Anansi (// ə-NAHN-see) the trickster is a West African god. He often takes the shape of a spider and is considered to be the god of all knowledge of stories. He is also one of the most important characters of West African and Caribbean folklore.
He is also known as Ananse, Kwaku Ananse, and Anancy; and in the southern United States he has evolved into Aunt Nancy. He is a spider, but often acts and appears as a man.
The Anansi tales are believed to have originated in the Ashanti people in Ghana. (The word Anansi is Akan and means, simply, spider.) They later spread to other Akan groups and then to the West Indies, Suriname, and the Netherlands Antilles. On Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire he is known as Nanzi, and his wife as Shi Maria.
Anansi is depicted in many different ways. Sometimes he looks like an ordinary spider, sometimes he is a spider wearing clothes or with a human face and sometimes he looks much more like a human with spider elements, such as eight legs.
Anansi tales are some of the best-known amongst the Asante people of Ghana The stories made up an exclusively oral tradition, and indeed Ananse himself was synonymous with skill and wisdom in speech. It was as remembered and told tales that they crossed to the Caribbean and other parts of the New World with captives via the Atlantic slave trade. In the Caribbean Anansi is often celebrated as a symbol of slave resistance and survival. Anansi is able to turn the table on his powerful oppressors using his cunning and trickery, a model of behaviour utilised by slaves to gain the upper-hand within the confines of the plantation power structure. Anansi is also believed to have played a multi-functional role in slaves’ lives, as well as inspiring strategies of resistance the tales enabled slaves to establish a sense of continuity with their African past and offered them the means to transform and assert their identity within the boundaries of captivity. As historian Lawrence W. Levine argues in Black Culture and Consciousness, slaves in the New World devoted “the structure and message of their tales to the compulsions and needs of their present situation” (1977, 90).
Stories of Anansi became such a prominent and familiar part of Ashanti oral culture that the word Anansesem—"spider tales"—came to embrace all kinds of fables. One of the few studies that examines the role of Anansi folktales among the Ashanti of Ghana is R.S. Rattray’s Akan-Ashanti Folk-Tales (1930). The tales in Rattray’s collection were recorded directly from Ashanti oral storytelling sessions and published in both English and Twi.Peggy Appiah, who collected Anansi tales in Ghana and published many books of his stories, wrote: "So well known is he that he has given his name to the whole rich tradition of tales on which so many Ghanaian children are brought up – anansesem – or spider tales." Elsewhere they have other names, for instance Ananse-Tori in Suriname, Nansi in Guyana, and Kuent'i Nanzi in Curaçao.
For Africans in the diaspora, the Jamaican versions of these stories are the most well preserved, because Jamaica had the largest concentration of Asante as slaves. All Anansi stories in Jamaica have a proverb at the end. At the end of the story, Anansi and Brah Dead there is a proverb that suggests that even in times of slavery, Anansi was referred to as his Akan original name: Kwaku Anansi. The proverb is: Yu cyaan ketch Kwaku, yu ungle ketch him shirt., which refers to when Brah Dead(brother death or drybones), a personification of Death, was chasing Anansi to kill him.
How Anansi got his stories
There is an Anansi story that explains the phenomenon of how his name became attached to the whole corpus of tales:
Once there were no stories in the world. The Sky-God, Nyame, had them all. Anansi went to Nyame and asked how much they would cost to buy.
Nyame set a high price: Anansi must bring back Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, the Mmoboro Hornets, and Mmoatia the faries.
Anansi set about capturing these. First he went to where Python lived and debated out loud whether Python was really longer than the palm branch or not as his wife Aso says. Python overheard and, when Anansi explained the debate, agreed to lie along the palm branch. Because he cannot easily make himself completely straight a true impression of his actual length is difficult to obtain, so Python agreed to be tied to the branch. When he was completely tied, Anansi took him to Nyame.
To catch the leopard, Anansi dug a deep hole in the ground. When the leopard fell in the hole Anansi offered to help him out with his webs. Once the leopard was out of the hole he was bound in Anansi's webs and was carried away.
To catch the hornets, Anansi filled a calabash with water and poured some over a banana leaf he held over his head and some over the nest, calling out that it was raining. He suggested the hornets get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening.
To catch the dwarf he made a doll and covered it with sticky gum. He placed the doll under the Odum (Tree of Life) where the dwarfs play and put some yam in a bowl in front of it. When the dwarf came and ate the yam she thanked the doll which of course did not reply. Annoyed at its bad manners she struck it, first with one hand then the other. The hands stuck and Anansi captured her.
Anansi handed his captives over to Nyame. Nyame rewarded him by making him the god of all stories.
