The stories we tell provide keen insight into the lives we live.
Something as simple as a minute-long anecdote can surmise our day, capture our mood, profess long-held insecurities and announce our ambitions. It might be something said in person, like familial confessions offered at semi-annual gatherings, or conversations we have with strangers over the phone, their willingness to acknowledge our words tantamount to absolution. To have people hear our stories soothes us and to hear the stories of others informs us to lives we’ll never live but perhaps might understand that bit better once the telling is done. We have our favorite tales memorized for times of strife and our favorite characters held close in case of danger. We have idioms and expressions that draw upon tales of tremendous turmoil - and just like the stories that endure, a hero persists. This hero might not arrive in the form we anticipated or the shape we expected, but depending on where we find ourselves and the predicaments we face, these heroes might just be what we need.
Perhaps nowhere is this notion of an evolving hero more apt than in the case of Anansi, the champion for all seasons and the hero for all people.
West African Interpretation of Anansi
The origins of Anansi can be traced back to the people of Ashanti, the largest of the Akan ethnolinguistic groups from what is now present-day Ghana. The Ashanti kingdom was formed after the unification of numerous tribes and communities under one King, known as the Asantehene. The Asantehene represented the topmost status in the Ashanti Kingdom which was organized as a hierarchal society, with strict frameworks and passionately dichotomic beliefs that separated the earthly plains from those spiritual. Their sky father Nyame contrasted their omnipotent king, and the village they knew was contrasted by the magical bush where instead of animals there lurked creatures, and instead of people, there existed glorious deities.
It was in this environment that Anansi was allowed to shine.
The stories that perpetuated Anansi’s myth characterized the trickster as someone who could transcend the plains, existing in tandem with humankind and deities. His aptitude for deception was aided by his ability to change forms, as the trickster often appeared as a spider who could take on the shape of humans and animals, swapping genders, detaching limbs, distorting natural law and changing form depending on his predicament. The rogue’s love of language and cunning compensated for his naturally weak stature and allowed him to escape the wrath of those who he wronged until - as was often the case - the scoundrel was served his comeuppance.
For the people of the Ashanti, Anansi was seen as a disruptive force, one that pushed back against the rules and authorities, both in the spiritual realm and on earth. In any one of the Ashanti tales, the swindling spider could take on the sky father Nyam and the Asantehene in a single breath. He could run rings around the people deemed untouchable under regular circumstances and make them look foolish without needing fear of retribution. His existence and the telling of his countless misadventures gave people who existed under strict structures a means to voice their frustrations. His tales were seen as a release but also reinforced the communal ethos that governed the people of the Ashanti, as his attempts to manipulate deities and the Asantehene often failed, warning others about the dangers of individualism. The stories of Anansi granted the people of Ashanti the chance to scrutinize their social structures, making sense of the rules that worked and those that did not. The stories offered them the chance to enact change when change was needed and hold strong when the latter was most applicable.
One such example of an Anansi tale during this time follows the local curmudgeon Take No Dispute encountering the spider and falling victim to the trickster’s charms. The story begins with Take No Dispute relaxing beneath a palm tree with his acquaintance deer mouse. The two characters had spent the better part of the day together when a fistful of palm nuts fell from the branches of the tree above and landed in the deer mouse’s lap. The small creature informed his friend Take No Dispute that his nuts have ripened, and as the curmudgeon detailed what he wished to do with his nuts - that he would take them to market and purchase an elderly woman that contains within her his mother, and himself, and watch himself be born – the mouse disagreed. Take No Dispute, as his namesake suggests, wished to take no dispute, and whacked the mouse over the head, killing the small creature stone-cold dead.
In the days that followed, the pattern continued as animal after animal spent the day with Take No Dispute, informing him that his palm nuts had ripened, and when the curmudgeon detailed his intentions for the ripe nuts, the same outcome prevailed – whack! another animal’s life lost to the stubbornness of Take No Dispute. This sequence of events continued, until one day, the local scoundrel, the spider Anansi, arrived at the curmudgeon’s door. The spider spent the day with the curmudgeon, listening to him detail his plans for his ripe pine nuts, and when the moment came for the curmudgeon to whack the spider atop the head for disagreeing with his whims, Take No Dispute instead found attentive ears awaiting his words. The spider professed fondness for the curmudgeon’s plans, and before leaving, invited the lonesome character to his home for dinner. The curmudgeon agreed, and the next evening, the two characters, along with Anansi’s children, sat down to eat.
The curmudgeon arrived at dinner with an appetite, exchanging pleasantries with the spider who instructed his children to fetch their guest something to eat. The children prepared one fillet of fish and packed their guest’s plate with peppers so hot, that when the curmudgeon sat down to eat, he requested a pitcher of water almost at once. The children informed their guest that their mother had been out during the morning, and while fetching water to fill her jug had dropped the container, losing almost all of her liquids, causing her to return to the source and refill what was lost. The curmudgeon accepted their tale but insisted on his need for water. The children informed the man that without their mother’s water jug, there was none they could offer. Their father’s jug was off limits, and their mother’s fellow wife’s jug was off limits too. The curmudgeon, stifling with the heat, rose from his chair, and pointing a vindictive finger at the spider’s children, bellowed, ‘You’re lying, you punks!’
