ANANSI TALES: CRYING FOR NOTHING!

Anansi the Spider

AFRICAN FOLKTALES

Presented here is a retelling of an Anansi tale found in West African Folktales by William H. Barker and Cecilia Sinclair. Anansi the spider is a trickster who has many roles in the folklore and traditions of West Africa, Jamaica and throughout the African diaspora. He features in many roles in many tales sometimes as a hero bringing knowledge and benefits to humans or as a villain. Anansi tales explore human nature and very often by contrasting his behaviour with that of other characters or situations in the story important lessons are found as is the case in the following story.

ANANSI AND NOTHING

Anansi lived in a rundown shack and his nearest neighbor was someone called Nothing who was exceedingly rich and lived in a grand and luxurious palace. One day Anansi and Nothing decided to go into town with the purpose of both finding a wife.  They set off and as they were walking along Anansi became aware of the great contrast in their appearances that revealed their financial status for all to see.  Whereas he was dressed in ragged old cotton clothing, Nothing was smartly attired in fine velvet and satin.  Anansi was dismayed.  He knew there would be competition between the two and women would want to be the wife of the smart and affluent Nothing instead of himself.

After carefully considering the situation he came up with a plan. Nothing liked to be flattered so he told him how smart he thought he looked today.  As he expected Nothing was pleased and very flattered. Anansi then gently and very politely asked Nothing,  if he may try on his clothing to see what it was like to wear such fine apparel.  He promised he would give it back before they reached town.

Again Nothing felt flattered and allowed Anansi to wear his clothes on the condition that they put on their own clothes before they entered town.  When they reached the outskirts of town Nothing reminded Anansi of his promise.  Anansi made many excuses on false pretexts not to change clothing and refused to comply.  All of  Nothing’s pleas fell on deaf ears so he had to continue wearing Anansi’s old cotton rags, much to his displeasure and ire.

ATTRACTING A WIFE

At last they arrived in the town center where it was the custom for people to gathee to show off their finest clothes and parade up and down hoping to attract a spouse.  Anansi, wearing Nothing’s fine clothing of velvet and satin soon came to the attention of the women.  They flocked around him and he had the pick of the best.  He was greatly admired and could have had as many wives as he wished but he chose just one knowing he would somehow have to support her.

In comparison, Nothing dressed in Anansi’s old cotton rags was being ignored and worse still the subject of much derision by the women.  Eventually, one woman saw more to him than his clothes and offered to become his wife.  All the other women laughed and taunted her for wanting to be the wife of such an impoverished and raggedly man as Nothing appeared to be.  However she was a woman who knew her own mind and very wisely ignored them.

Anansi chose the most beautiful woman of the many who flocked around him, making the others madly jealous. With the matter of marriage now decided, Anansi and Nothing accompanied by their respective wives, went home.  However, when they reached the point where the road split into two paths which led to their new husband’s homes the two wives were in for a surprise.

ARRIVING HOME

When Nothing reached the path to his grand house all the servants ran out to greet him and his new wife.  All around the house the servants had decorated it in bright colors and inside had prepared a lavish wedding feast for the couple to enjoy.  Nothing’s new wife was happily surprised as they dressed her and her husband in fine clothing and escorted them singing and dancing along the path into the house. Anansi, to the shock of his new wife, led her up his path which was but dirt and ashes to his tumbledown shack. There was no one to greet these two newlyweds, no food, no decorations and no servants singing happy songs.

Nothing’s wife was well rewarded for her perceptiveness and judgement.  Instead of being the wife of a pauper she was the wife of the richest man in the entire district.  She lived in a grand and luxurious house, ate the best food, wore the finest clothes and lived like a queen. In comparison, the wife of Anansi lived in a tumbledown hovel. She was forced to eat the cheapest food and had to wear old cotton rags for clothes.  

Nothing’s wife was a generous and compassionate woman. Despite having been subject to taunts and derision by her initial decision to marry the seemingly poor Nothing, she invited Anansi’s wife to visit her.  Not because she wanted to get her own back or gloat but because she was kind and generous and wanted to help her. 

When she arrived she was very impressed by the luxury and good life Nothing’s wife lived.  Furthermore, she saw how wrong she had been to judge a person by the cut and splendor of their clothes.  She begged Nothing’s wife for her forgiveness and told her of her miserable impoverished existence with Anansi.  Nothing’s wife told her she was welcome to stay in her home if she did not want to go back to Anansi.

