2004
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SOURCE: Innes, Gordon. Introduction to Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions, pp. 1-33. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1974.
[In the following excerpt, Innes provides an overview of the Sunjata, including its transmission, audience, language, and present-day relevance.]
The three texts in this book are by three of The Gambia's leading bards, Bamba Suso, Banna Kanute and Dembo Kanute. A brief biographical note on each of these three bards will be found before the text which each has provided. The texts by Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute are included here as illustrative of the differences of both style and content which can occur between two performances of the ‘same’ epic. Dembo Kanute's text is an example of a narration which draws upon the Sunjata epic, but where the focus of interest is not Sunjata himself, but one of his generals.
Sunjata is generally regarded by historians as the founder of the Mali empire, one of a succession of empires which rose and fell in the Western Sudan in the Middle Ages. The historical evidence for the founding of the Mali empire is slight, consisting of some accounts by Arab chroniclers and of oral tradition. The three most important Arab sources are Ibn Fadl-Allāh al-‘Umarī, Ibn-Baṭṭūṭa and Ibn-Khaldūn; Ibn-Baṭṭūṭa travelled through Mali from February 1352 to December 1353...
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SOURCE: Bird, Charles S. Review of Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions. Research in African Literatures 8, no. 3 (winter 1977): 353-69.
[In the following review, Bird evaluates Gordon Innes's work on the Sunjata.]
As specified in the title, this book [Sunjata: Three Mandinka Versions] consists of three versions of the Sunjata epic. The book's thirty-three-page introduction will be discussed in detail below. Each version is preceded by a short biography of the bard who authored the version in question. This is followed by the standard format presentation of such texts where an edited transcription is on the left-hand page and the corresponding translation on the right-hand page. Each version is followed by copious notes, many of which are quite useful. The first version is by the recently deceased master bard, Bamba Suso. This version runs 1,305 lines, which we would estimate to be about 2 to 2[frac12] hours of performance. The second version by Banna Kanute runs 2,067 lines, or roughly 3 to 3[frac12] hours of per formance time. The third version by Dembo Kanute, the older brother of Banna, is in reality the story of Fa Koli, one of Sunjata's generals, which is a legitimate subpart of the Sunjata epic. This version runs 1,020 lines, in our estimation about 1[frac12] to 2 hours of recital time.
Although one might find many ways in which this text could be...
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SOURCE: Okpewho, Isidore. “The African Heroic Epic: Internal Balance.” Africa 36, no. 2 (June 1981): 209-25.
[In the following essay, Okpewho describes how a balance is achieved between the various elements of the Sunjata narrative.]
The tradition of epic or heroic narrative in African societies has become a subject of growing interest. But of all the question which scholars of this branch of oral literature ponder, perhaps none has received quite as little attention as that of the sheer implications of scope. Some of the more notable scholarship on this genre has, with varying degrees of sensitivity, recognized prosody as a determining factor in the classification1; and though there seems to be a certain concession to the fact that for a tale to be classified as epic there must be some element of largeness or scope to it2, the question has seldom been raised what this scope consists in or how the narrator, given the very immediate pressures of performance before a sensitive audience, manages to sustain the sheer weight of the material and sustain plausibility or interest.
A close look at the internal dynamics of the African heroic epic soon reveals that it is sustained by an intriguing counterpoise between elements that are both contradictory and complementary; on the whole this counterpoise helps to...
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SOURCE: Johnson, John William. “The Bard (Griot).” In Son-Jara: The Mande Epic, pp. 22-9. 3rd edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
[In the following excerpt from his study and translation of the Sunjata, Johnson focuses on the role and training of the storyteller.]
The recitation of the epic of Son-Jara is carried out by professional raconteurs in the Mande world. A description of the social systems surrounding these professionals will help the outsider to understand the context of epic in this culture. The bard must first be placed in perspective in relation to the other castes in Mali. The social roles of the bards must be described, for reciting this important epic is only one of their several roles. The training and various occupations and economic orientation of bards will also be described. Finally, the generic specializations of the bardic caste will be listed.
Throughout the Mande world, there exists a group of clan families which may be described as castes. These families have the right to certain occupational pursuits, although they are not required to participate in their specialties. They also have certain defined social roles, and they practice endogamy. It should be made clear that the Mande endogamous castes are not “despised,” as is the case in areas of the world such as India. In Mali, they are more correctly described...
