West African trickster tales
Son of Nyame and Asase Ya
Anansi (pronounced uh-NAHN-see), the spider, is one of the most popular animal tricksters from West African mythology. Tricksters are mischievous figures who often oppose the will of the gods, which results in some kind of misfortune for humans. Like many trickster figures, the sly Anansi can change his appearance to look like a human, a rabbit, a fox, or other animals.
West Africans originally thought Anansi to be the creator of the world. He often acted as a go-between for humans in their dealings with the sky god Nyame (pronounced N-ya-mae), and supposedly persuaded Nyame to create both night and rain. In most stories, however, Anansi is a crafty and cunning trickster who makes life more enjoyable for himself, or more difficult for others, by fooling humans, other animals, and even the gods themselves. By using his cleverness and what he knew of his victims' ways of thinking, Anansi was able to trick them to achieve his aims.
In one well-known tale, Anansi asks God for an ear of corn and promises to repay it with one hundred servants. He takes the corn to a village and tells the people that it is sacred. During the night, Anansi feeds the corn to the chickens. The next morning, he accuses the villagers of stealing the corn and they give him a bushel of it to make up for the lost ear.
Anansi then meets a man on the road and exchanges the corn for a chicken. He visits another village and tells the people that the chicken is sacred. That night he kills the chicken. The next morning the frightened villagers give him ten sheep to replace it. Anansi later exchanges the sheep for a corpse, which he takes to a third village and tells the people that it is the sleeping son of God. When the villagers cannot wake the corpse the next morning, Anansi says they have killed God's son. The terrified villagers offer him one hundred of their finest young men. Anansi takes them to God to fulfill his part of the bargain.
Anansi in Context
The character of Anansi is believed to have come from the Ashanti tribe, located in the West African country of Ghana. The character became quite popular among other nearby tribes, including the Akyem and Nzema. As members of these tribes were taken west during the slave trade, the stories of Anansi were brought to the West Indies, South America, and North America. In some parts of North America, Anansi became known as Aunt Nancy or Miss Nancy in African American folklore.
The traditional role of the trickster in many cultures is to survive challenges and dangers by using cleverness or deceit. The trickster is not usually a physically strong or intelligent individual, so he is not the heroic figure of myth and legend. But tricksters often get what they want and survive in a dangerous world by using their wits—making them especially popular among weaker segments of society. The popularity of Anansi's stories among African American slaves might be due in part to his role as a survivor.
Key Themes and Symbols
Though the trickster can take the form of many different humans and animals, Anansi is most often depicted as a spider. The spider is an apt form for a trickster god because spiders spin webs to catch the careless— just as Anansi spins webs of deceit to achieve his goals. He is symbolic of the trickster character commonly found in mythologies around the world in that he is usually selfish, clever, and willing to cause mischief for his own amusement or benefit. He is also more understanding of the human condition than other deities.
Anansi in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Anansi is one of the most popular characters from African mythology and is often featured in folk tales and children's stories. Anansi also plays a central role in the Neil Gaiman fantasy novel Anansi Boys (2005), a contemporary story about a man who discovers that his dead father was Anansi and that his brother has inherited their father's special powers.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Trickster characters are common in television shows. They are usually portrayed as schemers whose grand plans always seem to land them in trouble. Lucy Ricardo from the television show / Love Lucy fits the description of a trickster in many ways. Can you think of a television show or movie you enjoy that contains a trickster character? What qualities or behaviors make you think that the character is a trickster?