Front book cover of "Sundiata."

Epic of Sundiata (also known as the Sundiata Keita or the Sundiata Epic) is an epic poem which tells the story of Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire. The story originated in the 14th century in present-day Mali, and was passed down through oral history by generations of griots (men who served as poets and historians) of the Mandinka people of Africa. As a result of being passed as an oral tradition until modern times, there is not a single authoritative version of the story, and many embellishments, such as the frequent usage of magic, have become central to the story.

The most frequently accepted version of the written story came from an effort in the 19th century to provide a physical writing of the oral history. In the early 19th century, the French school, École William Ponty (The William Ponty School) began collecting documents and other material related to the story. The story was the assembled and translated into French by Djibril Tamsir Niana, a historian, after studying these findings and recording the oral history from Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate, a griot. Niana would publish his French translation in 1960, and an English translation was published in 1965. Niana's version would become the most internationally accepted version of the story.

Historical context

The epic focuses on the exploits of Sundiata Keita (1217-1255), who was the real-life founder of the Mali Empire. He was raised in Niana, or present-day Guinea. His father was Naré Maghann Konaté, also known as Maghan Konfara, king of the Mandinka. Sundiata Keita was the second son of his father, who had taken multiple wives. Following the fall of the Ghana Empire sometime in the 12th century, several smaller kingdoms expanded outwards to fill the power vacuum. The Sosso Empire to the south began to expand, as did the Mandinka people. Eventually, the Sosso Empire would invade the Mandinka Kingdom. Sometime before this, Sundiata was exiled by his older half-brother, who had been crowned king after the death of their father. Sundiata returned from exile to create a coalition of the Mandinka Kingdom and several smaller surrounding kingdoms and, with this newfound military alliance, drove out the invading Sosso invasion, marched to the Sosso Empire's capital of Sosso, and burned the city to the ground. Sundiata then proclaimed himself Mansa, or the king of kings. Following this victory, the conquered lands and allied kingdoms were joined with the Mandinka Kingdom to form the Mali Empire.


Naré Maghann Konaté, king of the Mandinka, resides in his palace in the city of Niani. He is visited by a hunter with mystical powers of prophesy, who informs the king that if he marries an ugly woman brought to him by two hunters, their child will become a great and powerful ruler. Later, two brothers, who are hunters, arrive with an ugly woman, offering her to the king. They tell of a monstrous buffalo that was terrorizing a distant land named Do. As a reward for showing kindness to an old woman in this land, she reveals to the hunters that she is in fact the buffalo in human form, and instructs them on how to kill her, as her revenge against the king of that land has been completed. She asks only that they take the ugliest woman they can find in the kingdom as their reward, as she will bring greatness to the man who marries her. The older brother chooses the ugly woman, known as Sogolon, and leave the city. It is decided that the woman with such a promise of greatness attached to her is more suited for the king.

The King and Sogolon are married. Sogolon initially resists the consummation of her marriage, but is able to overcome her spirit of resistance when he suggests that he misread her prophesy and that she might be intended as a virginal sacrifice. The marriage is consummated, and Sundiata is conceived that night.

The child is slow, and by age of three, is still unable to walk. Sassouma Bérété, the king's first wife, mocks Sogolon, comparing her son with the successes of her somewhat older son. The king has a daughter and another son with Sogolon, thinking that perhaps Sundiata is not the one mentioned in the prophesy, but a seer assures him that Sundiata is the son who will do great things for Mali. At the age of seven, Sundiata still cannot walk, but his father places faith in him, and gives him Balla Fasséké, the son of his griot, to serve Sundiata as a griot of his own. 

Soon after, the king dies, and Sassouma Bérété ensures her son takes the throne, against the wishes of the king. Sundiata, still being unable to walk, can do nothing about his stolen birthright. However, after Sologon is embarrassed by Sassouma Bérété one day, Sundiata calls for an iron rod, and uses it to prop himself up and begins walking, and proves his strength by pulling out a tree by the roots and replanting it outside his mother's house. Sassouma Bérété, fearing for her son's reign, has Sundiata and his immediate family banished. Sundiata and his family travel from kingdom to kingdom, but are often turned out after a short time, at the request of Sassouma Bérété, who the monarchs do not wish to anger. However, Sundiata impresses all those he meets, and learns much of the world and its customs on his travels. At Mema, Sundiata spends some time with Moussa Tounkara, who acts as a father figure for Sundiata and teaches him the ways of war. Tounkara hopes to make Sundiata his heir. 

Sundiata learns of the evil sorcerer king Soumaoro Kanté, who is slowly conquering all the kingdoms in Mali. After his home city of Niani falls to Kanté, Sundiata vows to retaliate. Although Tounkara is reluctant to watch his potential heir go, he gives his blessings and places half of his army under Sundiata's command. Sundiata makes his way towards the city of Niani, forging alliances with the kingdoms he visits during his exile, and swelling the ranks of his army. 

Sundiata and Kanté meet in battle. Sundiata is able to defeat Kanté's armies but the man himself is invincible due to his magic. The soothsayers advise Sundiata to make a sacrifice in hopes of obtaining spiritual aid. Sundiata's half-sister and his griot arrive in the camp, having escaped the city. His half-sister reveals that she was forced to marry Kanté, but in doing so learned his secret. The rooster is Kanté's sacred animal, and thus the source of his power. Sundiata crafts an arrow with a rooster's spur at the tip, and wounds Kanté in the next day's battle, robbing the sorcerer king of his magical power. Along with Kanté's nephew, Fakoli, who has turned against his uncle for robbing him of his wife, Sundiata pursues Kanté and traps him in a cave. He then vanquishes the armies of those kings who remained loyal to Kanté.

After the battle, Sundiata reclaims his rightful role as king, and announces the formation of the Mali Empire. However, he tells the kings who aided him that they will keep their thrones and power as a reward for their loyalty. The kingdoms will be united in a single cause under the banner of the Mali Empire, with Sundiata at its head.

The story ends with the griot who is narrating praising Sundiata and the Mali Empire, and remarking that while the remainders of history are everywhere, only a griot can know everything.

External links

  • The first 47 pages of the Epic of Sundiata on Missouri State University's website.
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