by Gabriel Adeleye(1)

Among the literary works of Monmouth College's Freshman Seminar in the fall semester of 1992 are two books which, on the surface, seem to have nothing in common. These books are the Odyssey and the Sundiata. The author of the Odyssey is Homer, the blind poet of Greece, who is believed to have lived in the 8th Century B.C. The work deals with an event which happened after the Trojan War, specifically the homeward return of Odysseus, king of Ithaca and one of the leading Greek warriors. The Odyssey is, in short, a work of the Western world. The other work, the Sundiata, bears the name of D.T. Niane, who is merely the editor. The author of the work, as indicated in the introduction, is Mamoudou Kouyate, a griot and citizen of Guinea, a former French colony in West Africa. It treats the foundation of the Mali empire by Sundiata, an event which occurred in the first half of the 13th Century A.D. Mali was an empire of the Western Sudan, a former French colony and now an autonomous country in West Africa. Though these two works belong to two different cultures, they share the same genre. They are epics. The purpose of this paper is to examine these two epics to ascertain whether they really have nothing in common or, though belonging to different cultures, they share certain things in common.

The Odyssey and the Sundiata are not the only extant epics. Other works of this literary genre include the Sumerian Gilgamesh, the Indian Mahabharata, the European Song of Roland, the Greek Iliad, the Roman Aeneid and the Congolese Mwindo. What, then, is an epic? An epic may be defined as "a long narrative poem with an emphasis on the heroic..." (R. Finnegan 1977 p. 9). It is believed that "many societies have had a 'heroic age'--a period in which the splendid deeds of heroes eclipsed all that came later..." (R. Finnegan p. 247). The epic, which is composed "primarily for entertainment", treats the adventures of a great hero or a number of great heroes or the achievements of a nation. Broadly speaking, there are two types of epics. One type, labelled "pure" epic, is composed entirely in verse. The other type combines verse and prose, the latter style being employed mostly in the narrative sections. Even so, it is poetic, since the prose is fitted to musical accompaniment, characterized by rhythm, melody and tone.

How, then, are epics composed? Epic, originally, is an oral composition. The author--a singer, bard, rhapsodist or griot--learns the material of the story from a teacher, usually a relative. The story is transmitted orally from generation to generation--i.e. father to son, to grandson, etc. Also transmitted is a repertoire of themes, episodes, incidents, motifs as well as formulaic epithets, phrases and expressions. Armed with these equipments, the bard composes his epic orally, using formulas as and when appropriate. Thus when a character is mentioned, he/she would be qualified by using one of the formulaic epithets in the bard's repertoire. Similarly, phrases and whole sentences are repeated for particular situations. Epics are not only composed orally but also performed orally to musical accompaniment before live audiences. Under such circumstances, therefore, there would, initially, be no standard text of any particular epic. A story told by various bards would vary from one to another. Moreover, even when one bard tells the story, the story would vary from one performance to another, since there is room for interaction with the audience.

Let us begin our examination of the two epics with brief accounts of the story of each epic. The Odyssey is an account of the homeward return of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, after the Trojan War. The epic opens with a council of the gods. After the meeting, the goddess Athene goes to Ithaca to urge Telemachus, Odysseus' son, to travel to Pylos and Lacedaemon in search of news about his father. Meanwhile the god Hermes is instructed to go to the island of Ogygia and order the nymph Calypso to release Odysseus for his voyage home. Odysseus accordingly builds a raft and sets sail, but he is caught in a storm, manages to reach the island of the Phaeacians, Scheria, and meets Nausicaa, daughter of the Phaeacian king, who helps him to go in supplication to the royal palace. Odysseus is treated hospitably. During receptions he tells the story of his adventures after the fall of Troy--a tragi-comic story which includes:

i. a visit to the cave of the cannibal, Polyphemus, the Cyclops

ii. the stay of Odysseus and his men at the residence of Circe, the sorceress.

iii. Odysseus' visit to the Lower World.

iv. The voyage of Odysseus and his men past the Sirens as well as Scylla and Charybdis to the island of the Sun-god, where Odysseus' men killed the god's cattle. For their punishment, the only surviving ship was wrecked and Odysseus, the sole survivor, floated on planks of the wreckage and, then, swam till he reached Calypso's island, where the nymph's attempt to marry him with the bait of immortality ended abruptly with the visit of Hermes.

