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

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Anansi, the crafty spider, outsmarts everybody in the animal world. He is a gluttonous gourmet, a lazybones who prefers to remain lying in his hammock all day and who will try anything to fill his stomach. He is selfish, immoral and lascivious, and he does not shy away from breaking taboos to reach his goals. But at the same time, he is a master in the art of living, who manages to escape from the awkward situations his gluttony gets him in to, using his cunning tricks. Time and again, he manages to come away unscathed and to survive his predicaments.

The aforementioned is a brief characterization of the villainous and clever Anansi, the main character of the Caribbean spider stories. He is a liminal character, a paradoxical borderline case: he is constantly situated between two worlds, belonging to the establishment on the one hand, while incessantly withdrawing from that same establishment on the other. The stories about Anansi originate from West Africa and travelled along with the slaves to the Caribbean area. With the deportation to the New World, Anansi changed from a divine trickster into a more human trickster with a family. His stories were and are an integral part of the narrative culture of the Creole inhabitants of the Caribbean islands in Central America and the surrounding parts of the American mainland.[2] As a consequence of the twentieth-century migration to Europe and some other factors, Anansi gradually transforms into a world citizen.

This article focuses attention on a study into the Anansi stories of the Creole inhabitants of the Netherlands, who took along their animal tales from Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles to the Netherlands – the former colonial ruler – during the large migration waves in the twentieth century. Within just a few decades, the spider has shown he is capable of standing his ground in the Netherlands too: Anansi has become a popular story character among both the ethnic Creole groups and white Dutch admirers. For Creoles, Anansi has a clear symbolic value: the spider represents a link with their past and roots, and Anansi increasingly symbolizes their ethnic identity in a multicultural society. The stories about Anansi have, however, also reached a Dutch audience: through storytellers and theatrical performances, thanks to children’s books and the attention paid to the stories in schools. Anansi even managed to work his way into the Dutch “canon with the small c”, a canon containing stories and songs, which attempts to join in with the fifty windows of the historical Canon of the Netherlands, for the benefit of education. Finally we can observe a growing interest in Anansi in Dutch scholarly circles. The research presented in this article sheds a new light on the many possibilities for the interpretation of the Anansi stories. It regards the stories as cultural manifestations carrying a specific cultural meaning for the present Surinamese and Antillean communities in the Netherlands. This research does not only include the animal tales, but also the folktale illustrations of Anansi, because today’s specific cultural value of the spider can also be demonstrated in such visual means of expression. After all, both the folktale illustrations and the stories themselves are deeply rooted in the surrounding culture. They express the cultural identity of the artist and of (part of) the intended audience, and as such, they may serve as a basis for cultural analysis.

The research corpus was formed in part on the basis of the website and the DVD of Anansi Masters (a digital platform project focusing on Anansi stories). On both the (Dutch) website www.anansimasters.net and their double DVD from 2008, entitled Waarom alle verhalen Anansi’s naam dragen (“Why all stories carry Anansi’s name”), a selection of video recordings of contemporary spider stories in oral circulation can be found. For our research, we mainly concentrated on the recordings made in 2006 and 2007 in Amsterdam and Rotterdam of animal tales told by Surinamese, Antillean and Dutch storytellers. For additional recorded story material we occasionally consulted the various text editions and the Dutch Folktale Database of the Meertens Instituut in Amsterdam.[3] The visual materials we studied originate from the children’s books by Noni Lichtveld, a well-known contemporary Dutch-Surinamese illustrator of Anansi stories, and from the recently published Hoe Nanzi de koning beetnam (“How Nanzi tricked the king”), an illustrated bilingual reissue in Dutch and Papiamento of Antillean spider stories previously recorded in Papiamento.[4]

The analysis is based on Geert Hofstede’s framework for assessing culture (2006, 22). Within this framework, Hofstede developed a set of instruments for the description of several different cultural manifestations. He proposes to conceptualize the culture of a specific group in a hierarchical way, in an onion diagram of symbols, heroes, rituals and values. The symbols, heroes and rituals are externally perceptible and refer to the underlying norms and values of the culture in question. This framework has been further enhanced by an extra layer pertaining to “locations”, as proposed by Beheydt (2009, 12-13). As it happens, locations of action have a substantial function in the process of the cultural attribution of meaning, both in these stories and these drawings. The interpretation of the stories and the images on these four levels will lead to the search for cultural meanings in the spider stories and will make clear that cultural identity is a process of dynamic attribution.


Image 1: Anansi comes to Amsterdam. Drawing by Ernest Hofwijks (Tjon-A-Ten 1986, 23).

The proposition we put forward is that such animal tales and illustrations can be read culturally and that they are carriers and transmitters of particular cultural values for the narrative community. We intend to demonstrate that contemporary Anansi stories and illustrations represent a specific cultural value to the Creole storytellers and audience in the Netherlands. For this reason, we will also briefly look into Creole culture and history, and the cultural context in which these stories have been handed down through the ages. We will then discuss the historical development of Anansi from an African mythological figure to a Dutch folktale hero. After this, we will present the research on the basis of the contemporary material.