There is no one African mythology or pantheon of gods, unlike the Toto song would have you believe, Africa is a continent, not a country, filled with diverse people, cultures, histories and myths; one figure of which, we’ll be looking into today.
Making a recent appearance in the STARS series AMERICAN GODS, Anansi (also known as Ananse, Kwaku Ananse, and Anancy) is a mythological figure who often takes the shape of a spider and is considered to be the spirit of all knowledge of stories.
Originating from the Ashanti (Asante) people of present-day Ghana, the mythology and stories of Anansi spread across countless Akan groups, throughout the West Indies, Suriname, Sierra Leone becoming a staple figure throughout West Africa and within Caribbean folklore.
According to the Ashanti people, Anansi is traditionally a trickster, that being a figure who teaches moral, ethical, political or social values through dubious and unexpected twists of fate, mischievous play and through example.
He is normally depicted as 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 or eyes.
Ultimately Anansi is a spirit who usually acts on behalf of Nyame, his father and the Sky Father, bringing rains to stop fires for him. Anansi’s mother is Asase Ya, earth goddess of fertility. Other members of Anansi’s immediate family are often mentioned; his first son named Ntikuma and his wife often known as Miss Anansi, Mistress Anansi or Aso.
There are a fair few narratives of power associated with Anansi. He’s credited in some stories with the creation of the sun and moon, stars and planets. Others tell of Anansi being the one to bring writing, agriculture and hunting to Earth, teaching humans the process of how to look after themselves.
According to one narrative Anansi gathered all of the world’s wisdom in a calabash (gourd) to hold for himself as he didn’t trust the humans of the Earth with such potent knowledge and information.
With all the wisdom sealed in his calabash, Anansi was still concerned that it was not safe enough, so he secretly took the calabash to a tall thorny tree in the forest (in some versions the silk cotton tree).
However, wisdom kept spilling out of the calabash as Anansi attempted to climb the tree, first with the calabash tied to his front, then tied to his back. soon saw how futile it was for only one person to try and know everything and be greedy with their knowledge. He understood, then that it was far better for knowledge and wisdom to be distributed among all people, so that is exactly what he ended up doing.
Anansi tales are made up exclusively an an oral tradition and Anansi himself was synonymous with skill and wisdom in speech-a real orator. His tales spread far over the world and across the Caribbean by captives via the Atlantic slave trade. In the Caribbean, Anansi is often celebrated as a symbol of slave resistance and survival, able to turn the table on his powerful oppressors by using his cunning and trickery and is also believed to have played a multi-functional role in the slaves' lives. In addition to inspiring strategies of resistance, the tales enabled enslaved African people to establish a sense of continuity with their cultural heritage and offered them the means to transform and assert their identity within the boundaries of captivity.
Another popular tale depicts how Anansi was able to ‘win’ a collection of stories or wisdom narratives from Nyame. In his spider form, Anansi approached Nyame and asked to be appointed as the King of all Wisdom Narratives. Nyame was pretty impressed by the audacity of Anansi and figured, ‘hell, if this boy has the spider-balls to approach the Sky God in such a direct way, he deserves a chance.’
He said to Anansi; “If you can catch and capture the Jaguar Who Has Dagger-like Teeth, the Hornets Who Sting like Wild Fire, the Invisible Fairy of the Forest, you will be King of the Wisdom Narratives.” A somewhat impossible series of trials, Nyame thought Anansi would refuse, yet Anansi agreed to the challenge and set off.
Anansi went to the jaguar how has dagger-like teeth and asked him to play a game that would allow Anansi to tie him up with rope. When the jaguar agreed, Anansi got the rope and tied him up. He tricked the hornets by telling them it was raining (though Anansi could make it rain) and offered his calabash for them to hide in, once inside, he put a lid on it. He told the invisible fair to fight a tar baby and, when he did, he was stuck in the tar and couldn’t escape. Successful and proud, Anansi took all of his prisoners back to Nyame and showed him that he had accomplished all that was asked of him.
Impressed, Nyame names Anansi the King of All Wisdom Narratives and no once since has been able to exceed the achievements of Anansi.