The epic tale of Sundiata dates back to thirteenth century West Africa. While there is no single historical or authoritative version, the oral tale passed down by generations of griot poets is loosely based on the historical Sundiata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire.
The story has many elements of the archetypal hero’s journey as outlined in the work of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. For example, the hero being called to adventure is the first stage of the hero’s journey. Sundiata is marked for greatness before birth when a soothsayer prophesies that his father, Nare Maghann Konate, will marry an ugly woman who will bear him a son destined to become a mighty king.
The initiation in which the hero crosses a threshold into a more dangerous world and matures corresponds to Sundiata’s period of exile in the Mema kingdom when he gains training to become a great warrior. In this seven year period, Sundiata experiences the “road of trials,” proving himself through tests of strength, wisdom, and bravery. Ultimately, Sundiata faces the “innermost cave,” which proves to be his greatest trial. He faces the sorcerer-king Soumaoro to gain the throne of his home Mali Empire. He must show humility in accepting the help of spirits and magic in order to defeat this foe. The final stage of the hero’s journey, “return and reintegration with society,” occurs when Sundiata lives up to his destiny in restoring order to his kingdom.
At the beginning of the story, before his conception, Sundiata's birth is prophesied to his father in classic epic fashion. On behalf of the buffalo woman, his lineage is half mortal, half divine, a typical genealogy for heroes in world myths (e.g., Hercules, Orpheus, Arjuna, Cú Chullain, even Wonder Woman).
Despite having a physical impairment, Sundiata wields unnatural strength, intelligence, and kindness that distinguish him as a child. However, his father's first wife schemes to place her cruel son on the throne. This plot point (the wrong man on the throne, and our hero without one) is a classic narrative arc for any hero's quest—giving us a protagonist, an antagonist, and a magnetic pull driving the hero onward with a sense of destiny surrounding them. He conquers his enemy with magical weapons (an arrow tipped with a magic rooster's claw) and allies, and his triumphant placement on the throne begins an age of prosperity and happiness for his people.
Sundiata has many of the characteristics we encounter in other heroes of oral epic. First, he is of noble birth and is a character greater and more powerful than ordinary humans. Before he is born, prophecies foretell of his birth, which is surrounded by unusual circumstances. He faces adversity from childhood with his inability to walk. In his efforts to develop the ability to walk, we see extraordinary strength and will power.
Rather than inherit his kingdom immediately, he undergoes trials and exile which enable him to demonstrate strength in adversity. His struggles to obtain his legitimate position as king after the throne is usurped by his brother are not simply a selfish power grab but also are evidence of loyalty to his mother and concern for the people of his kingdom. Sundiata eventually develops great physical strength (again, typical of the epic hero) and conquers first individuals and then kingdoms in his quest to achieve his destiny.
The epic itself emphasizes the virtue of hospitality and of building up networks of favor exchange as essential to being a good ruler. Loyalty is another trait Sundiata demonstrates that is both characteristic of the epic hero and of the lessons epics teach.