ANANSI
Story by Brandon L. Parsons (2016)
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ANASI: "The Spider" Trickster
Everyone alive and everyone who has ever lived loves and loved a good joke. People can't get enough of watching crazy, unexpected and humorous things happen to other, unless, of course, the joke is on them! As much as anywhere else, in Western Africa, many of the cultures there over the centuries have loved hearing stories that showed people, gods, beings and even animals getting tricked into some sticky situation or another, usually tinged with gut-busting and hilarious results. And in the shared mythology of the region, the god that took the cake for the most awesome pranks pulled, jokes told and crazy schemes thought up to get laughs was none other than the much-loved spider trickster-god, the many limbed and always wily ANANSI (Ah-Nan-See)!


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"Along Came a Spider" (By Tekelili/DeviantArt)
Anansi was one of the most wide-spread characters of Western African mythology, and unlike many gods, he was shared by groups that lived hundreds of miles apart and who had little in common. His stories were that entertaining! He was a shape-shifter who could achieve any form necessary to pull off his elaborate pranks...and let's face it, ANY trickster worth their salt HAS to be able to do THAT! Anansi had it down to a science. The form he was most comfortable with was that of a spider and sometimes, just to be disturbing and throw folks off, he'd take on the characteristics of both an arachnid and human. As far as gods go, Anansi was pretty low-key, and was seen as the spirit of knowledge and the keeper of all stories ever told in addition to his skills as a prankster!


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Anansi in his half-spider/half-human form. (by Dhalia K/DeviantArt)

The Ashante tribe of Ghana were the first to tell stories of Anansi and his shenanigans. The stories themselves were not originally written down, but passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth, through the skills of professional tribal storytellers called griots (gree-ohs). Over time, the griots passed the tales on from village to village, tribe to tribe, all across Ghana and beyond, into lands far from their origin. Anansi hit the big time and became a household name all across Western Africa! The folks in Ghana called these zany stories, which featured Anansi playing tricks on others in order to teach a moral lesson "ANANSESEM," "spider tales," or simply, "Anansi Stories."

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Anansi the Spider
Anansi's legend has taken some serious turns over the centuries and has evolved quite a bit since he first appeared on the scene in Western Africa. In his earliest incarnation, he was considered a creator god, the son of the sky god, Nyame. According to the myth, Anansi was also called "Kwaku Anansi," because "Kwaku" means "Wednesday" in the local dialect, and that was the day on which Anansi sauntered into the world. Anansi acted as a go-between for humans as they dealt with papa Nyame (though sometimes that backfired when Anansi got up to his usual tricks, and sometimes it was Anansi that found himself on the receiving end of things!)
Even for that, there is no doubt that Anansi was as sly as they come, hugely intelligent, and infinitely clever, with words as well as in deeds. Anansi would have make an amazingly slick used-car salesman and could wheedle anyone into just about anything using simple words and persuasion.

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Nyame, the sky god.
However, even using those brilliant words to seemingly do good (mostly), he is more often than not a trickster, with few scruples (meaning he doesn't worry much about what he does or who he does it to), who uses his wit and cunning to get an advantage over animals, spirits, and even gods who are bigger and stronger than himself. At times, his stories portrayed him as rather selfish and even cruel. And sometimes it would seem that he would go out of his way to help out other creatures, but only when it suited his own schemes and purposes. That just goes to show that Anansi was probably the most "human" of all of the gods he associated with, showing the best and worst that human beings are capable of at various times. No surprise since he spent so much time down on the earth with us; we must have eventually rubbed off on him! Due to his unstable and unpredictable behavior, at least according to one of the stories, through his trickery he royally ticked off his dad and Nyame was the one who got so annoyed with his constant mischief that he transformed him into a spider (which of course is where the whole "spider" god thing came from!). That never seemed to slow Anansi down, however; he kept right on going in the tricks department!


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Anansi

All told though, Anansi managed to do quite a bit for humans, even persuading Nyame to create both rain (you know, for that whole "crops" thing) and nighttime (so that everyone could get a break from the hot daytime sun). He was even the one that brought all of the wondrous stories into the world for humans to enjoy, if you follow the words and music of the African griots. And THAT is a pretty cool story that needs to be laid down!

