The Epic of Sundiata, describing the rise of the first ruler of the Mali Empire, was passed down by griots – West African bards – for over six hundred years before it was written down.
I have been meaning to write about West African griots for more than a year and a half now. The role of griot is known by many different names in many different languages – jeli or jali is a common one – and likewise the role has been described in English variously as troubadour, bard, historian, scholar, storyteller, poet, musician, advisor, and diplomat. In reality, griots were all of these and more.
Being a griot was hereditary: you learned it from your parents, both of whom would probably have been griots too (they typically married each other). In the Mali Empire griots were attached to people in the royal household, and accompanied emperors and kings as a combination history-keeper, performer, and advisor. Because the role was hereditary it served as a strong through-line for oral tradition: children learned the histories from their parents and carried it forward to their own offspring.
One of the crown jewels of the griot tradition is the Epic of Sundiata. This epic poem describes the birth, life, and reign of Sundiata Keita. It’s all semi-mythological at this point, of course, but Sundiata was a real ruler and founded the Mali Empire around 1235 CE. (You may remember the Mali Empire from my post on Abu Bakr II; he was Sundiata Keita’s nephew.)
The story goes that Sundiata’s father heard a prophecy that if he married an ugly woman the child would become a great king. So when a very ugly hunchbacked woman rolled up he promptly married her. Sundiata Keita was born disabled and unable to walk… until he forced himself to stand as a child, propping himself up on an iron rod or a tree branch. After the death of his father the family was forced into exile, but he returned later to reclaim the throne and grow the kingdom into the mighty Mali Empire.
(Side note: does this sound familiar? It has been suggested that the plot of The Lion King was lifted from this epic, especially because one of Sundiata’s nicknames was the Lion King. But it has also been suggested that the film’s plot was lifted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or from a 1960s Japanese anime called Kimba the White Lion, so who knows?)
Sundiata died around 1255 CE. The epic describing his exploits was passed down by griots right through until the late 19th century, when French colonists gathered together the oral histories and compiled a written version. Griots continue to perform and remember today.