Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
Symbiosis Internation (Deemed University)
Folk traditions carry with them a deep-rooted sense of history but also an ephemeral fluidity to their contextualization, narratives, and intent. Although always tied to a certain degree of antiquity, folk traditions in their form lend themselves to be reinterpreted and adapted to evolve with a society. In this flexibility lies a unique capability, with folk traditions being employed by disenfranchised communities to understand, comment, escape from, critique, and destabilize domination of power structures. Within the colonial context as European hegemonic control is established on a global scale, the subaltern and the “othered” groups fall back to their folk traditions to rationalize and contest their circumstances. For many West African communities stripped of their heritage, homes, and histories, folk traditions became both an ark to protect and preserve their cultural lineage but also a way to push back against a tyrannical and inhuman system of oppression, exploitation, and erasure. For the Akan peoples of West Africa, the myths of Anansi, the Spider, became both an escape from suffering and an outlet for the emancipation of both mind and body. Anansi who is a trickster folk hero becomes the symbol of not only the struggle of slavery but also a connection to the motherland. His stories of overcoming unimaginable odds and oppressive authority became parallels to the life of a slave, and ignited a spirit of resistance. The purpose of this paper is to understand how Anansi and folk traditions at large evolved during the colonial era, and how Anansi’s myths contributed to resistance movements and thought – through its characterization, narrative framing, subtext, re-contextualization, and self-referential nature.
Keywords: Anansi, folklore, African, colonialism, resistance, culture
Revolution entails the wholescale destabilization of power structures and the breakdown of dominant systems, usually achieved through violent upheaval (from the Althusserian perspective) and necessitating drastic hegemonic alteration. Hegemonic change not only entails socio-political and economic disruption but also a cultural rebellion, with countercultural literature, media, art, and thought cyclically fuelling resistance (Althusser, 1970). Within the colonial experience specifically with regards to the West African slave trade, where entire communities and cultures were torn from their geographic and historical foundations and systemically wiped off their cultural and mythical heritage while being structurally exploited and dehumanized for generations, the importance of maintaining the myths of the motherland become essential for the continuation of the culture. Historically, these myths and stories soon become a source and outlet for resistance and even revolution. In the history of colonialism in the Caribbean, the folktales of Anansi the Spider, a folk hero of the Ashanti, become countercultural and empowering myths, pushing for a resistance movement.
Anansi in West African cultures is a folk figure, a consequence of the mimetic circulation inherent to oral storytelling traditions, where each generation and community interprets, appropriates, and re-contextualizes tales to fit the framework of their specific temporal and spatial reference. Though no real canon can be established, many of Anansi’s individual characterization and narrative themes show a thread of commonality, which survived the cultural scattering caused by colonialism and slavery. Anansi the Spider is commonly characterized as a trickster associated with stories and storytelling. His own stories primarily focused on Anansi or his children framed as underdogs facing an unyielding force or figure – with Anansi usually employing wit and devious means to achieve his goals. These stories of overcoming oppression and standing up against an oppressive power are symbolic and Anansi is emblematic of several other West African folk figures like Eshu and Brer Rabbit (Marshall, 2010). Anansi’s character and tales become a vessel to channel resistance against colonial forces while maintaining the historical lineage of a displaced culture. The struggle of the slaves in the Caribbean becomes associated with and informed by Anansi’s myths. Anansi is specifically positioned rather uniquely due to the nature of his characterization and the self-reflective nature of his stories. Anansi and his associated myths in its narratives and characterizations are innately revolutionary and critical of power structures. This shall be understood through the exploration of the stories of Anansi, historical precedence, literary tropes and extra literary elements of culture. This paper focuses on exploring Anansesem (Akan term for stories) and Nancy Stories as resistance and anti-authority culture creation in colonial Caribbean and Americas.
The paper intends to explore the historical genealogy of the Anansi figure and his associated myths, as they developed in Ashanti and how they transmuted during the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the plantations and colonies of the Caribbean and Americas. First, I will summarise the histories of the Ashanti people and establish the position of Anansi within their oral traditions. This will be followed by an exploration of his characterisation and an investigation into some specific social and cultural conceptions of the Ashanti like liminal spaces and duality. Once I establish a contextual and theoretical base, a comparison of four texts from the Ashanti and Jamaican traditions respectively will be tackled to see how the tellings were affected by cultural destabilisation, and how the semiotics, framing, characterisation, and narratives morph and develop to the altered social and cultural context. In the later half, I shall delve into actual methods used by Akan people for resistance and how these Anansi stories informed and reinforced a revolutionary mindset and culture. Due to the disparate nature of oral traditions and the Ashanti culture, no singular framework can necessarily explain this complex culture and history. Therefore, for the purpose of this paper, I shall employ several perspectives which allows me to tackle the myths and the histories tied to these from multiple angles.
The Anansi literary landscape is both diverse and difficult to generically classify, with each story branching and splintering across retellings. The coagulation of context and cultural change innate to the memetic circulation associated with oral storytelling becomes essential to audit a broad and diversified range of texts and mediums associated with Anansi. Understanding the literature with consideration to medium, context and the literal text become key in the critical discourse analysis employed in the paper and its explorations.
The analysis is being conducted within the framework of postcolonial discourse, employing a wide theoretical gambit of Marxist, postcolonial, and postmodernist thought, while also being – multidisciplinary – sociology, political science, linguistics, etc. Critically analysing the literature and discourse surrounding Anansi is a rather unique and complex situation, with academia being heavily Eurocentric in its understanding and appreciation of culture and literature. Additionally, generations of cultural and historical erasure by colonial forces maintained further by western dominated hegemonic control even after apparent decolonization, polluted the discourse with misrepresentations, generalisations, appropriations, mischaracterisation, forced conforming, the muddling of context and histories, and blatant –misinformation – blurring our understanding (Said, 1978).
