Quotidian 2 (December 2010)Flora Illes; Theo Meder: Anansi comes to Holland

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Divine trickster

As stated before, Anansi originally was a West-African animal tale character. The stories of the spider are known in the narrative culture of the Ashanti people in many different African countries, like Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo, Sierra Leone and Liberia (Meder 2007b). The spider is named Ananse or Kweku Ananse there, and has a strongly mythological character. His character links up with the religious world view of the African peoples and various divine qualities are attributed to him. Sometimes he acts as the creator of mankind or as he who brings knowledge and diseases to the world. Furthermore, he possesses the potential for divine creation. In other cases, he appears alongside the heavenly god of Nyankopon, and functions as an intermediary between God and man. In these old stories, he frequently ascends to heaven via his cobweb wire to convey a message or questions of the people to God before returning with an answer.[6] In present-day Africa, he is still a figure in direct contact with God, e.g. in the story of the Ghanaian storyteller Kojo Anim on Anansi Masters. The folktale explains why all stories begin with Anansi’s name. It so happens that all folktales in Ghana are called Anansi tales, even when the spider does not make any appearance in them. Since Anansi has performed an almost impossible task, God has decided that from then on, all tales should begin with his name. The dialogue between Anansi and God at the beginning of the tale is characteristic for the relationship between the two. It goes as follows:

“A long time ago, there lived a person called Kweku Anansi. In the time when every story began with God’s name. One day, Kweku Anansi said to God: ‘God, you are the oldest. And you take care of us all. Children are always obliged to mention your name before every story. This is not very nice. Wouldn’t it be better to mention the name of an unimportant person like me?’”

Anansi’s liminal position between two worlds is an essential characteristic which was already present in the African tales. He is a cheat and a benefactor at the same time, divine as well as human, bringer of good and evil deeds to the earth.[7] These traits make him a typical representative of the trickster or benefactor. Such mythological double figures have been encountered in the narrative cultures of highly diverse peoples from Africa to North America. Tricksters are almost exclusively animal figures, possessing contradictory character traits that are partially protohuman, partially superhuman. As protohuman creatures, they are driven by the most elementary urges of hunger and sexuality, and will shun no means to satisfy their needs. They usually reach their goals at the expense of others, but they also regularly fall victim to their own tricks. Their strategy can be summarized as “a maximization of short-term gain at the expense of long-term social cohesion” (De Souza 2003, 342). According to the psychological interpretation of C.G. Jung, the archetype of the trickster represents the dark side of the psyche; the uncivilized, immoral, wrong and evil side of someone’s personality (Jung 2003, 170).

Despite the immoral tricks, the African spider tales were regarded as a means of transmitting ancient knowledge and morals to younger generations. They were a very important source of socialization in the norms and values of society and had to contribute to the continuity of the cultural transmission. By displaying undesirable behaviour and transgressing the borders of the established social norms, Anansi redefined the values of the social system in the sense of “don’t do it like this”. In actual fact, he functioned simultaneously as a positive role model because of his unequalled art of survival, and as a negative example because of his outrageous tricks.


Image 3: In the story “Tekumbé Timbé” by Johan Ferrier, Anansi is the victim. He has a cacodemon on his back and can no longer do what he likes best: eating. He visits a lukuman (clairvoyant) to get rid of the cacodemon. Drawing by Noni Lichtveld (Ferrier 2010, 119).