Who is Anansi the Spider?
Anansi the spider is a figure from Akan folklore. He frequently assumes the form of a spider and is sometimes regarded as a deity of all storey knowledge. He is one of the most significant figures in West African, African American, and Caribbean mythology, playing the role of trickster.
Anansi is well recognised for his ability to outwit and defeat more strong opponents by employing cunning, ingenuity, and intelligence. Despite playing the trickster, Anansi’s acts and parables frequently cast him as the protagonist due to his capacity to change his seeming flaws into virtues.
These spider tales originated in West Africa and were spread to the Caribbean during the transatlantic slave trade. Anansi, like his wife Aso, may change forms and may be shown as a human, even though his regular shape is a spider.
There is no singular story or pantheon that encompasses African mythology and folklore as a whole, so when choosing where to start, I’ve chosen one of the few figures I had heard of—a figure prominent in West Africa, but one whose stories and identity have evolved and travelled across Africa to the Caribbean and North America.
A figure that possessed ideals many wish to emulate but also one with flaws that served as cautionary tales and lessons. Today we examine the Legend of Anansi, the Spider.
Anansi is a character that appears in Akan folklore, which primarily covers the countries of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. With the language being spoken by 80 per cent of those who live in Ghana, many consider this to be the origin of Anansi and his stories.
Anansi derives from the word meaning spider, and he does appear as an animal as well as several other forms. Sometimes, he is a man, other times a spider and he can also be both—a spider with a man’s head, or a man with spider-like qualities such as eight legs or arms.
The Role of Anansi in his Stories
His primary role is as a trickster. His stories often involve him being cunning and outsmarting his adversaries.
One of the biggest debates I came across was whether the stories of Anansi should be classified as folklore or mythology. The reason I bring this up is that it’s an interesting discussion that applies to all types of myths and folklore from everywhere.
Anansi is the son of Nyame the sky god, which would also make Anansi a god and therefore, its mythology… discussion over!
Well, not exactly. Anansi is not referred to as the trickster god. He serves as the intermediary between his father and the rest of the world. He also displays mortal qualities as well as being somewhat of a cult hero and thus, why many consider these to be folktales over mythology.
The Stories of Anansi the Spider
Many of Anansi’s tales were told through oral storytelling; they were not recorded until much later. Similar to how the Vodun religion spread from West Africa and became Haitian Vodou, Anansi and the Akan folklore were transmitted and travelled through the Caribbean and North America via the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Those who were taken from their homes and transported to this new world would only really have their memories and stories—their traditions—and so Anansi’s importance was even greater than before.
Many of these spider tales see Anansi overcoming impossible odds, outwitting individuals who were much more powerful than himself.
It’s not difficult to see why Anansi was a symbol of hope and rebellion during this period. They will have to display qualities like Anansi if they wish to overcome their oppressors.
The Story of the Lion and the Tiger
One story used to highlight this is the story of the Lion and the Tiger. In this story, the lion considered himself the mightiest and so the tiger should bow down to him and Anansi, who was below the tiger would have to bow down to both of them.
The tiger accepted his position, however, Anansi did not. He whispered in the lion’s ear to be careful as the tiger thinks he is the rightful ruler.
When the lion next saw the tiger, he killed him and thanked Anansi for his servitude. “You are the rightful ruler, mighty Lion” Anansi accepted, presenting the lion with some water.
Whilst preoccupied with the tiger, the lion had not seen Anansi poison his drinking water, and so, he also died, and Anansi was now free.
You can see how stories like this may have resonated with those who are enslaved. This was also a very common theme in these spider stories. There is usually someone bigger or stronger who underestimates Anansi, but they do so at their peril as the spider outsmarts them.
How all the Sky God Stories Became Anansi’s
One of the most well-known stories is how all the sky god stories became Anansi’s. There was a time when no stories existed, except the ones owned by the sky god. Anansi wanted these stories and the wisdom that came with them and so, he visited the sky god and offered to buy them.
Nyame scoffed! “And how would you afford such a price? The biggest and richest kingdoms have tried to purchase my stories and yet, none could afford them.”