After giving Odysseus warm hospitality, the Phaeacians despatched him in a ship safely to Ithaca. Odysseus, aided by the goddess Athene, entered Ithaca, disguised as a beggar, met his faithful swineherd, Eumaeus, gained access to his palace and, finally, killed all the suitors of his wife, Penelope, and resumed his position as head of his household and king of Ithaca.

The Sundiata, on the other hand, is an account of the rise of Sundiata from the position of a despised cripple to that of the king of Niani and founder of the Mali empire. Maghan, king of Niani, received the gift of a woman by name Sogolon from two hunter-brothers, who had got her as their prize for killing a buffalo, which had been causing considerable havoc in Do and its vicinity. She was a very ugly woman with a hunchback to boot, but, influenced by the assurance of soothsayers that she would be the mother of a great son, Maghan accepted the unusual present and they got married. Their son proved to be a colossal disappointment, indeed a veritable embarrassment to his parents. He was a cripple with an insatiable appetite and an unroyal personality. This notwithstanding, Maghan persisted in his optimism and designated him his successor to the throne, but by the time of his demise, Sundiata was still a cripple. Maghan's wish to be succeeded by Sundiata was not respected and Dankaran Touman, Sundiata's senior half-brother, was elevated to the throne. Sundiata's problems were compounded by the hostility of his step-mother, who relegated Sundiata and his mother to an obscure part of the palace. Sundiata, however, was not to remain a cripple ad infinitum. At the age of seven, on a day when his step-mother callously humiliated his mother by taunting her with his physical disability, he rose up, supporting himself with a huge iron bar, began to walk and, in a remarkable display of superhuman strength, transplanted a baobab tree, root and branch, to a point close to his mother's residence so that Sogolon would have a ready supply of baobab leaves, the source of her humiliation. Sundiata and Sogolon were subsequently banished from Niani and they wandered from kingdom to kingdom. Generally, they received warm hospitality. Eventually, the people of Niani offered Sundiata kingship, he clashed in arms with Sumanguru, who had subjugated Niani and incorporated her into his domains, defeated him and became the founder of the Mali empire.

As may be expected, there are differences between the Odyssey and the Sundiata. The first glaring difference may be seen in the introductory section of the respective epics. The Odyssey, like the Iliad and other epics of the Western world, begins with an invocation and a summary of the theme ("Goddess of song, teach me the story of a hero.")(2) In the Sundiata, on the other hand, there is no invocation. The griot introduces himself, indicates the source of his information and emphasizes both its authenticity and the role of griots before proceeding to a summary of the theme. Other versions of the Sundiata epic suggest that, though each griot enjoys considerable flexibility in his introduction, invariably there is no invocation.

Secondly, there is a difference in the manner of presentation of the epic. In the Odyssey, the poet generally presents the story without intruding his person into the narrative. The only exception is the brief invocation. In the Sundiata, on the other hand, the griot does not hesitate to resort to first-person narrative. In fact, the epic begins with a first-person address, in which the griot introduces himself, gives his genealogy and harps upon the importance of his profession. Thus, whereas the griot frequently intrudes his person into the narrative of the Sundiata, Homer, except in the brief invocation, does not interfere with the narrative of the Odyssey.

