Epic, African

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Epic, African

Epic, African

The preservation of African oral history and poesy is a bardic tradition dating back to prehistory. Like the Hebrew CREATION text in GENESIS (ca. 500 B.C.), the Roman propagandist VIRGIL'S AENEID (17 B.C.), and the Persian historiographer FIRDAWSI'S The Book of Kings (ca. 1010), African compilations comprise empire building as well as HERO and quest tales, dynasty and genealogy, border strife, and economic and religious history. Among the Soninke of the southern Sahara in the Ghanian, or Wagadou Empire, which according to some sources began around A.D. 600, the Epic of Wagadu (A.D. 750) takes the form of a medieval female rescue tale. A hero in the goldfields of West Africa's first empire, Mamadi Sefa Dekhote (Mamadi the Silent) wanders through India, Yemen, Israel, and other Islamic lands east to the utopian city of Wagadu. Like the Greek hero Perseus, who snatched Andromeda from a sea monster, Mamadi saves Sia Yatabere from sacrifice to Bida, a seven-headed serpent—black with red crests—living in a well at the Ghanian capital of Kumbi. The background episodes reprise stories from Genesis and the KORAN of Jacob's trickery of Isaac as well as the needs of the empire for magical sources of water during seven drought years, a parallel to the biblical account in EXODUS of Joseph's husbandry of Egyptian grain during a famine. The lack of a pure hero implies compromise in the Ghanian Empire (present-day Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal), where fragmented clans negotiate strategies for coexisting on a harsh land. In cinema form, Mauritanian scenarist Moussa Diagana's la Legende du Wagadu vue par Sia Yatabere (The legend of Wagadu seen by Sia Yatabere, 2001) describes a palace coup. The rescue motif and a gang rape supplant the book's ritual sacrifice of a virgin to a python. The film's orchestration of menace, violence, and heroism captures the tenor of the times.

In the late Middle Ages, Sundiata of the Keita clan (ca. 1217-ca. 1255) established the Mali empire, which supplied gold for European and Islamic coinage. According to African griots, the native archivists or storykeepers, it was prophesied that Sundiata would lead a great nation, the Mandinka of West Africa on the border between Mali and Guinea. According to oral tradition, he is unpromising at birth and lolls about for seven years, until his father sends Balla Fasseke, the royal griot, to train the boy. As with Aristotle's training of Alexander the Great and the readying of sons for manhood described in NIKOLAY GOGOL'S Ukrainian folk epic Taras Bulba (1842), the inculcation of WISDOM trained Sundiata for leadership. At a climactic point in the legendary biography, he lifts an iron bar and bends it into a bow, the test of strength that symbolizes readiness for power, in the style of the Hebrew king David's trial battle with Goliath.

After the fall of Ghana, Sundiata was the focus of the 3,084-line Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (ca. 1255) as the hero who must grapple with his father's first wife and first son for power. The epic effectively tells a classic story of pastoral states fighting off rustlers. Like the untried Arthur Pendragon rousing Celts against invading Anglo-Saxons in late fifthcentury Britannia, Sundiata lives in exile until he can muster enough cavalry and archers to march on the city of Tabon, a standard cooperative motif in medieval literature. By unifying the military force of 12 states, Sundiata becomes an emperor known as the Lion King of Mali, who controls tribes from the Niger River west to the Atlantic Ocean. Walt Disney Studios reprised the story of Sundiata in 1994 as an animated film, The Lion King, with animals substituting for the humans of Mali legend.