Variants of this story
There are many variants of this tale, both recorded from oral sources and published. Indeed the number of children's illustrated book versions of this one tale demonstrates how successfully Anansi has made the transition into literature. The summary above is of an illustrated book version Anansi does the impossible, an Ashanti tale retold by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Lisa Desimini.
Another picture book version is the Caldecott Medal winning A Story a Story retold and illustrated by Gail E. Haley, which takes its title from a traditional Ashanti way of beginning such tales: "We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go" and finishes traditionally with: "This is my story which I have related. If it be sweet, or if it be not sweet, take some elsewhere, and let some come back to me."
There are many other children's adaptations of this story including:
- Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott
- The Hat-Shaking Dance and Other Tales from the Gold Coast by Harold Courlander
- Ananse and the Box of Stories: A West African Folktale by Stephen Krensky
- The Story Thief by Andrew Fusek Peters
- Spider and the Sky God: An Akan Legend by Deborah M. Newton Chocolate
- Anancy and the Sky God: Caribbean Favourite Tales by Ladybird Books
- Ananse by Brian Gleeson
- The Magic of Ananse
Anansi and the dispersal of wisdom
Another story tells of how Anansi once tried to hoard all of the world's wisdom in a pot (in some versions a calabash). Anansi was already very clever, but he decided to gather together all the wisdom he could find and keep it in a safe place.
With all the wisdom sealed in a pot, he was still concerned that it was not safe enough, so he secretly took the pot to a tall thorny tree in the forest (in some versions the silk cotton tree). His young son, Ntikuma, saw him go and followed him at some distance to see what he was doing.
The pot was too big for Anansi to hold while he climbed the tree, so he tied it in front of him. Like this the pot was in the way and Anansi kept slipping down, getting more and more frustrated and angry with each attempt.
Ntikuma laughed when he saw what Anansi was doing. "Why don't you tie the pot behind you, then you will be able to grip the tree?" he suggested.
Anansi was so annoyed by his failed attempts and the realisation that his child was right that he let the pot slip. It smashed and all the wisdom fell out. Just at this moment a storm arrived and the rain washed the wisdom into the stream. It was taken out to sea, and spread all around the world, so that there is now a little of it in everyone.
Though Anansi chased his son home through the rain, he was reconciled to the loss, for, he says: "What is the use of all that wisdom if a young child still needs to put you right?"
Relationship between Anansi and Br'er Rabbit
Anansi shares similarities with the trickster figure of Br'er Rabbit, who originated from the folklore of the Bantu-speaking peoples of south and central Africa. Enslaved Africans brought the Br'er Rabbit tales to the New World, which, like the Anansi stories, depict a physically small and vulnerable creature using his cunning intelligence to prevail over larger animals. However, although Br'er Rabbit stories are told in the Caribbean, especially in the French-speaking islands (where he is named “Compair Lapin”), he is predominantly an African American folk hero. The rabbit as a trickster is also in Akan versions as well and a Bantu origin doesn't have to be the main source, at least for the Caribbean where the Akan people are more dominant than in the U.S. His tales entered the mainstream through the work of the white American journalist Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote several collections of Uncle Remus stories between 1870 and 1906.
One of the times Anansi himself was tricked was when he tried to fight a tar baby after trying to steal food, but became stuck to it instead. It is a tale well known from a version involving Br'er Rabbit, found in the Uncle Remus stories and adapted and used in the 1946 live-action/animated Walt Disney movie Song of the South. These were derived from African-American folktales in the Southern United States, that had part of their origin in African folktales preserved in oral storytelling by African-Americans. Elements of the African Anansi tale were combined by African-American storytellers with elements from Native American tales, such as the Cherokee story of the "Tar Wolf", which had a similar theme, but often had a trickster rabbit as a protagonist. The native American trickster rabbit appears to have resonated with African-American story-tellers and was adopted as a cognate of the Anansi character with which they were familiar. Other authorities state the widespread existence of similar stories of a rabbit and tar baby throughout indigenous Meso-American and South American cultures. Thus, the tale of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby represents a coming together of two separate folk traditions, American and African, which coincidentally shared a common theme. Most of the other Br'er Rabbit stories originated with Cherokee or Algonquin myths. In the USA today, the stories of Br'er Rabbit exist alongside other stories of Aunt Nancy, and of Anansi himself, coming from both the times of slavery and also from the Caribbean and directly from Africa.
Anansi is a god, who acts on behalf of Nyame, his father and the sky god. He brings rain to stop fires and performs other duties for him. His mother is Asase Ya. There are several mentions of Anansi's children, the first son often being named as Ntikuma. According to some stories his wife is known as Miss Anansi or Mistress Anansi but most commonly as Aso. He is depicted as a spider, a human, or combinations thereof.
