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

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Anansi, the paradoxical main character of a large number of Caribbean animal tales occupies a special position in narrative culture. In historical perspective, he is a proto-character, archetypal and originally mythological. The Anansi stories can be counted among the trickster tales -- which occur in various cultures -- with sympathetic yet subversive tricksters as heroes; e.g. Reynard the Fox and Till Eulenspiegel in Western Europe and Nasreddin Hodja in the Middle East. In a great many cultures, there is the “clever underdog” as an often selfish or sociopathic outsider, as an antihero in the margins of society (De Souza 2003) having one adventure after the other. These crafty and often eloquent characters try to hold their ground in life with humour and without scruples (Van Lierop-Debrauwer 2006, 23). As characters they do not give evidence of any sort of inner growth. Their living conditions are characteristic too: they live in poverty, in a context of repressed social discontent and unrest. Anansi is (just like Reynard the Fox) the spiritual equivalent of many roguish animal characters from the oral tradition of several different peoples, such as the Indonesian mouse-deer Kantjil, the African Jekyll, the Afro-American Brer Rabbit and the Indian-American Coyote (Meder 2007b, Geider 2009). In these tales, human society is shown in the mirror of the animal world. In addition, they always contain a critical and a parodic element (Van Gorp 1978, 22). All of these trickster animals are “crafty and derisive to the point of cruelty”, characteristics which are also some of Anansi’s principal features. It seems likely that the character of the both sympathetic and contrary trickster is a universal presence in many different, widely divergent narrative cultures. It must be noted, though, that the character of the trickster is subject to content-related and formal-structural shifts as a result of the influence of several different cultural-historical conditions, and that the tricksters are beginning to display an increasing number of culture-specific characteristics (Van Gorp 1978, 15; see also Fernandes 2008). In the following paragraphs, we will look into the changes the Anansi figure has undergone over time and from one cultural environment to the next.

Divine trickster

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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).

Human survivor

During the slave trade, the spider tales ended up in various countries in Central America and the Caribbean as cultural heritage and immaterial possession of the slaves. As with the languages of the slaves, the animal tales underwent a radical process of creolization. The stories were creatively adapted to the new environment, mingled with indigenous and European elements, but nevertheless retained a considerable number of African characteristics. The wide variation in name-giving illustrates this process of acculturation. The spider’s original name, Ananse, lives on nowadays in numerous variations: Brer Nancy, Aunt Nancy, Nanancy, Anansi, Ba Anansi, Banansi or Compa Nanzi (Meder 2007b; Arduin 2008). In Surinam, the spider stories were called Anansitoris, and on the Antilles people called them Cuentanan di Nanzi.

In his new habitat, an important change in the role and the character of the spider has taken place, which could be characterized as demythologization and secularization (Van Duin 2003, 192, Ronhaar-Rozema 1979, 262-264, Van Kempen 2002, 244; Meder 2007b). In the Caribbean region, Anansi loses his divine status as well as his contact with the god Nyankopon; he becomes an ordinary worldly and earthbound character with a family. The king replaces god as his mighty opponent. The intrigues and the motives, however, remain the same, and the spider is still an ambiguous trickster who transgresses all norms in order to gratify his desires. In the context of slavery, the element of “survival” is emphasized more strongly. Anansi is the small, powerless spider, who manages to hold his ground in the imposing animal kingdom, and who successfully hides from those in power whenever he has been up to something. According to some researchers, the character of the spider functions as a provider of comfort and support within a system of oppression and his stories are meant to assist the slaves in their struggle for survival (Van Duin 2003, 186, De Souza 2003, 345, 355). This shift in the interpretation of the spider character clearly shows that cultural manifestations gain new meanings in the historical dynamics of cultural identity. According to recent interpretations, a divine trickster with a religious function develops into a comforter with survival skills who rebels against the establishment to boot.