One significant difference between the Odyssey and the Sundiata is that there is a standard version of the former, on which all translations are based, but there is none for the latter. The official version of the Odyssey dates back to the 6th Century B.C., when it was sponsored in Athens, most probably by the tyrant Peisistratus, less probably by the democratic reformer, Solon. With respect to the Sundiata, on the other hand, there are quite a number of versions. There are seven versions in English and an appreciable number in French and African languages. The various versions of the Sundiata epic throw some light on the way epics are composed. They show that, though griots/bards work on the same repertoire of episodes, incidents, plots, motifs, themes, etc., they enjoy considerable freedom in arrangement and presentation. Episodes or incidents may be narrated briefly or expanded, their sequence may be changed and, generally, each griot/bard injects into the epic his own "insights and sensitivities." Moreover, apart from the various versions from various griots, a griot's epic is rarely fixed, but it is modified to suit the needs of locality and audience. Thus the griot would link the genealogy of some of the audience to personae of the epic or explain the origin of some customs. There can be no doubt that, before the standardization of the Odyssey, there were numerous versions not only of Homer's Odyssey but also of the same epic as composed by other poets. This is suggested both by the very act of standardization and the activities of bards, such as Demodocus and Phemius, who are mentioned in the Odyssey.

Finally, the two epics differ in their respective interest in romance. The hero of the Odyssey had some romance with the sorceress Circe and the nymph Calypso. Even his association with Nausicaa, the Phaeacian princess, has some romantic undertones. The hero of the Sundiata, on the other hand, is far removed from the world of romance. The closest he came to romance is after the battle of Krina, when a king gave him his daughter in marriage. The affair receives no more than a laconic statement.

There are, indeed, differences between the Odyssey and the Sundiata. This is to be expected. What is surprising, however, is the preponderance of similarities, which clearly outweigh the differences.

In the first place, in due conformity to the norms of epic composition, the two works use formulaic expressions. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is frequently described as "subtle", "patient", "staunch" or "the city-sacker". Telemachus' epithet is "thoughtful". Athene is usually "Athene of the gleaming eyes" or "gleamy-eyed Athene" or "goddess of gleaming eyes". Hermes is not infrequently "the keen watcher, the Radiant One". Zeus' epithets are "the Thunderer", "who holds the aegis" or "of the aegis". Penelope is almost always "wise". Poseidon is "the Earth-shaker", "the shaker of Earth" or "who shakes the earth". The ocean or the sea is usually "teeming", "wine-dark", "whitening", "misty" or "barren". A ship or vessel is frequently described as "hollow", "dark" or "rapid". A sword is often "keen". Pylos is usually described as "sandy" or "holy". Moreover, whole phrases, clauses or sentences are repeated. Here and there in the Odyssey we find "ethereal Dawn" or "Dawn appeared in her flowery cloth of gold", but most conspicuous is "Dawn comes early, with rosy fingers. When she appeared..." Also, Odysseus usually draws "the keen sword from beside (his) thigh."

The Sundiata, like the Odyssey, uses formulaic expressions, though not to the same level of perfection. Thus Sundiata is "son of Sogolon",(3) "Sogolon's son", "buffalo-woman's son", "Sogolon-Djata" or "the Man with Two Names". Sogolon is "the buffalo woman". Maghan is "the handsome". Sumanguru is "the sorcerer-king" or "the king of Sosso". Alexander the Great is "the king of gold and silver". Moreover, a whole sentence could be repeated. Instances are: "The silk-cotton tree emerges from a tiny seed" and "How impatient man is".

One conspicuous characteristic which the Odyssey and the Sundiata share together is their combination of naturalism and supernaturalism. The world of the Odyssey is a world where the gods interfere actively in the lives of human beings. Zeus, Athene, Poseidon, the Sun-god, Hermes, the nymph Calypso and the sorceress Circe play crucial roles in the epic. Similarly it is a world where soothsayers, prophecies, omens and dreams play significant roles. Indeed, it is such a bizarre world that Odysseus can go to the Lower World, converse with dead people and come back to the world of reality. It is a world which defies rational interpretation of natural and human phenomena.

