Wednesday, 2 December 2009
Black Star: Anansi the Spider
Anansi the trickster is one of the most important characters of West African and Caribbean folklore. He is also known as Anase, Kweku 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 story of Anansi is akin to the Coyote or Raven trickster found in many Native American cultures.
The Anansi tales are believed to have originated in the Ashanti tribe 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 Curacao, Aruba, and Bonaire he is known as Nanzi, and his wife as Shi Maria.
Anansi is a culture hero, 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. According to some myths 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.
In some beliefs, Anansi is responsible for creating the sun, the stars and the moon, as well as teaching mankind the techniques of agriculture. Another story tells of how Anansi tried to hoard all of the world's wisdom in a calabash. In the end he realizes the futility of trying to keep all the wisdom to himself, and releases it.
Anansi tales are some of the best-known in West Africa. The stories made up an exclusively oral tradition, and indeed Anansi 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.
One of his stories is called "Anansi and The Turtle", the moral to this story is if you try to outsmart somebody that person might outsmart you.
**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. 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 Anansi-Tori in Suriname and Kuent'i Nanzi in Curaçao.
There is an Anansi story that explains the phenomenon of how his name became attached to the whole corpus of tales:
How Anansi got his stories
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 dwarf.
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 though 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, 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 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. Anansi captured her.
Anansi handed his captives over to Nyame who rewards him with the stories, which now become known as Anansi stories or Anansesem.
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 well-known 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."
Many Anansi stories deal with him attempting to trick people into allowing him to steal food or money, or something else that could turn a profit, but frequently the tricks ultimately backfire on Anansi.
One of the few 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. The "tar-baby" tale appears in a variety of ethnic African folklore tale. It is best known from the Brer Rabbit version, found in the Uncle Remus stories. These were derived from African-American folktales in the Southern United States. Ultimately this version was adapted and used in the 1946 live-action/animated Walt Disney movie Song of the South.
*In the Disney cartoon Gargoyles, Anansi was depicted as a giant spider in the episode "Mark Of The Panther". He also appeared in the first part of "The Gathering". In the episode he was seen returning to Avalon. This stated that he was one of Oberon's subjects.
In the Kid's 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", where he come to Dakota City and Static and Gear help him recover his amulet from Oseba, who is this time joined by Onini the Snake and Mmoboro the Locust.
**American Gods is a novel by Neil Gaiman that features Anansi (under the name Mr. Nancy), among other mythological characters. A later novel, Anansi Boys, follows the sons of Anansi as they discover each other and their heritage.
*The English rock band Skunk Anansie (1994-2001) 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 series Sesame Street. He was voiced by Ossie Davis. These cartoon segments were introduced by Sonia Manzano who plays Maria on that show.
*In an arc of DC Comics' Justice League of America, the team faces Anansi. The character was first mentioned in Justice League of America #23, but wasn't 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.
*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.
Author China Mieville cast Anansi as a prominent supporting character in his first novel, King Rat, published in 1998.
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 mangos 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.
Other names for Anansi the Spider
Annancy or Anancy (Jamaica, Grenada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Nicaragua)
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).
Kompa Nanzi (Netherlands Antilles)
Kweku Anansi (Akan)
Anansi the one who tricks (Anansiil)