The epic of Sundiata begins with the introduction of the griot, and narrator Mamadu Kouyate. Throughout the epic, the importance of the griot is stressed numerous times. When speaking of griots Mamadu Kouyate states that, we are the repositories which harbor secrets many centuries old. The art of eloquence has no secrets for us; without us the names of kings would vanish into oblivion, we are the memory of mankind (Niane). It was through oral reciting that the epic was passed along for generations.
Though in todays society, information has taken on new mediums, it is just as important to the culture of today as it was to the culture of the Mandingo . Cultures change, but many of the things that comprise them remain constant. One of the elements of culture that has changed very little in value is religion. One can derive from the epic the importance of religion to the people of the Keita Dynasty . Specifically, the religions of Islam and Traditional African Religion are alluded to throughout the epic.
In one of the first references to the Islamic religion Sogolon Kedjon, Sundiatas mother, states that the fortified town of Sosso was the bulwark of fetishism against the word of Allah (Niane 41). Previous to this statement thought, the reader is bombarded with illusions of sorcery, witchcraft and prophets. In the culture of old Mali, the two belief systems coincided somewhat, but both were still used. It has been offered that, although Islam was a major component in the creation of the old Mali, it was only used as a myth to legitimate the divine powers of the ruler .
This might help to explain why Islam is alluded to so late in the epic, whereas traditional African religious themes are recurrent throughout the epic. A very large part of Traditional African Religion in old Mali is predestination of fate. The narrator does not allow one to forget the ever important role that destiny plays in the story. The griot states in the epic that each man finds his way already marked out for him and he can change nothing of it (Niane 15). It is this belief that encompasses The Epic of Sundiata.
Knowledge of his destiny gives Sundiata the strength to persevere during hardship, and the ability to discount the confidence of his opponents as quixotic misguidance. In doing so, Sundiata Keita sets the example for the people of his culture to follow. Strong nationalistic feelings flow throughout the epic, and to some degree The epic of Sundiata appeals to the particularized Malinke spirit (Sullivan 204). If anything, the epic commands that those whom read it respect the greatness of old Mali and the kings that once ruled it. One cannot help but to be impressed with the strength of Sundiata and his people.
The Mandingo people also marveled at Sundiatas ability to hunt and his prowess in battle. Most all of the characters in the epic that are hunters or warriors are viewed as virtuous members of society. Maghan Kon Fatta and his kinsmen spoke of the hunter that prophesized the coming of Sogolon as “righteous. ” Because hunting is of such importance to the culture, hunting imagery is prevalent throughout the epic. Sundiata is referred to as Simbon or great hunter when the griot wants to bring about nationalistic feelings in the reader or listener . Within the domain of hunting and waging war, respect is given to those whom are fearless as well.
Fearlessness is the conjoining emotion between the hunters and warriors. On the other hand, fear is also one of the separating factors of men and women. Gender roles play a large part in The Epic of Sundiata. Early on, the text establishes that women in the Mandingo culture are to submit to the wishes of the men around them. One can hardly turn the page without reading about a woman being given to a king, either to pay homage, or to help one gain favor in the eyes of the king. However, one must be sensitive to the era and culture in which the epic takes place.
The men in the epic view women as weak. Sundiata even goes far enough to say that, ‘a woman trembles before a man (Niane 32). In a civilization in which hunting and warring are so dominant, and physical strength is looked upon very favorably, it understandable that women are looked down upon because they are somewhat physically inept. One must also understand that the religious beliefs of the culture influence the text. Women in the Islamic religion have somewhat submissive roles. In the epic, the physical strength of the woman may be looked down upon, but the value of the woman is respected.
The mental strength of the woman is an essential element of The Epic of Sundiata. In particular, the strength of Sogolon and Nana Triban are paramount to the success of Sundiata. Sogolons strength is evident throughout the epic. From the time that she is given the name the buffalo woman to the time that she carries her family across Mali to Ghana, Sogolon remains the center of strength for the Keita family. Though one does not encounter Nana Tribans character until late in the epic, she as well uses her mental strength to forward Sundiatas cause.
When her weak brother, Dankaran Touman gave her to Soumaoro, the nefarious conqueror against whom Sundiata was fighting, she outwitted him by gaining his confidence and exploiting it. Nana was able to find out Soumaoros weakness and relay it to Sundiata. One can synthesize from the actions of Nana and Sogolon that although the role of the woman in old Mali was silent it was very much influential. The culture of old Mali has now since passed away. It reached its zenith under the rule of Mansa Kankan Musa in the early 1300s.
After the rule of Mansa Kankan Musa, the Kingdom of Mali was slowly chipped away until the ruler of Morocco sent in an army in 1591 to destroy what remained of old Mali. None-the-less, much of the culture lives on through The Epic of Sundiata. Many of the ideals in the epic can still be identified with in todays culture. Many children, including Malian children generally enjoy hearing about the period of exile, which is a happy time that includes adventures, such as seeing the sights of the old imperial capital, having an audience with the ruler of Ghana at Wagadu (Roth 79).
In addition, many of the elements of the epic that gave it appeal hundreds of years ago still give it appeal today; it is what makes the epic great. The timeless themes of adventure and conquest are what capture ones interest even today in the mediums of movies and televisions. It is partially these elements that have allowed the Epic of Sundiata and the cultural values of old Mali to endure time, and the extinction of the griot.