EP 024: Turtles, Tricksters and Trouble

EP 026: JIBES, JEERS AND OTHER SICK BURNS Historycal: Words that Shaped the World

What do Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare and Pope John XXIII have in common? The answer: they all know how to deliver a sick burn. And now you do too. In this episode we have the history of all sorts of things our mothers told us not to say – said in style.

If you dislike whoopee cushions, 6 year old children or con artists of any other variety, you might need to adopt the brace position by crossing your arms and resting your head against the seat in front of you. Unfortunately, there are no exit routes, so please subscribe and leave us a rating while you’re there, because today we’re talking bunny rabbits, arachnids, and other creatures that simply can’t be trusted.

If you’ve been around a while, you might be able to throw your mind back to Episode 8, How Anansi Got His Tale. If you’re new, or if you adopt a podcast listening strategy that more closely resembles a singleton at Christmas time eating a box of Milk Tray, you might not have heard it yet. But that’s okay – here’s a quick refresher for those who need it:

Anansi is a spider, and also a deity, and a jokester, and also a sage. He’s not exactly a real spider, he’s more of a fictional spider, except when he’s not a spider, and is something else. He hails from the rough postal code of West Africa, or America, or the Caribbean, depending on the season.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about rabbits.

You might, in your youth, have heard of Brer Rabbit. Brer, for those of you who have never googled this, is a kind of title like Mr or Mrs, and it’s a contraction of the word ‘brother.’ So Brer Rabbit is really brother Rabbit, in a strictly honorary, non-species jumping kind of way.

The Brer Rabbit stories, like the Anansi stories, are an old part of a rich oral tradition. The web of Anansi’s birth is, so far as we can tell, in West Africa, and from there he spread throughout Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas, as people moved (or, more commonly, were forced to do so). Similarly, most people know Brer Rabbit as the central figure in oral stories passed down in African-American and African-Caribbean traditions. Anyone who’s ever whiled away a Sunday with Brer Rabbit in one hand and Anansi’s Tales in the other, might have noticed that there are some striking similarities between the two. Apart from the fact that they’re both beautifully rooted in the kind of storytelling tradition in which lessons and wisdom are passed through the spoken word, they’re both just a rollicking good time. Which is sort of the point – the boring stories don’t survive the generations. But they also both feature a trickster character – a semi-mystical being, with above average abilities, who’s really good at getting out of a jam. These trickster characters are common throughout the world, from Loki in Norse mythology, to Curupira, the Brazilian jungle genie. The really interesting link between Brer Rabbit and Anansi is that they both have their roots (or burrows, as the case may be) in Africa – Anansi in the West, and Brer Rabbit in the Southern and Central regions. There’s a lot of overlap in the plots of the original tales, if not the number of legs. They both ended up in America via the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, where the stories, over time, diverged slightly from the originals. Just like languages and accents, stories grow and change over time, until Brer Rabbit and Anansi became two distinct entities in the public consciousness. Both, however, remained centrally important amongst enslaved communities, for whom the trickster figure – provoking authority and surviving by his wits – became a subtle symbol of resistance.

If this parallel isn’t something you’ve ever had occasion to notice, don’t worry. We’re going to do the heavy lifting for you.

We’ll start with another Anansi story:

It’s a beautiful day in the African plains, and Anansi is picking yams. He’s got the new edition of Jaimie’s 30 Minute Meals, and although he knows it’ll actually take him at least an hour and a half, not counting an extra trip to the grocery store, he’s really looking forward to his lunch. Unfortunately for him, cooking seems to be a hidden talent, and soon the delicious smell is wafting through the air. Turtle, not usually inclined to share real estate with the arachnid family, decides to make an exception. He tootles along to Anansi’s house, and knocks on the door.

Now Anansi might be a mythical, semi-deity, renowned for his cunning and quick wits, but there’s one thing he doesn’t do well, and that’s sharing. (Granted in episode 8, he literally swapped his own mother, but she wasn’t, strictly speaking, edible).

Unfortunately, cultural custom demands that he let Turtle in  and offer him his meat, but he does so with as bad grace as he can pull off. Just as they’re sitting down to dig in, Anansi stops Turtle and tells him to wash his hands.

Turtle, seeing his point, hops off of his stool, waddles over to the water bucket, and gives his claws a thorough soaping. He makes his way back to the table but, being four-flippered, and requiring all of them for the journey, by the time he arrives his ‘hands’ are dirty again.

