Magic and Sorcery Sundiata

The story of Sundiata is a semi-historical account of the founding of the Mali Empire, in it the main protagonist Sundiata was supposedly an individual of great spiritual power who used this power to defeat his foes and unite the people of Mali into a prosperous empire. It is one of the most culturally significant epics (Wright, p. 389), and while it is true that there was an individual by the name of Sundiata who founded the Mali empire the reason why the story of Sundiata or rather the epic of Sundiata is called a semi-historical account is due to the fact that it blends elements of magic and sorcery with historical fact. Several scenes present within the story allude to the special nature of the protagonist from the prophecy of his birth that would supposedly make him the king of Mali (Pasachoff, p. 150), his supposed possession of strange mystical powers that enabled him to defeat his rivals who possessed powers of their own, and finally to the use of special totems that supposedly enabled a person to possess special qualities that made them powerful on the battlefield (Niane, p. 52).

When read closely, the epic of Sundiata can actually come to be interpreted as possessing religious connotations. At the time of its creation the region was undergoing a religious transformation and as such, certain parts of the story when examined closely show the influences of this transformation. The story though originating from a male dominated culture shows how women are an integral part of the life of Sundiata and were among one of the main reasons why he came to be and were behind his rise to power. The most interesting aspect to note is that his sisters were sorceresses. The epic of Sundiata can also be said to be similar to other forms of ancient epics such as those found in Greek literature such as Achilles and Odysseus (Bastian, p. 167). Thus, it must be observed that the connotations of magic, sorcery, prophecy and religion are all found intermingled in the heroic epic of Sundiata.

Religion and Sundiata
Though it may not be explicitly stated in the epic there are actually religious connotations present in the tale. Africa at the time of Sundiata was actually undergoing a period of religious transformation wherein Islam had taken root among its many indigenous groups, collectively referred to as the Mande (D. Conrad). The father of Sundiata, Maghan, was actually an Islamic convert. Through the marriage of Maghan, an Islamic, and Sugalon, a representation of the traditional mysticism of Africa, we see that the combination of the two creates a strong individual who leads the region to greatness. Since Sundiata is an epic that came into being orally, carried through by poems, plays and stories (Jansen p. 131). African beliefs about magic and spirituality are riddled with a rich and deep body of mythology. Stories that can attest to the amazing oral tradition of the Griots (Niane), similar to the one mentioned in the tale of Sundiata, who have shared it orally from young to old alike throughout the many centuries  (Jansen, The Sunjata Epic The Ultimate version, p. 14-16 ).

With oral traditions, sometimes those telling them tend to embellish certain parts which explain why there are instances in the epic wherein Sundiata supposedly annihilated dozens of men with just one sweep of his sword which seems highly unlikely. There are even times when storytellers add and remove parts in order to convey a message that they themselves want to impart. Fakoli, Sundiatas general for example, is routinely missing from text (D. Conrad, Searching for History in the Sunjata Epic The Case of Fakoli, p. 155).

Sundiatas mother perhaps was never hunch backed or ugly nor did she probably possess mystical powers, rather the story teller at the time probably included these qualities to show that the marriage between African mysticism and the religion of Islam could produce greatness. In the end it did since the relationship between the region and Islam did result in several years of prosperity for the region (Jansen, The Sunjata Epic The Ultimate version, p. 14-17). An interesting observation in the story is the portrayal of Sundiatas mother and father the portrayals in themselves also contain significance.

If we assume that the storyteller in this instance was a Griot Islamic convert then the portrayal of Maghan as being handsome and Sogolon as being ugly could come to be interpreted as Maghan representing the greatness of Islam and Sogolon representing the current state of the region that by combining the two, greatness for the entire region could be achieved. Also, evidenced by the death of Sogolon when Sundiata was about to go to war and claim his destiny, that fact could also be interpreted as a dying of the old ways to be replaced by the new.

Importance of women and the intertwined images of sorcery in the epic of Sundiata
Though African society is a male dominated culture the women in the epic of Sundiata played important roles from the start of the epic all the way to the struggle for power and leading to the conclusion which was the victory of Sundiata. It can be said that if it were not for the women in the life of Sundiata he would not have become the lion king of Mali, in fact he wouldnt have even been born at all (Pasachoff, p. 151). As a proof, the epic begins with the future father of Sundiata, Maghan Kon Fatta, sitting under a silk-cotton tree when he is told a prophecy by a hunter who had given him a portion of his kill (Kunene, p. 212).The hunter states that the king will marry an ugly hunch backed woman that will be brought to him by two hunters however it is through that woman that a son will be born to him that will rule over the entire region (Pasachoff, p. 150).

