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

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The third level of our research concerns the heroes or characters in the animal tales. The question how the characters in the spider tales are being presented, which values they represent and how they interact with each other can provide a better insight into the social norms and values of the narrative community. Anansi is the main character of all the narrated stories in the corpus, and in the narrative culture of the Caribbean, he is still a liminal figure situated between two worlds. He displays many animal traits, which are primarily expressed in the references to his eight legs and his extended circle of animal friends. But his cleverly executed tricks, his recurring position as head of a family and owner of a house make him very human. Ambiguity and paradoxes are still very prevalent. He is hero and antihero at the same time; he is a figure of identification, but also someone who constantly breaks the norms. Wit and cleverness are the characteristics that make him attractive as an identification figure for the Creoles. Most of the stories emphasize the mental process of the clever Anansi, which he uses to once again come up with something and give a new impulse to the course of action.

It may be worth our while to briefly pay attention to a story entitled Kompa Nanzi en Kompa Raton, which throws a remarkably different light on the spider.[14] In this story, Anansi appears as a judge facing his nasty neighbour, who displays unreliable and mean behaviour. This story shows a major shift in the original characteristics of the spider: he now uses his intelligence and his tricks for the sake of justice. This is another example of the enormous flexibility and employability of the narrative character. We are dealing here with a creative adaptation of the old motifs, resulting in entirely new issues. We are touching on a deeply-rooted characteristic of the spider: he turns from (sympathetic) trickster into judge, from an “exempla contraria” into an “exempla virtutis”, i.e. someone who punishes objectionable behaviour (Beheydt 2009, 11). This is however an exceptional case in the corpus – in most cases, Anansi’s basic character remains untouched. He is still not a positive model of social behaviour. He is rather an antihero who manifests rebellious and unsettling behaviour, thereby shifting the moral boundaries in society. At the same time, he embodies many positive values, like intelligence, love for his family, the power to survive, and a good sense of humour, all of which manoeuvre him in a position between antihero and hero. Nevertheless, Van Duin (2003, 187) observes -- with some storytellers in the Netherlands -- a process of “bourgeoisation” or even “dulling”, which takes the sting out of Anansi and leaves us with a “one-dimensional joker”.


Image 8: Anansi’s wife on a bicycle (Lichtveld 1997, 86).

Anansi has been portrayed by various illustrators in many different ways. In most cases, he is depicted as a hairy wood spider with eight legs, living in a human environment, wearing clothes. His African tribal-culture origins are expressed in the drawings depicting him with a mask-like face and a body covered with linear scar marks, appearing between lianas and exotic animals. Apart from such references to his mythological primal roots, his role as a comforter for the slaves lives on too. An image displaying him tied to a chair with a big chain by way of punishment for a theft contains an implicit reference to the colonial past (Lichtveld 1997, 77). The chain to his legs could refer to the period of slavery and has a veiled symbolic value for the collective past of the narrative community. The modernization of Anansi can also be discerned in the visual language, combining traditional Caribbean characteristics with Dutch elements. In one image, for instance, we can see Anansi’s wife balancing on a bicycle, which is just another visual adaptation of the contemporary process of creolization (image 8). A black spider lady wearing a typically Surinamese headscarf and traditional clothes, riding a very Dutch upright bicycle – the mixed symbols in the image represent the modern reality of the Creole inhabitants of the Netherlands. In short, we can see that the spider, depending on the place, the time and the surrounding culture, can take and incorporate any possible shape, while still remaining a principal carrier of Creole identity. After all, the metamorphoses of the narrative character reflect the awareness of the cultural changes that have taken place in the history of the narrative community. Anansi is a living example of the dynamics and changeability of cultural identity.

Besides Anansi, the animal tales and the drawings display his extended family with his wife, his twelve children, nephews, nieces, and cousins with their own families. The family relations can be called rather close – here applies a broader concept of “family” as a cultural value than is usual in the Netherlands. In the more modern stories, we can see that the family image increasingly deviates from the traditional Caribbean image with the submissive children and the great respect for the father figure, and that it tends to adapt to the Dutch family image with more rebellious children.

