Sundiata was an actual historical figure, and while his story is considered to be reasonably factual, it's also extremely fantastical. The fantastical and magical elements of the story serve several purposes. First, they paint a picture of the relationship between local spirituality (in the form of jinn and nature spirits) and Islam, which greatly influenced the cultures of West Africa, even when most West Africans weren't actually Muslim in practice. The elements of magic and fantasy also illustrate divides between good and evil, and support the importance of fate and destiny.
Throughout the story, magic is governed by strict rules of conduct. Magic isn't something that sorcerers or witches can use without cause or reason, and the story implies that doing so results in a person’s downfall. This idea is first introduced when Sassouma makes an assassination attempt on Sundiata by sending nine witches to kill him. The witches, who have no issue with Sundiata, must devise a plan to expose Sundiata as cruel and unkind before they can justify killing him. When Sundiata proves himself to be exceptionally kind and generous to the witches, they vow to protect him. Sassouma’s attempt to wrongfully use magic backfires, which sets up the idea that magic and protection are things that must be earned and deserved.
One of the primary differences between Sundiata and Soumaoro is their relationship to magic and religion. Sundiata, having come of age in the primarily Islamic town of Mema, is well versed in using both Islamic religion and local religion, as necessary. This allows him to relate to diverse groups of people and it gives him a variety of spiritual tools to draw from, which magnifies his power. Soumaoro, on the other hand, is described as an "evil demon" and his city of Sosso is "the bulwark of fetishism against the word of Allah." Essentially, Soumaoro is corrupted by his insistence on only observing local spiritual practices. While Soumaoro's reign is bloody and terrifying for all because of his use of black or evil magic, Sundiata's reign is peaceful because he embraces and honors both Islam and nature spirits. This indicates that a balance between the two belief systems isn't only possible, it's entirely necessary for peace and prosperity.
While Sundiata is undeniably a great hero, magic is described as something that he can't simply possess just by being destined for heroism. Rather, it's something he must earn. One of the primary ways that Sundiata earns favor of the spirits is through sacrifices. Throughout the battles of the story, Sundiata consistently sacrifices cocks, rams, and bulls, and in return, the jinn grant Sundiata brilliance and increased power. While Sundiata is a very powerful man in his own right, the sacrifices he makes to spirits indicate that magic is far more powerful than he is. The favor shown to Sundiata by the spirits reinforces the righteousness of his destiny, but the necessity of his sacrifices establishes that not even Sundiata can conquer everything. Reckoning with some forces in the world requires humility; Sundiata must earn the favor of jinn and spirits like anyone else, and his willingness to do so allows him to experience triumph and greatness.
Magic and Religion ThemeTracker
Magic and Religion Quotes in Sundiata
The silk-cotton tree springs from a tiny seed—that which defies the tempest weighs in its germ no more than a grain of rice. Kingdoms are like trees; some will be silk-cotton trees, others will remain dwarf palms and the powerful silk-cotton tree will cover them with its shade.
The child will be the seventh star, the seventh conqueror of the earth. He will be more mighty than Alexander.
Soothsayers see far ahead, their words are not always for the immediate present; man is in a hurry but time is tardy and everything has its season.
“Listen, Djata,” said Soumosso Konkomba, “we had come here to test you. We have no need of condiments but your generosity disarms us. We were sent here by the queen mother to provoke you and draw the anger of the nocturnal powers upon you. But nothing can be done against a heart full of kindness.”