The works of Emily Zobel Marshall (2007; 2009; 2010) which extensively cover the tales of Anansi and their cultural evolution across West Africa and in the colonial Americas will be central texts which both historical and theoretical present much of the literature surrounding West African myths. Much of her work covers a large part on the history and effects of Anansi’s myths and other such West African myths during colonial times. It is an extensive anthropological source which can be used for historical reference and establishing real-world precedence for the effects of culture. Additionally, she used the work of Robert D. Pelton (1989) and James C. Scott (1992) in which they explore the trickster figure and how oppressed groups expressed their resistance through culture and myth. In my paper, these works will be important when exploring the connection between the texts and their context.
The collections of compilers like R.S Rattray (Akan-Ashanti Folk-Tales, 1930),Walter Jekyll (Jamaican Song and Story. Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Dancing Tunes and Ring Tunes, 1966),and William Henry Barker (West African Folk-Tales, 1917), will be some of the main sources of the transcribed Anansi tellings from both the Ashanti and Jamaican traditions. R.S Rattray has transcribed much of the tales of the Ashanti directly from the performances of village storytellers, keeping in mind the performative element of the traditions, though there will still be much that is lost in translation and adaptation into written text. Although there remains no canon within oral traditions, these written adaptations are essential sources that provide some base for further exploration.
The complexities innate to Anansi literature and orature/performative texts, and by extension, post-colonial African culture at large, make it necessary to establish a diverse and broad literature base. The primary source texts for a direct inclusive perspective (outside the imperialist hegemony) in the nuances of West African, Caribbean, and African American cultures in the post-colonial world, will include texts by African scholars and writers like Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, James Baldwin, etc. Texts like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind (1992), and Chinua Achebe’s “The African Writer and the English Language” (1975) will be essential in understanding the contextual position of Africans and their culture after centuries of subjugation.
For a background understanding of the impact of colonialism and cultural systems of marginalised groups, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988)will provide a foundational lens to tackle the unique cultural, historical, and sociopolitical positions of the Anansi canon with respect to the spatial and temporal contexts (location and era). Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1963), will be an essential source to understand the socio-psychological effects of colonialism, and how the exploitation and dehumanisation inherent to slavery affected the lives of those who were – oppressed. It will also provide insights into how language and cultures reproduced colonial power structures. Walter Benjamin (The Storyteller), Ruth Finnegan, Louis Althusser, Fredric Jameson, Rosa Luxemburg, and Bertolt Brecht will also be an important, though not as comprehensive a part, of the framework to explore aspects of apparatus, ideology, imperialism, story, performance, oral storytelling, and resistance.
Understanding the Contextual Web of Anansi
I would like to begin with a brief history of both the Akan and Jamaican societies, tying into how Anansi’s characterisation and the tales surrounding him were informed by the contextual position of the telling. Anansi is a trickster folk figure primarily associated with the people of the Ashanti, the largest of the Akan ethnolinguistic groups (consisting of a wide set of communities including the Baule and the Akyem) from what is now present-day Ghana (Marshall, 2010). The Ashanti kingdom was formed after the unification of numerous tribes and communities under the Asantehene or King Osei Tut in the 17th century. The kingdom grew in the 18th century as they developed a strong trading economy fueled by slaves, gold, ivory and more. The Ashanti society was a structured and heavily ordered community, with strict hierarchical frameworks and a deep sense of duality (Marshall, 2007).
The Ashanti within its theology, art and social structures evoked dichotomies as primal aspects of nature and society (Marshall, 2007). Dualisms of the spiritual and mortal, male and female, cultured and wild, clean and unclean, were intrinsically tied to and informed much of Ashanti life, culture, and polity. The omnipotent sky father Nyame had a female counterpart in earth deity of Asase Yaa, which was reflected by the actual queen mother who ruled alongside the Ashanti king as an equal and upon whom the King had no control over, much like Nyame had no power over Asase Yaa. The Ashanti also drew a clear distinction between the civilized society of the Ashanti and the ephemeral and untamed wilderness that surrounded them. The hostility and unknowable nature of the bush unsurprisingly drew the Ashanti to view it as outside the boundaries of the earthly, a place where spirits and monsters roamed free, and the safety of the village and its systems of order lost to the chaos of the primal and unknown. The Ashanti created borders and fences at the boundaries of their settlements and even had midden (landfill), which was a transitional space outside the limits of the main village and at the edge of the bush (Marshall, 2007). They were essentially landfills, where all the ‘unclean’ were disposed of far from the village; this could range from waste to incomplete beings like those killed in the bush or children, who within Ashanti culture remain incomplete until adolescence when they are able to comprehend the rules of their community, and actively participate in its functioning.
Though the Ashanti illustrate a clear fixation on duality and the importance of boundaries between dichotomies, we see complexities within their social and cultural framework. The transitional and transcendental are also extremely prevalent conceptions, and the demarcation between what is divine and what is earthly becomes muddled; with animals, the bush, ancestors, and of course figures like Anansi having both spiritual and earthly associations. Anansi, as a trickster with an ill-defined origin and a moral code that is emblematic of the threshold at the edge of two worlds. He is a transitive being that freely moves across boundaries and spaces, not confined by dimensions or rules whether social or natural (Marshall, 2007).