In the world of the spider tales, the “opponent”, the antihero who is being tricked, plays an essential role. As we have explained before, this opponent can be a more powerful character than Anansi himself, such as the king or the tiger, but more often they are fellow animals or relatives, who are Anansi’s equals or even his inferiors. In the oral corpus, the king is in all cases the personification of the mighty, though not always very bright opponent. He is severe and merciless; his fixed attributes are the palace, the prison, and the soldiers, emphasizing his wealth and his position of power. In the world of the Caribbean animal tale, the king is the adversary against whom the puny spider rebels. The tricks Anansi plays on him are attempts to recalcitrance, resistance and the circumvention of authority.[15]

In the folktale illustrations, the tiger makes more frequent appearances than the king (image 7). He can be regarded as the personification of the strong and merciless slave driver and plantation owner who always wants to devour the puny, tiny spider, but whom Anansi constantly manages to make look foolish by his cleverness. In the case of the tiger – even more so than with the king – there is a rather unequivocal division of roles between hero and adversary: the adversary personifies power, strength, oppression and violence. The hero acts against him using his wit, cleverness and tricks. A nice example of the mixture of traditional and modern fairy-tale elements can be seen in image 7: the picture shows traditional characters in a new, Dutch environment. Anansi, in Dutch wooden shoes, is standing next to a mill. The tiger leers at the chicken with hungry eyes from behind the mill. This image is yet another adaptation to the contemporary “local eye”, which has moved from the tropics to the Netherlands and which is, in this case, also being appropriated by Dutch storytellers.[16] Alternatively, it can be interpreted as an establishment of the fact that in the modern world, not much has changed in the situation of the spider, and that in Dutch society, one is confronted with oppressive powers as well.

It should not be forgotten, though, that in a large majority of the stories, Anansi is dealing with his equals, his relatives and friends, and even his inferiors. In the corpus of oral stories, the king, the tiger and other mighty opponents appear in only twenty percent of the animal tales; in eighty percent of the cases, the spider tricks his equals and his inferiors (see the appendix following this article). So Anansi stories are not just about the struggle against oppression; the spider is not just an icon for the fight for freedom, but rather remains the crafty survivor who spares neither its superiors, nor its equals, nor anyone inferior whilst pursuing his own goals. In most of the stories, Anansi is hardly a popular hero with noble motives, since his motives frequently remain limited to stomach filling and selfish gain, preferably without an excess of physical strain. His dealings with equals and inferiors are mostly characterized by unreliable and unfriendly relations (image 2). The material and mental possessions of fellow animals are abused for his own benefit. Anansi tries to construct his position of power at the expense of his fellow animals. Rivalry, conflict and strife are characteristic of their social relations. There is a total lack of respect and the constant attempt to improve one’s position and status in society at the expense of others, using trickery as the primary means to reach that goal.

The stories and illustrations dealing with the stronger opponents say a lot about the power structures and about the ways power is used. Although the power and the strength of the king and the tiger are absolute, there is a subtle and complex armamentarium in development to use the system to one’s own ends. Power is continually evaded or undermined in order to survive. On a superficial level, one acknowledges the superiority of the ruler and takes part in the social game between authorities and subjects. But in reality, the authorities are being ridiculed, denounced and exploited by means of clever tricks. The spider’s ability to profit from his opponents’ weaknesses is a mechanism in the stories which has existed since the period of slavery, and apparently modern times have hardly brought about any change in this department. The common man is still the cultural hero who manages to hold his ground within a system of inequality, in his own contrary way.

Anansi’s opponents are not, however, always colonial oppressors. Alternatively, they can also come from the spiritual domain. There are several stories in which the spider has to take a stand against the devil, and in one story, he falls victim to a cacodemon. To free himself of this cacodemon, Anansi seeks the help of a local mediator between the earthly and the spiritual world: a lukuman or clairvoyant (image 3).