Sorcery, kingdom business and the Epic of Sundiata

This month I’ve burrowed into old epics: Gilgamesh, Sundiata, Genji, Beowulf, the Iliad, the Odyssey and so on, to reacquaint myself and figure out how these ancient literatures are sustained in contemporary writing. I had forgotten how funny and serious at the same time they are. For me, they’re the quintessence of “serious play.” I would wish for my writing to have a similar kind of wit, fun and timelessness.

I’m especially loving the connection between sorcery and kingdom business, wondering when the kings or presidents of today lost their “real” magic power, assuming that they once had it. Apart from the president of Gambia claiming to cure Aids, for instance, which has not been proven true, no other world leader has magic anymore. This is sad. I don’t know whether even in the past no king truly harnessed it, and the legends or mythologies only work with make-believe. I recall a time in Uganda many years ago during the war, before the current president was elected, a story spread that he was a shape-shifter and for his convenience would turn himself into a cat or an old woman in order to evade his enemies. Many of us agreed that there was no witchery but old wives’ tale. Now I find myself longing for a leader who can truly, magically bend the elements and prove himself or herself not only wise but a great sorcerer, Sundiata style. Of course I’m influenced by the epic, D. T Niane’s version, first published in 1960, in French, celebrating the griot ethos and kingdom magic. Enjoy this excerpt accounting the war of mouths before the swords, between Sundiata and Soumaoro.

One does not wage war without saying why it is being waged. Those fighting should make a declaration of their grievances to begin with. Just as a sorcerer ought not to attack someone without taking him to task for some evil deed, so a king should not wage war without saying why he is taking up arms.

Soumaoro advanced as far as as Krina, near the village of Dayala on the Niger and decided to assert his rights before joining battle. Soumaoro knew that Sundiata also was a sorcerer, so, instead of sending an embassy, he committed his words to one of his owls. The night bird came and perched on the roof of Djata’s tent and spoke. The son of Sogolon in his tun sent his owl to Soumaoro. Here is the dialogue of the sorcerer kings:

Stop, young man. Henceforth I am the king of Mali. If you want peace, return to where you came from, said Soumaoro.

I am coming back, Soumaoro, to recapture my kingdom. If you want peace, you will make amends to my allies and return to Sosso where you are the king.

I am king of Mali by force of arms. My rights have been established by conquest.

Then I will take Mali from you by force of arms and chase you from my kingdom.

Know then, that I am the wild yam of the rocks; nothing will make me leave Mali.

Know, also that i have in my camp seven master smiths who will shatter the rocks. Then, yam, I will eat you.

I am the poisonous mushroom that makes the fearless vomit.

As for me, I am the ravenous cock, the poison does not matter to me.

Behave yourself, little boy, or you will burn your foot, for I am the red-hot cinder.

But me, I am the rain that extinguishes the cinder; I am the boisterous torrent that will carry you off.

I am the mighty silk-cotton tree that looks from on high on the tops of other trees.

And I, I am the strangling creeper that climbs to the top of the forest giant.

Enough of this argument. You shall not have Mali.

Know that there is no room for two kings on the same skin, Soumaoro; you will let me have your place.

Very well, since you want war, I will wage war against you, but I would have you know that I have killed nine kings whose heads adorn my room. What a pity, indeed, that your head should take its place beside those of your fellow madcaps.

Prepare yourself, Soumaoro, for it will be long before the calamity that is going to crash down upon you and yours comes to an end.

D.T. Niane, Sundiata: an epic of old Mali, trans. G.D. Pickett, Longman, 1965: p60.


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