The Anansi Tales are a body of traditional stories that originated in Ghana and spread throughout West Africa. They were carried to the Caribbean and the New World with the unfortunate African people who were transported there to spend their lives in slavery. They were passed on orally and from generation to generation producing many variants of the same tale. The stories center around a protagonist called Anansi who is both human and spider. He can appear in either form or anthropomorphically with a human head and a spider body. He is often seen as a trickster or as a intermediary between the gods and humankind. During the dark days of slavery he was seen as a symbol of hope and resistance by showing how someone who was considered small and weak could overcome the big and powerful by using cleverness and courage and was a reminder of the old ways back in Africa. The following is a retelling of an Anansi tale which highlights his cleverness and trickery.
How the Tales were Named
In the early days of the people, all of the tales that were told were stories about the chief of the gods whose name was Nyankupon. Spider who was known as Anansi was jealous and thought all of the stories should be about him. Therefore, Anansi went to Nyankupon and asked that in future all the tales people told should be about him.
Nyankupon told Anansi that he would agree to this but only if Anansi could fulfill three tasks. For the first task, Anansi had to bring him a jarful of living bees. The second, was for him to bring Nyankupon a live boa-constrictor. For the third, Anansi had to bring him a living leopard. Anansi agreed and taking a clay pot he went to a place where he knew bees lived in great numbers and sat down and began talking aloud to himself saying,
“They will not be able to do it.”
“Yes, they will.”
“No, it is too difficult!”
“Of course they will be able to do it!”
He kept this debate up for some time and eventually the bees took notice of him and asked him what he was talking to himself about. He told them he and Nyankupon had been arguing over whether the bees were skillful enough fliers to be able to fly into the clay pot. He told them he believed they were, whereas Nyankupon argued they were not.
The bees were indignant and told Anansi firmly that of course they could and to prove it they all flew into the pot until it was packed tight with them. Anansi quickly put the lid on the pot and sealed and took it to show Nyankupon that he had succeeded in the first task.
The next morning Anansi went out and found a long stick and then went to a place where he knew a boa-constrictor lived. When he arrived at the home of the boa-constrictor he began talking to himself saying,
“Surely he cannot be as long as this stick”
“Yes, he will be as long!”
“Oh, no he won’t!”
“Of course he will! “
And he kept on talking to himself for some time until the snake came and asked him what he was talking about. Anansi told him that in Nyankupon’s town people are saying the stick is longer than the snake was whereas but he believed the snake was longer than the stick.
“Would you be as kind as to lay yourself along so that I may measure you? asked Anansi politely. The boa-constrictor the stretched himself along the stick from end to end and Anansi lost no time in binding him around the stick with his spider thread. Then he took him to Nyankupon successfully completing the second task.The third morning Anansi sewed up one of his own eyes and went to a place he knew where a leopard lived. As he drew near he began to shout and sing at the top of his voice and he made such a din that the leopard came out to his home to see what all the noise was about.
“Why are you shouting and singing in such a joyous manner?”
said the leopard to Anansi.
“Look, can you not see? Look, I have stitched my eye up and now I can see such wonderful things that I have to sing and shout about them,”
The leopard looked and he saw that Anansi’s eye was indeed sewn up and then he said,
“Sew my eyes up too and then I will also see wonderful things!”
So Anansi the Spider quickly sewed up the eyes of the leopard rendering him blind and helpless. Then he led him to Nyankupon who was both impressed and astounded at the ingenuity of Anansi and granted him his wish. That is why all the old tales that people tell today are known as Anansi tales.
© 14/03/2018 zteve t evans
References, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright March 14th, 2018 zteve t evans
- [PDF]WEST AFRICAN FOLK-TALES – Yesterday’s Classics
- Anansi – Wikipedia
- Jamaica Anansi Stories Index – Sacred Text Archive
- Ananse | folklore character | Britannica.com
- Anansi – Myth Encyclopedia
- Spider’s Web by davidsenterprises – Pixabay – CC0 Creative Commons
- Leopard by Jacques Christophe Werner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Oh! It involves a leopard – who knew?! Very informative.
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Fascinating, Zteve. To me, it’s really interesting how other cultures—in this case, Ghanian or West African—associate(d) males with spiders [whether they’re negatively depicted or positively), whereas in the West, it seems the case is usually reversed and the spiders are female. A few (possibly obvious) cases I can think of in literature:
1. Tolkien’s Shelob the spider
2. Charlotte’s Web
3. The third form of the “Other Mother” of Coraline (in the movie; I’ve not read the whole book) is definitely spider-like or, at the least, insect-like (which I know, spiders aren’t insects!)
4. So many tropes about the Black Widow spider, from music (I’m thinking the Alice Cooper and Vincent Price pairing) to “true crime” and such
An analog, perhaps, is Robert Frost’s (one of his best, in my opinion) poem “Design,” where he works really hard to not assign any sex to the spider (and ultimately doesn’t).
I wonder if there’s any connection, whether in time and/or spirit (so to speak), from these West African tales and the symbology of the snake, starting (to my knowledge) in Middle Eastern and Greco-Roman cultures (figuring in the myths about Medusa, for instance). Perhaps in the West we went toward adopting spiders, like snakes, as a transgressive beast and associating that with females. Hmm. So much to think about in this folklore. Oh, BTW, Enchanted Conversations is seeking animal-based folklore-inspired fiction stories right now, if you want to submit (I think through 22 March); they are a paying market and seem to promote their authors a good deal, too.
Anyway, great overview, once again. Have a wonderful weekend, Zteve!
Hi Leigh, Yes it is strange to have a spider-hero figure and I am not sure how it happened. What I do is is that Anansi and the tales were an inspiration to the stolen people of Africa in the dark days of slavery. As well as reminding them of their homeland and keeping their culture alive Anansi became a symbol of resistance, quiet rebellion and hope. They showed how someone weak and seemingly insignificant can overcome their oppressor and the rich and powerful by their cleverness, courage and tenacity. Thanks for the tip about Enchanted Conversations I will look at submitting something. Thanks for commenting, it is always lovely to hear from you!
Beautiful stort!😊 I will retell it to my son.💖
Thank you, I hope he enjoys it!
You’re welcome. Keep writing beautiful stories. 🌹
Thank you so much, I will try!
what a wonderful resource your blog is. I love legends and have worked with some in my master degree. I am sorry that I can’t read them all at once, but I will return again and again. Thank you for sharing
Thank you and you are very welcome here!
What an interesting piece of folklore/mythology! I love the figure of the trickster.
Yes, the trickster is an intriguing character and it is interesting to see the diverse forms it appears in around the world. Thanks for commenting, appreciated!
Absolutely. Whether a sociopath or well-intentioned, the trickster always remains a lovable rogue.
Yes indeed and very well put!
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This story would make a wonderful puppet show.
I think so too!