Anansi, also known as Kwaku Ananse is a being linked to stories and performance, and much of his tales involve cunning uses of performance (transformations and acting) and storytelling (lies and riddles), along with his wit and power with language to succeed (Van Duin, 2010). Folktales within Ashanti traditions are known as Anansesem, stories of Anansi. Anansi within the West African context is tied to both the real and fantastical. His stories involve anthropomorphised animals, gods and spirits, impossible tasks, contortions of natural law, and a decreased degree of verisimilitude, rendering a world that is both detached but still reflective of the realities of the society of the time. The magical nature of these stories provides escapist thrills while much of oral storytelling traditions draw on contextualisation to place these stories in histories and systems of the times. Anansi’s characterisation, framing, and the intent of his tales in Akan society in West Africa was hegemonic, stories that critiqued and commented on the dominant system paradoxically aimed at reaffirming and legitimising the social structures of the status quo. According to Emily Zobel Marshall (2007), in Akan cultures, Anansi is a trickster folk figure, not a deity of divine status (as seen in the lack of shrines or rituals of pray to Anansi) nor entirely human, more of a mercurial entity affecting both the earthly and divine in a liminal position. Most of Anansi’s myths involve him employing his cunning to outsmart and scheme his way out of a precarious situation or achieve an impossible task, almost always driven by greed and self-interest. He is solitary in his actions. In the narratives and worlds of the Ashanti myths, Anansi is a disruptive force, pushing back against norms, rules, and authority both of the earthly (kings, fathers, etc.) and divine (Nyame, the creator deity of Ashanti myth)(Marshall, 2010). While the inhabitants of the stories maintain the status quo, and even though through Anansi’s trickery, Nyame and other figures of authority may be questioned and challenged, Anansi is framed as essentially antagonistic (playfully so) and ultimately futile in his efforts to disrupt the dominant structures —being either punished in the narrative or responsible for the creation or reproduction of social structures.
The myth of Anansi within Akan cultures was a reaffirmation of the dominant structures and traditions. While Anansi’s antics provide both escapist humor and physiological release, they have been constructed to legitimise and reinforce hegemony (Marshall, 2007). Anansi creates as much as he destroys. In most Ashanti tales Anansi’s rebellion or transgressive actions against authority leads to an explanation of the construction of society or phenomenon in nature. Anansi is characterised as physically weak but wildly inventive and deceitful with a questionable moral compass. Additionally, his solitary life also sheds light on the conflict between the individual and community within Ashanti culture, where the collective held a greater social precedent, with family and communal relationships being of the utmost importance. Therefore, Anansi’s characterisation of a lone conspirator, usually estranged or actively antagonistic to his family, children, leaders, and community could be read as a cautionary tale. His contrarian behavior is simultaneously engaging and framed as generally harmful for both himself and more importantly the community. As a trickster figure in the vein of Loki, Eshu, or the Coyote in some Native American folklore, Anansi exists paradoxically as a way to appraise and evaluate circumstances of the time but also as narrative fodder to reinforce morality and the rules of the system (Marshall, 2010). Through challenging the status quo by bending, mocking, and even breaking social, cultural, and biological norms, and confronting authority, Anansi’s myths strengthen the dominant system by highlighting the need for such a system (contrasted with the destructive fallout of Anansi’s trickery and deceit) and reaffirming its dominance in the face of opposition. At the end of Anansi’s tales, he is usually punished and suffers as a result of his own actions, while society stands stern with its conceptions strengthened. Authority figures like Nyame are made stronger as a result of Anansi’s attempts at the chaos. Like the many tellings of Anansi completing several labours for Nyame (or even the King in some versions) to take the world’s stories for himself. The stories always involve Anansi doing many difficult tasks for Nyame to finally attain the stories. Anansi’s individual skirmishes with each creature or task are bountiful with moments of gleeful trickery as Anansi overcomes forces far stronger and larger than him with wit alone – be it an elusive spirit being captured using puppets, or a snake tricked into getting itself tied to a stick, or convincing a wild cat to get its eyes sewn shut. But the macro narrative still follows Anansi doing Nyame’s bidding and eventually also facilitates the spreading of stories to humanity. Anansi becomes a causal catalyst, a hyper-reactive element who may be individualistically motivated but his actions inadvertently lend to the creation of important social systems and traditions.
Even outside of stories involving Anansi as the protagonist, his sons like Kweku Tsin have myths that involve overcoming an overwhelming power or even Father Anansi – himself. These stories carry with them clear anti-authority messaging but eventually, in their resolutions reaffirm or reproduce certain aspects of Ashanti society. The tale of How wisdom became the property of the Human Race follows an oppressive Father Anansi who hoarded all of the world’s wisdom for himself, hid away from humanity in a pot. Seeing himself as a deity, his ego and delusions of grandeur led him to punish anyone who crossed him. His son Kweku Tsin suspected his father of some trickery and followed him one day, witnessing Father Anansi attempting to climb a tree with a pot around his neck. Father Anansi intended to hide wisdom away from the people, but he failed countless times because of the heavy pot and his precarious technique. After looking at his father’s failure several times, Kweku Tsin finally called out asking him to swing the pot onto his back to make the climb easier. Father Anansi realises that even with the world’s wisdom he was unable to complete a simplest task, angrily throws down the pot, shattering it, dispelling wisdom to the world (Barker, 1917). Here we see rather interesting themes of generational development, a love for physical humor and slapstick (reflected in performance), a questioning of elders and their supposed wisdom, and the centrality of knowledge and discourse within the Ashanti traditions. Here Anansi is more clearly a symbol of the dominant systems, but this narrative follows similar themes of trickery, wordplay, and playful questioning of authority. Conflicts are resolved through verbal exchange and Father Anansi’s eventual downfall creates an important facet of society – wisdom.
