L. Reclining Figure with Jewelry. R. Bamana Man.
JENNE Anonymous (aka Djenne)
13th c African (West) Jenne (Djenne) Sculpture
(active c. 800 - present)
Bamako. National Museum.
The griot who recorded the story of how the great Sundiata, the hero of the Mandinka people whose name means "Hungering Lion," established the powerful empire that dominated Mali in the 14th century. The GRIOT, one of the traditional group of singers, storytellers and historians, tells us that the last of the kings of Ghana had been killed by the Sosso king, Sumanguru "a cruel warrior and mighty sorcerer," who would in his turn be overthrown by Sundiata.
The young Sundiata was born to the ruler of Mali who came from the clan of the lion, and his second wife Sogolon, a hunchback girl with a mighty spirit who came from the buffalo clan. When Sundiata was born, the first wife was jealous and determined that she would make certain that her son Sassouma, not Sundiata, would succeed their father. It seemed as though she need not have worried, for the young Sundiata could neither speak nor walk. However, the king believed the prophecy that Sundiata would succeed him for his griot had advised him that "the young seed must endure the storm, and "from this small seed shall spring a great tree." Thus the king named Sundiata his heir and gave him his own griot. As the king lay dying, the seven year old Sundiata spoke his first word.
After the king's death, the counselor's named Sassouma, not Sundiata, as king. Sassouma persecuted Sundiata and his mother, and she wept. Seeing his mother' despair, he told her "Today I will walk," and he ordered the smiths to make him rods of sturdy iron. When the iron was laid before Sundiata his griot commanded "Arise young lion! Roar, and may the land know that from henceforth, it has a master!" As the people watched, Sundiata gripped the iron rod , which bent like a bow as he stood upright. Sundiata threw away the rod, and his first steps were those of a giant.
As the young Sundiata grew stronger and more popular with the people, the mother of his half brother feared his growing power and banished him and his griot. They lived in exile for seven years, and finally were taken in by the king of Mema who treated Sundiata like a son. Mema taught him the arts of war and of government. When messages from the Mali court came to tell him that their country was being invaded by Sumanguru, the demon king, Mema gave Sundiata a powerful force, which the young Sundiata led to the plains of Kirina, where a great battle took place. The victorious Sundiata returned to Mali where he reclaimed his throne. Twelve kings who had known him in exile gave him their kingdoms to rule, saying "You have restored peace to our lands. We give you our kingdoms to rule in your great wisdom." Thus Sundiata was established the first emperor of the great kingdom of Mali.
To this day the story of Sundiata is told by the griots of West Africa, and although the details often vary, the essentials have been confirmed by historians, with the establishment of the united kingdom of Mali dating the 1230s.
The two images shown here stand for the great Sundiata: the elegant 13th century figure of a reclining nobleman found in ancient Jenne shown on the left, a rare statue showing a man wearing a sassa, a goatskin pouch containing charms to ward off evil. The image on the right is of a young Bamana man from Mali. When I met this young man, with his power and magnetism, I thought that Sundiata, the Lion of Mali, might very easily have looked like him.
DJENNE | L. Reclining Figure with Jewelry. R. Bamana Man. | c. 1200-1299 | African | Djenne