EP 008: How Anansi Got His Tale

EP 008: HOW ANANSI GOT HIS TALE Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What has eight legs, one wife, and all the stories in the world? If the trickster Anansi wasn't your first guess, listen up. If it was, listen anyway. Today, we're discussing oral traditions, storytelling, and what some people will trade for a good yarn. 

A common feature of History – especially the way we were taught it in the 90’s – is that cultures who kept written records tend to get more airtime. That makes sense in some practical ways – sometimes we know more about those periods of History, and sometimes they’re much easier to teach, especially to younger people. But it also leaves us with big gaps. Just think about Egyptian history for a second – once the ancient Egyptian developed a way of making paper, we find these big gaps in our knowledge, which we don’t see so much when they were carving into stone or clay. If you’ve ever accidently dropped the new Harry Potter in the bath, or set your old love letters on fire, you’ll understand why. 

For thousands of years, hundreds of cultures were based around oral traditions, in which the history of the people was kept in the form of stories. There’s something really fascinating about this way of record keeping, because the stories have to be told in order for the history to be preserved. The history is kept as a kind of cultural memory because everyone knows and has heard the stories over and over again. If you stop telling the stories, the memory fades and the history is lost for ever. But, if you keep telling them, the history lives alongside the community, and becomes a part of your shared knowledge, even wisdom, in some cases.

Alongside the retelling of history, cultures with oral traditions also pass down fables and mythology and religion, in the form of stories. These are meant to entertain, of course, but also to educate and instruct, and even to warn. And this is where our spider comes in. Anansi is an extremely important character in West African folklore, and in many stories, he’s also considered to be a god-like character with knowledge of all stories. I’d call him the ultimate librarian, except I don’t think he’d be particularly flattered.

Now before anyone gets confused – Anansi has god-like qualities, but he’s usually not worshipped as God, or even as A god. He’s a trickster figure, famous for his wit and his quick tongue and his ability to get himself into – and then out of – trouble. Mythologies and folklore aren’t really directly comparable, but if you need a touchstone just to give you an idea – think of a character like Loki, who’s the trickster figure in Norse mythology. Except that Anansi is a little bit less murder-y, and has fewer fan-girls. But more legs.

Anansi usually takes the form of a spider, and he travels far and wide in the stories. But the stories themselves travelled quite a distance too. They were spread as people themselves were scattered by the Transatlantic Slave Trade, so outside of West Africa, they’re very important in African American and Caribbean folklore, amongst others. In fact, Anansi became quite a popular hero as a symbol of slave resistance and survival, because of his ability to escape and survive, as well as his propensity for turning the tables in a situation that might seem hopeless. If one of the beauties of Oral traditions is that the stories go wherever you do, another is that they’re able to evolve and grow with shifting cultures. So the stories about Anansi from the Caribbean may be quite different to those from Ghana or Sierra Leone, and in some places he’ll have a slightly different personality or even a different name. Again, we can’t really do a direct comparison, but think about the differences between Mars and Ares. They’re both the God of War – one is Roman, one is Greek, one has a side-hobby of farming and milking cows, and the other just likes to slice people up with a sword. But otherwise they’re basically the same bloke.

There are too many Anansi stories to tell in one episode, and there’s no perfect way to pick just one. So we’ll stick with what feels like a good beginning, the story of how the Anansi got his Tales. That’s tales with an E, for anyone who was about to start spamming me with spider diagrams.

In the beginning, there were no stories in the world. They’re all in the sky, in the possession of the sky-god, Nyame. He isn’t big on sharing, but he is big on making a quick buck. I assume the rent is due, and the god of the sky’s offices have a pretty big footprint. Fortunately for him, Anansi wants to buy his stories. Unfortunately for Anansi, Nyame is convinced that the spider won’t be able to pay. Anansi, who must had done his job shadowing hours as a Real Estate Agent, refuses to give up. Nyame is getting quite cross now, so he does what everyone does when estate agents cold call us at Christmas time – he names an exorbitantly high price. Anansi has to capture four of the most dangerous creatures in the world, and bring them to him. Nyame, of course, is just hoping to shut the spider up. But shutting up isn’t really Anansi thing. He agrees, and throws his own mother into the pot as well, as a little bonus. (Just to clarify – that’s not the moral of the story. It’s just a pro tip).