Anansi Snags ALL The Stories

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Nyame's Box of Stories...
One of the most famous Anansi stories of them all is the one in which the rambunctious trickster god manages to win ownership of all of the stories ever told and that would ever be told. Hard to believe, but at one point in time, there were NO stories available to humans. None. Which would have made life extremely monotonous and beyond boring. Anansi decided that the time was ripe to bust out storytelling entertainment for the humans on earth and so he began scheming and planning to go about getting that done. One rather large obstacle stood in his way; his father, Nyame, actually KEPT all of the stories tightly guarded in a small, solid box next to his throne up in the sky, and had no plans to share them (how does one "keep" stories locked up? Mythology and magic, that's how. Roll with it!). A conundrum; that would be a hard thing to sweet talk Nyame out of, but Anansi was ready to try just about anything to get his spidery hands on that box. More than that, it was a CHALLENGE, which Anansi loved even more!


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Anansi and the challenge...
Anansi climbed up through the clouds to where his old man sat regally on his throne, all decked out in his best kingly clothing, and point-blank told him that he, Anansi, wanted to buy the stories inside the box. He boldy asked Nyame what his price was, and with a rumbling laugh, Nyame told him. It was rather high; looking at it from Nyame's viewpoint, it was IMPOSSIBLE, which was the whole point. he had no plans for Anansi, his troublesome son, to get a hold of all the juicy tales he had locked up in the chest at his feet! The price was this: Anansi must bring back to Nyame three things. One) A giant python named Onini; Two) Osebo the Leopard; and Three) the Mboro Hornets. None of these three targets would come willingly and Nyame was betting on the fact that even Anansi would not be able to bag all three. With a wink and a smarmy salute, Anansi went off to begin his quest. One way or another, he'd figure it all out as he went. The stories simply had to be his at all costs!


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Onini the Python
Naturally, Anansi planned on using his genius and trickery to get the job done. Traveling to the jungles where Onini the python lived, Anansi seemingly began gibbering to himself, debating loudly to himself which was longer; Onini or a long palm branch he had dragged into the clearing. Onini heard this debate and came slithering over to ask the spider what in gods' names he was going on and on about, and Anansi began weaving his words. He told the snake that his wife Aso had said that the palm branch just HAD to be longer than Onini. Puffed up with pride, the snake assured Anansi that he was longer. Snorting to himself, Anansi told him that there was only one way to find out; the snake would need to stretch out next to the branch and Anansi would measure them both to set the record straight once and for all. Onini did just that, and just when he was stretched alongside the long palm branch, Anansi tied the gullible snake directly the the branch, using some pretty tight knots. Like most creatures, Onini fell right into one of Anansis slick tricks and wound up a captive. Whining about how unfair it was all the way, Onini could do nothing as Anansi dragged him, attached to the branch, up to Nyame, whose jaw dropped when he saw that Anansi had found a way to score the first item needed to by his stories. THAT was a fluke, Nyame thought, as Anansi traipsed back down to earth to search for his next prize.


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Osebo the Leopard
Anansi's next acquisition was Osebo the Leopard, and HE might prove to be a bit more resistant to the trickster's approach. Heading back down to the jungle, Anansi dug a huge pit in the ground and covered it up with palm leaves, ambush-style. Sure enough, Osebo came wandering by and padded right onto the trap, falling through the leaves and down into the inescapable pit. Anansi, of course, was on hand to offer assistance and told the leopard that he'd be happy to spin a few webs to help him climb out of the hole he'd found himself in. Lucky day! Anansi strung out one long web down into the pit and gestured for Osebo to climb up, but as soon as the leopard made it half way, that's where he realized he'd been played. Anansi had forgotten to mention the extreme stickiness factor of his web, and Osebo had managed to get all tangled up in it. The more he struggled the worse it got. After a long while thrashing about in the sticky webbing, Anansi finished the job, bundled the leopard up tight and carried him up t the sky to drop him off before Nyame. NOW the sky god was getting a bit nervous; two out of three objects had been brought back with seemingly little fuss or muss!