Like the Odyssey, the Sundiata presents a world of the natural and the supernatural. The Sundiata does not have gods who put on human form and intervene actively in human affairs. There are, however, sorcerers, witches and jinns, and human beings perform acts which cannot be explained rationally. Thus, Sundiata, the cripple, performs superhuman acts on the day when he begins to walk. Sumanguru, the sorcerer-king, is invulnerable and during battles he can disappear and reappear ad libitum. Moreover, Sumanguru and Sundiata, both sorcerers, communicate through owls before the clash of arms.

Closely related to the two epics' combination of naturalism and supernaturalism is belief in predestination, which they share in common. Predestination is a belief held in both antiquity and modern times. According to this belief, each man has a fixed destiny, which must be fulfilled, no matter what is done to obviate it. In the Odyssey, it is Odysseus' destiny to return to Ithaca, having lost all his companions. His destiny had been decreed by the gods under the chairmanship of Zeus. The Odyssey is accordingly pregnant with expressions, which indicate Odysseus' destiny. These include:

i. " is his destiny to see his dear ones and come once more to his high- roofed palace and his own country." (56)

ii. "...he is destined to see his own kith and kin again and return to his high- roofed house and his own country." (57)

iii. "My griefs have been many--so heaven ordained." (99)

iv. Referring to his misfortunes, Odysseus says: "...the gods willed it so." (169)

v. "...destiny means me to live on." (173)

vi. "...such was the thread spun by his destiny."

Eurymachus, one of the suitors, says in a different context: "...what comes from the gods one cannot escape." And, indeed, in spite of Poseidon's unrelenting persecution, in spite of all odds, Odysseus returned home after 20 years. Que será será. (What will be will be.)

Like Odysseus, Sundiata had his own destiny. His destiny was to become king of Niani and the founder of the Mali empire. He faced great odds. As a child, he was a cripple with an unroyal personality; in fact, he did not walk till the age of seven. Though designated successor to the throne, he was set aside. The hostility and persecution of his stepmother drove him and his mother into exile. In exile he escaped death at the hands of a host, Mansa Konkon. Eventually, he had to experience a clash of arms with Sumanguru, the sorcerer-king, an almost invincible warrior, a man who can change into no less than 69 shapes to escape from an enemy. But que será será. Sundiata overcame all odds and fulfilled his destiny. The Sundiata, like the Odyssey, is pregnant with expressions indicative of destiny. They include:

i. "But what can one do against destiny? Nothing..." (22)

ii. "We think we are hurting our neighbours at the time when we are working in the very direction of destiny." (28)

iii. At Mema Sogolon tells her son: "Your destiny lies not here but in Mali." (38)

iv. Sundiata is described as "the man who had a mission to accomplish." (41)

v. "If it is foretold that your destiny should be fulfilled in such and such a land, men can do nothing against it... Neither the jealousy of a cruel stepmother, nor her wickedness, could alter for a moment the course of great destiny." (47)

The similarities shared by the two epics extend to the cultural sector, even though they belong to two different cultures. One cultural trait which is glaring in the two epics is the relationship between a guest and a host, alias guest-friendship. The two epics emphasize the obligation of a host to treat a guest hospitably. In the Odyssey, Telemachus is entertained hospitably at Nestor's palace; he and Nestor's son receive warm hospitality at Menelaus' palace. Nausicaa offers Odysseus hospitality at the beach and the hospitable treatment reaches its climax when Odysseus goes to the Phaeacian palace. Eumaeus, the swine-head, receives Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, hospitably. Emphasizing the need for, and propriety of, offering hospitality, Eumaeus says: "My guest, I should think it a monstrous thing not to honour any guest who came to me, even one more miserable than you, because Zeus is patron of every stranger and every beggar..." The sorceress Circe, who violated the right of hospitality by turning some of Odysseus' men into pigs, recovered her sanity later on and treated the entire party hospitably. The worst violator of the right of hospitality is Polyphemus, the Cyclops. But even Polyphemus was not unaware of his obligation to a guest. He requested more wine from Odysseus, promising to give him as his "guest a special favour that will delight" him. It turned out that Polyphemus' "special favour" was his intention to consume Odysseus last.