References in popular culture
Anansi appears in two episodes of the Disney cartoon series Gargoyles. Anansi was depicted as a giant spider-spirit in the episode "Mark Of The Panther". He also appeared in the first part of "The Gathering", where he was seen returning to Avalon; this stated that he was one of Oberon's subjects.
In the Kids' WB television program Static Shock, Anansi the Spider is a major superhero in Africa. Anansi is part of a lineage of heroes whose powers stem from an ancient amulet, which grants powers of illusion and the ability to adhere to any surface. He first appears in "Static in Africa", where Static visits Africa, and the two join forces to fight the villain Oseba the Leopard. Anansi returns in "Out of Africa", in which he comes to Dakota City where Static and Gear help him recover his amulet from Oseba, who is this time joined by Onini the Snake and Mmoboro the Wasp.
American Gods is a novel by Neil Gaiman that contains Anansi (under the name Mr. Nancy), among other mythological characters. A later Gaiman novel, Anansi Boys, follows the sons of Anansi as they discover each other and their heritage.
The English rock band Skunk Anansie (1994–2001, 2009–present) took the name of the spider man of the West African folk tales, but with a slightly different spelling, and added "Skunk" to the name, in order to make the name nastier.
Anansi the Spider narrated stories from African folklore on the PBS children's series Sesame Street. He was voiced by Ossie Davis. These cartoon segments were introduced by Sonia Manzano, who plays Maria on that show.
- The Sun and the Moon
- Monkey and Baboon's Compromise
- The Little Mouse
In the Marvel Comics series The Amazing Spider-Man volume 2 (2003), it is revealed by Ezekiel (comics) that Kwaku Anansi was the first Spider-Man. Anansi sold himself to Nyame the sky-god in return for wisdom, and passed his knowledge on to spiders.
In an arc of DC Comics' Justice League of America, the team faces Anansi. The character was first mentioned in Justice League of America No. 23, but was not named until Justice League of America #24. According to Vixen, he is the West African trickster god and "owns all stories". Anansi appears in several forms, the most common form being a large, other-worldly spider with supernatural powers. He has been manipulating the powers of Vixen and Animal Man. He initially appears to be villainous, but then reveals after he is "defeated" that his machinations were in fact intended to teach Vixen a lesson and prepare her for some coming disaster.
In the Marvel Comics mini-series Spider-Man Fairy Tales a story is told where Spider-Man takes on the role of Anansi. He is on a quest to gain more power after feeling unappreciated. After encountering elemental aspects (the Fantastic Four), and a guardian of a sacred garden (Swarm), he realizes the greatest power is friendship.
In the science fiction novel The Descent of Anansi, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, the main characters manage to land a damaged spacecraft on Earth with the aid of a very strong cable made of crystalline iron and the "force" generated by tidal effects. The title is based on the image of the spacecraft hanging from the cable like a spider on a thread.
Children's singer Raffi wrote and recorded the song "Anansi" for his 1978 Corner Grocery Store album. The song describes Anansi as a spider and a man. It tells a story about Anansi being lazy yet clever, using flattery to trick some crows into shaking loose ripe mangoes from his mango tree for Anansi to enjoy without having to pick them himself.
In the PC game Shivers, Anansi appears in a music box that tells the tale of the spider tricking a lizard and the gods. In another PC game, Pandora's Box, Anansi is one of the tricksters that has to be captured.
The very first Anancy animated film was produced by Lalu Hanuman in 2000, called Anancy Turns Over A New Leaf. He followed this up in 2001 with a second Anancy animated film Anancy's Healthy Diet. In 2001 also, the National Film Board of Canada produced the animated short film The Magic of Anansi as part of its Talespinners collection of short films based on children's stories from Canada's cultural communities.
In the Marvel comic Herc during the Spider-Island story arc, a man in name of A. Nancy appears several times as a traveling story teller. It's revealed that in fact he is the Spider god of legend, and while Herc has Arachne occupied, he steals Arachne's mythical tapestry that got her bound to her cursed form adding it to his collection. He promptly then disappears
Clean Sweep, a novel by Ilona Andrews, includes a reference to Anansi mythology when the characters purchase Anansi bombs that release a spider horde.
- Bru Nansi (Virgin Islands)
- Annancy or Anancy (Jamaica, Grenada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Nicaragua)
- Anansi (Trinidad and Tobago)
- Anansi Drew (The Bahamas)
- Aunt Nancy (In South Carolina, Aunt Nancy is sometimes used as folk name for the spider, because the term is the Americanized version of Anansi).
