September 4, 2015

Around the World: Africa and Anansi, By Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

Our next Around the World destination will be . . . Africa! I realized that in all of the posts I have written, not one of them has touched on folklore from this continent. Its rich heritage must not be missed!

But the question becomes: where in Africa shall we travel? It covers 6% of the world’s surface and is the second most-populous continent. Currently, it is home to 54 countries with as many as 3,000 languages spoken. I cannot even find data on how many different cultural and ethnic groups there are. (Keep in mind that the country boundaries are not accurate markers for the boundaries of specific cultures/peoples and their specific folklore, because many of the states today were arbitrarily created by European powers beginning at the Berlin Conference of 1884. Many cultures and their stories were also interrupted, destroyed, and remade by the colonial slave trade.)

If you’re like me before I started this post, you may not be that familiar with African folktales. But many of us are at least familiar with one: Anansi—very likely due to Eric A. Kimmel’s wonderful picture books. Anansi is a sometimes-spider, sometimes-man character from many African and African-Diaspora traditions. I have decided to focus on him not just for this reason but because, according to these traditions, he is in fact the keeper of all stories.

The original Spider-Man, Anansi/Ananse (which translates to “spider”) comes from the Ashanti people of Ghana in West Africa. His popularity spread to other cultures along the west coast (what used to be known as the Gold Coast) as well as to the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, via the slave trade. The Ashanti people had no written language, so oral stories were of paramount importance. Because Anansi was the keeper of these stories, fables of all kinds became known as anansesem (“spider-tales”), whether or not Anansi took part in them.

"Anansi the Spider, Gerald McDermott

There is a fascinating object in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection, a linguist staff, from the Akan people of West Africa (a people group that includes the Ashanti). The staff is wooden and covered in gold foil. The sculpted top portrays two human figures on either side of a large web with a spider in the center. Such staffs are held as symbols of the office of court linguist (okyeame). The Akan/Ashanti native language Twi is filled with proverbs and euphemisms, the deft use of which is a sign of wisdom. These wise officials have very high standing in Akan society, as their skills with proverbs, stories, and history allow them to act as adjudicators, counselors, and ambassadors. The very first court linguist, according to traditional history, was an aged woman who had need of a cane.

Akan linguist staff, Ghana
around 19th-20th century

“The finial [sculpted top] refers to the saying, 'No one goes to the house of the spider Ananse to teach him wisdom.' Ananse the spider, who brought wisdom and taught weaving to the Akan, is the originator of folk tales and proverbs and is thus linked to linguists. Here, Ananse is the ultimate repository of erudition, as is the linguist at an Akan court, neither of whom should be challenged in that domain” (Met).

So what are the Ashanti “spider-tales” like? The ones that involve Anansi usually showcase his cleverness and trickery (sometimes even his cruelty) as he succeeds in outwitting beings much stronger and more exalted than himself. One of my favorites, and the perfect one to summarize here, is the origin story of how Anansi came to be the keeper of stories in the first place.

In the beginning, the sky god Nyame kept all the stories in a box. Anansi sees that people and their children are bored, so he decides to retrieve the stories to entertain them.  He goes to Nyame and asks him for the box. Nyame replies that he can have the stories if Anansi brings to him three of the most dangerous creatures on earth: a python, a leopard, and a hornet. Many great people had tried to do so and failed. Anansi declares that he will succeed. So he uses his devious mind to set traps for each creature. As he successfully captures them, he taunts them for falling for his trickery. Once he delivers the creatures to Nyame, the sky god gives the promised stories to Anansi, declaring the spider their official keeper. (Arts on the Move)

As is usually the case with oral stories, every version I read online is slightly different. In one, Nyame demands four creatures—the ones listed above, as well as an invisible “fairy” (Myths and Legends). In this same one, Anansi’s wife Aso helps him come up with his ingenious traps.

Which is your favorite Anansi story? Are there other African tales you know and love? Join Enchanted Conversation and let us know!
Christina Ruth Johnson has her M.A. in Art History with a research focus on the ancient Mediterranean. She is currently working as a teacher and freelance writer. Her other great love is fantasy literature and folklore from ancient times to present day.

“Anansi Brings Stories to the World.” Myths and Legends. E2Bn. Accessed 20 July 2015.
“How Anansi Became King of All Stories.” Arts on the Move. Accessed 20 July 2015. 
“Linguist Staff.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed 19 July 2015.|this.
“The Ashantis.” GhanaWeb. Accessed 20 July 2015.

For further reading:
Appiah, Peggy. Anansi the Spider: Tales from an Ashanti Village. Pantheon Books: 1966.
Rattray, R.S. Akan-Ashanti Folk-Tales. Smithsonian Institution Libraries: 1930.

1 comment

  1. Great post, Christina! I'm really enjoying reading about fairy tales around the world:)