THE EPIC OF SON-JARA

A Mande bard ( also known as griot (in French), dyeli, or belein-tigui)from modern times looks like this when dressed in traditional Mali garb. Son-Jara's bard is Doka the Cat (and is also called Bala Faseke Kuyate)

Son-Jara was another epic hero who was based on a real historical figure by the same name - or known as Sundiata or Sun-Jata. The actual hero Son-Jara led the Mande people of West Africa to defeat the king Sumamura at a real battle in 1235. Son-Jara then founded an empire that included what today are the modern nations of Mali, Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. Son-Jara built a very wealthy empire because he conquered areas rich in gold. Son-Jara was known as a wise and just ruler, and is still a heroic figure to his people. THE EPIC OF SON-JARA is the story of his ancestry, his birth, his struggles with his half-brother, and his conquest of his enemy Susa Mountain Sumamura, who was a pagan witch-doctor. Conversely, Son-Jara was a Muslim - or much like Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon and early Christian tradition, he incorporated both the new religion of Islam and the traditional African beliefs. It is interesting to note epics like these that bring together two traditions to create a cultural "version" of a religion imported from another region. THE EPIC OF SON-JARA traces the hero's father's family back to Bilal who was Muhammed's second convert and who brought Islam to sub-Saharan Africa. Thus Son-Jara inherits not only his father's leadership characteristics, but also the spiritual power of Islam. Son-Jara's mother was a powerful pagan sorceress who inherited her spiritual powers from Buffalo-Woman, so Son-Jara is invested with great spiritual powers from both traditions. Also notice that there is a system of ruling and following that is similar to that of European feudalism. Loyalty is important, but sometimes there are good reasons to leave a treacherous ruler to become the knight/follower of an honorable ruler such as Son-Jara. THE EPIC OF SON-JARA was originally in the oral tradition, much as THE SONG OF ROLAND was. Actual written records of Son-Jara's life date to the 15th century in an account by an Arab historian. The accounts of the bards or griots kept Son-Jara's fame alive. These bards must have been something like the Homeric bards who kept alive the stories of the Trojan War. As in other cultures, a bard was attached to the household of a local king or aristocrat. The bards often were almost like counselors to kings. The major role of the griot/bard was to preserve tradition and to keep alive the memories of famous ancestors of the prince. The griots also sometimes served as tutors for the young princes of a household of royalty.


Griots leading a procession in a Mali village

In Son-Jara's lifetime, he ruled a broad grassland region that stretched from Western Africa facing the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea on the eastern side. To the North lay the Sahara Desert; to the South was a lush forestland. This land was rich with animal and vegetable resources, as well as mineral (gold). Therefore, it was a land contested not only by the half-brothers in a family in which cultural tradition guided a powerful leader to take multiple wives, but also by competing leaders of other tribes within the area. The "archetypal" (universal) theme of contending brothers is especially typical of ancient tribal literature. We need only look to the Old Testament for archetypal characters that parallel Son-Jara and Dankaran Tuman: Cain & Abel, Jacob & Esau. Trickery is often involved, as is the sorcery and inventiveness of the mothers of the half-brothers. So we can see that conflict occurs within the family, within the tribe, and among antagonistic tribes and their leaders. This multi-layered conflict makes the epic richer, more exciting, and more realistic.


The Roles of Women in the Culture of Son-Jara

This mask represents a feminine death mask, perhaps the mask of an ancestor or a cult figure. A detailed view of the mask would reveal tear-tracks running down the face of the woman. Obviously, women in Son-Jara's culture, like women in the culture of the ILIAD, were not granted equal rights or respect with the men of their society. However, women used their powers of magic or their mental or sexual powers to achieve their goals in both societies. Fata Magan the Handsome, the father of Son-Jara, saw a "jinn" (genie) who told him that he would marry an ugly maiden who would bear him a son who would rule the kingdom of Manding. Fata Magan meets the ugly maid with two youths and gives his beautiful sister, Nakana Taliba (who later becomes a dark sorceress herself) in exchange for Son-Jara's mother, Sugulun Konde. Two sons are consequently born to Fata Magan the Handsome on the same day, with Son-Jara being the second-born. However, Son-Jara's mother gets news of his birth first to Fata Magan, and Son-Jara is declared the heir to the throne, though his brother is several hours older. Son-Jara is born covered with hair and is called "lion thief"; he is also cursed by a holy man from his half-brother's tribe and so is unable to walk for the first nine years of his life. Son-Jara is taken by his jinn to gain magic powers. He is also aided by Tanimunari, a Muslim jinn - a priest of sorts - who predicts that Son-Jara will soon walk. His mother prepares special food for him, gives him a magic walking stick, and Son-Jara, in turn, magically gives her ownership of a Baobab tree so that others must ask her permission to obtain its very useful leaves. Despite numerous magical acts, Son-Jara, along with his mother, brother & sister, is exiled; and his half-brother becomes king. Soon Dankaran Tuman's kingdom is threatened by the Sulu king Sumamuru, who also tries to force Son-Jara's bard (Doka the Cat) to serve him. War between the two kings soon ensues; Dankaran Tuman loses and flees into exile. Susu Mountain Sumamura then sends to the Queens of Darkness with whom Son-Jara is staying messengers bribing them to kill Son-Jara. Son-Jara gives the witches a much better bribe and they favor him. Son-Jara's mother dies and is buried. Son-Jara heads for home to battle Sumamuru, gaining passage across a river because his mother had given the boatman a silver bracelet in exchange for a future favor. So the mother even assists her son from beyond the grave. Son-Jara's sister also assists him in recovering his kingdom by learning from Sumamura the secret to his defeat. Without the help of the women of his family, Son-Jara could not have achieved his quest. The importance of women is emphasized, although they are neither the protagonists nor the antagonists of epics in this culture. Their power is of a different kind.


Links to African Literature & Art

A guide to reading THE EPIC OF SON-JARA:
Great site for images of African Arts & Crafts:

The Structure and Purpose of the Epic

Remember that the thematic structure of the epic is made up of three conflicts: within the hero to overcome his personal weaknesses and enable himself for leadership; within his extended family to establish his right to lead because of his superior strength and wisdom; against an evil usurper from another tribe. So Son-Jara, in his quest, conquers human and magical powers using both his (and his supporters') sorcery - and the powers of the new religion, Islam. The formal structure of the epic is also composed of three sub-genres: the praise poem, the narrative, and the responses of the listeners which allude to the truth of the statements of the bard. Additionally, the epic uses parallelism in relating similar incidents occurring to different characters, proverbs ( look for these in THINGS FALL APART by Achebe in World Lit. II), and aphorisms which are all frequently used devices in African literature. These aspects of the epic are present to unify it, but also to relate to the cultural beliefs of the people listening. "Literary conventions" such as these appear in most epics, along with myths and genealogy relating to the hero and his family. There are similarities among the epics of all cultures due to the universal or archetypal nature of the characters and motifs. Most epics relate the quests of the individual who represents his/her culture.