Anansi, feeling very pleased with himself, and never one to hide how clever he is, points this out, and Turtle trudges back to the water bucket. A lot of back-and-forth ensues, until finally Turtle gets back to the table for the seventh or eighth time, his hands still mucky, to find that Anansi has happily polished off all the food.

Remembering his manners, he thanks Anansi sadly for his lunch, and wanders off to find a more hospitable establishment.

Sometime later, Anansi is sunbathing on the local shore, when a scrumptious scent wafts over the waves. Peering into the depths, he sees Turtle trussed up in apron with the Kindle Edition of Ottolenghi’s Simple propped open on a water jug.

(I am fully aware that a turtle in the ocean would have little need of a water jug. For the purposes of this story, it is purely aesthetic). 

Turtle grins up at Anansi and beckons him down. Anansi, whilst not good at sharing, is perfectly comfortable taking, and he nods back enthusiastically. He dives into the water, but is thwarted by the sharp edge of science, and bobs straight back up again. Like any self-respecting part-deity spider, he isn’t going to let this stop him. He fills his pockets with stones, and, with a well-timed jump, is carried straight down to Turtle’s dining room table. Turtle welcomes him warmly, but then feigns horror when he sees Anansi’s coat.

“Turtles,” he says, “never wear their coats to dinner” – which, as everyone knows, is a perfectly valid point. Anansi removes his coat, and immediately pops back up to the surface of the sea.

The point, of course, is that you should never try to trick someone, lest you be tricked in return, although I think we can all agree that this story also contains a strong sub-caution against inviting yourself round for meals.

Switching species rapidly, on another fine day, in another fine place, we see Brer Rabbit a hop-skip-and-jumping his way back to his briar patch. He’s got a rabbity wife at home, who’s just given him a horde of bunny children, and his thoughts are filled with fluffy bobtails and tiny noses and the price of primary school education.

Interrupting these meditations, he sees Sister Cow in a nearby field. She’s clearly had a fairly recent calving herself, and is probably thinking similar thoughts and wondering whether she can re-mortgage her shed. Brer Rabbit, noticing what an unseasonably hot day it is, decides to go for gold.

He ambles up to Cow, and asks her, innocently, to help him get some persimmons down from a nearby tree. She falls for it, because cows are notoriously dopey, and bunny rabbits are very cute. She butts her horns against the tree, but nothing happens. Brer Rabbit, not missing a trick, and very clued up on the latest scientific theories, points out that she probably just needs a bit more momentum. She backs up a few paces, comes in hot, and slams her horns into the trunk of the tree as hard as possible. Where they stay. She’s now stuck in the tree until further notice.

Brer Rabbit, still feigning innocence, promises to go and fetch Brer Bull. Whooping as loudly as it is possible for a rabbit to whoop, he proceeds to do nothing of the sort. Sometime later, he arrives back on the scene with his family in tow, all supporting an enormous bucket. He milks the poor, trapped cow, laughing merrily, and promising ice cream to all his offspring. When he’s done, he tells Sister Cow that he’ll be back in the morning for a top up.

She, unsurprisingly, is not having it. She tugs and tugs, until at last her horns pull free, and then decides to get her own back. She curls up for a quick forty winks, because revenge is tiring, and, at daybreak, sticks her horns back into the holes in the tree.

When Brer Rabbit comes along, pail in paw, she asks him to pull her tail.

(As a sidebar, is anyone else wondering if this is the origins story of the world’s favourite dad joke?)

Her plan, I think we can all agree, is to come out of the tree at speed and sit on Brer Rabbit, which, frankly, he probably deserves. But he’s a crafty guy, and, unbeknownst to her, has been watching the field all night. He refuses to come a step closer, and she, furious, turns on him. They have a high speed chase over hill and dale, until Brer Rabbit, with the two significant advantages of speed and size, manages to hide in some brambles. As Sister Cow gets closer, he chooses the kind of pitiful disguise much revered by Shakespeare. Pulling some brambles over his head, and adopting a squeaky voice, he tells Sister Cow that Brer Rabbit went ‘that way’. She races off, and he goes home for a milkshake.

The takeaway, depending on your mood, is either that trickery breeds trickery, or that you should never trust someone with a cute nose.

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