“And then comes slavery, of course. The people were taken and scattered over the Caribbean area and the south of North America. And then Anansi got another function, right. I thought it was a very important function he then got. All these people could take with them were their thoughts. ‘Cause nobody can take those from you. And in those thoughts they went back to their motherlands, of course, and turned Anansi into some kind of hero.” (Arduin 2008)

It is unknown when and how this shift in the interpretation of Anansi occurred. It is sometimes assumed that this change in the function and meaning of the folktale character would be just a projection in hindsight (Meder 2007b). Depending on the time, the location and the audience of the tale cultural objects gain new meanings, which would support the changing cultural identity by the use of stories. As a result of the change of the cultural environment and the intended audience, certain characteristics lose their strength, and new layers of meaning are assigned. It goes without saying that this labelling can only be discovered retrospectively.

Frequently, a connection is made between the Anansi stories and slavery, in which the spider tales are interpreted in the perspective of protest with respect to inequality and oppression. Undoubtedly, the animal tales offered the possibility to “vent feelings of unease by means of a story, which is supposed to take place in a different world” (Baart 1983, 216). The animal tales are thus attributed with the additional function of protest. “In a society in which the powerful ones often oppress the weaker ones, they are a means to protest against the abuse of power” (Baart 1983, 216). The spider tales allowed the slaves to mock people and situations they could not mock in daily life. The spider got new arch-enemies: the tiger and the king, both of whom he managed to defeat despite their positions of power. Van Duin points out that such characters “were identified with supervisors and plantation owners in the time of slavery” (Van Duin 2003, 186).

“And then you get stories in which Anansi tricks the hunter, the tiger and the king. And those stories were told in slavery time. And you had them slave drivers standing by, but didn’t get that those stories were actually about them. How they were fooled, right? So that was actually a … a way to express their … their … their oppression by means of the story, but also to hand on messages through the story.” (Arduin 2008)

The well-known story with Anansi riding on the back of the tiger illustrates the motto of the spider tales in the aforementioned changed context: “If the lion’s skin cannot, the fox’s shall” or simply “It is better to be smart than strong”. The folktale was told in Hoogezand (province of Groningen, Netherlands) by Hector Cruz, and has been added to the Dutch Folktale Database (ID number GROTM059, www.verhalenbank.nl):

“At one point Nanzi said ehh ….. he was bragging about the tiger. He is the mightiest; a big power. And he was bragging: ‘Ah, I’m not afraid of the tiger and I’m not afraid of the tiger and this and that.’ And all those other people were passing it on. Cha Tigri, the tiger is called Cha Tigri. ‘Cha Tiger, Nanzi says he’s not afraid of you and he can bring you to your knees if he wants to, and this and that.’ So Cha Tiger gets angry and Cha Tiger runs and runs and runs and – aachhhh – stops in front of the house and says: ‘Nanzi! What have you been telling everybody? Come out if you dare!’ And Nanzi starts moaning and groaning: ‘Ah, I’m ill, I’m so ill, I’m in bed, I’m ill, I have to see a doctor, I have to see a doctor.’
Cha Tiger looks at him and says: ‘Are you really ill, Nanzi, or are you pulling my leg again?’
‘No, I’m really ill, I’m really ill, I have to see a doctor, I have to see a doctor. Don’t you wanna take me there? Don’t you wanna take me there?’ Cha Tiger gets closer and says: ‘OK, climb on my back, and then I’ll take you to the doctor quickly.’ Nanzi jumps on Cha Tiger’s back and Cha Tiger starts running through the village. And Nanzi has this whip and Nanzi goes ching, ching, ching, ching, ching. And he says: ‘There you go! There you go! I can ride on the back of the tiger. This beast doesn’t scare me!’”

