When reading an epic like Sundiata, the reader must realize that the tale was designed to be performed for a certain audience at a specific time. Most stories that we read today have one, fixed version. However, Sundiata is an oral tale, carefully passed down through the centuries by a segment of African society charged with preserving the collective memory. Many different tribes will have griots that tell the story slightly differently, from the perspective of their own people's history. For instance, we would not expect the griots of Soumaoro's descendants to tell of the battle of Krina in the same manner as do the Kouyates, griots to Sundiata's ancestral line. In addition, different griots in the same family will have various strengths, some perhaps preferring to leave out battle scenes while others relish in the gory details. Likewise, the same griot may tailor his or her story to various audiences. If one of Manding Bory's descendants is the guest of honor, perhaps the griot will emphasize his role in Sundiata's reign. No two oral versions of Sundiata will ever be the same.
However, Sundiata is a living history text. The story tells of the beginning of the high-point of the great African empire of Mali. Still performed today, the epic conveys to the people of Mali where they came from and what makes them special. The goal of the storyteller is not necessarily to tell the facts of history in a concise and meticulous fashion. Rather, like the author of a literary text, the aim of the griot is to please the audience at the same time that he or she instructs. This technique involves, of course, attention to aesthetic properties of speech, including metaphor, descriptive passages and building to climactic moments. The content, too, is subject to manipulation in the repertoire of the well-trained oral historian. While the backbone of the tale remains constant, slight changes in the content can pique the audience's interest. The "truth" of history takes a backseat at times to artistic production.
In fact, Christopher Miller maintains, factual truth always gives way to the creativity of the griot. Miller notes that in Malinke society silence is revered. Kings and noblemen, therefore, show their status by maintaining silence whenever possible. The griot caste functions in society precisely to allow the speech necessary and desirable for social interaction to take place. The griot speaks for the king on occasions where public speaking is needed, such as speeches, judicial declarations, and historical recitations. Because the griot is so gifted with words, his status is ambiguous. He has power to create or recite the history of important deed, yet by speaking aloud he has lowered himself. His rhetorical agility leads the Malinke to suspect his every word, and yet his pronouncements carry important weight. For instance, if the oral historian says that a piece of property was given to someone by another's ancestor, his words are often heeded.
Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate's task in recounting the story of Sundiata has very real implications for today. Because the epic is about origins, the tale treats carefully the people and places where each event occurred. As if to answer questions that members of the audience might ask, the epic provides the genealogy of the mighty Keita clan and the feats performed by the clan and its friendly neighbors. How did the Kouyate clan come to be the griots for the ruling Keita clan, someone might inquire. Kouyate responds by telling how Sundiata's father, Maghan Kon Fatta, gave Balla Fasseke of the Kouyate family to his son as griot. Then when...
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Balla Fasseke performed extraordinary service at the battle of Krina, Sundiata decreed that the Kouyates would always be griots to the Keitas. Out of self-interest, the story of Balla Fasseke is probably always recounted when a Kouyate tells of Sundiata. By telling of his auspicious origins and authority, the griot raises the worth of both his story and his position. When a griot from Ghana tells the story ofSundiata, however, Balla Fasseke might well be altogether absent from his account.
Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate not only elevates himself in Sundiata, he does the same for many members of Malinke society. In the opening of the epic, he recounts the origin of the Keitas and the Malinke people, claiming that they are descended from the black companion of Muhammad, Bilali Bounama. Since the Malinke converted to Islam in the eleventh century, great prestige comes from having a close connection to the Prophet. The factual truth of this claimed lineage bears no significance to either the audience or the griot. The griot's word is always suspect, but it carries authority nonetheless. History once again defers to the larger goal of the griot, which in this case might be to create pride and unity among the Malinke people.
The Malinke people gain as well a sense that they are unique and special, distinct from their neighbors. Mamoudou Kouyate states his goal at the beginning of the text: "By my mouth you will get to know the story of the ancestor of great Mali, the story of him who, by his exploits, surpassed even Alexander the Great; he who, from the East, shed his rays upon all the countries of the West." When he gives their ancestor as Bilali, the griot states that the inhabitants of Mali are not indigenous, that they come from the East. They are a people blessed by the Prophet and not simply converted Muslims like those around them. Because they are not from the land they conquered and rule, they are above the other tribes. The hunter divines for Maghan Kon Fatta and reports that a light is coming from the east. This light is Sundiata, who like Bilali has a divine presence and spreads his aura among all the Malinke. Finally, when Sundiata is born the griot tells that "great clouds coming from the east hid the sun'' and a flash of lightning "lit up the whole sky as far as the west." This stormy sky mirrors the birth of Sundiata, who comes with fury from the East and gives light to an entire community.