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SOURCE: Bulman, Stephen. “The Buffalo-Woman Tale: Political Imperatives and Narrative Constraints in the Sunjata Epic.” In Discourse and Its Disguises: The Interpretation of African Oral Texts, pp. 171-207. Birmingham, Ala.: Centre of Western African Studies, 1989.
[In the following essay, Bulman analyzes how the storyteller achieves new meaning by reworking the hunter-stranger motif in the Sunjata.]
The Sunjata epic has achieved considerable prominence among the oral art compositions of West Africa since Niane's publication of a prose reconstruction in French in 1960. Other versions more faithful to the style of jeli (griot or bard) have since appeared in some numbers, most notably a rendition by Kèlè Mònsòn Jabatè—which has been published in three different forms (Diabaté 1970 and 1975; Moser 1984)—three recitations from the Gambia (Innes 1974) and two from Kita (Johnson 1979 and 1986). Interpretative work upon the epic (primarily as folklore) and its context has also appeared in Bird 1972, 1977, Bird and Kendal 1980, and Johnson 1978, to name a few, and a comparative survey of variants has been written as a thesis (Belcher 1985). The epic has also served as an important—if somewhat mistreated—historical source for scholars since Delafosse's Haut-Sénégal-Niger in 1912 (reprinted as Delafosse 1972); and it is still relied upon in the standard histories of...
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SOURCE: Johnson, John William. “Historicity and the Oral Epic: The Case of Sun-Jata Keita.” In The Old Traditional Way of Life: Essays in Honor of Warren E. Roberts, edited by Robert E. Walls and George H. Schoemaker with Jennifer Livesay and Laura Dassow Walls, pp. 351-61. Bloomington, Ind.: Trickster Press, 1989.
[In the following essay, Johnson uses the example of the Sunjata to explore the general question of historicity in oral tradition.]
Western-trained scholars have attempted to reconstruct a history of the great empire period of West Africa arguing that Sun-Jata Keita, the culture hero of one of those great empires, that of Old Mali, was an historical person.1 Recent oral historians have refined their arguments concerning historicity in oral traditions, responded to criticism from anthropologists, and continue to keep their faith in oral tradition as evidence of past history. Unfortunately, they appear not to have read the work of folklorists or sociologists, who have recently contributed a great deal to theory in oral tradition and knowledge of its role in contemporary society.
The question of what Sun-Jata represents today remains easier to answer than who he may have been in the past. As the primary culture hero of the Mande peoples, Sun-Jata's memory is a part of the symbolic culture of those societies. The social role of this narrative appears to take...
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SOURCE: Sienkewicz, Thomas J. “The Greeks Are Indeed Like the Others: Myth and Society in the West African Sunjata.” In Myth and the Polis, edited by Dora C. Pozzi and John M. Wickersham, pp. 182-202. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Sienkewicz discusses similarities between the Sunjata and Greek myths, particularly in addressing the “tension between diversity and unity.”]
The mark Greek mythology has left on Western thought and culture is undeniable and indelible. The use of Greek myths as standard themes and points of reference for Western artists, writers, and poets, and the survival and flourishing of Greek mythology in the modern world, have been interpreted by some as a sign of the universality of Greek mythology, of its unique adaptability to different and changing social and cultural needs.
This view of Greek mythology as both unique and universal among the world's mythologies has been eloquently voiced by George Steiner, who proposes that the Greek language and the Greek myths are inseparably linked and that the syntax of the Greek language and the myths expressed therein reflect basic, universal human experiences and forms of expression.1 In Steiner's view this basic bond between Greek mythology and the Greek language creates a collection of myths which incorporates all the diverse modes of human language...
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SOURCE: Conrad, David C. “Searching for History in the Sunjata Epic: The Case of Fakoli.” History in Africa 19 (1992): 147-200.
[In the following essay, Conrad analyzes the treatment of the legendary hero Fakoli in the Sunjata.]