At the same time, one cannot deny that stories about tricksters and picaresque novels are universal and that they challenge existing power and authority structures, always in a context of hierarchical (dis)proportions, but by no means always in a context of slavery. The use of animals to demonstrate the virtues and vices of man in a lucid and humorous way occurs in animal tales across the world. Slavery as such is no condition for the development and (continued) existence of trickster tales. It is true, though, that these tales are capable of generating extra layers of meaning in a specific social situation – in such cases, the tricksters are beginning to display more culture-specific characteristics, which can in turn be connected to the cultural identity formation of the narrative community. What is more, it must be noted that in many an Anansi tale, powerful opponents such as the king or the tiger are fully absent, and that Anansi is often equally ready to take his equals, his fellow animals, his friends and his own family for a merciless and antisocial ride. For this phenomenon too, storyteller Hilli Arduin finds an explanation in the changing socio-cultural circumstances:

“Well, and then slavery was abolished and there was this period of great hunger, right? Poverty. And then you get these stories where Anansi is actually ruthless. He becomes a thief, he steals food … All those stories tell about how Anansi’s gotta have food, ‘s gotta be rich… And then he also cheats on his friends, right? But really to get… And it’s usually about getting food.” (Arduin 2008)

In all the stories, Anansi is a survivor, but in no way is he always the noble popular hero or freedom fighter people sometimes want to see in him. The interpretation of Anansi as a heroic freedom fighter and as an icon against oppression can only be maintained for a minority of the stories, and seems to be primarily a projection in hindsight, as a result of the awakening Creole cultural and historical self-awareness.


Image 4: Anansi’s wife picks black-eyed peas. In the Antillean Nanzi tales, she is called Shi Maria, in the Surinamese Anansitoris, she is called Ma Akuba. Drawing by Mirelva Romano (Pinto 2006, 48).

Multicultural icon

In the course of the twentieth century, the Anansi stories travelled to the Netherlands, along with the large migratory flow. And once again, the stories showed their flexibility: elements of modern life, e.g. cars, television, Coca Cola, taxi drivers and mobile phones are integrated into the animal tales.[8] The stories are adapted to a different audience by the contemporary storytellers. Originally these stories were meant for the transmission of culture in the Caribbean, and thus they had an exclusively Caribbean background. Their relocation to the Netherlands led to the intrusion of elements of the new culture, also because the “local eye” had now changed. The children lived in a Dutch environment with a heritage of Caribbean cultural elements. The Anansi tales adapted in part to both the local colour and the altered cultural identity of the intended audience. A nice illustration of this is a self-invented story by Hilli Arduin (recorded by Flora Illes in 2008) about Anansi at the Albert Cuyp market in Amsterdam. Anansi and his family go to the Amsterdam market where they smell nice mangos, climb onto the stalls and begin to fill their stomachs. Before the police and the fire brigade arrive, they have gorged themselves sufficiently and disappear. In this context, Anansi appears in a concrete, modern setting of the Dutch Creoles, but in his traditional form, i.e. as a spider.

Many references to the concrete, new environment and everyday reality got a place in the animal tales, for instance by the introduction of integration problems or multicultural neighbours. Many of the updated stories have a socio-political touch: they mock Dutch bureaucracy or make mention of the emancipation of women. But perhaps the biggest change is an alteration in Anansi’s character: he is now milder; less cruel and selfish, thereby losing his complex dual character (Van Duin 1994 and 2003, 187; Ronhaar-Rozema 1978, 264; Van Kempen 2002, 248). He increasingly loses his perfidious and selfish traits, and adjusts himself to the contemporary morals of social adaptability and mutual respect. This change can be the result of the adaptation to the morals of a wider intended audience. In the country of the colonizer, a vicious folktale character, unmotivated cruelty and a disharmonic ending of fairy tales have become less acceptable over time. As a result of this development, Anansi’s arrival in the country of the colonizer makes his transformation into a milder creature culturally determined.

Another very important addition concerns one of Anansi’s new functions in Europe: identity reinforcement. The Anansi tales are part of the cultural heritage of the Surinamese and the Antilleans. They are carriers of the specific ethnicity of these groups in the foreign, sometimes hostile environment the Netherlands are. They play a role in the “integration with retention of own identity”. The narration of spider tales is often a way to manifest one’s own identity and “roots” (Meder 2007b). The stories of the spider are simply part of the proper education of a Surinamese child, and Hilli Arduin finds it a disgrace if a child is no longer capable of singing the elementary song about B’Anansi:

For I sometimes meet Surinamese people, and their children can’t even sing B’Anansi tingelingeling. Well, then I tell the mothers off… and I say to the children: “Tell your mother she hasn’t brought you up right”… Yes. […] Children really should be able to sing B’Anansi tingelingeling. (Arduin 2008).