The Merger of Opposites

The intrusion of Islam on tribalism added global dynamics to the African epic. At the height of Mali's influence in West Africa, Mansa Musa (Emperor Moses, r. 1312-1337), Sundiata's grandson or grandnephew, impressed the Muslim world in 1324 by making a hadj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. Described in the seven-volume Kitah al-ibar (History of the Arabs, 1375) of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), Musa traveled via the Upper Niger River to Walata, Mauritania, and to the Mediterranean coast at Tuat, Algeria. In the 14th year of his reign, the emperor and 60,000 followers made a grand impression on North Africans, transporting gold carried by 12,000 slaves and 100 camels over the Sahara, a procession motif common to stories of such royal figures as the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra. In the encyclopedia Masalik al-Absar (Voyage of the eyes, 1348), a summary produced by the Damascan chronicler al-'Umari (1300-49), Musa's arrival with so much wealth won the respect of emirs and sultans. As a result of his three-month stay in Cairo, the dispersal of some 15 tons of gold depressed the precious metals market throughout Egypt for the next decade. After Musa's return to Timbuktu, a stream of Muslim intellectuals followed him and turned his capital into a center of learning. In 1326, the Moroccan travel writer IBN BATTUTA (1304-ca. 1377) of Tangiers passed through Cairo, where people still marveled at Mali's gold supply. Battuta wrote in his Tuhfat al-nuzzar fi ghara’ib al-amsar wa’aja’ib al-asfar (On the curiosities of cities and the wonders of travel, 1354) about Musa's reputation for opulence and generosity, the hallmarks of storied rulers such as Croesus of Lydia and Solomon of Jerusalem.

During the Renaissance, money and goods dominated global relations. At the time of the Bambara (Bamana or Segu) empire (1600-1861), a warrior state that based its income on slaves or captives, trade along the West African coast enabled the Bambara to outstrip the Mali in wealth and prestige. In Epic of Bamana Segu, (an oral folk history compiled about 1850), Bambarans expressed the collapse of earlier ideals of truth, honor, and nobility and the importance of wealth and commerce as the sources of political prestige. In place of a prophesied savior, citizens depended on a more realistic series of empire leaders. Along the Niger River, the maintenance of power, described in 7,585 lines of verse, passes back and forth between warriors equally matched with muskets, axes, and battle hammers.

During this same period, a second Bambaran empire of Kaarta took shape in the west in 1753 in part of the former Ghanian empire. The charismatic hero Sonsan dominates the Epic of Sonsan of Kaarta (an oral history compiled about 1850). In a parallel to the biblical story of Joseph's betrayal by his brothers, envious stepbrothers push Sonsan into a well. Jealousy and suspicion endanger Sonsan at an early age, but he survives by cunning and honorable dealings. As a goodwill ambassador, he founds a city, Sontiana, and a dynasty through his son Massa. A century later, in 1854, Islamic jihadists slaughtered the Kaartans and their imperial dynasty.

Epic Realism

Western warfare gradually subsumed the manly face-to-face encounters of African epic. During the competitive jockeying of European nations for control over African colonies, a war chief named Almami Samori Toure (ca. 1830-1900) established the Wassoulou empire (present-day Guinea), which warded off the French for 16 years until 1898. The warfare depicted in Epic of Almami Samori Ture (ca. 1900) resembles the wars for empire between walled cities during Europe's Middle Ages. Like Sonsan, Samori bears a significant birthmark and grows up daring and popular. After passing a test of worthiness on a par with the English legend Arthur's pulling the sword from the stone and the biblical David's defeat of Goliath with a stone from his sling, Samori urges his people to abandon paganism for Islam and to defend themselves against French usurpers.

As science and invention increased firepower, African military history lost its noble foundations and the grandeur of epic. The preservation of Guinean land in the Volta basin required negotiations with the British for firearms and a constant scorched-earth policy conducted by Samori's 12,000 soldiers. Triumphing on the border between Guinea and Mali and moving east to the Ivory Coast, Samori claimed gold mines before naming himself emperor. An unusual episode in the epic describes the rise of Demba, the one-breasted female warrior who, on April 2, 1883, led the battle of Woyowayanko, during which Samori's troops overcame French heavy artillery. The victory was short-lived as mechanized warfare led to trade-offs and concessions from African warlords. Since the early 1970s literary historians have contributed to western awareness of the African epic as a living tradition.


Belcher, Stephen Paterson. Epic Traditions of Africa.

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Conrad, David. A State of Intrigue: The Epic of Bamana Segu according to Tayiru Bambera. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah, Michel Abitbol, and Naomi Chazan. The Early State in African Perspective: Culture, Power, and Division of Labor. Amsterdam: Brill, 1988.

Ibn Battuta. Travels in Asia and Africa, 1325-1354.

Translated by H. A. R. Gibb. New Delhi: Manohar, 2001.

Niane, D. T. Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Translated by G. D. Pickett. Harlow, U.K.: Longman, 1965.