Discuss the role of women in Sundiata, Popul Vuh, and Paradise Lost.

Quick answer:

The women in Sundiata, like those in Paradise Lost and the Popol Vuh, are defined by their relationships to men, most significantly as the mothers of great men or, in the case of Eve, the entire human race.

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This is a complex subject for a short essay, particularly since you have three epic texts to consider. You will only be able to cover a few key points. In Sundiata, several important considerations arise early on, after the recitation of the Kings of Mali. The first woman mentioned in the poem is Sogolon, of whom the hunter tells King Maghan:

Oh that woman! She is ugly, she is hideous, and she bares on her back a disfiguring hump ... but, mystery of mysteries, this is the woman you must marry, sire, for she will be the mother of him who will make the name of Mali immortal forever.

First, Sogolon is evaluated solely by her physical appearance. Second, she is only important because she is fated to marry the king. Third, even this is subordinate to her role as mother of an even greater king. The same is true of Eve in Paradise Lost. Unlike Sogolon, Eve is beautiful, but even her beauty is less important than her role as mother of mankind, and her subordination to Adam. Milton makes their inequality, and Eve's lesser role, very clear:

Not equal, as their sex not equal seem’d;
For contemplation hee and valor form’d,
For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
Hee for God only, shee for God in him...

The Popol Vuh, like Sundiata and Paradise Lost, is dominated by men, and women are mainly seen as mothers and daughters. Xquiq is the most considerable female character, and her importance quickly diminishes after she has given birth to the Hero Twins, Hunahpu, and Xbalanque. The importance of female virtue is emphasized in Xquiq's banishment when she becomes pregnant, though the narrative reveals that she is still a virgin, having been impregnated by the improbable process of a skull spitting on her from a calabash tree. The Popol Vuh therefore defines women through their relationships with men in a similar way to the other two epics.

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Thanks for the interesting and complex question! I have never read the Popul Vuh, but I am familiar with both Sundiata and Paradise Lost, so perhaps I can provide some aid with those two works.

As you craft your essay, I highly suggest focusing on a single aspect of womanhood or female power in these narratives. Comparing and contrasting the three significant literary works in the span of four or five paragraphs is a difficult task! Narrowing your topic to a manageable scope will be essential for your success. I think the best way to do this is either to compare a specific character from each narrative or to contrast a specific aspect of womanhood that many of the female characters possess in these works.

If you choose the character route, there is a plethora of options to choose from because all three stories are so expansive. For example, you could contrast the Buffalo Woman of Sundiata with the character of Sin in Paradise Lost, as both are physically monstrous, and both wield significant supernatural power. Alternatively, you could juxtapose Eve’s betrayal of God and her husband, Adam, in Milton’s poem with Nana Triban, who betrays her husband, Suomaoro. There are several other options you could select in this vein.

A second option for narrowing your paper is to focus on a specific feminine commonality in the three narratives. One possibility to explore could be that the primary female characters in both Sundiata and Paradise Lost display significant degrees of mystical potential. Milton’s Urania is a muse that inspires the poetry of the angels, while Sassouma’s machinations arguably motivate Sundiata’s rise to power. I hope this provides some food for thought as you proceed with your paper. Good luck!

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