“I promise I can! Name your price!” Anansi replied.
Nyame contemplated how the spider could keep his promise. He gave him a set of labours, tasks that he deemed impossible. “Then fetch me the most dangerous animals: Onini the python, Osabo the Leopard, the Mmoboro Hornets, and the Fairy Mmoatia.” Nyame commands.
Anansi accepted the challenge, but before he set off, Nyame added Anansi’s mother to the list.
Anansi returned to his home and devised a plan of action with his wife Aso and his mother to capture the python. He gathered some vines and the branch of a palm tree and met his wife at the river where Onini would be.
Together they began to stage an argument as to the length of the python. Anansi claimed Onini’s body was larger than the branch of a full-grown palm tree. Overhearing the two, Onini was curious. Anansi explained his wife did not believe Onini was bigger than the branch, and so the python agreed to end this discussion.
As it stretched its body against the branch, Anansi took the vines and tied Onini to the branch. The trap they had set was a success and the python was taken to the sky god.
Anansi returned to his wife and together they came up with a plan to capture the Hornets. He found a calabash and filled it with water—this is essentially the hardened shell of a fruit that can be used to store food or as a bottle.
When Anansi had found the hornets, he began to pour water over them, making sure to pour water over himself. He then took a banana leaf and used it to cover his head. When one of the Hornets flew over to him, he was also drenched.
Looking at the banana leaf he was using as a makeshift umbrella, the hornets believed the Anansi when he said it was raining. “The rain is dangerous, and it may also get worse. Here, use my calabash as shelter.”
The hornets thanked Anansi and flew inside his container. Once they had all entered, he sealed the top of the calabash trapping the hornets inside. He then took them to the sky god.
As you may have gathered by now, he returned to his wife and together they devised a plan to catch Osabo the Leopard.
To do this, Anansi dug a hole and covered it with branches. The leopard came running by and fell into this pit.
In one interpretation, Anansi helps Osabo out of the hole using his web, but he refuses to cut him loose and drags him to the sky god.
In another story, Anansi gave the leopard two large sticks to hold onto whilst he pulled him out of the hole. The leopard with both arms outstretched grabbed the sticks, however, he was now in a compromising position.
Anansi reached over for his knife and dropped it into the hole; the hilt of the knife hitting the defenceless leopard on the head and knocking him unconscious. Anansi dragged the sleeping leopard out of the hole and took him to the sky god.
To catch the fairy, Anansi carved a doll and covered it with sap from a tree, making it sticky. He then took a Yam, mashed it and placed it under a tree where the fairy would pass. When the fairy saw the bowl of yam, she asked the doll if she could have some. Using his web as strings, Anansi pulled on them and the doll nodded.
The fairy ate the yam and thanked the doll; however, Anansi did not respond. The fairy took offence to the doll not acknowledging her gratitude, and so she slapped the doll, but her hand had become stuck in the gummy substance. She then used her other hand to slap the doll again—now both hands were stuck.
Anansi finally showed himself, tying up the helpless fairy and taking her home. Before returning to the sky god one last time, he explained the deal he had made to his mother, and she agreed to come with him. Presenting the sky god with the fairy and his mother, Anansi had honoured his promise.
Nyame summoned the elders and explained that the spider before them had succeeded where the great and mighty kingdoms had failed. With his blessing, the sky god announced that all stories that exist shall now be known as spider stories.
The Story of How Wisdom was Spread Around the World
The story of how wisdom was spread around the world is quite interesting. Mostly because it’s not about Anansi overcoming impossible odds and showing his intellect, it’s a story where Anansi shows his more human side.
On a rather stormy day, Anansi decided to gather all the wisdom in the world and keep it for himself. He did so by placing all the wisdom in a large pot. He then found the largest tree believing the very top to be a great place to hide all this wisdom.
He tied the pot in front of him and tried climbing the tree. Anansi’s youngest son had seen his father and decided to follow him. What he then observed was anger and frustration as whenever his father made some slight progress, he came sliding back down the tree. The weight of the pot was too much to hoist above him and climb at the same time.