But as Anansi’s myth journeys with Akan slaves to the New World during the transatlantic slave trade, his stories begin to morph and change, as myths usually do, to reflect upon a new system and hierarchy. As the Ashanti became the dominant group within West African slaves brought from the Akan lands to the Caribbean, their tellings of Anansi became the prominent tales, transcending communities across the Akan groups. Anansi’s trickster characterisation is maintained but it now becomes an outlet for escapism and rebellion (Marshall, 2010). His stories of a disenfranchised hero struggling against and overcoming an oppressive authority and cruel system echo the slave’s struggle for emancipation and dignity. The Anansi myth transmutes from a hegemonic collection of tales made to reinforce social norms and traditions, to being re-contextualised to confront the exploitation of slavery, truly aiming to challenge and dismantle the dominant power structure. Anansi stories soon begin to place themselves in the spaces and social dynamics of the colonies and plantations. Anansi or “Nancy” himself becomes more human and grounded, more man than animal, associating his struggle closer to that of the enslaved. This secularisation and repositioning extend to figures like Nyame who becomes the tiger (symbolic of the white man and his dominance) and much of the stories either follow animals or humans. The Anansi of Jamaica is more violent and aggressive, while also being framed now as more of a righteous avenger, standing up against a cruel power. His life is metaphorical of the slaves, bound to the plantations and their chains. His stories are set against the towering stalks of sugarcane rather than the sacred bush of the Asanteland; the whip and the sickle become prominent symbols, and his oppressors are no longer fantastical beings and deities but white human masters (Massa and Backra or Bukra), watchmen and preachers – dogmatic tyranny to be toppled (Marshall, 2010). In Jamaica, Anansi steals the Backra’s sheep, dodges the crack of the whip, kills a preacher and even the parishioners, striking and tricking his way to freedom or a better position in life (Marshall, 2010). The myths of Anansi exist both as comforting romps giving humor and an escape from a life of exploitation, but are also ‘calls to action’, a rebellious kindling towards the resistance.
Along with being a vessel for relief and emancipation, Anansi exists as a folk figure associated with stories and performance acts as a tether to the cultural and historical lineage of the Ashanti people back in their West African home. The persistence of myth is not necessarily surprising but the appropriation and re-contextualisation highlight the unique property of folk traditions to be transitive and in a constant state of flux. Additionally, the kind of myths that survived the violent uprooting of the Akan peoples from their home, and how they evolve in the new discourse allow us to understand how stories and myths shape social structures and even guide mindsets.
As Tales Travel
It is important to recognize that in folklore or myth repeating narratives and characters are contextual, with each telling representing temporally and culturally specific moments in that story’s or character’s history. Therefore, a canon is not only out of the question and contradictions need to be embraced, as these are not static stories, but a consequence of medium and cultural change – indicating the transitive nature of oral traditions like Anansesem. Figures like Anansi additionally by nature of their trickster characteristics are more intricately linked to the discourse and social conditions of the communities that perform their stories. Each performance, telling, or transcript is an adaptation specific to that moment in time, an artifact of a specific cultural climate, one that can be inspected to understand the circumstances that defined these stories. In this section I intend to explore and compare four myths of Anansi and see how the Anansesem evolved as slaves took these stories from the Akan lands to the plantations of the Americas, morphing to reflect the contexts of the times and culture.
Hate-To-Be-Contradicted and Anansi and the Tiger
The first two tales that we’ll compare are the Ashanti story of Hate-To-Be-Contradicted and the Jamaican tale of Anansi and the Tiger. In the first story a character by the name Hate-To-Be-Contradicted also known as Take-no-Dispute in some telling kills anyone who contradicts or opposes him when he states;
Palm nuts always ripen three clusters at a time. I will hack them all off, and when I boil them to extract the oil I will get three jugs of oil. I will take the oil to Akase and buy with it an old woman at the market. She gives birth to my grandmother, who carries my mother within her, who in turn carries me. And as my mother is giving birth to me, I will be there (Rattray, 1930).
One day Anansi approaches him and Hate-To-Be-Contradicted tells the same lie to Anansi, but Anansi replies with his own,
You do not lie, what you say is true; as for me I have some okras standing near my farm, and when they are ripe, I join seventy-seven hooked poles (to reach them to pull them down), but even then they do not reach, so I lie on my back, and am able to use my penis to pluck them (Rattray, 1930).
Hate-To-Be-Contradicted visit’s Anansi to see this feat for himself, but Anansi had informed his children to tell Hate-To-Be-Contradicted that Anansi had snapped his penis in seven places and has journeyed to the blacksmith to mend it. The entire visit escalates as Anansi and his children continue to lie and play with Hate-To-Be-Contradicted, from over-spicing fish to telling convoluted excuses about not servicing him water, the tale crescendos when Hate-To-Be-Contradicted finally calls out Anansi and his family for their antics and lies and contradicts himself. At which moment Anansi tells his son Ntikuma to kill Hate-To-Be-Contradicted, for not only his contradictions but his hypocrisy. Anansi and his family kill and chop up the body of Hate-To-Be-Contradicted, and scatter the pieces, the tale ending with an explanation for where contradictions arise and the hypocrisy of the people (Rattray, 1930).
