Featured Folk Tale Character: Anansi

photo credit: Calsidyrose @ flickr.com

Q: So who are we talking about this time?

A:  Anansi.

Q:  Bless you!

A:  No,  Anansi!  Kweku Anansi the Spider, God of Stories and Mischief.

Q: A spider?  That sounds horrifying. And a spider God sounds even worse.

A: He’s not really so much a God of spiders, and his activities aren’t so very spidery.  He is a spider, but in most Anansi tales he behaves very much like a man.  In fact he is a trickster character, usually using his cunning to outwit and manipulate others, (you know, leopards, monkeys, other gods, that sort of thing), although sometimes he’s too clever for his own good.  He’s a very powerful and old god, with fingers (or rather, legs) in many different mythological and supernatural pies; he determines the borders between the land and the oceans, he brings the rains to quench forest fires, and in some versions he is credited with creating the sun, the moon, the stars and even the first man, into whom his father, Nyame the Sky God, first breathed life.  However, he is of interest to us primarily because he is also the possessor of the knowledge of all stories, a knowledge which he obtained through trickery from Nyame (it involved a python, a leopard, some hornets, a dwarf and some glue; look it up if you don’t believe me).

Q: So is he a bad guy in these stories?

A:  Not really, no.  Anansi stories (and there are so many of them that they form their own genre called Anansasem) are told to entertain and to teach moral lessons. Sometimes Anansi  uses his cunning for his own greedy ends, in which case the moral often comes at his own expense, but often he uses his brains to overcome a stronger, threatening opponent, so Anansi has become a symbol of brains over brawn and a hero of the oppressed.   Not only that, but his web is supposed to have inspired humans to weave fabric, build houses and link themselves together to form a strong, balanced society.

Q:  So where’s this busy gentleman from? 

A:  It is believed he originates from the Ashanti culture in Ghana, but he’s travelled far and wide since then, becoming popular throughout much of West Africa, before the advent of the slave trade meant that he too crossed the Atlantic and wound up in all the same places as the people who told his stories: Jamaica, Haiti (in fact most of the Caribbean), South America, Belize, and the southern states of the USA, particularly Georgia and South Carolina in the Gullah culture.  Along the way he changes his name a number of times.  He’s Hanansi, Compe Anansi, Ayiyi and, by the time he fetches up on the shores of the United States and in the Br’er Rabbit stories, Aunt Nancy.

Q:  Is it this history that gives him the “hero of the oppressed” reputation you just mentioned?

A:  Precisely.  Anansi survived by being passed along through the oral tradition of storytelling, and it should be of no surprise given the circumstances of their telling that the stories that have survived are often the ones in which Anansi  becomes the champion of the powerless, using only his cleverness to defeat those much stronger than him.

 Don’t say:  Gross!  A Spider!!  SQUISH IT!!!

 Do say: A story.  Pass the rich tradition of Anansi on to the next generation by reading one of the many wonderful Anansi stories aloud to a younger listener.  Try Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott, or Anansi and the Talking Melon by Eric A. Kimmel.

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