REVENGE

When his wife did not return and he discovered why Anansi was very angry.  He blamed Nothing and decided he would take revenge by murdering him.  He tried several times but without success but then hit on a plan.  He persuaded some rat friends of his to dig a deep tunnel just before Nothing’s front door.  After they had dug the hole he lined it with knives, spikes and broken glass and finally smeared oil upon the front step to make it very slippery.  Then he hid himself in the garden and waited until it grew dark and those in the house had gone to bed.  Softly he called through the window for Nothing to come out into the garden to see what was there.  

On hearing a voice in the night Nothing got up to investigate but his wife, using her good sense and judgement dissuaded him from going outside.  This was repeated for several nights running with his wife stopping him going outside each time.  Eventually, he grew angry with the voice when it called again and would not listen to his wife.   Angrily, he marched out the front to confront the voice but as he stepped out he slipped and the ground fell away below him and he tumbled into the trap Anansi had set.   

His wife and servants heard him cry out and rushed to the front door but his wife stopped the servants from rushing out.   Carefully opening the door and looking this way and that she found him dead in the hole pierced by many spikes and knives and cut by broken glass.

CRYING FOR NOTHING

His wife was heart-broken by his death and grieved greatly.  In the hope of alleviating her grief, she followed the local tradition of cooking and sharing yams. She took them around to each of her neighbors and especially the children so that they might help her to cry out her grief.  This is why when you ask why a child is crying you will often be told, “They are crying for Nothing!”

© 18/06/2021 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 17th 2021 zteve t evans

Anansi Tales: The Lesson of The Magical Cooking Pot

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Image by By Ximonic (Simo Räsänen) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Anansi is part human and part spider and a favorite character in the folktales and lore of West Africa.  He is renowned for his cleverness and trickery and his ability to to turn the tables on large and more powerful opponents, but it has to be said he is no angel. Presented her is a retelling of a story from West Africa called Thunder and Anansi collected by W.H. Barker and Cecilia Sinclaire in their book, West African Folk-tales which tells how Anansi learnt an important lesson.

Thunder and Anansi

There was a time when a long and terrible famine came upon the land where Anansi lived and he struggled to find food to feed his wife and family.  One day as he walked by the seashore he looked out over the ocean and was surprised to sea rising from the waves a small island with a tall palm tree growing upon it that he had never seen before. As he gazed at the island he thought maybe there were a few coconuts on the tree that he could bring home to his family. He was confident he could climb the tree to get the nuts, therefore, he set about thinking about how to cross the sea to the island.

The Island and the Coconuts

As he strolled along the beach thinking he came across the an old broken fishing boat.  Looking at it closely, he thought maybe he could fix it and set about making repairs with bits of wood he found washed up on the shore.  When he he had finished it did not look very seaworthy at all, but Anansi was desperate and decided to try it anyway. His first six trials ended in failure with the boat quickly sinking and needing to be dragged back to shore for further repairs.  When he had at last made it watertight each time he managed to get out to sea a large wave would wash him back to the shore. Despite this, Anansi persevered and eventually managed to steer the boat all the way to the island on the seventh attempt. He found it was a indeed a very small island with just enough room for the tree to grow upon it. Quickly, he tied the boat to the tree to stop it floating off, then he climbed up the tree to get the those coconuts which ready for harvesting.  Then he realized he could not carry them all down in one go and did not want to drop them because the island was so small and he feared they would land in the sea and float away.

Therefore, each time he picked a coconut he dropped it aiming for it to land within the boat, but his aim was not very good.  To his frustration and dismay, just as he had feared, every one he dropped landed in the sea and floated away until he had only one remaining.  Taking great care he aimed it for the boat and dropped it but it too landed with a splash in the sea. To his annoyance he had lost all of the coconuts without even getting a taste of one and now there was none left.

Anansi Meets  Thunder

Hungry, angry and frustrated and not being able to bear the thought of going home empty handed he threw himself off the tree into the sea thinking he would drown.  To his complete amazement instead of drowning he found himself standing at the bottom of the sea in front of a very quaint little house. As he gazed on in wonder the door opened and out stepped a very old man.  To Anansi’s surprise the old man politely asked him what it was that he so desperately wanted that had caused him to come to Thunder’s house in search of it.

The Magical Cooking Pot

Anansi told him all about the great famine and how he had seen the coconut tree on the island, repaired the boat and sailed out to pick the coconuts and now had nothing to feed his family with.  Thunder, listened very carefully and very sympathetically while Anansi told his tale and then he went back into his house and rummaged around finally came out again carrying a cooking pot. He presented this to Anansi and told him that with this pot he and his family would never again go hungry because it would magically supply and cook enough food for him and his family.  Thunder then told him to return home all he need to to was think of himself in the boat. So Anansi thought if himself in the boat and found himself back there carrying the pot.