It was then that Anansi rose from his seat and ridiculed the curmudgeon, saying, ‘Take No Dispute, you take no dispute, but dispute with others all the same!’
The spider declared that the curmudgeon be beaten to death for such a wrongdoing, and this was how contradiction was introduced to the people of Ashanti.
Other stories that followed similar outlines to the tale above told of how the people of the Ashanti were first introduced to jealousy, wisdom, spite, the stories of the willful spider acting the lens that the people of the Ashanti viewed their world through, one that would change in time, becoming unrecognizable.
Afro-Caribbean Interpretation of Anansi
The transatlantic slave trade witnessed millions who were uprooted from their homes and transported to work in the Caribbean colonies under the watchful glare of brutal masters, the enslaved existing in environments hostile and unforgiving. Under tremendous stress, the outlook of those forced to endure such inhumane cruelties and unimaginable circumstances changed drastically. The communities that once meant home and the bush that once signified home’s borders was all but annihilated, and it was under this haze of confusion along with a need to make sense of their newfound vulnerabilities, that the people of the Ashanti and the stories they told started to change, mirroring their present predicament.
The major changes that affronted the slave population and the fictional spider that made sense of their circumstance was a transition from a world built upon strict hierarchies and spiritualism to one that was horrifically human-built and upon attitudes that pitted slaves against masters and people against capital. The stories of Anansi changed during this time. The character appeared less and less in his animal form and presented himself more and more as human, his endeavors becoming less slapstick and more violent. The characters of Nyame and Asantehene were replaced with dim and bumptious Tiger, the antagonistic beast representative of white enslavers, while the sacred bush and once familiar surroundings were replaced with sugar fields and towering cane, the retribution of light-hearted deities replaced with the sickle and whip. For a people who had had their culture taken from them, Anansi started to represent a kind of refuge, one that allowed the enslaved to remember home whilst also fantasizing about retribution against their masters. The aims of Anansi tales during this time also changed, whereas before the spider was seen as a means to make sense of the world in which the narrator existed, the trickster now endeavored to tear that world apart, ridding newfound societies of their constructs and enforcing the idea that change was necessary. In all regions where people were displaced and transported for hard labor, the impact of the scoundrel is clear – both as a means to recapture heritage and also as a means to escape dour predicaments. In the Netherland Antilles, Anansi became Nanzi, the rogue displaying similar characteristics to his namesake, interested in more humanistic ends rather than the transcendental wisdom-based endeavors that drove him before.
The stories of Anansi during this time change drastically, with one such tale regaling how the spider, fed up with Tiger mocking his strength and stealing his fish, conspires with Monkey and Cat to trick, kill, and consume the Tiger.
In this tale, although the ending is reminiscent of the same fate suffered by Take No Dispute, the particulars of the tale take on a more humanistic edge. The story begins with Anansi and Monkey distracting Tiger while he is ambushed by Cat. The conspiratorial trio follow through with their plan of killing and consuming Tiger, but not before a Peafowl who witnessed the act needs to be bribed by Anansi to remain quiet. The more humanistic aspects of this tale are front and center, with the monetary aspect of bribery eerily similar to real-world scenarios and the very literal ‘eating’ of Tiger as opposed to the once metaphysical, metaphorical ramifications suffered by the story’s losers indicating the real world consequences suffered by those who fail.
The Anansi stories of the Caribbean are much more direct than those perpetuated in West Africa, with the messages conveyed becoming much more literal and the mythical aspects of his adventures falling by the wayside. The character of Anansi is always portrayed as a righteous figure opposing tyrannical antagonists, and the reward gained for succeeding in his tasks is less about the accumulation of knowledge, or spiritually fulfilling facets and more about freedom, for himself and those he calls his allies.
Modern Interpretation of Anansi
The stories of Anansi in the modern age present themselves almost as a combination of the original West African interpretation of the trickster - a vehicle through which we can make sense of life and the structures that confound us - and the Afro - Caribbean interpretation of the scoundrel - as someone willing to do the immoral thing to combat immoral means or perhaps just achieve material ends that suit the circumstance. His character has been defined and redefined throughout the past century, adapting himself to countless mediums, oral storytelling, paperback novels, radio, television, podcasts, along with any other medium that can accommodate his character – which is just about every single one. The spider, like most characters and most stories, is a representation and reflection of our surroundings and circumstance, changing to suit the challenges that oppose us and the opportunities that propel us forward. It’s through studying Anansi that we can begin to acknowledge and discover new stories, those that had their beginnings in environments much different to those we recognize today, and perhaps in understanding the stories' origins, we can better understand those who tell them.