Making Anansi a national treasure for the young at heart
Anansi is a Jamaican national folkloric hero who should be so honoured. He is a spider-man. He is believed to be the son of a union between N’yame the Great Sky Father and Asase Ya the Ashanti’s Earth Mother, Goddess of Fertility. His Akan people in Ghana seem to recon this because his Web of Life hangs in the sky connected to the earth.
Anansi has been in Jamaica for 415 years, that is, if he didn’t arrive in the island before the English takeover from the Spanish in 1655. The first Africans to be brought to Jamaica were in 1518. Most of the enslaved were from the African interior, collected on and brought from the Cape Verde Islands to the Caribbean. So, it is unlikely that Anansi’s people were among these Africans. Yet, Anansi has been a guide to all Jamaicans who have heard his folkloric Anansesem or his tales that we call Anansi Stories. It is said that all stories belong to Anansi, since he had won this honour as ‘Keeper of All Stories’ or Anansesem, from his father, N’yame. It was from N’yame’s name that Jamaicans also got the words yam and to nyam, or to eat.
Anansi is not as old as those Akan gods of the Ashanti Creation. His inherited powers, which included making the rivers course through the forest, were able to put out forest fires, and use his web to instruct human beings how to build a house, weave Kente cloth, and how to live connected in the form of a society. Yet, his angry father turned his son into a spider, just because Anansi was disobedient. So, now he lives among us as a half man and a half spider, slipping in and out of our psyche, unaware of his moral impact.
Outside of West Africa, our Anansi is the strongest. His Akan people, who ended up in Jamaica, like our Caribbean hurricane Guabancex, the Taíno’s Angry Woman wind goddess, trace their roots to the Sahara and Sahel Desert areas in the east in that continent. Their saga stated that the Akan people were formed in Eastern Africa. Some believe that they broke off from Ancient Egypt, eventually arriving in West Africa from that direction in the 11th century to the coastal forest region, which became Ghana. And like Guabancex, ended up in our Caribbean’s Taíno and Kalinago (Island Carib) homelands. Depending on where he was and what dialect the people spoke, he is known by many names. His names range from Ananse in the Twi language, meaning spider. Depending on where he landed and the accent of the people, he is also known as:
Anansi/Annancy/Annansay/Annancey/Anancyi/Anawnsy/Hanansi / Hanaansi/Compe Anansi/John Anansi/Nansi/Nance/Nancy/Mr Nancy/Brother Anansi/Bro’ Anancy/Bra’ Nancy/Bre-Nancy/Aunt Nancy/Miss Nancy/Anansi-Tori/ Ti /The Spider or Spider-man.
WHY DO WE HAVE ANANSI?
“ From Anansi of Africa to the Grandmother Spiders of the Americas, arachnids have a firm niche in the human cultural psyche. They have been creators and tricksters, sometimes helping humanity, sometimes harming.” Lauren Lyn Cidel, The Tangled Web, An anthology of spider stories.
Humans all share the trait of storytelling, whether through the spoken word or song. This is one way how we deal with the trials of life. So, all major societies have their cultural folkloric icons. These characters are so important to the psyche that most have been elevated to the level of goddesses and gods. These significant forces of good and evil by Africans, Amerindians, Asians, and Europeans are well documented and prominent in both our informal and formal educational systems. Even before this time of cultural inclusiveness, it is not uncommon for teachers to request Anansi storytelling. Neither is it unusual for American university students from Jamaica to invite an Anansi storyteller to tell his stories to their young American charges. Anansi belongs to both the good and the mischievous. In order to teach morals, he has been categorised as an entertainer; he is associated with the Trickster Hero Tradition, a helper of human beings.
Since he was turned into a little spider, as a spider-man, he had to fend for himself against larger and dangerous beings. And like children and downtrodden humans, he had to use his wits to survive. He became their hero.
My remembered journey with Anansi the Spider-Man began over 70 years ago as a child in Conversorium Elementary School in downtown Kingston. Our illustrated reader included a story about ‘How Annancy Went to Fish Country’. It was about our island’s folkloric hero and whose name Jamaicans spelled as Annancy. As a student on Howard University’s campus in Washington, DC, I researched the African origins of the folkloric character that Ghana’s Ashanti call Kweku Anansi. His name means a spider with the characteristics of a child born on Wednesday, or Wednesday’s child.
In an illustration course, I was given an assignment to illustrate a children’s book by the professor of the university’s Art Department in the College of Fine Arts. The story that I chose was Annancy and De Nyam Hills, by Pamela Colman Smith, from her 1899 book Annancy Stories.
This journey took me to create the first folkloric Anansi Stories comic strip that I called Anansesem. This weekly strip was published in the Gleaner Company’s STAR newspaper for almost five years.
The original Ashanti character for my comic strip was composed from the artistic aesthetics of Nigeria’s Benin bronzes. Although not Yoruba, their artistic style of rendering the human form easily loaned itself to American cartooning. In developing this character, the task was, how do you illustrate the visual concept of a half god and a half spider?
Here, Kweku Anansi, the son of deities, is transformed into our spider-man. So, in our Anansi stories, he takes on both forms, depending on the story’s plot.
Our lesson? “Do or don’t do what Anansi did!” is often the moral.
Humanity began in Africa and we have inherited that pantheon. From the father figure, Ra and his family of Ancient Egypt to the Old Ones of the Akan’s Ashanti of Ghana’s N’yame the Sky his wife, Asase Ya the Earth goddess and their son, to our Kweku Anansi the Spider-Man. We associate our very existence with these beings. Stories about them and their relationship to us humans were invented to guide us to good, by avoiding evil.
Anansi the Spider-Man has stood the test of time. Now more than ever, the world needs Anansi! His antics as a little spider-man, instruct our children and remind us that might is not always right. And he is our oldest folkloric hero. In Jamaica, he needs an honoured cultural comeback. Students should continue the Anansi saga by writing their own versions of his exploits. I did. (See http://anansistories.com/ website’s page with a trilogy of his Jamaican son’s search for him.: http://anansistories.com/Ticky_Ticky.html)
“Hey, man. Where is your accent from?” he said. “Jamaica,” I replied. “Wow! My folks are Maroons taken to Freetown after the Second Maroon War!” We hugged.
Similarly, Kojo Baden, a Ghanaian Ashanti professor of art on Howard University’s campus commented on the Anansesem comic strip, “How could a Jamaican so accurately capture Anansi?’ “He is in the blood.” I replied.
- Michael is an avid Anansi storyteller, teacher and a lecturer. Send feedback to: email@example.com