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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Date of Award

Spring 2016

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Department of History

Advisor(s)

Timothy J. Fitzgerald

Abstract

This thesis offers a detailed historical analysis of The Epic of Askia Mohammed, a foundational myth that ranks among the more well-known global tales of cultural heroes and state formation. The sudden regime change that resulted in the collapse of the Songhay Sunni dynasty and the ascent of the Songhay Askia dynasty in 1492-93 is one of the most important events in West African history. This swift rebellion reversed decades of destructive economic and religious policies. As such, the memory of these dynamic and transformative times was captured by the griots, the oral historians of the Sudan. Nouhou Malio, a Songhay griot, recounted his version of the demise of Sunni Ali and the rise of Askia Mohammed to Penn State professor Thomas Hale in 1980-81. This tale is packed with symbolic meaning. When placed in historical and cultural context, one finds that Malio communicated complex social and political ideas in what Joseph Campbell termed "the picture language of mythology." Campbell's theory of the Hero's Journey is the standard against which the themes of the epic are gauged. The epic is compared to the historical record in order to find the deeper meaning and kernels of truth buried in the allegories of the tale. Sunni Ali is remembered as a great warrior and a magician-king, while Askia Mohammed is viewed as an able administrator and devout Muslim. This is a false dichotomy. A nuanced understanding is achieved upon close investigation into the period of regime change. Ultimately, one finds that the epic is brimming with details concerning the Songhay past and present and that the players are much more complex than popularly perceived.

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