In the Sundiata, the theme of hospitality comes into full play during the period when the hero and his family were in exile. In Mali, as in Greece, the right of hospitality was respected. To put it in the words of the griot, "everywhere the stranger enjoys the right to hospitality" (29). Though exiles and a political liability, Sundiata and his entourage were received hospitably at the royal palaces. The king of Tabon, who did not wish to incur the animosity of the king of Niani, received them warmly and sent them to the king of Ghana with a letter of recommendation. The king of Ghana gave them royal treatment, declaring that: "No stranger has ever found our hospitality wanting." Moussa Tounkara, king of Mema, not only gave them warm hospitality but also appointed Sundiata his Viceroy. Even Mansa Konkon, King of Djedeba, who had been bribed by Sassouma Bérété to eliminate Sundiata and was, ipso facto, hostile, entertained them for two months before sending them away.

Another cultural trait which the two epics share together is their portrayal of male-female relationship. Both societies are clearly male-dominated. The world of the Odyssey is a man's world. Women play subordinate roles as wives and mothers. Women are expected to be faithful to their husbands, though husbands are not required to be faithful. Penelope is an exemplary wife. She stays in misery inside the palace, longing for her husband, who has been absent for over a decade, and shunning her numerous persistent suitors. She would rather die than marry anyone else. She prays for death "that so I may pass beneath cheerless earth with Odysseus himself in my heart's vision." She adds: "May I never gladden the heart of a man less noble." (244) Meanwhile Odysseus mixes his longing for Penelope with fun with Circe and Calypso and discreet flirtation with Nausicaa, the Phaeacian princess. The female villain par excellence of the Odyssey is Clytaemnestra, Agamemnon's wife, who gets her husband murdered by her paramour for bringing back home a concubine, Cassandra. Her personal evil act serves as justification for a sweeping comment on women: "Truly nothing is deadlier and loathsomer than a woman when she sets her mind on deeds like these... By her utter wickedness of will she has poured dishonour on herself and every woman that lives hereafter, even on one whose deeds are virtuous." (137) Nor does Penelope get due recognition for her remarkable fidelity and self-sacrifice. Agamemnon's ghost, while praising Penelope, advises Odysseus not to confide fully in her. Furthermore, the goddess Athene advises Telemachus to hasten back home so as to keep an eye on his estate and see to it that Penelope does not remove some of his possessions. She adds: "You know what a woman's instincts are; she longs to swell a new bridegroom's riches and has no remembrance and no thought of her living children and the dead husband she loved before." (178)

The world of the Sundiata, like that of the Odyssey, is a man's world. It is, indeed, more of a man's world than that of the Odyssey. It is the world of Africa, where polygamy is permitted. Sundiata's father was a polygamist. He was, however, a saint as compared to the villainous Sumanguru, who would add to his harem any woman who caught his fancy, including the wife of his nephew, Fakoli. It is a typically male chauvinistic society, where the hero can tell his friend, Fran Kamara: "Kings will tremble before us as a woman trembles before a man." (32) Like the Odyssey, the Sundiata draws a line between the villainous woman and the exemplary woman. Sogolon is an exemplary wife and mother. Her modesty, love and respect for her husband are contrasted with Sassouma Bérété's pride and disrespect for her husband. It was common talk that Sundiata's step-mother "had never shown the slightest respect to her husband and never, in the presence of the king, did she show that humility which every wife should show before her husband." The world of the Sundiata epic was yet to see the feminist manifesto.

