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Anansi

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Anansi (/əˈnɑːnsi/ ə-NAHN-see) is an African folktale character. He often takes the shape of a spider and is considered to be the spirit of all knowledge of stories. He is also one of the most important characters of West African and Caribbean folklore.

Contents

He is also known as Ananse, Kwaku 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 Anansi tales originated from the Ashanti people of present-day Ghana. The word Ananse is Akan and means "spider". They later spread to other Akan groups and then to the West Indies, Suriname, Sierra Leone (where they were introduced by Jamaican Maroons) and the Netherlands Antilles. On Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire, he is known as Nanzi, and his wife as Shi Maria.

Anansi is depicted in many different ways. Sometimes he looks like an ordinary spider, sometimes he is a spider wearing clothes or with a human face and sometimes he looks much more like a human with spider elements, such as eight legs.

Stories

Anansi tales are some of the best-known amongst the Asante people of Ghana. 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. In the Caribbean, Anansi is often celebrated as a symbol of slave resistance and survival. Anansi is able to turn the table on his powerful oppressors by using his cunning and trickery, a model of behaviour utilised by slaves to gain the upper-hand within the confines of the plantation power structure. Anansi is also believed to have played a multi-functional role in the slaves' lives; as well as inspiring strategies of resistance, the tales enabled enslaved Africans to establish a sense of continuity with their African past and offered them the means to transform and assert their identity within the boundaries of captivity. As historian Lawrence W. Levine argues in Black Culture and Consciousness, enslaved Africans in the New World devoted “the structure and message of their tales to the compulsions and needs of their present situation” (1977, 90).

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. One of the few studies that examine the role of Anansi folktales among the Ashanti of Ghana is R.S. Rattray’s Akan-Ashanti Folk-Tales (1930). The tales in Rattray’s collection were recorded directly from Ashanti oral storytelling sessions and published in both English and Twi. 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 Ananse-Tori in Suriname, Anansi in Guyana, and Kuent'i Nanzi in Curaçao.

For Africans in the diaspora, the Jamaican versions of these stories are the most well preserved, because Jamaica had the largest concentration of enslaved Asante in the Americas. All Anansi stories in Jamaica have a proverb at the end. At the end of the story "Anansi and Brah Dead", there is a proverb that suggests that even in times of slavery, Anansi was referred to by his Akan original name: Kwaku Anansi or simply as Kwaku interchangeably with Anansi. The proverb is: "If yuh cyaan ketch Kwaku, yuh ketch him shut", which refers to when Brah Dead (brother death or drybones), a personification of Death, was chasing Anansi to kill him. Meaning: The target of revenge and destruction, even killing, will be anyone very close to the intended, such as loved ones and family members.

Origin

There is an Anansi story that explains the phenomenon of how his name became attached to the whole corpus of tales:

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, and the Mboro Hornets.

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 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 bees get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening.

Anansi handed his captives over to Nyame. Nyame rewarded him by making him the god of all stories.

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 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."

There are many other children's adaptations of this story including:

  • Anansi the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott
  • The Hat-Shaking Dance and Other Tales from the Gold Coast by Harold Courlander
  • Ananse and the Box of Stories: A West African Folktale by Stephen Krensky
  • The Story Thief by Andrew Fusek Peters
  • Spider and the Sky God: An Akan Legend by Deborah M. Newton Chocolate
  • Anancy and the Sky God: Caribbean Favourite Tales by Ladybird Books
  • Ananse by Brian Gleeson
  • ANANSE in the Land of Idiots by Yaw Asare
  • The Magic of Ananse
  • Anansi and the dispersal of wisdom

    Another story tells of how Anansi once tried to hoard all of the world's wisdom in a pot (in some versions a calabash). Anansi was already very clever, but he decided to gather together all the wisdom he could find and keep it in a safe place.

    With all the wisdom sealed in a pot, he was still concerned that it was not safe enough, so he secretly took the pot to a tall thorny tree in the forest (in some versions the silk cotton tree). His young son, Ntikuma, saw him go and followed him at some distance to see what he was doing.

    The pot was too big for Anansi to hold while he climbed the tree, so he tied it in front of him. Like this the pot was in the way and Anansi kept slipping down, getting more and more frustrated and angry with each attempt.

    Ntikuma laughed when he saw what Anansi was doing. "Why don't you tie the pot behind you, then you will be able to grip the tree?" he suggested.

    Anansi was so annoyed by his failed attempts and the realisation that his child was right that he let the pot slip. It smashed and all the wisdom fell out. Just at this moment a storm arrived and the rain washed the wisdom into the stream. It was taken out to sea, and spread all around the world, so that there is now a little of it in everyone.

    Though Anansi chased his son home through the rain, he was reconciled to the loss, for, he says: "What is the use of all that wisdom if a young child still needs to put you right?"

    Relationship between Anansi and Br'er Rabbit

    Anansi shares similarities with the trickster figure of Br'er Rabbit, who originated from the folklore of the Bantu-speaking peoples of south and central Africa. Enslaved Africans brought the Br'er Rabbit tales to the New World, which, like the Anansi stories, depict a physically small and vulnerable creature using his cunning intelligence to prevail over larger animals. However, although Br'er Rabbit stories are told in the Caribbean, especially in the French-speaking islands (where he is named “Compair Lapin”), he is predominantly an African-American folk hero. The rabbit as a trickster is also in Akan versions as well and a Bantu origin doesn't have to be the main source, at least for the Caribbean where the Akan people are more dominant than in the U.S. His tales entered the mainstream through the work of the white American journalist Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote several collections of Uncle Remus stories between 1870 and 1906.

    One of the 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. It is a tale well known from a version involving Br'er Rabbit, found in the Uncle Remus stories and adapted and used in the 1946 live-action/animated Walt Disney movie Song of the South. These were derived from African-American folktales in the Southern United States, that had part of their origin in African folktales preserved in oral storytelling by African Americans. Elements of the African Anansi tale were combined by African-American storytellers with elements from Native American tales, such as the Cherokee story of the "Tar Wolf", which had a similar theme, but often had a trickster rabbit as a protagonist. The Native American trickster rabbit appears to have resonated with African-American story-tellers and was adopted as a cognate of the Anansi character with which they were familiar. Other authorities state the widespread existence of similar stories of a rabbit and tar baby throughout indigenous Meso-American and South American cultures. Thus, the tale of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby represents a coming together of two separate folk traditions, American and African, which coincidentally shared a common theme. Most of the other Br'er Rabbit stories originated with Cherokee or Algonquin myths. In the USA today, the stories of Br'er Rabbit exist alongside other stories of Aunt Nancy, and of Anansi himself, coming from both the times of slavery and also from the Caribbean and directly from Africa.

    Mythology

    Anansi is a spirit, who acts on behalf of Nyame, his father and the Sky Father. 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, the first son often being named as Ntikuma. According to some stories 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.

    Other names

  • Bru Nansi (Virgin Islands)
  • Annancy or Anancy (Jamaica, Grenada, Costa Rica, Colombia, Nicaragua)
  • Anansi (Trinidad and Tobago)
  • Anansi Drew (The Bahamas)
  • Aunt Nancy (South Carolina)
  • Cha Nanzi (Aruba)
  • Kompa Nanzi (Curaçao, Bonaire)
  • Kwaku Anansi (Akanland)
  • Ba Anansi (Suriname)
  • Bra Anansi, Nansi or bra spaida (Jamaica, Sierra Leone)
  • Ba Yentay (South Carolina)
  • References

    Anansi Wikipedia


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