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The Mboro Hornets
For the final task, Anansi was going to have to somehow catch the Hornets of Mboro. Catching ONE animal was easy enough for someone like Anansi, as he'd just proven, but this...this was different. This was an entire swarm of stinging nightmares that needed to be brought back to his dear old dad. After some thinking, the trickster god cooked up a plan. After traveling several days, he came upon the giant nest of the Mboro, which was humming with the sound of thousands of hornets. He cored out and filled a calabash with water (a calabash was a type of gourd that people in Africa used as a bottle to carry water around in), poured some of it out onto a banana leaf that he held over his head, and then began to sprinkle some of the water over the nest. When the hornets detected their nest being hit with water, they began to completely freak out and came swarming out in a chaotic mess of angry stinging death. Anansi added to their distress by shouting out that it was beginning to storm, screaming his lungs off. When all of the hornets had left the nest, the god pleasantly offered the use of his now-empty calabash as a safe and dry spot for the crazy buzzing nightmares to ride out the storm, an offer they took him up on! Every last hornet stupidly flew into Anansi's calabash and once they were all inside, the trickster plugged the hole with a cork, trapping the Mboro inside! With a hop, skip and a jump to his walk, Anansi strolled back to Nyame's palace in the sky and plunked the calabash at his feet alongside Onini and Osebo. Nyame couldn't believed how he'd been hoodwinked by his tricksy son, and was far, FAR from pleased, but a deal was a deal. In fact, he HAD to admire the brains that Anansi had used to acquire the three items Nyame had requested. A chip off the old block, the sky god thought with some serious pride! Anansi might be a pain in the rear end from time to time (really more often than not), but he WAS Nyame's son, and the god had to admit that he'd blown him away with his perseverance and resourcefulness! With his quest over, Nyame handed Anansi the small, decorative wooden box of stories, and the trickster god made off to the earth to open it up, flooding the land with all of the stories ever; past, present and future, for the humans to revel in, be amazed by and learn from!


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A griot tells the stories of Anansi to the village...

But back to Anansi himself:

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Stories of Anansi gave these folks hope in the darkest hour...

Much later, the stories of Anansi would take root in the Americas, in the "New World," the lands discovered west of Africa and across the ocean. The Caribbean was the prefect spot for Anansi to be "reborn" and see a big following. Why? Well, the story isn't exactly a happy and triumphant one, and that's putting it lightly. In the 16th Century, European traders who were making cash hand over fist trading with Africa began to step up the game...in people rather than goods. A cheap and "expendable" workforce was desired by grossly-rich Europeans who owned massive plantations in the Caribbean, and Africa seemed the perfect place to supply them. West Africa proved a fruitful area to actually procure slaves, not only because Europeans were kidnapping innocent Africans from West Africa but because their own leaders would sell captured war prisoners to the Europeans for (literally) boatloads of cash. Either way, it meant that they victims were transported, in unspeakable and horrific conditions, in slave ships across the Atlantic to work on the plantations. The children of these enslaved people themselves became slaves who were powerless, chained, beaten and often worked to death. Not exactly a sterling time in world history.

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Survival through stories...
Where does Anansi (and the rest of his godly family) come in? Naturally, the enslaved peoples carried their stories, myths, legends and religions with them (mostly in secret, because Christianity was forced upon them as slaves) and passed them on. The stories of Anansi and his exploits, of his ability to trick and defeat creatures more powerful than himself were extremely important and popular to folks who had no hope. Anansi symbolized rebellion, sly thinking, trickery and the "long game," and the stories could and did give both hope and pride to enslaved people in their struggles to survive and their fights for freedom. Of course, the stories developed and changed, as any story will when passed down verbally. Over the next decades and centuries, slaves were also bought to work in the plantations of the Southern United States. Anansi somehow morphed into a female in the telling and became "Aunt Nancy," a spider-woman, and many of Anansi’s escapades were attributed to other creatures, or became turned around. Likewise, some kept him mostly as he always was and he was also seen as Mr. Nancy, depending on which area of the southern United States you traveled. One of the most famous stories featuring a changed Anansi can be seen in the story of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby.


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"Mr. Nancy"
Anansi is still around in many modern forms (after all, you're actually reading about him here and now on this website!). For example, the fantasy author Neil Gaiman included a rendition of "Mr. Nancy" in his tied-together books American Gods and "Anansi Boys," where Anansi plays a major part in events. Mr. Nancy was described as "
a black man with a mustache, who wears a lime-green fedora and lemon-yellow gloves, with a checkered suit." (http://americangods.wikia.com/wiki/American_Gods_Wiki)). A perfect look for a sly, slippery, tongue-in-cheek trickster in an updated modern world! Why does Anansi still carry weight in the storytelling department? Well, we all still enjoy stories about a mischievous hero who gets away with causing trouble; trickster stories make people laugh and perhaps they also appeal to our spirit of rebellion; we can enjoy the trickster’s mischief making whilst feeling quite virtuous ourselves. If someone else is doing the trickery, we're still innocent! Plus, Anansi is just that amusing, whether he gets away with his schemes or not!

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The trickster's tales live on...