This telling is evocative of many recurring themes and tropes within the Anansi folklore, while also highlighting a few specific symbols and ideas that connect distinctively to the Ashanti of Akan. The tale’s structure and narrative are in line with most Anansi tales following the Spider overcoming his antagonist through trickery and wit, with the story ending with a moral and explanation of a social or natural phenomenon. We see the Anshati’s fascination with and exploration of language. Anansi and Hate-To-Be-Contradicted both use language to manipulate and exploit. Anansi, though framed as the protagonist, isn’t represented as benevolent. Instead, he acts as a recurrent catalyst, a force used to explain the structures and circumstances of the time. Though Anansi is an important figure in Anshati culture, he remains a problematic one, one that the Ashanti treated with both reverence and fear. As a liminal figure transcending the boundaries of the divine and earthly, male and female, heroic and villainous, social and natural, capable of transformations, and driven to trickery, Anansi was a cautionary figure (Marshall, 2007). Simultaneously a champion of the weak and a threat to the extremely structured social systems of the Ashanti (with Anansi himself ignoring the structures that define Ashanti life), Anansi maintains an unstable position in the duality focused society of the Ashanti. His transgression of social systems and behaviour were both a way to externalise grievances against the king or any authority in a socially acceptable manner, while also highlighting how Anansi as a non-conformer exists at the boundaries of all thing, capable of traversing these various dimensions but unable to be accepted by anyone on either side.
The Ashanti’s tales of the Anansi can be read superficially as transgressive and provocative, questioning and challenging the ordered society of the Ashanti, but these tales are still informed by and confined to those very same social structures. There were very clear rules to when and where Anansesem can be told, usually under the central shade tree of the village (symbolic of the king and his rule, as well the spiritual world, Nyame’s domain) and only after nightfall. The storyteller also prefaces his oral performance with the disclaimer that, “we do not really mean, we do not really mean (that what we are going to say is true)” but with a wink and nod to the actively involved audience. Anansi’s stories are imbued with skepticism and challenges to authority and laws, and his narrative follows him or his children outwitting and ultimately succeeding in their usually individualistic goals, but tales like those of Hate-To-Be-Contradicted show Anansi ultimately being responsible for the creation of specific structures. Symbolically the recurring imagery of “Anansi cut up his flesh into little pieces and spread them around,” is used to explain phenomena in the community as well as highlighting the cyclical perspective of life and death maintained by the Ashanti (Rattray, 1930).
When comparing this to the Jamaican Nancy story of Anansi and the Tiger’, we can see how the new subject position of slavery and plantation life informs the narratives and characterisations surrounding Anansi. This popular myth follows Anansi who, along with the Monkey and the Cat, tricks, kills, and consumes the Tiger. Anansi has grown tired of the Tiger stealing his fish and mocking his strength, so he hatches a plan with his fellow Animals and confronts the Tiger. Anansi and the Monkey distract the Tiger until he’s ambushed by the Cat, and the other two join in and finally kill him. A Peafowl who witnessed the attack is bribed by Anansi to remain quiet about the events as the three others skin the Tiger and consume his flesh. In its directness and violence, this myth is emblematic of the transition that much of Anansi’s myths took as they came over across the Atlantic. Though much of Anansi’s Ashanti characteristics remain, he is far more violent and aggressive. Settings are altered, circumstances updated, framing is changed to sympathise with Anansi, and the antagonist is overtly representative of a tyrannical force. Even symbolically and thematically the story is no longer rationalisation of the dominant structures and reaffirmation of authority, it becomes a call to action, a tale of revenge. The Tiger’s body is not scattered as seeds for creation but instead, consumed like the fruits of forced labor, the story isn’t an explanation of society or nature but instead is clearly a narrative of the weak taking back from the strong. The parallels to enslaved life are made evident with the character of the Peafowl, who is bribed and threatened from ratting on the other Animals as they kill and consume the Tiger, a clear reflection on slave solidarity and the continued attempts of pushing back against Massa (The Master). Much of Ashanti’s musings on duality, the spatial and the spiritual, are replaced with the blunter and violent narrative of resistance and trickery, secularised and grounded in the earthly.
How Anansi won Stories
The next two stories revolve around how Anansi came to possess the world stories; the Ashanti tale tells of how he tricks Nyame, and the Jamaican tale explores how he outwits the Tiger to get stories for himself. In these two variations of one of the most popular Anansi tales, we can clearly see how culture, space, and systems inform the telling of folklore and myth. In the first story Anansi, bored of a world with stories, attempts to win them from the supreme being Nyame, who sends Anansi off on a quest for some elusive and mystical beasts. Stories unsurprisingly vary, but most involve Anansi using his cunning to capture a wild cat of some kind using a pit covered in foliage, tricking some bees into a gourd by faking rain, a fairy being trapped using a puppet, and a snake fooled into agreeing to be tied to a stick. In this telling Anansi wins stories from Nyame (turning Nyankonsem to Anansesem) but relies not on violence and strength but instead on his cunning and wit (Barker, 1917). This tale is a primer in the tropes, archetypes, characterisation, and narratives of most Anansi tales, and highlights several interesting aspects of Ashanti Anansesem. Anansi as a figure is associated with stories, storytelling, and performance, his myths tend to reflect on these conceptions and are indicative of Ashanti’s aforementioned interest in language and performance. The ways in which many of the beasts are captured either directly involve the performance of some kind (puppetry), or comment on tropes and conventions (the hidden pit). Additionally, the story itself is framed as Anansi conquering impossible challenges and reclaiming the stories once held by a supreme authority for himself. But once again we see Anansi being positioned as a boundary-pushing force but his acts reaffirm and reproduce the aspects of the society of the Ashanti. Though in the telling he is framed as selfishly wanting the stories for himself, in his challenge of Nyame and eventual success, he inadvertently disperses stories to the people, taking it from the realm of the divine and abstract and bringing it across the boundary as only he could (because of his in-between state) to the earthly. Anansi may be framed as an underdog protagonist but Nyame himself is not positioned antagonistically, though he is symbolic of authority (and even the Akan King) and the narrative overtly plays as an overcoming of authority through cunning, Nyame’s divinity positions him outside the earthly bounds of social structures and places his actions on a separate moral plane.
