This is Part III, the final part, of the Novus Bestiary trilogy on significant spiders. In this issue we will cover the enigmatic spider named Anansi. He is a trickster, the god of all known stories whose dominion covers even this newsletter. As one of the most important characters of West African, African American, and Caribbean folklore, there are countless stories about Anansi. In my dealings with him, I have found him hard to understand. I admit he is skillful, but is he admirable? Is he powerful? You must decide for yourself.
If you have signed up recently, I recommend you begin with Part I of the trilogy. Tales of Anansi will hang better in the web of motifs you have collected from the other spider stories.
Let us conclude the trilogy.
Table of Contents
- Arachne (Greek myth)
- Shelob, Ungoliant, and the spiders of Mirkwood (Tolkien myth)
- Djieien (Senecan myth)
- Lolth (Demon queen of spiders from D&D) - Honorable mention: The Spider Queen of Metebelis Three
- Tsuchigumo (Japanese Yokai) - Honorable mention: Jorōgumo
- Aragog (Harry Potter bestiary)
Part 3 (this issue)
- Anansi (African Myth)
- Honorable mention: Iktomi (Lakota myth)
Tales of Anansi are the continuation of an ancient African oral tradition. The name "Anansi" comes from the word in the Akan language for "spider". Tales of Anansi spread to the New World via the Atlantic Slave Trade. Instead of being lost, as so many precious things were, Anansi stories thrived. His cunning was often used to undermine his oppressors, making him a symbol of slave resistance. His influence spread across the New World into the West African and Caribbean cultures. In time, Anansi stories permeated all of Western Civilization; the original Spider Man from Marvel was, in fact, Anansi. His ultimate strength is his skill and wisdom in speech. He lives in that oral tradition. The stories are Anansi and Anansi is the stories.
“We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go, [...] This is my story that I have related. If it be sweet, or if it be not sweet, take some elsewhere, and let some come back to me.”
– excerpt from A Story a Story
It is said that the world once had no stories. They were all in the possession of the sky-god Nyame. Anansi decided he wanted them so he went to Nyame and asked to buy them. Nyame, knowing their value, did not want to part with them so Anansi was forced to agree to an unachievable price. In exchange for the stories, Anansi would have to capture four legendary beasts and deliver them to Nyame. Those beasts were: Onini the python, the Mmoboro hornets, Osebo the leopard, and the fairy Mmoatia. In addition, Anansi would have to give up his own mother Ya Nsia. (aside: this reminds me of the labours of Hercules)
Each of these beasts individually would be impossible for most to subdue. How would Anansi possibly capture all four? He did what any wise man should: he consulted his wife. And so it went that, beast after beast, his wife Asa gave him clever ideas to bring on the hunt. In the end he captured all four beasts and then went to his mother and asked for her cooperations. She willingly went along.
Nyame celebrated Anansi's accomplishment. People everywhere rejoiced as Nyame declared that his stories would no longer belong to him. From then on, the stories would belong to Anansi and all of them would be known as Spider stories for all time.
Every story is a Spider story.
You can not say that Anansi is entirely selfless. One time, he tried to hoard all of the world's wisdom inside of a pot. He kept trying to hide inside a tree, a difficult thing to do when you are holding a pot full of wisdom in one hand. So Anansi would scramble up a bit, lose his grip, and fall back down on his backside. While he flailed, his son Ntikuma looked on. Through fits of laughter, Ntikuma finally told him he should consider tying the pot behind him while he climbed so that he might get a proper grip on the tree. Anansi was so frustrated with his failure and his son's correction that he dropped the pot altogether and it smashed open on the ground below.
A great storm rose suddenly, washing the wisdom far and wide across the earth. Anansi was furious at first, but his rage subsided with this realization: "What is the use of all that wisdom if a young child still needs to put you right?" Since then, we have all had a little piece of that wisdom inside us.
Every story is a Spider story.