- Cha Nanzi (Aruba)
- Kompa Nanzi (Curaçao, Bonaire)
- Pablo Barnansi (S. Quanderer)
- Compé Anansi
- Kwaku Anansi (Akan)
- Anansi the one who tricks (Anansiil)
- Ba Anansi (Suriname)
- Kacou Ananzè
- Haase, Donald (2008). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 31. ISBN 0-313-33441-2.
- See for instance Ashanti linguist staff finial in the Metropolitan Museum of Art which relates to the saying "No one goes to the house of the spider Ananse to teach him wisdom."
- Cynthia James (2004). Searching for Ananse: From Orature to Literature in the West Indian Children’s Folk Tradition—Jamaican and Trinidadian Trends (Word Document). Trinidad University of the West Indes. Archived from the original on 5 January 2009. Retrieved 16 December 2008.
- Zobel Marshall, Emily (2012) Anansi's Journey: A Story of Jamaican Cultural Resistance. University of the West Indies Press: Kingston, Jamaica. ISBN 978-9766402617
- Appiah, Peggy (1988). Tales of an Ashanti Father. Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-8313-5.
- Aardema, Verna (2000). Ananse does the impossible. Aladdin Paperbacks. ISBN 0-689-83933-2.
- Haley, Gail E. (1999). A Story a Story. Topeka Bindery. ISBN 0-88103-606-4. Anansi has to bring back Leopard not Python in this adaptation,
- Kwesi Yankah (1983). The Akan Trickster Cycle: Myth or Folktale? (PDF). Trinidad University of the West Indes. Archived from the original on 10 December 2008. Retrieved 16 December 2008.
- McDermott, Gerald (1972). Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti. Turtleback Books. p. 48. ISBN 0-606-20938-7.
- Courlander, Harold (1957). The Hat-Shaking Dance and Other Tales from the Gold Coast. Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-233615-8.
- Krensky, Stephen (2007). Ananse and the Box of Stories: A West African Folktale. Millbrook Press. p. 48. ISBN 0-8225-6741-5.
- Peters, Andrew Fusek (2007). The Story Thief. A & C Black. ISBN 978-0-7136-8421-6.
- Chocolate, Deborah M. Newton (1997). Spider and the Sky God: An Akan Legend. Troll Communications. ISBN 0-8167-2812-7.
- Anancy and the Sky God: Caribbean Favourite Tales. Ladybird. 2005. ISBN 1-84422-688-3.
- Gleeson, Brian (1992). Ananse. Neugebauer Press. ISBN 0-88708-231-9.A Caribbean version where the stories come from Tiger. Also produced in film version, narrated by Denzel Washington with music by UB40; see Rabbit Ears Productions media and release information
- A short film of the Caribbean tale, directed by Jamie Mason and produced by Tamara Lynch for the National Film Board of Canada. The film can he see online here
- One version is given in Appiah, Peggy; illustrated by Mora Dickson (1969). The Pineapple Child and Other Tales from the Ashanti. London: Andre Deutsch Ltd. ISBN 0-233-95875-4.
- Zobel Marshall, Emily (2012) Anansi's Journey: A Story of Jamaican Resistance. University of the West Indies Press: Kingston, Jamaica ISBN 978-9766402617
- James Mooney, "Myths of the Cherokee", Dstoriesover 1995, pp. 271–273, 232–236, 450. Reprinted from a Government Printing Office publication of 1900.
- Jace Weaver, That the People Might Live : Native American Literatures and Native American Community, Oxford University Press November 1997, p. 4
- Enrique Margery : "The Tar-Baby Motif", p. 9. In :- LATIN AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURES JOURNAL, Vol. 6 (1990), pp. 1–13
- Cherokee Place Names in the Southeastern U.S., Part 6 « Chenocetah’s Weblog
- "Biography: Skunk Anansie". Allmusic. Retrieved 22 November 2005.
- Straczynski, J. Michael (w), Romita Jr, John (p), Hannah, Scott (i). "A Spider's Tale" The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2 #48 (February 2003)
- the British Film Institute's film archives
- "The Magic of Anansi" (Requires Adobe Flash). Online film. Montreal: National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 17 June 2011.
Sources / Further reading
- Ishmael, Odeen (2010). The Magic Pot: Nansi Stories From the Caribbean. Xlibris. ISBN 978-1-4535-3903-3.
- Marshall, Emily Zobel (September 2007). "Liminal Anansi: Symbol of Order and Chaos An Exploration of Anansi's Roots Amongst the Asante of Ghana". Caribbean Quarterly 53 (3): 30–40. JSTOR 40654609.
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