Griot Mamoudou Kouyate is also a man of his own times. As he tells his version of the story to Niane, he incorporates his own concerns and those of his audience. Griots often include the names of their patrons in the lists of illustrious men at battles, much as Jacques Louis David painted his contemporaries into the Coronation of Emperor Napoleon and Empress Josephine (1804-07). Such additions are not considered to radically alter the account of history, but are rather whimsical touches that please the author and audience. Inspiration comes from the patronage system, which ensures that those storytellers who flatter the audience will receive the most gifts in return. As Kouyate summarizes,"the generosity of kings makes griots eloquent."
Kouyate's privileging of the East over the West, as he repeatedly gives the origin of the great Sundiata as Eastern, may well stem from the concerns of the 1950s when Niane collected the griot's words. After World War II, as the world seemed to organize itself into Eastern and Western blocs, Africa had to find its place. U.S. and Soviet interests began competing in Africa, trying to win access to rich mineral deposits. A former colony of France, Mali harbored some resentment against the intrusion of Western culture. In 1961, Mali began cooperative agreements with the Soviet Union to locate mineral deposits. Mamoudou Kouyate's insistence on the supremacy of the East over the West held not only historical significance for Mali, but also a clear message for his listeners in the late 1950s.
The epic is a living text. Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate claims that his oral history is superior to written history, for those people with a written history "do not feel the past any more, for writing lacks the warmth of the human voice." Part of feeling the past is participating in it. Sundiata allows its Malinke audience to become a part of the past. The griot creates an illustrious history for his listeners. By making reference to the present within the past, history becomes alive. The ability (and necessity) for the historical text to change with each telling is part of what makes oral history fascinating and ever-relevant. Our text of Sundiata is simply one version, rooted in a specific time and place. If and when oral history disappears from Mali, it will be a truly great loss.
Source: Lynn T. Ramey, for Epics for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
[For] each epic tradition there seems to be a central core. In the various known versions of the Sunjata epic, [there] is a clear-cut central core of thematic material. It includes events leading to the birth of the hero, the hero's youth and exile from the Mande, and the hero's return to reconquer the Mande from Sumanguru. Each major set includes a recurring number of episodes.
Underlying the various epics are, of course, many of the quasi-universal epic patterns, with many variations from culture to culture and within the same culture. To give a few examples, the epics illustrate many different cases of a miraculous conception and birth. One hero is born the same day that he was conceived, another is born after the one hundred-fifty year long pregnancy of his mother, still another is born through parthenogenesis. Some of the heroes are active and can talk while they are still in their mother's womb. They leave and reenter the womb freely and also decide autonomously the manner and moment of birth. One is born from the palm of his mother's hand, another through his mother's medius, another one by ripping her belly open. The heroes are born possessing certain gifts (the capacity to walk and talk, the foreknowledge of events, and invulnerability) and holding certain objects (knives, scepters, spears, shoulderbags). Most heroes are ready for great action right after birth, but Sunjata is weak and cannot walk for many years after his birth. There are numerous other common patterns. Herculean deeds; extraterrestrial journeys; fierce individual battles with heroes, with divinities, with animals, dragons, and monsters; possession of extraordinary magical devices; tests of strength and intelligence; games. Some of the heroes are quasi-invulnerable and invincible; others have the capacity to resuscitate themselves and to revivify others, to make themselves invisible, and so on. Whereas most of the main heroes are fierce warriors and ruthless fighters possessing superhuman strength, there are exceptions to this pattern. Mwindo, the hero of the Nyanga, is a small being; he is not a great killer or fighter; he pays great attention to revivifying his defeated enemies, and becomes, through purification in the celestial sphere, a poised, peace-minded, and balanced leader of his people.
African epics present extremely significant testimonies about the value systems and patterns of thought of African peoples. Several authors have pointed out that in the Sunjata epic the main hero is depicted as a good leader whose destiny it is to make immortal the name of the Mali Empire. He is a good leader because by going into exile he avoids bringing to a climax the intense rivalry between himself and his father's son. He returns only after the throne has been left vacant and has been usurped by a foreigner. [Some critics see] a political charter underlying the Sunjata epic: it instructs the king in how to deal with people, and the people about their rights and their duties towards the king. The king can be harsh and severe, but not unjust; he must respect the forces of love, trust, allegiance, that keep society together. In a certain sense the hero, Sunjata, is a spiritual more than a physical force.
Source: Daniel P. Biebuyck, "The African Heroic Epic," in Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World's Great Folk Epics, edited by Felix J. Oinas, Indiana University Press, 1978, pp. 336-38.