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Literature / The Epic Of Sundiata

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"Took up the bow!"
"Simbon, Master-of-the-Bush!"
"Took up the bow!"
"Took up the bow!"
"Simbon, Master-of-the-Beasts!"
"Took up the bow!"
"Took up the bow!"
"Ruler of bards and smiths!"
Hymn to the Bow

The Epic of Sundiata is the most famous work of Mande oral literature. Set in the early 13th century, it surrounds the life and adventures of the first "Mansa" or emperor of Mali named Sundiata (more accurately Sogolon Djata or Sunjata). Across the Western Sudan region and even into the forests of Upper Guinea, numerous Mande and non-Mande peoples recall the age of unification and prestige in Imperial Mali. Numerous local traditions within medieval Mali's former sphere of influence link themselves to Sundiata Keita for enhanced socio-political legitimacy.

In the aftermath of the Ghana empire's defeat by the Almoravid Berbers and reduction to vestigial rump state, a new power arose in the west: the Sosso kingdom of Kaniaga. Said to be ruled by a dark wizard of terrible power named Sumanguru Kante, Kaniaga devoured its neighbors one by one. Sumanguru's bane would be a Mandinka prince named Sundiata who was born paraplegic. After a miraculous healing, Sundiata would grow into an exceptionally courageous and meritorious leader.

After being driven into exile with his family, Sundiata returns to the land of Manden many years later on the pleas of the Mandinka people. Sundiata gathers allies and engages in many clashes with lord Sumanguru, culminating in final victory at the battle of Kirina through a magic arrow. After the establishment of Mali, Sundiata and his companions have many more episodic adventures.

The Epic of Sundiata uses the following tropes:

  • Abdicate the Throne: Dankaran Touman had no problem with this when he realized Sumanguru was coming for him.
  • The Ace: Sundiata is the greatest hunter, warrior, king, and magician.
  • Achilles' Heel: Sumanguru Kanté's was the spur of a white rooster, his totem. Sundiata used one as the point of an arrow. A common theme in Mande heroic legend was figuring out an opponent's magical weakness.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Sundiata may be referred to as Sunjata, Son-Jara, or Sogolon Djata while Sumanguru is called either Sumaworo or Soumaoro.
  • And I Must Scream: The fate of Sumanguru Kante, in some versions, transformed into stone but fully conscious. In other versions, he just flees the battlefield and "disappears".
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: Subverted but then played straight by Sumanguru. He was eager to jump Sogolon Kolokon immediately, but his mother warned him that many men have ruined themselves by spilling secrets to a "one-night woman". So he married her and THEN ruined himself by spilling all his secrets.
  • Animorphism: Sumanguru can transform into a coucal.
  • Annoying Arrows: For Sumanguru, considering they turned to raindrops on contact with him. Not so much when exploiting the supernatural power of his totem. He was also fond of using the Arrow Catch to demoralize his foes.
  • Arrow Catch: Maghan the Handsome effortlessly caught the arrow Sogolon Konde shot at him when she was brought to his chambers to consummate the marriage. He quipped "Thank you for the toothpick, Konde-woman. My teeth are full of meat from sorcery.". Then he caught a spear she threw at him and said "Oh look, your walking stick has a little hat!". Their child would be Sundiata.
  • Attempted Rape: The hunters Dan Massa Wulani and Dan Massa Wulamba try to force themselves on Sogolon Konde but are repelled when she sprouts lion claws and mauls them. In other tellings she sprouts quills from her body to keep them at bay.
  • Badass Boast: Sumanguru and Sundiata have a boasting contest
  • The Blacksmith: Sumanguru Kanté was actually part of this caste. Partly explaining his supernatural abilities.
  • Blood Magic: Sundiata made offerings to the gods of 100 white animals of many species.
  • The Bully: Sassouma Berete to poor Sogolon Konde. Verbal abuse, rumor spreading, sending her to live in a hovel away from the court, and attempting to murder her with sorcery.
  • Bullying the Disabled: Sassouma Berete mocked Sundiata for his disability and ugliness when he was a child.
  • The Chosen One: Sundiata’s destiny was predicted long before he was born by both friends and foes. Even his birth was heralded by two colliding storms in the middle of the dry season.
  • The Coup: Sumanguru Kanté was very successful against the vestigial Ghana empire.
  • The Evil Prince: Dankaran Touman was a cruel and cowardly ruler that not only stole the crown from his brother Sundiata but also tried to have him murdered.
  • Fear Is the Appropriate Response: Dislike Dankaran Touman all you want. A sane ordinary person doesn't boldly confront an infamous sorcerer-king who has a trophy room of kings' skulls, owls, a monster snake, and covered in tapestries of human skin, and owns a witch-ring, controls weather, destroyed nine kingdoms, and is rumored to be the son of a powerful spirit.
  • The Federation: The twelve doors of Mali under Sundiata was a coalition of states with Niani as first among equals.
  • Folk Hero: Sundiata, naturally. The whole story is about how he founded the Mali Empire.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Sassouma Berete was as cruel as she was a worthless Queen-Mother.
  • The Grotesque: Sogolon Konde was very ugly. She was a short bald hunchback covered in warts. Her feet were crooked and her breasts were oversized. One buttock was higher than the other and her limbs were all mismatched in size, not to mention she had knock knees. One of her tear ducts was torn so she constantly had watering eyes.
  • Guardian Entity: Each clan had a totem or "tana" which was said to have a mutually protective relationship with them. Sogolon Konde had two totems which were what made her so formidable.
    • People generally tried to keep their totem secret when dealing with strangers to prevent magic from being worked against them. Sumanguru was defeated this way.
    • Sundiata was powerful because he had three totems inherited from his parents: Lion, Buffalo, and Leopard.
  • Guile Hero: Sogolon Kolokon using her wiles on Sumanguru. Manding Bori convincing the 9 witches of Manden that Sundiata was more useful in human shape.
  • Heroic Seductress: Sogolon Kolokon is instrumental in defeating Sumanguru Kante by seducing him.
  • Hijacked by Jesus: Hijacked by Muhammad is more accurate. Over time the mythos was reconfigured to fit in with Islamic cosmology. Sundiata came to be seen as champion of Allah over paganism, despite being quite unrepentantly pagan in actual history. His benefactor is changed from Faro to Allah (or at least Mangala) in some tellings.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Historically, Sumanguru was a ruler of the Sosso people who tried to conquer the Mandinka and other kingdoms. He may have actually been as cruel as he's portrayed in the epic, but he definitely wasn't an evil sorcerer in real life.
  • Human Sacrifice: Subverted in the case of Maghan the Handsome against Sogolon Konde. A griot suggested he scare her into submission. So he advanced on her with a dagger and pretended to think he needed to sacrifice her to get his prophesied son. Sogolon passed out and Maghan's lion spirit overcame.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Sogolon Konde sprayed scalding hot breastmilk at Maghan the Handsome. He told her "What a gift! I needed some warm breast milk to wash my face with."
  • Intangible Man: One of Sumanguru’s more frustrating abilities. When the Mandinka threw spears at him they passed through as if he was the wind.
  • It's Personal: In some versions the nine kings Sumanguru kills and mutilates are the older brothers of Sundiata.
  • Miracle Food: Fakoli's wife Keleya Konkon could produce more food from her one pot than several hundred of Sumanguru's wives could. His uncle Sumanguru kidnapped her to sustain his armies and married her for himself.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: Sumanguru Kante could not be harmed by any physical force and nearly all magic, unless stabbed with a rooster spur.
  • Sorcerous Overlord: Sumanguru is an evil wizard who takes over the kingdom.
  • Superpower Lottery: Sumanguru has the powers of Teleportation, Intangible Man, Animorphism, and Nigh-Invulnerability.
  • Teleportation: Sumanguru pulled this off to make hasty escapes.
  • Throwing Off the Disability: For the majority of his childhood, Sundiata was unable to walk. After his father dies and Dankaran takes the throne, Sundiata miraculously gains the ability to walk, and becomes a mighty hunter and warrior.
  • Wicked Stepmother: A variation, as Sassouma was already married to King Maghan and had her own son who she obviously wanted to become king, before Maghan heard the prophecy and married Sogolon. However, this is Sundiata's story, so she's a villain.
  • Youngest Child Wins: Sundiata was the younger son of the old king, and also born to his junior wife Sogolon.