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Anansi the spider. By Verona Spence-Adofo

Anansi the Spider: Trickster or Teacher?

The folklore stories of Anansi the Spider originate from the Asante people of Ghana and has orally been passed down over generations. The character is also known throughout West Africa and is popular in the Caribbean due to these ancient fables being carried to the region by enslaved Africans via the Atlantic slave trade.

The stories are so popular that they have influenced plays, animations and books. Anansi is still reaching new audiences. In 2017, Anansi was catapulted into mainstream popular culture after being portrayed as Mr. Nancy in the television series American Gods.

 

The name Anansi derives from the language Twi, where Ananse translates to ‘spider’. He is also known as Kwaku Ananse in the stories. He is a trickster, who uses his cunning wit to outsmart those around him. This is a running theme that occurs in all his tales, which are collectively known as ‘Anansesem’ (spider stories). In one of his famous tales he was able to win and successfully acquire a collection of stories and wisdom from Nyame who is the Supreme Force/ “God” in Akan cosmology. The Akan are an ethnic group that includes the Asante people.

Anansi is very clever and uses his intelligence and craftiness to come out triumphant in any situation. Often playing tricks on his opponents, this crafty character uses whatever means to outsmart those he comes across. In many of the fables he is very ruthless and shrewd to secure victory over other animals that are larger or stronger than him. In these tales Anansi usually faces his comeuppance in some form, as there is normally a moral to the story. Here’s an example of one of his tales:

 

One day Anansi had prepared some food. Just as he sat down, there was a knock at the door. It was the turtle, he could smell the food and asked if he could stay for lunch. Anansi did not like sharing at all, but he reluctantly let him in.  

 “You need to clean your hands before eating” Anansi said.

The turtle looked at his hands and noticed that they were indeed dirty. He went to the lake and washed his hands. By the time he came back, Anansi had already started eating.

The turtle sat down to finally eat then Anansi said, “Your hands are still dirty”.

The turtle went off again to the river and this time was careful to only walk on the grass to keep his hands clean.

By the time he got back, Anansi had selfishly eaten all the food except one tiny piece.

The turtle, who was already tired and extremely hungry by this point, decided to go home. He returned the favour by asking Anansi to join him for lunch one day.

A few days later Anansi joined turtle for dinner. Turtle lived in a house in the river beneath the water. Greedy Anansi dived straight in so he could quickly get to the food. However, he was too light and kept floating to the top. He tried running and jumping but nothing could help. Anansi decided to fill his pockets with stones so he would be heavy enough to go underwater.

 Anansi felt so happy.

Just as he was about to eat, the turtle said, “Can you remove your jacket please? In our custom we don’t wear our jackets when eating.”

Anansi removed his jacket and suddenly he rushed to the surface of the water. Anansi, now miserable and hungry, could see the turtle enjoying the meal without him.

 

It could be argued that Anansi is unscrupulous and problematic due to his greediness and lack of consideration for others. Whilst this is a reasonable analysis, a closer view of Anansi shows that there are many layers of understanding that can learned from this trickster and these childlike simplistic tales.

The art of storytelling and mythology are prominent features in African cultures as they are the means in which universal wisdom, social norms and behaviours for social cohesion are explained and passed down to future generations. The Anansi stories are no exception and by digging deeper into these children’s tales, the underlying messages as pertaining to the characteristics and behaviour of Anansi can be gleaned.

So what is Anansi teaching us?

He teaches us the value of planning in advance and being calculated in all decisions. To always stay one step ahead of the game. In essence, he is providing an education in strategy and the importance of being aware of our circumstances at all times.

Across Africa you will find throughout the various cosmologies that Nature is a prominent feature and highly revered, as it is understood that every aspect of the natural world is a manifestation of the Supreme Force aka ‘God’ each with its own purpose, characteristics and lessons to teach us.

It comes as no surprise that Anansi is depicted as an intermediary between Nyame and humanity in these tales. In African mythologies it is commonplace when depicting tricksters as they are known to cross both planes of existence (the physical and spiritual realms). In this sense, we can see a comparison with the Natural Force in Yoruba Cosmology,  Eshu.

Tere Marichal, oral narrator from Puerto Rico, reciting the story of the Afro-Caribbean tradition Anansi, at the Mayagüez Youth Library during an activity on the Multicultural Children's Book Day. By Biblioteca Juvenil Mayaguez, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91170764

Anansi. By Biblioteca Juvenil Mayaguez, CC BY-SA 4.0

 

Why was a spider chosen used to tell these particular stories?

Let’s break down and explore the concepts and teachings of spider and its significance. Spiders are resourceful and very creative. They literally have the ability to design their own realities. The average spider is said to take around one hour to construct a web, highlighting that they are extremely flexible, self-dependent and adaptable creatures who can set up a new habitat whenever required. Furthermore, these homes serve a practical function as webs are also used to catch their food. So once again the message of strategy is displayed as the spider uses it wit and skill to sustain itself in its daily life.

This independence and self-reliance may also account for Anansi’s selfish traits exhibited in the stories. By observing the spider in the natural world we can see that it can be very ruthless and calculated. It doesn’t care what may get caught its web, as long as the outcome is in its favour. Anansi carries those identical traits and this teaching serves as a wonderful example of the Hermetic Principle (Universal Law) of Polarity, which originates from Tehuti aka Thoth in Ancient Egypt (Greek name Hermes Trismegistus). The Principle of Polarity teaches us of about polar extremes and whilst Anansi may have traits deemed as “positive”, such as smart, creative and adaptable. He also contains other traits deemed as “negative” including selfishness and ruthlessness. The depiction of Anansi in these stories acknowledges that duality is always present.  What one may see as negative or positive traits in the character are just reflections of the extremes that exist within us all.  In addition, these stories highlight the consequences of our own actions. Whilst, Anansi may triumph over the other characters in the stories, he usually faces some type of repercussion in the end. Teaching us the importance of how we treat others and to be mindful of our own behaviours.

The Anansi stories are ultimately a corpus of knowledge passed down as folklore over several generations. We can see that interwoven within these classic tales are complex universal principles if the time is taken to explore the symbolic messages contained.

The Anansi stories are ultimately a corpus of knowledge passed down as folklore over several generations. We can see that interwoven within these classic tales are complex universal principles if the time is taken to explore the symbolic messages contained.

 

References & Further Reading

Kofi Bempah, Akan Traditional Religion: The Truth and the Myths (Booksurge Publishing, 2010) http://tiny.cc/ez87oz

Jack Eidt, Ashanti of Ghana: How Spider Obtained the Sky-God’s Stories

(WilderUtopia.com, 2013) http://tiny.cc/8b97oz

Molefi Kete Asante, ‘Ananse Folklore Character’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014

http://tiny.cc/7ea8oz

Prof. Geller, ‘Anansi’, Mythology.net, 2017 http://tiny.cc/uca8oz

Dalian Y Adofo, Ancestral Voices: Spirit is Eternal, Arise Ventures, 2016 http://tiny.cc/1ka8oz

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