Stories about a spider-god, Anansi or Ananse, were first told in Ghana by the Ashanti people. They were not written down but recounted from generation to generation. Gradually the stories grew and spread across Ghana and then all around West Africa. In Ghana they are called “Anansesem” meaning spider tales.
West Africans originally considered Anansi to be the creator of the world. He often acted as a go-between for humans in their dealings with the sky god Nyame, and he supposedly persuaded Nyame to give both rain and the night to people.
Anansi is one of the most popular of the animal tricksters in the mythology of West Africa, and is often called Kwaku or Kweku Ananse. Kweku means Wednesday, the day the spider-god’s soul first appeared. In some stories Anansi is the son of Nyame, the sky god, who becomes so annoyed with his son’s mischief and trickery that he turns him into a spider.
Some West African stories tell that Anansi was the creator of the world. In many stories, such as ours, he is a go-between for the humans and the sky god, Nyame.
As the stories spread across the sea to the West Indies, the tales became the Nancy stories and then became Aunt Nancy in the Southern United States, half spider, half woman who had power over the other creatures.
What sort of character is Anansi?
Anansi is a spider, but he is also a person. Sometimes he is seen as wise and even thoughtful to humans, he is said to have persuaded Nyame to give rain and night to the people. He certainly he is generally portrayed as clever, with words as well as deeds.
However, he is more often a trickster, with few scruples, who uses his wit and cunning to get an advantage over animals who are bigger and stronger than himself. His stories show him as often selfish and even cruel. Sometimes he will help other creatures, but only when it suits his own purposes.
Anansi generally uses his victims’ habits and ways of life to trick them into situations in which he is able to achieve what he wants, as in our story. His stories are popular, despite his doubtful character, because he often outwits creatures who are larger or stronger than he is. People like to identify with stories where the ‘little person’ defeats power and might (think of the popularity of David and Goliath), where they show the skills which are needed to survive in a hostile world.
How did the stories get to the Caribbean and beyond?
In 16th Century, traders with Africa began to step up the trade in people rather than goods. A cheap workforce was wanted by European owners of huge plantations in the Caribbean. West Africa proved a fruitful area to capture or buy people and transport them, in terrible conditions, in slave ships across the Atlantic to work on the plantations. The children of these enslaved people, themselves became slaves who were powerless, chained, beaten and often worked to death.
Naturally, the enslaved peoples took their stories with them and passed them on. The stories of Anansi and his exploits, of his ability to trick and defeat creatures more powerful than himself were extremely important and popular. Anansi
symbolized rebellion and the stories could give both hope and pride to enslaved people in their struggles to survive and their fights for freedom.
Of course, the stories developed and changed. Over the next decades and centuries, slaves were also bought to work in the plantations of the Southern United States. Anansi became Aunt Nancy, a spider-woman, and many of Anansi’s escapades were attributed to other creatures, or became turned around.
For example, in the version in the Southern States, it is Anansi who becomes stuck to the doll and this is later written down as Brer Rabbit who is tricked into getting stuck to a ‘Tar Baby’.
Do tricksters appear in other myths and legends?
The trickster character appears in myths and legends all over the world. They are generally creative, mischievous, cunning and funny and can often switch between human and animal form. Within Africa, there are wandering trickster spirits who bring change and quarrels. There are also many animal tricksters who, like Anansi, are small and relatively helpless. Hares and tortoises are also popular African trickster characters who outwit bigger, fiercer animals to get what they want. A well-loved story tells of Hare tricking an elephant and a hippopotamus into clearing a field for him.
In Japan, Tengu, are mischievous trickster spirits, half human and half bird with long beaks (Tengu means ‘long nose’). Hawaiian mythology has a trickster called Iwa, who owns a magic paddle that took only four strokes to get from one end of Hawaii to the other. The Polynesian hero and trickster is Maui who, like Anansi, helps humankind. He used a magic hook to fish the islands of Polynesia from the bottom of the sea. Native Australians have stories about races of tricksters known as the Nyandjala-Nyandjala and Wurulu-Wurulu, who wander through Western Australia bush doing mischief and spoiling the cave paintings of ancestral heroes.
Amongst many native Americans, Coyote is the great trickster. He is noted for his cleverness, cheating and huge appetite – but very often gets his come uppance.
In South and Central America the trickster is most often a Fox or Wolf – similar to parts of Europe. Whilst, within Norse mythology, Loki is a trickster god who can shape shift – sometimes helping other gods, sometimes causing them trouble. And, of course, tricksters abound throughout Greek mythology. Odysseus was a master trickster, famous for his ‘Wooden Horse’ which tricked the people of Troy into letting the Greeks into the city to destroy it, and also for tricking the Cyclops getting his men and himself to safety. His wife, Penelope, tricked her suitors, whilst waiting ten years for him to return!
Why do we all enjoy stories about a mischievous hero who gets away with causing trouble? Well, trickster stories make people laugh and perhaps they also appeal to our spirit of rebellion; we can enjoy the trickster’s mischief making whilst feeling quite virtuous ourselves!