The spider thus turns into an ethnic icon, and as an exemplary figure, he plays an important role in the process of the attribution of cultural identity.

At the same time, Anansi has also been appropriated by the white Dutch natives and for that reason he is now part of the multicultural canon of Dutch children’s literature. The spider also managed to secure a position in the Dutch “canon with a small c”.[9] This small canon links to the bigger official Canon of the Netherlands, and provides stories from everyday culture to match the “big” history of the Netherlands (Van Oostrom 2006-2007). When the big Canon discusses the Dutch colonial past, the small canon provides spider stories that match this past. Anansi has become a figure of history, with which the Creoles share a similar past. In Noni Lichtveld’s contribution, the old African Ananse says to his son Anansi, who follows the slaves to the Caribbean:

Son of the spider, and son of Africa,
Follow our black brothers and friends.
Bring them relief when the chains are galling,
Bring comfort, by telling my stories.
If you want to be sure
That you will succeed,
Bring comfort to all
Who are being oppressed. (Lichtveld 1984: 8)

Here we can see once more how the crafty spider from Africa – by storytellers and some researchers – is attributed the role of freedom fighter and resistance hero in retrospect. He is placed in the service of the historical memory and appears as an icon of cultural identity. His mythical primal roots provided him with an enormous vitality, which led to the attribution of his role as a cultural hero who keeps alive the important values of freedom and independence.

Another important change in the contemporary Anansi stories concerns the means of communication: the manner in which they are passed on. Both in Africa and in the New World, the stories were mostly distributed orally. In the colonies some sound recordings were made, but only a handful and all relatively late, by people interested in anthropology, like e.g. the Dutch geologist Herman van Cappelle in 1903 (for the final result, see Van Cappelle 1926). Only after the animal tales had properly arrived in the Netherlands, where written culture was dominant, were these stories written down and published in (children’s) books. We can witness the emergence of specific illustrations accompanying the spider tales, complementing the long Anansi tradition with a new medium: visual language. In this newly-developed tradition of illustrated children’s books, the edition entitled Kon Nanzi A Nek Shon Arei (“How Nanzi tricked the king”) is a unique, literary specimen. The book contains the recorded spider stories of the Antillean schoolmistress Nilda Pinto from the 1950s. The stories had originally been written down in Papiamento and were translated into Dutch thirty years later by the minister and researcher Wim Baart. His translation formed the basis for the modern edition mentioned before in this paper. This edition attempted to retain the authenticity of the original stories and the final result is a wonderfully designed bilingual book, with drawings by six illustrators, who portrayed several different interpretations of the spider figure.

Apart from the increasing number of children’s books, the spider stories also led to a continued oral existence. Over the past twenty years, the Netherlands has experienced a revival of storytelling (Booy 1996, 22). Anansi enters the world of organized culture and makes more frequent appearances on the stage – the modern variant of oral literature (Kempen 2002, 149). Some examples of professional and semi-professional storytellers and actors/actresses in the Netherlands who have incorporated Anansi tales into their repertoire for a considerable time are the Surinamese storytellers Gerda Havertong, Thea Doelwijt, Marijke van Mil, Paul Middellijn, Hilli Arduin, Winston Scholsberg and Guillaume Pool, as well as the Antillean storytellers Wijnand Stomp and Olga Orman (Meder 2007b).

The oral corpus of this study also finds its origin in a theatrical communication setting. The Anansi Masters Foundation organized storytelling competitions in Rotterdam and Amsterdam to find out how the stories are being told in the Netherlands nowadays. The competitions were held in theatres and recorded on film. Despite the fact that this narrative setting could be described as artificial and staged, the initiative still provides an insight into the form in which the spider stories are circulating in the Netherlands today. The aforementioned corpus, along with the drawings by Noni Lichtveld and the illustrations from Kon Nanzi A Nek Shon Arei, are the most important data of the research presented below.