Sunjata (Fourteenth Century)


Go to Culture and Context for an overview of Africa: Epic and Empire in Mali, or go to LitQuiz for a quiz on the Gambian version of the Mande epic.



The West African epic of Sunjata, the Mande king, has been transmitted orally by professional bards called griots (or jali in the Mande languages) since at least the fourteenth century. Sunjata Keita was a historical king of the Mandean Empire during the thirteenth century, but there are few written accounts of his life. Nearly all of what is known about him comes from variations of this famous oral tale, which over the centuries spread from Mali and Guinea to regions of Senegal, Gambia, and Burkina Faso.

The tale tells of a boy born to King Makhang and one of his wives, a deformed woman named Sogolon who is believed to have magical powers. Sunjata grows up bent and crippled like his mother, but he also apparently possesses her gift, for one day, angered by an insult to her, he uproots a baobab tree and grows instantly straight and tall (in some versions of the story he grows straight simply by leaning against his mother's shoulder). Even as a boy he possesses many virtues, including humility, strength, courage, and above all filial piety. Sunjata goes on to become a great king, surrounding himself with strong warriors and wise counsel. He defeats the Susa king Sumanguru through the use of wit and magic (and with the help of his resourceful sister, who seduces Sumanguru in order to discover his greatest weakness). Sunjata unites the territories surrounding his kingdom into the strongest and richest state of Africa.

The traditional role of the griots is an essential element in the tale of Sunjata. It was the duty of these storytellers to be the official memory of their kings, and thus of their people, connecting members of the community to one another as well as to their collective past. Griots were (and still are) trained in their art from childhood, acquiring the stories and legends of their ancestors, studying the tradition of oral poetry, and learning to accompany their stories on musical instruments, such as a twenty-one-string harp, a xylophone, or a small lute. In the Sunjata story the griot Ball Foureke is the king's close advisor. Today griots no longer have kings to advise and entertain; they are now hired to perform their tales at community social functions.



Monomyth Website: Sunjata
Produced and maintained by the Office of Resources for International and Area Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, this site is an excellent first stop in one's research on Sunjata. Loaded with links to sites related to the myth of Sunjata and to African culture in general, this page also provides links to video performances and song clips. In addition, users can read background on the tale, see images from the Broadway production of The Lion King, refer to a useful plot summary, and look up characters in the Sunjata family tree.

Sunjata-the Lion King of Mali
This site includes a brief biography of the historical figure Sunjata, the king who inspired the tale. It also provides users with an overview of the history of the Mali Empire as well as information about present-day Mali.

Background to the Epic of Sundiata Keita
Another good background site, this page includes information about the geography, politics, and religion of Malinke society.

African History on the Internet: Kingdoms and Ancient Civilizations
Visit this page to find an extensive list of links to sites related to ancient African civilizations, including links to timelines, academic articles, maps, lesson plans, and libraries.