The Image of a Hero: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Antigone and Sundiata

The concept of a hero, though seemingly universal, has its local nuances. This would best be exemplified by the epic of Sundiata and the tragedy of Antigone. One from West Africa and the other from Greece, these two stories speak of their cultural versions of a hero. Nevertheless, in spite of the differences, there are always those universal traits that would make the reader, irrelevant of nationality and culture, understand why the character is the hero. In this paper, I would demonstrate exactly that. I would show how the different heroes differ in characteristics, the local nuances that make the definition of a hero culture-relative. At the same time, I would show the common characteristics that define the universal traits of heroes. I will do this by first showing the specific characteristics of these local heroes. Afterwards, I will show the traits that bisect the two cultures.

Sundiata is an epic that originally form part of West Africa’s oral tradition. The epic outlines the story of Sundiata, the great king and hero, who saved Mali from the evil sorcerer king, Soumauro. The epic begins with somewhat a historical background of the hero: Sundiata’s father and mother. Sundiata’s father is Nare Fa Maghan, the ruler of Mali in 1200 A.D. Maghan’s family is said to be able to communicate with the spirits. Maghan, though already a Muslim, never abandoned the old religion of Mali, and hence, when a hunter from the North came to Maghan for a prophecy, he welcomed the prophecy and took it as real. The hunter said that two hunters would come and present to him an ugly bride. Maghan is supposed to accept this woman since she would give him the greatest leader that Mali has ever known. True enough, two hunters came, bringing a homely hunchback woman who was supposed to be the hunter’s prize for killing a hideous buffalo that plagued the land of Do. The woman’s name is Sogolon Kedju, the human double of the buffalo, earning her the title of being the Buffalo Woman. The Buffalo Woman is equipped with her own supernatural powers that would later on protect her son from being killed by Maghan’s first wife.

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Sundiata did not at first show signs of being the possible “greatest King of Mali” that the hunter said he would be. He was lazy, a glutton, and was incapable of walking on twos. Nevertheless, his father, Maghan, held on to the prophecy and said that Sundiata should be the next king. He gave Sundiata his own griot, Balla Fasseke. When Maghan died, Sassouma, the first wife, made it a point that her son, Dankaran, would be the next king. Dankaran did in fact become the next king, though Sundiata also made some progress. He was able to stand on his two feet by asking for the hardest iron possible, bending the iron rod as he lifted himself up with  it. The iron was bended into a bow in the process.

Sogolon, fearing for the life of her child, brought herself and Sundiata into exile, while Balla Fasseke and Sundiata’s half-sister was sent to a mission to the evil sorcerer king, Soumauro. Sundiata, on the other hand, grew in strength and knowledge, creating allies in the process. Once he saw merchants selling Baobob leaves in Mema, where he and his mother lived in exile. He recognized that such merchants are from Mali since Baobob trees are only available in Mali. He learned from them that Soumauro took over Mali. From thence, he resolved to get back what is his and created war allies. He won the battles and only had the sorcerer to defeat. At first he thought that the sorcerer, because of his magic, was invincible. But later on he learned of the sorcerer’s weakness from his half-sister who became the wife of Soumauro. He defeated the sorcerer king and later on became the greatest king of Mali, the king whom the other kings paid homage to.

From such a story, we could already learn of some of the characteristics of Sundiata: he was descended from a royal family who could communicate with the spirits. His mother is not your normal human being as well. Sundiata did not grow up as normal human beings do, at the same time showing powers (like that of bending the iron rod) that children would definitely not be able to do. He had such a charisma that he could easily form allies, such intelligence in warfare that he won the battles in spite of being outnumbered, and such strength that strong people yielded to him. He was almost not human in his lineage, capabilities, and intelligence. He would then be the West African hero who was much better than everyone in all aspects. This would then be defined as the African hero, the savior of Mali, the person who would represent the African ideal.

Antigone, the Greek tragic hero, on the other hand, had different qualities. Actually, we ought to mention that there are two probable tragic heroes in the Antigone: Creon and Antigone. Creon is the king of Thebes who decided that his nephew, Polyneices, should not be buried nor be given burial rites because he died attacking Thebes, trying to get Thebes from his brother Eteocles. Polyneices’ body was left rotting, animals eating it. Creon mandated that nobody should ever attempt to give rites to this body. Antigone, Polyneices’ sister and Creon’s niece, went against this mandate in spite of the heavy punishment attached to breaking the mandate. One night, she went to Polyneices’ body and gave him burial rights and even covered him with dust. Creon learned about this and sent her to exile in a faraway cave.  Meanwhile, Creon was visited by the respected old prophet Tereisias. Tereisias told him of tragedies to come if he does not change his stand regarding Polyneices’ burial. Creon, moved by fear of things that may come, decided to go to Antigone and free her, and probably later on to bury Polyneices. He came in too late since Antigone already hung herself, with Haemon, Creon’s son, with her. Haemon later on killed himself as well. Eurydice, Creon’s wife, learned about death of Haemon and Antigone and killed herself as well. All these happened because of Creon’s stubbornness.

Now, since there are two possible tragic heroes, let us look at the characteristics both of Antigone and Creon. Antigone has an almost fanatic love for her brother, a homage to family that went beyond reason. She is very passionate, and would bring herself to do something even if such would mean her demise. She did come from a royal family, though there is nothing supernatural about it. She also did not have any magical powers nor any special relation with the gods. Simply, she was as human as everyone else. Creon, on the other hand, was stubborn as he held on to his decision until the repercussions proved to be untenable anymore. He did show enough care for his family as he took care of his nephews and nieces, but did not care enough as he allowed Antigone to be exiled and Polyneices body to rot. Again, just like Antigone, he did not have supernatural powers as well. He also was not above the weaknesses of human nature as his strengths proved to be his very weakness.

So far, we see that the African hero is almost a demi-god: equipped with all the virtues that remain an ideal to many; has supernatural relations; has a not-so-normal childhood that could not happen to any average human being; and is the only possible savior of a nation that has been conquered by evil. All these make Sundiata admirable but never replicable. Creon and Antigone, on the other hand, had both virtues and vices, were normal human beings, and had no supernatural relations. They represented human beings, though their tragic story allowed them space to be items in a cultural tragedy.

Nevertheless, in spite of these differences, there are also similarities that would make all of them heroes: it is that they are models for their people of what to emulate and what not to emulate.

We have seen that what is common among the heroes is that they all had qualities worth looking up to, though, due to cultural differences, the concept of what makes one a hero varies.