He untied the boat and it began floating slowly towards the shore.  Realizing he had not asked Thunder how the pot worked he sat in the boat thinking and then said,  “Cooking pot, cooking pot, cook for me as you did for Thunder!”

To Anansi’s surprise and delight the pot immediately became full of the most deliciously cooked food and Anansi greedily ate his fill.  When he reached the shore he jumped on to the beach holding the pot thinking he would run to his family and give them a good meal from the marvelous pot. Then a thought hit him and he stopped short.

Greedy Anansi

Inside of him a greedy, selfish fear, had awoken and was whispering to him saying, “Wait, wait, wait!  If I use it to cook them a meal all of the magic will be used up and how will I replenish it?  I will keep the pot secret and only use it for myself I will be able to enjoy a meal whenever I want and the magic might last longer.”  With this he hid the pot in a safe place so that he could return in the night to sneak it into his home, where he would hide it again without his family knowing.

When he arrived home his wife and children were all delighted to see him but they were all weak and tired from lack of food. Anansi pretended he too was hungry and weak and selfishly ignored their plight.  That night, when they were all asleep, he went back for the pot and hid it in his room congratulating himself on his luck and cleverness.

Kweku Tsin

While his family grew weaker and weaker through hunger, he would at times disappear to his room and close the door and enjoy a good meal from the pot.  While his wife and children grew thinner and weaker, he grew fatter and stronger. His family saw this and they grew suspicious and at last Kweku Tsin, his eldest son decided he would watch his father and investigate what he was up to.

The Truth is Revealed

Kweku Tsin was a shapechanger who had the power to turn himself into anything he wished and so he changed himself into a tiny fly and followed his father everywhere he went without being noticed by him. He followed him into his room and saw him take out the hidden pot and heard what he said to it and saw the fine meal it cooked for him. Then he watched where his father hid it when he had finished eating.

Afterwards his father went and announced to his family he was going in search of food for them and went out.  Kweku Tsin, now knew this was a lie and when his father had gone changed back to human form and took out the pot and showed it to his mother and family.  They all sat down and Kweku Tsin told the pot to cook as he had heard his father tell it and for the first time in ages they all had a good, delicious meal.

The Pot Melts

The family were all shocked, angry and disappointed with the greed of their father and Mrs Anansi decided she would punish her husband and took the cooking pot to the village where she intended on cooking everyone a good meal. However, because the pot had so many people to cook for at once it grew red hot and melted. Knowing her husband would be angry Mrs Anansi told everyone not to mention the cooking pot at all and act as if they did not know of its existence.

That evening when Anansi came home he had been looking forward to a tasty supper from the pot.  Saying to his family he was tired and would have an early night he went to his room. Closing the door shut, he went to fetch the pot from its hiding place, but was aghast to see that it was gone. He looked high and low but could not find it and grew angry and knew his secret had been discovered.   Realizing the thief must be someone in his own family he decided he would punish them all.

Return to Thunder’s House

So he said nothing about his missing cooking pot and in the morning at daybreak he went down to his boat at the seashore.   As soon as he sat down the boat moved away under its own power towards the island. As soon as he arrived he tied the boat to the palm tree and climbed the tree looking for coconuts.  He soon found some and this time deliberately tried to drop them in the water, but each time they landed safely in the boat. When he had picked all the coconuts he climbed down to the boat and began throwing them into the sea and then threw himself in after them.

The Stick of Thunder

Just like before he found he did not drown but was safely standing at the bottom of the sea in front of the house of Thunder.  The door opened and Thunder came out and asked him to tell his tale. The old man listened attentively and sympathetically just as he had done the first time.  Then, he went back into his house and came out with handsome looking stick which he presented to Anansi and said goodbye to him.

As he had done before Anansi thought himself as being in the boat and found himself there carrying the stick in his hand. Curious to see what marvelous magic the stick possessed he said, “Stick, stick, stick, what you did for Thunder do so for me!” Immediately the stick began to beat him all over his head and body so hard and fast that he had to jump into the sea to escape it and swim back to shore as the boat floated off.  Then, he went sheepishly home, bruised and battered all over, mournfully wishing he had acted with more love and less greed towards his loved ones from the start and vowed to always think of his family first!

© 06/06/2018 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 6th, 2018 zteve t evans

Anansi Tales: How the Tales were Named

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.

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Leopard by Jacques Christophe Werner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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,”

cried Anansi.

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