The Jamaican tale on the other hand replaces Nyame with the recurring antagonist of the Tiger. I would particularly like to focus on the changes and additions. The tale begins first with the animals discussing who the strongest and weakest animals are, all of who resoundingly claim the Tiger to be the strongest and the Spider, Anansi to be the weakest. To prove them wrong, Anansi approaches the Tiger and tells him that ‘Tiger Stories’ should be ‘Anansi Stories’, with the Tiger sending Anansi off to capture the Brer snake. Like in the aforementioned Ashanti telling, Anansi fools the snake into being willingly tied to a stick by concocting a lie about wanting to measure the snake to prove he is the longest of all the animals. The Brer Snake in a bid to satiate his ego allows Anansi to tie him to a stick to get accurate measurements, by which moment Anansi thoroughly webs up the large snake and brings him to the Tiger and after that day all stories are known as Anansi Stories. We see many contextual syncretism in this telling of how Anansi claimed the stories of the world for himself, the story is grounded and secularised with the sky god Nyame being replaced with the Tiger. This strips the authority figure of their divinity and places them within the same moral plane of the earthly. Anansi is underestimated by both the Tiger and the rest of the animals, and he is seen as the weakest of animals – a sympathetic portrayal. Anansi’s eventual claiming of stories can be read as the reclaiming of one’s culture from a dominant force intent on erasing the cultures of its subordinates. This telling is far more stripped down and does away with Ashanti’s focus on language and the craft of stories, instead shifting the narrative to be more in line with the slave struggles to overcome their dire situations and maintain their cultural heritage.
Anansi within Ashanti communities was a figure who tested the murky waters of morality and reacted against rules and rulers. He was an important and dangerous figure because of his uncertain definitions, ability to shapeshift, change gender, and move freely from earthly planes to the spiritual. This ambiguity makes him problematic in the ordered Ashanti culture. Though Ashanti recognizes the existence and necessity of the undefined abstract, these are problematic and should exist only in stories and the fringes of society. Anansi is therefore framed within these narratives as either inherently self-centered, or overreaching, remains constantly alone and faces repercussions for his most vile actions. Additionally, Anansi and his actions in the Ashanti tellings are either explanations of nature, or more commonly rationalisations for specific social constructions, like stories or contradictions. What is observed with Anansi’s evolution as he comes across the Atlantic, is a reframing of narratives and altered purpose to be more in line with the struggle for emancipation. While Anansi himself remains relatively unaltered with respect to characterisation, as Pelton would describe it, the “symbolic patterns” of his trickster foundations remain intact (Pelton, 1989). While the stories themselves change around him and Anansi being slightly reshaped to be more violent and secularised to match with the new settings and change in thematic purpose – becoming a figure to reinforce ideas or practices of rebellion and dissent against the system of enslavement and exploitation.
Fight the Power
Brechtian forms of theatre and later cinema (apparatus theory) were created through a logic of artifice and construction, by seeing art and media as inherently ideological, imbued with bias, contradictions, and conceptions (Baudry & Williams, 1974). Art within this understanding is meant to be consumed by a passive audience, with the art itself being non-confrontational and hiding its artifice for a focus on spectacle and narrative. Brechtian forms of performance call attention to the construction and confrontation with the audience ideologically. Forcing audiences to look beyond the spectacle that the narrative creates to understand the generally subtextual ideology by spotlighting both the craft and politics inherent in art as a medium to interact, comment and explore reality and society. Audiences are made aware of techniques and elements of the craft while also being directly addressed and engaged through the performance – by breaking the fourth wall. Within the Brechtian framework, art and performance that is self-reflective and that actively engages the audience in the discourse by highlighting artifice and subtext can become revolutionary. The Brechtian understanding, like apparatus theory, draws from Marxist conceptions of ideology and ideological state apparatus, viewing mainstream art or art of hegemony as a culture created to reproduce and maintain the dominant system (Althusser, 1970). When art forces viewers out of passivity (by breaking the illusion of immersion) and pushes them to engage in questions of theme, craft, politics, and ideology, it can then be seen as a tool for resistance and revolution (Baudry & Williams, 1974). Unsurprisingly Brecht’s philosophy and outlook towards art and performance draw from primarily non-western sources like Chinese and Japanese theatre traditions, and Asian and African folk traditions (Martin, 1999). Much of Brecht’s frameworks draws from folk logic, entailing a greater degree of involvement by the audience while also being overt with its themes and contextual storytelling. The extrapolation of revolutionary themes and ideals from folk traditions and their employment for resistance holds both historical precedence and is enabled by the inherent fluid and self-reflective nature of the folk cultural output. Folk traditions within the postcolonial framework tend to become relegated to the rural peasantry and the indentured slaves, and cultural expressions of struggle and resistance are expected from disenfranchised groups. They become a way to sustain their culture while also driving them towards toppling an unjust system. Within the space of the performative oral traditions of folk storytelling, passivity is not possible. One will have to actively engage with the narrative, the formal elements, and the themes imbued in the telling – as the medium of the telling breaks separation between teller and listener, forces one to look past artifice and interact with the oral performance.