His son laughed and called out to his father, “Why don’t you try tying the pot behind you? That way you’ll be free to climb uninhibited.”
Anansi still frustrated looked down at his son and decided to continue doing things his way. However, during this moment, the pot slipped and came crashing down.
The storm dispersed the wisdom through the forest, carried by air and the river, the wisdom had soon spread throughout the entire kingdom and further. Although Anansi had failed, he soon realized that his son was correct.
“What point is there in having all of the wisdom in the world if a child can solve the solution to your problem before you can?” He spoke.
This is one of Anansi’s stories where he displays these undesirable traits such as greed and stubbornness, but in the end, he sees the error of his ways and comes to the realization that maybe wisdom being spread equally is better than being hoarded by one person.
The Story of the Night, the Moon and the Sun
The last story we’ll be covering today is the story of the night, the moon and the sun. It also involves Anansi becoming the sky god’s messenger.
In this story, Nyame had three children: the Night, the Moon and the Sun. When they came of age, they left their father and built their villages. Nyame intended for one of them to become chief and so, he decided to have a competition with the winner taking his throne as proof of their new status.
Out of the three children, Nyame had always favoured the youngest who represented the Sun itself. When he announced his plan, he harvested a yam and gave it a name. The child who was able to guess the name would be the winner.
Anansi hearing this told Nyame that he already knew the name, however, this was a lie. The sky god paid no notice to Anansi’s claims and asked him to gather his three sons for him. Anansi, now rather curious, decided he would return to find out what exactly the sky god was plotting.
Gathering the feathers of every bird he could find, Anansi covered himself and flew back to the village disguised as a bird. When the sky god saw Anansi, he laughed and said, “I’ve never seen such a peculiar looking bird before. If Anansi the spider was here, he would know what type of bird you are.”
Nonetheless, Anansi’s disguise had worked, and he was able to hear everything the sky god had planned, even the name of the yam.
With this newfound information, he flew away to fetch the sky god’s Children. He first arrived at the village of the eldest son; the son known as the Night. He told him his father wished to see him and to show his hospitality, he gave Anansi some roasted corn before leaving.
Anansi then arrived at the village of the second son; the son known as the Moon. Anansi delivered the same news and was given a yam as a sign of hospitality.
Anansi then arrived at the village of the youngest son; the son was known as, well, the Sun. The youngest of the three sons told Anansi that as his father’s chosen messenger, he must sit down and enjoy the same level of hospitality he would afford his father. He prepared an unsee the best lamb they had and together they had a feast.
Anansi could see why the sky god favoured the youngest of his children. In return for his hospitality, Anansi told him of his father’s plans and gave him the name of the yam. Anansi created a pair of drums that would shout to the name of the yam to help him remember.
When all three children had arrived at the sky god’s village, the first up was the eldest son. When asked to guess the name of the yam, he was wrong. As punishment for the sun known as the Night, the sky god declared that from now on evil things will be done during the night.
The second son stepped forward and just like the first, his guess was also wrong. As punishment for the son known as the Moon, the sky god declared that from now on, the moonlight shall be where mischief shall occur.
And so lastly, the youngest son stepped forward, but before he could guess, Anansi began to beat his drum reminding him of the yam’s name. His guess was correct. The village rejoiced and the sky god had gotten the chief he wanted, with some assistance from Anansi, of course.
The sky god declared that the sunlight would be where issues and disputes are settled. He also gave his younger son a rainbow to protect himself from harm. Having a feeling that Anansi may have played a part in all of this, he also announced that from that day, Anansi would be known as his messenger.
In Conclusion to the Legend of Anansi the Spider
Anansi is certainly an interesting character. There are stories where he interacts with gods and individuals much more powerful than himself. Sometimes, they bestow supernatural powers upon him, being able to control the elements for example, which is why he is at times categorized as a god.
Other times, we see him shapeshift and behave more like a trickster spirit, which is why he may also be seen as a lesser deity.
There are dozens of stories detailing Anansi’s adventures and shenanigans. We may return and cover more of these spider stories if there is enough interest.
Art Credit: Andrew Justice, Ian Kirkpatrick.