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

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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).