In the colonial context, the folk traditions of the enslaved are inherently problematic to European centrality and hegemony. As an act of preservation and propagation of the cultures of the colonised it destabilises the meta-narrative of European superiority. During colonial rule imperial forces not only violently dehumanised and enslaved entire communities of people, while wreaking havoc in their homes and later colonies, the colonised and enslaved communities were also systematically suppressed and culturally culled. The Orient and Africa became sources of mysticism, mystery, and fascination; while their people were othered and exploited, their histories altered and removed, and their culture labeled inferior and erased. In this cataclysm, the maintenance of folk traditions of the motherland became essential, even revolutionary, especially for West African communities ripped away from their homes and forced into slavery. These myths therefore not only become relics of the culture but also become intrinsically tied to the struggle of slaves – humans stripped of name, culture, history, identity, and agency. This sort of re-contextualisation is an essential characteristic of folk and myth. Oral traditions lack any sort of codified text due to their ever-evolving nature. This leaves the narratives and characters to be essentialised, stripped to specific ‘archetypes values’, then traced upon the circumstances of the times (Van Duin, 2010).
Oral storytelling traditions are foundational to many folk cultural spheres, and in the case of the myths of Anansi and the society of Ashanti, the act of storytelling and performance are of critical importance. In many communities, the storytellers are the custodians of their histories, traditions, cultures, and beliefs. The storyteller, therefore, holds a unique position within culture both as an archivist and as a projector of the myths. The oral traditions also explain the fluidity of the myths, which are free to diversify and develop based on context, and are meant to be understood as such. Though traditions are maintained, generational dilution and alterations are expected over time. The oral nature of most folk traditions also lends to mobilisation, they are performative and engaging by nature, therefore as a medium to express revolutionary sentiment the performativity and inherent communal nature of oral storytelling further revolutionary capabilities of the form.
Anansi, though not necessarily the god of stories in the Akan culture, has been tied to stories and by extension performance. Not only are there myths detailing the many ways Anansi took the world’s stories for himself or for the people, but his nature as a trickster using lies (stories) and trickery (performance) to achieve his goals becomes tied to language and the way it can be liberating but also exploitative. The narratives themselves are propelled by aspects of Anansi such as using constructions and artifice to get ahead. Anansi, the folk hero associated with stories, becomes deeply intrinsic, also symbolic for the maintenance of myth as an extension of culture and history. In Anansi not only does the West African populace find a figure of emancipation and relief, but also a symbol of cultural conservation. This suggests the importance of stories not only in the present day but in all times.
Anansi’s mischief manifests in the reality of plantation life, as Anansi tactics, antics and tricks are used by slaves to stand up to the slave masters. Though they primarily consisted of minor push backs, they were still important moments of resistance, and the fact they are strongly associated with Anansi and his myths highlights the essential link between culture and the sociopolitical landscape (Marshall, 2010). Neger-tricks as described by Martha Beckwith and Helen H Roberts (a compiler of Anansi tales) was an alternative term used by white people (and later reclaimed by the slaves) to generalise the trickster stories told by slaves – an association further narrowing connection with slave resistance and the tales of those very slaves (Beckwith & Roberts 1924). Anansi’s fictional antics became the playbook to deal with Massa and establish a mind-set to be followed by those attempting to survive the hostile space of the plantation. Slaves routinely played dumb, feigned ignorance, lased around, did tasks improperly, stole and cheated, all to chip away at the control and profits of the Massa or Bukra. Many slaves played the fool and performed the role of the submissive dull slave, to minimize or avoid work, highly aware of their displaced position in society as well as where hitting the white man would hurt the most – their wallets (Marshall, 2009).
Emily Zobel Marshall’s Anansi Tactics in Plantation Jamaica: Matthew Lewis’s Record of Trickery details the connections between Ashanti people’s actions of resistance in colonial spaces with their continued cultural practices and oral traditions – using testimonials from a plantation owner, Mattew Lewis’s journal. Using James Scott’s (1992) conceptions of the ‘hidden and public transcripts’ (expressed as ‘off-stage’ and ‘on-stage’ in Scott’s work), Marshall’s positions two spaces of resistance the hidden transcripts are in reference of not only the attitudes and discourse of the indentured Ashanti in their limited private spaces but expand to include the thematic elements within the cultural expressions and conventions of the resisting people, while the public transcript is the open theatre of politics in public spaces where both the Ashanti and Massa perform within the dominant structure (Marshall, 2009). Within these two spaces the Ashanti position themselves as the liminal tricksters, playing around within the limited domains they have been confined to, pushing and breaking the parameters of the hegemony. Within the framework of public transcripts, the Massa and Slave are their distinct dichotomies, a troubling duality, which the Ashanti in their actions attempt to bend and break. The Ashanti perform compliance and apathy, even reverence for their Massa dropping the guard of their oppressors and positioning them as non-threats to further loosen their chains.