There was once a tiger who found Anansi with a basket full of fish. Tiger was mean-spirited and he intimidated Anansi and stole the fish. Many would-be oppressors have exercised their power over Anansi, but Anansi is clever and he always knows just what to say. Anansi later found Tiger and casually mentioned a fruit tree he had seen. Predictably, Tiger played the bully and forced Anansi to show him the tree. Seeing the ripe fruit at the top, Tiger pushed Anansi to climb the tree so that he might bring some fruit down. As soon as Anansi got into the tree he looked down at Tiger and made a disgusted face. Anansi warned Tiger that his hair was crawling with lice. Tiger immediately ordered Anansi to pick them out, so Anansi suggested he lean against the tree to make the task easier. After many long minutes of work, Tiger drifted off to sleep. Anansi wasted no time. As soon as Tiger fell asleep, he tied his fur into the tree branches making sure he would not escape.
Eventually Tiger woke up. He got straight to berating Anansi, telling him to hurry up with his task. Anansi refused. Tiger could barely comprehend such defiance. Who was this lowly spider to refuse him? He lashed out in anger but found himself ensnared. Anansi smiled. After mocking him for a few minutes, he wandered off into the jungle, his arms full of fresh fruit. Shortly afterwards, a hunter found Tiger bound to the tree and killed him.
Every story is a Spider story.
Death used to have no presence in the city. He preferred to live in the bush in a small village. One day, famine struck the city which made Anansi hungry. He took Gun and headed off into the woods to hunt. He found no animals on that trip. Instead he stumbled across Death's village.
The two of them spoke with each other. Death, playing the gracious host, offerred to cook for Anansi. You see, Death had a massive stockpile of meat at the ready. More meat than anyone could ever eat - even the great spider. You can imagine how simple that accomplishment would be for Death. We would all be over-stocked if we had such dominion over the lives of animals.
Anansi went home and shared the experience with his wife. He told her they would have a supply of meat that would never end. He could return to Death anytime and ask for more. The days went by and Anansi could not get the image of Death's meat store out of his mind. His heart filled with gluttony. Perhaps that's just the way of a spider. Within a week, Anansi had decided he would not just ask for more meat, he would steal it from Death.
Despite Anansi's cleverness, Death noticed the missing meat. Death counts his victims – that you can count on. So Death lay in wait one day and caught Anansi red-handed. Anansi fled in terror but Death pursued him. No one, not even Anansi really escapes Death. As he entered the city, Anansi called out to everyone to shut their doors as Death was upon them all. Many died.
And so it is that Death now lives in cities. Had Anansi not stolen from him, Death would still live quietly in the bush.
Every story is a Spider story.
Honorable mention: Iktomi
Iktomi is another spider-trickster and a cultural hero of the Lakota people. Like Anansi, Iktomi appears as a spider but can also take human form. In that form he decorates his body with red, white, and yellow paint, and circles his eyes with black.
Iktomi began as a more powerful god named Ksa, which means 'wisdom'. Ksa invented language, stories, names, and games. There is an inversion of the Anansi story when Ksa gets into trouble with a demon named Gnaski and loses much of his power. Gnaski sowed confusion by mimicking Ksa almost perfectly. Because of that deceit, early people were not able to distinguish between Ksa, who represented true wisdom, and Gnaski, who represented folly. In the end Ksa could not untangle himself from Gnaski, and was transformed into the spider Iktomi.
Iktomi lays many plans, and the plans tend to backfire. In that way he plays the part of the fool. It is common sense to avoid him when possible, lest you should get yourself wrapped up in his schemes. But he should not be seen as evil. In fact, there are many examples of when he has brought important information and new technology to help people.
There is a prophecy that states Iktomi will spread his web over the land. Knowing he is the original inventor of language, modern mystics have interpreted that to mean he brought us the telephone network, and ultimately the world wide web. I have searched and found no conclusive evidence of this, but I do not rule out the possibility. We should acknowledge Iktomi for delivering this email to you, if only to encourage his more productive behaviours.