That is why, regarding the time between the death of one great king and the rise of another king made famous by God,(1) If you ask whether in that intervening period there were other kings, Of course there were, But their names are not known.(2)
Some scholars search for historical evidence in the ancient traditions preserved by bards of the Western Sudan, while other writers express doubts that these sources can contain any information of value to historians. A period markedly affected by this question is the early thirteenth century, because it was then that the Mali empire was established, and because most of the evidence for this is derived from the Sunjata tradition, which is an essential part of the repertoire of many Mande bards (also known as “griots” or, in the Mande language, jeliw).3 A limited amount of information on thirteenth-century Mali is available from Arabic sources, but these were written a century to a century and a half after the reign of Sunjata, and although Ibn Khaldun confirms the existence of the famous mansa and reports that he subdued the Soso (Susu, Sosso),4...
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SOURCE: Belcher, Stephen. “Sunjata and the Traditions of the Manden.” In Epic Traditions of Africa, pp. 89-114. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
[In the following excerpt, Belcher offers a literary analysis of portions of the Sunjata and discusses some of the epic's different versions.]
The Manden (sometimes Manding) is a space, in some way perhaps a time, and for many, an idea. The space is roughly defined by the headwaters of the Niger and its affluents and lies in western Mali and eastern Guinea; it is occupied by the Malinke, for whom it is a symbolic heartland from which the more widespread branches of their people have departed at various times to take on different names (Mandinka, Dyula, Konyaka, and others). As a time, the Manden looks back to its period of unification and glory under the emperor Sunjata. In his time (generally dated to the early thirteenth century), the separate kingdoms (or territories) of Do, Kri, and Tabon and Sibi became one; he ended the oppression of Sumanguru Kante and the Sosso around 1235 and made the Malinka the rulers of their world. To speak of the Manden is, of necessity, to evoke the time and space of Sunjata's rule: thus, the Manden is also an idea spread across West Africa.
The association is symbolic in many ways. Sunjata was the first in a line of rulers. A successor, Mansa Musa (r. 1312-1337), was far better known to...
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SOURCE: Jansen, Jan. “The Sunjata Epic—The Ultimate Version.” Research in African Literatures 32, no. 1 (spring 2001): 14-46.
[In the following essay, Jansen describes rehearsals for a Sunjata performance and explains what is missed by simply reading the text as compared with experiencing a communal performance.]
In the last decades the Sunjata epic has enjoyed much attention as a masterpiece of African oral literature; at American universities it is often part of undergraduate courses on literature or world history. The Sunjata epic is considered part of the historical heritage of the famous medieval Mali empire: already in the fourteenth century the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta heard griots praising the king of Mali as a direct descendant of Sunjata. Although it is not certain whether the memory of Sunjata had at that time already been shaped in the literary genre of the epic, it is beyond doubt that Ibn Battuta's Sunjata was the same Sunjata as recalled by present-day griots. Today, Sunjata is remembered in large parts of West Africa as the founder of “Mande” or “Manding.” Although present-day Mande is but a small region around Kangaba—100 kilometers southwest of Mali's capital, Bamako—in the context of the Sunjata epic, “Mande” has a much broader meaning for the West African audience and is similar to “society” or “the civilized world” in general. Thus...
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Camara, Seydou. “The Epic of Sunjata: Structure, Preservation, and Transmission.” In In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Oral Epic as History, Literature, and Performance, edited by Ralph A. Austen, pp. 59-68. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Offers observations gleaned from a performance of Sunjata in a small African village.
Conrad, David C. “A Town Called Dakajalan: The Sunjata Tradition and the Question of Ancient Mali's Capital.” The Journal of African History 35 (1994): 355-77.
Takes issue with the general conviction that Niani was the capital of medieval Mali.
———, ed. Introduction to Epic Ancestors of the Sunjata Era: Oral Traditions from the Maninka of Guinea, pp. 1-14. Madison, Wis.: African Studies Program, 1999.
Examines the impact that widely-circulating cassette tape recordings have had on the Sunjata tradition.
Jansen, Jan. “Masking Sunjata: A Hermeneutical Critique.” History in Africa 27 (2000): 131-41.
Argues that taking a strictly literary approach to the study of the Sunjata is too limiting.
Wilks, Ivor. “The History of the Sunjata Epic: A Review of the Evidence.” In In Search of Sunjata: The Mande Oral...
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