From the record of slave owner Mattew Lewis, as described by Emily Marshall (2009), Lewis describes several instances and even individuals of a rebellious nature. Explaining that on his first arrival after inheriting the plantations, he was given a king’s welcome, thinking they were happy and content. But as he details, the Akan he had captive were constantly finding ways to mess up simple tasks and avoid work; from his cook constantly mixing up the portions and wasting food to the pen-keeper setting the bulls free and causing havoc in the field. Lewis is flummoxed, unable to reconcile their behaviour and understand their intentions, none the wiser as they play with his liberal master front. What we see here is what James Scott describes as “falsified public transcript,” performance by the oppressed populace keeping front of subordination but actively imbuing their actions now the hidden transcript of resistance (Scott, 1992). The Akan’s position themselves as inept and passive beings needed to be saved by the virtuous and tolerant Massa, a position that Lewis is more than willing to occupy as he ignores the agency of the Akan people. Observing Lewis’s entries, it is clear that he is unable to recognise the hidden transcripts in the actions and culture of the Akan and is preoccupied with both only at a surface level understanding. Lewis’ descriptions, specifically Cubina and Adam, show the Akan using gossip, trickery, and an abuse of the public transcript of the infantile and brutish black man (Marshall, 2009). Cubina’s case follows a series of events involving a pigeon house, where he would constantly either leave the panels open, letting out the pigeon, or keep it closed when they would return, or fumble around with the construction of the house. Always having to deal with the mismanaged house and rest inside it, instead of having to go out to the field and work. Cubina clearly uses Anansi tactics to avoid work by playing the fool and garnering sympathy instead of scorn from Lewis, with loss constantly coming to fix his fumbles and rarely accosting him due to his paternal public transcript. The figure of Adam is a very prominent mention in Lewis’s journal, a slave who provoked both terror and fascination in Lewis, responsible for completely destabilising Lewis’s plantations through gossip and trickery, after his first visit to his plantation. In their dedication to the dominant structures the Massa are blinded to the humanity and ingenuity of the Akan. They constantly underestimate the Akan and overestimate their proclaimed ‘superiority’ (Marshall, 2009).
The oppressed, unlike the ignorant oppressor, are not willing to be at the mercy of the dominant structures that force them into a socially constructed position of performance and exploitation. The hidden script of the Akan populace is that of resistance, imprinted in their falsified public scripts and highlighted by their traditions and culture creation. The Akan people not only maintained their myths but celebrated them in their festivities and ceremonies. The popular ‘Nine-Night Ceremonies’ follow days of dancing, singing, rituals, and of course communal storytelling performances (Marshall, 2010). They retell trickster tales, especially those of Anansi, and these tales, as we’ve explored before, convey a message of noncompliance and rebellion. Like the popular, “Nansi Steals Backra Sheep,” where Anansi explains (to his son in the narrative) his transgressive actions of theft as reactionary and necessary, as the Backra, the white Massa has ‘nough, nough, nough’ (enough) (Marshall, 2009). The hidden transcript reflects and informs the oppressed populace’s public transcript, pushing a narrative that reinforces the use and importance of resistance through Anansi tactics – it is no surprise that Lewis eventually referred to the Akan as “persevering tricksters” (Marshall, 2009).
What we recognise with Anansi tales in Jamaica are imprints of communities forced into broken systems who refused to stand idle and compliant. The myth of the passive slave and colonialism as a mode of civilizing the savage is broken by a rich cultural heritage that refused to be erased in the face of a dehumanising and destructive imperial force. The Ashanti, far from being a scatter of unkempt rural settlements, were, in reality, a diverse yet strictly ordered society, with a sacred reverence for language and community. Though it is a culture defined by strict laws and boundaries, its oral traditions showcase it as a culture willing to question and probe the world and society they inhabit. Bound by mythology that reproduced these traditions and structures, while addressing these very structures in uniquely discursive ways. Beyond even the tales of Anansi himself, celebrations like Odwira festival were important cultural events where social positions were reversed and structures were broken, with the King replacing his usually ornate garments with ragged garbs, a cultural touchstone carried to the New World (Marshall, 2007).
Folk traditions are fluid and contextual, unburdened by canonical constraints and textual certainty. Though this makes defining and generalising characters, themes, and narratives almost impossible, functionally this allows folk and myth to evolve and morph in different ways to interact with social structures. Anansi as a trickster figure, engaged in primarily underdog stories, directly presenting opposition to cruel forces becomes symbolic of the struggle of slavery. But his re-contextualisation and rise in cultural significance as a folk hero for the Akan people indentured in slavery is not an isolated moment of revision, but is characteristic of the nature of myths and the figure of Anansi as well. Myths through memetic circulation, essentially a generational game of Chinese whispers, transfigure to adapt to the systems around it. Anansi within the Akan context in West African cultures was a cautionary figure, whose tales were meant to reaffirm and uphold the dominant structures of their society (even when critical of those structures). But in the space of the colony, when the power structures are altered in the face of colonial exploitation and large-scale inhumanity, Anansi morphs into a revolutionary figure. This is an essential characteristic of myth and folk traditions at large, re-appropriation and adaptation, but as we can also observe the myths and figures of Anansi have their own essential characteristics that allow for the repositioning of Anansi from mischief-maker to an avenging hero. As a trickster in these stories that are mainly struggles of the underdog, Anansi’s position as a challenger of rules and authority becomes clear. A narrative figure reflective of the struggle of the slave, he becomes both cathartic and emancipatory, while being important as a bearer of the traditions of the motherland Anansi in his nature, in his narratives, and through his association becomes the platonic ideal of a revolutionary figure, and his myths by extension become avenues for escape and a medium for rebellion. Anansi and his myths become foundational stories of the cultures of the Akan people dispersed throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, acting not only as symbols of resistance and freedom but also as a connection to the lands and cultures lost to time.
* I would like to thank Suchetana Banerjee for the months of support and wisdom, and Vaidya Gundlupet for his mentorship and guidance.
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