Anansi, Trickster Storyteller in West African Mythology
Anansi the Spider
Anansi (pronounced uh-NAHN-see) was a spider, and a very popular animal trickster in West African mythology. He was a mischievous figure, - like tricksters usually are, - often countering the will of the gods, and causing some kind of misfortune for humans as a result. The sly Anansi could change his appearance to morph into a human, a fox, or other animals.
Anansi was originally believed by West Africans to have been the creator of the world. He used to act as an intermediary between humans and the sky god Nyame (pronounced N-ya-mae). He was said to have persuaded Nyame to create both rain and night.
In most tales, however, Anansi acts as a crafty and mischievous character making life ever more enjoyable for himself, and ever more complicated for others. Anansi was known to have fooled humans, other animals, and - on occasion, - even the gods themselves. Using his cunning and his knowledge of his victims’ perspectives on life, Anansi could trick them to reach his greedy goals.
In one popular story, Anansi asks God for an ear of corn and promises to bring him one hundred servants in return. He takes the corn to a village and informs the villagers that it is sacred. During the night, the trickster feeds the corn to the chickens. After sunrise, Anansi accuses the people of stealing the corn and persuades them to give him a bushel of it in compensation for the lost ear.
Next thing, Anansi meets a man on the road and trades the corn for a chicken. He then takes the chicken another village and informs the people that the chicken is sacred. After the sun goes down the trickster butchers the chicken. When the frightened people of the village see this in the next morning they give him ten sheep to make up for the loss.
Later, Anansi trades the sheep for a corpse, which he carries to a third village where he informs the people that the corpse is the sleeping son of God. When in the next morning the people cannot wake the corpse, Anansi accuses them of having killed the son of God. The villagers terrified of God's wrath offer Anansi one hundred of their finest young people as slaves. Anansi then takes them to God to live up to his part of the bargain.
The Anansi Character in Context
Although the origin of the Anansi character is obscure, he is thought to have come from the Ashanti tribe, located in Ghana, in West Africa. The popularity of the character quickly spread to other tribes in the neighborhood, including the Nzema and the Akyem.
The stories of Anansi were brought to America when members of these tribes were taken west by slave traders. Soon enough, Anansi morphed into the African-American folklore character of Aunt Nancy in parts of North America.
Tricksters are often popular in weaker segments of society, because they use their wits and cunning to survive in harsh conditions. They use cleverness and deceit as opposed to strength or intelligence, which they often do not possess. The popularity of Anansi’s tales among African-American slaves was in part due to the trickster's role as a survivor.
Anansi the story-telling Trickster in Everyday Life, Art and Literature
Anansi, being the most popular characters from African mythology, is often featured in folk tales and children’s stories.
He also plays a central part in the Neil Gaiman fiction Anansi Boys (2005), a contemporary fantasy novel about a man who discovers that his dead father was Anansi and that his brother has come to inherit his special powers.