Finally, the two epics share one controversial characteristic: their authors and the societies for which they were/are composed regarded/regard them as authentic historical texts. Thus Homer's Odyssey and Iliad were regarded as authoritative historical texts and, whenever disputes, such as disputes on boundaries, arose, appeal was made to the authority of the epics. Similarly, the authoritative tone of the Sundiata is unmistakable. The griot claims that "griots are depositories of the knowledge of the past" and even disparages the written word, asking: "What paltry learning is that which is congealed in dumb books." D.T. Niane clearly agrees with the griot. He says, "the West has taught us to scorn oral sources in matters of history" and castigates those who "simply prove that they do not know their country except through the eyes of Whites." Our editor seems to miss the point. What historians do maintain is that any historical text which resorts to supernatural interpretation of human and natural phenomena or takes to the exaggerations, distortions and misrepresentations characteristic of epics is faulted ab initio and loses any claim to historical authority.

The value of the Odyssey and the Sundiata as sources of history is minimal. The two epics, however, make interesting reading. Above all, epics serve a didactic purpose by showing a society's "moral views or...general ethos" and are thus used by elders "to inculcate certain values into youth." One medium through which this goal is effected is the incorporation of dicta, aphorisms, wise sayings or proverbs into the epics. The Odyssey has some interesting wise sayings. They include:

i. "Measure is best in everything"--i.e. one should observe aurea mediocritas or via media, viz. the golden mean.

ii. "A man can see no country more lovable than his own..." (99)

iii. "Foolish and worthless the man must be who should ask his host in a strange land to enter some contest with himself; he would cut the ground from beneath his own feet." (89)

iv. "...there comes a time when a man takes comfort from old sorrows..." (198)

v. "How good it is that when a man dies, a son should be left after him." (27)

vi. " often do youth and thoughtlessness go together."


vii. "Every form of death is loathsome to wretched mortals, but to perish of hunger, to starve to death--that is the most pitiful thing of all." (150)

viii. "There is nothing nobler, nothing lovelier than when man and wife keep house together with like heart and with like will. Their foes repine, their friends rejoice, but the truth of it all is with her and him." (71)

ix. "When masters are not there to command, serfs lack zeal to do as they should..." (209)

x. "Bashfulness is no good companion for one in need" or "Bashfulness does not sit well on beggars." (210)

Similarly, the Sundiata has its wise sayings mostly expressed in proverbs. They include:

i. "...great trees grow slowly but they plunge their roots deep into the ground." (17)

ii. "The snake has no legs, yet it is as swift as any other animal that has four." (24)

iii. "The snake, man's enemy, is not long-lived, yet the serpent that lives hidden will surely die old." (47)

iv. " drive a cow into the stable it is necessary to take the calf in." (29)

v. "The tree that the tempest will throw down does not see the storm building up on the horizon." (41)

vi. "...the son of another is always the son of another." (46)

vii. "...good fortune makes men blind." (48)

viii. "In the world man suffers for a season but never eternally." (74)

ix. "Numbers mean nothing; it is worth that counts." (48)

x. "Oh, how power can pervert a man. If man had but a mithkal of divine power at his disposal the world would have been annihilated long ago." (42)

Homer composed the Odyssey in the 8th Century B.C. for Greek audiences. Mamoudou Kouyate and other griots have composed, or are composing, the Sundiata in the 20th Century A.D. for West African audiences. These two epics, separated by 28 centuries and a cultural gap, show such remarkable similarities as to suggest that, behind the apparent diversity of mankind, there is some uniformity. The epics, apart from being composed for entertainment, do serve a didactic purpose. Perhaps one lesson we can derive from reading the two epics is that there is something to be gained from learning about other cultures.


1. 1. Prof. Adeleye was Fulbright Professor of Classics at Monmouth College in 1992. He presented this paper at public lectures at Monmouth College, Knox College and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1992.

2. All quotations of the Odyssey are from The World's Classics' edition, translated by Walter Shewring (Oxford, 1980).

3. All quotations of the Sundiata are from D. T. Niane, Sundiata, an epic of old Mali, translated by A.D. Pickett (Longman, 1986).