To give credit where it’s due, Anansi does give his mom fait warning. At least, I’m not actually sure what fair warning is when you offer to trade your mum to the sky god, never mind adding her into the ranks of the most dangerous creatures in the world. But I know 30 minutes is polite if you’re going to be late for dinner, so let’s assume it was fair notice. Also to his credit, he acknowledges that he doesn’t really have a plan and asks his wife for help. He wants to start with Onini the python, so she suggests that he cut down some thick tree vines, and stage a fight with her on the river bank. The key to any good plan is to keep it realistic, and Anansi is a bit of a know it all. So when Onini hears the two arguing he comes over to find out what’s up, and possibly to offer some pro bono marriage counselling. Anansi explains that they’re debating how big of a python Onini really is. Onini immediately takes Anansi’s side, which is just typical, really, and lies down next to the vines to be measured. Anansi promptly ties him up and carts him off to the sky-god.

Anansi is a smart guy, so he does what smart spiders have done since they first started playing truth-or-dare – he goes to his even-smarter wife for more advice. She’s very obliging, so she gives him another cracker of a plan. He fills a gourd with water and sneaks up on a group of Mmoboro Hornets. He sprinkles some of the water on a banana leaf, and puts it over his head like a hat. Then he uses the gourd like a surreptitious water pistol, spraying the hornets with water. Understandably, they’re a bit put out, but Anansi whips the still-wet banana leaf off of his head and convinces them that it’s been raining. He very sweetly offers to let them hang out in his gourd until the rain stops, and they zoom in, grateful for the chance to dry their feet. Anansi, of course, stoppers the gourd and delivers them to Nyame. He’s halfway now, if you don’t count his mum-shaped bonus gift.

Osebo the Leopard is next, and for this one, Anansi goes for a classic. He digs a hole outside Osebo’s den and covers its with brushwood leaves. Out comes the leopard for a morning stretch, and promptly falls headfirst into the hole. Anansi asks his if he’s been at the liquor again, because apparently it’s becoming a bit of a habit with our spotted friend. He then offers to help Osebo out of the hole, on the strict understanding that he won’t be eaten afterwards. Osebo agrees, but it’s sort of a moot point, because Anansi manages to knock him out during the rescue. The next thing Osebo knows, he’s waking up on the Sky-God’s parlour floor, and Anansi is feeling pretty smug.

The fourth, and final, task, is to capture Mmoatia the fairy, and Anansi gets really creative for his finale. He carves an akua’ba – a wooden doll – and covers it with sticky tree sap. He then gets his wife to make some delicious mashed yams, and heads to the odum tree where the fairies like to get together. He puts the doll in front of the bowl of yams, and ties a single thread of his silk around her – effectively turning her into a puppet. It doesn’t take long for Mmoatia to show up and ask for a snack. The doll nods in agreement, although really its Anansi pulling on his thread, and Mmoatia tucks in. Afterwards, she tries to thank the doll, but this time, there’s no response. She’s a bit put out at being ignored, so she gives the doll a slap on the cheek. Unfortunately, the doll doesn’t seem bothered, and her hand is now stuck to it. So she tries another slap, with the other hand, with the same result. Mmoatia follows through with what we can really only call a catastrophically bad decision – she slams her whole body into the doll, hoping to give it a proper pummelling and really show it what for. Of course, she’s now completely stuck, and Anansi is delighted. To add insult to injury, he carts her off on a pit stop to fetch his mum, so that he can deliver them both to the sky-god. Perhaps his mum sees how hard he’s been working, because she just goes along quite quietly.

Nyame is deeply impressed. He tells Anansi, and everyone else who cares to listen, just how clever the Spider is. But it’s not just praise the Spider is after, and Nyame keeps his word… although, ironically, not his stories. The stories belong to Anansi now, and he is free to tell them however, whenever and to whomever, he chooses. All stories are spider-stories, the Sky-God says, no matter what they’re about.

Of course this is only one of many, and we’ve had to take some liberties in the telling of it, or you’d be stuck to this podcast for hours, like Mmoatia was stuck to the doll. If you’d like to hear more of them, there’s a wealth of resources online, and I’d really encourage you to find the quite excellent recordings on YouTube. There are a whole lot done in a much more traditional style than ours, and it’s quite incredible to hear it done properly.

In the meantime, remember: stay away from fairies, spiders and snakes, but I think we can forgive the bees. Bees are good. And never, ever, trust your son. You never know what he might trade you for.

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