From this and the succeeding events of the hunters being guided by the spirit of the buffalo woman enabling them to kill the rampaging buffalo and their subsequent presentation of the hunch backed woman Sogolon to Maghan it can be seen that it was through the subtle machinations of women in the form of a womans spirit that guided the hunters that lead to the birth of Sundiata (Kunene).

If it was not for the spirit guiding the hunters they would not have been able to kill the buffalo and take Sogolon to Maghan. From this it can be seen that though it was not intentional it was through the kings first wife Sassouma that Sundiata found a reason to walk after many years of crawling on the ground (by fashioning a steel rod for assistance). Sassouma herself could even be said to be one of the primary reasons why Sundiata became what he did for if it was not through her actions of having him exiled then Sundiata probably would not have been able to travel extensively the way he did and learn the skills and wisdom needed to defeat Soumaoro. The last contribution of a woman in the epic of Sundiata is through his sister Nana Triban. It is through her that he learns that Soumaoros totem animal was the cock and by using the animal Sundiata would be able to defeat Soumaoro.

King Soumaoro put ample reliance on his weapon of sorcery, the power of which grew during Sundiatas days in exhile (Kunene, p. 219). Sundiata countered the same with his version of magic, fashioning an arrow with a white cocks spur on the tip which he used to defeat Soumaro, thereby ridding Soumaoro of all his sorcery. Thus from start to finish it can be seen that Sundiatas life even before he was born has been influenced by women and magic, and it is through them that he was able to become the lion king of Mali (Niane).

Though the tale shows the importance of women it does have a hidden meaning regarding women which is not immediately apparent. From the epic it is well known that Sassouma hates Sundiata and wishes him nothing but ill will and death and takes steps to bring this about. Ironically, it is through her that Sundiata actually achieves his goal and becomes the lion king of Mali  (Niane). If it was not for her actions during Sundiatas youth which resulted in his exile he would not have been able to gain the wisdom and achievements needed to make him what he was.

Moreover, it was due to this exile that he was able to be part of the court of Moussa Tounkara who gave him half of the Mema army which enabled him to gather more men to defeat Soumaoro  (Kunene, p. 216-217). It was also through Sassoumas own daughter, Nana Triban, that Sundiata was able to learn the weakness of Soumaoro. From all these events the hidden meaning becomes obvious even if a woman wishes ill will and death upon a man the man, by divine will or right, will still triumph over the woman. Though woman are important in the tale of Sundiata his inadvertent victory over Sassouma without even trying shows that the tale is engulfed in the African concept of male superiority over women.

Similarities with Stories from Greek Mythology
The story of Sundiata actually has similarities to that of two pieces of ancient Greek literature namely that of the Odyssey and Oedipus. While the story of Sundiata may not contain parts wherein he kills his father and marries his mother, a familiar theme in the stories of Sundiata and Oedipus is the importance placed on fate and destiny. In both stories before they were even born their destinies were already prophesized and both fathers believed in the power of prophecy. It is at this point where the similarities in both fathers end since in the case of the father of Sundiata he believed wholeheartedly in the power of prophecy and fate that some things were inevitable and inescapable so much so that he married an ugly woman just to conform to the prophecy of him bearing a son through her (Pasachoff, p. 150-151). The father of Oedipus also believed in the power of prophecy however he believed that destiny could be changed and took steps to ensure that the destiny of Oedipus would not come to pass by leaving him to die on a mountain when he was a baby (Hamilton). It must be noted though that the reason why the father of Sundiata believed wholeheartedly in the prophecy might be because it was mostly positive and having several wives in Africa was normal so much so that having an extra ugly one would not be an inconvenience however in the case of the father of Oedipus it was mostly negative and meant his death. In such a case it is understandable that a person would fight fate even if they believed in the power of it.

In the case of the similarity of Sundiata and Odysseus both protagonists experienced a long journey before they were able to go back to their homes and both were indebted to Kings for helping them when they were lost. In the case of Sundiata it was King Mousa Tunkara the king of Mema who gave him refuge when he was in self imposed exile while in the case of Odysseus it was the King of the Phaeacians that helped him get back home by giving him a ship to get there (Hamilton, p. 202). One other similarity between the two is the use of a bow and arrow to win their own perspective trials. In the case of Odysseus he used a bow to shoot an arrow through 12 rings set in a line during a competition to defeat the suitors who were attempting to court his wife in the belief that he was dead (Hamilton, p. 217). While in the case of Sundiata, it was through the use of an arrow wrapped in the tail feather of a white rooster that enabled him to defeat the sorcerer Sumanguru.


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