Anansi, the spider, is a West African God of stories and wisdom. While his origins can be traced back to the Ashanti people of present-day Ghana, the lore about him can also be found in the Southern United States and the Caribbean, having been carried over by enslaved Africans on their journey to the Americas. Besides Anansi, he goes by several different names, including Kwaku Ananse and Anansy. In the English speaking countries where his memory resides, he is affectionately dubbed, “Aunt Nancy.”
Anansi is a spider, but he often acts and appears as a man, or a man with spider-like qualities, such as multiple legs. He is associated more than anything with stories, as he cleverly managed to attain ownership of all the stories in the world as a young god. He is even the namesake of the Ashanti tradition of orally passing down fables: what they call Anansesem, or “spider tales.”
Some of the most well-preserved stories of Anansesem have survived in Jamaica, where the highest concentration of Ashanti Africans were enslaved. One of these stories depicts how Anansi, after angering death by stealing his food, managed to save himself and his family by having them all cling to the beams of his ceiling, as death was unable to climb. This was an explanation to many West Africans as to why spiders make so many webs in their rafters: Anansi was still trying to escape death. The Jamaican version even comes with its own proverb: “If yuh cyaan ketch Kwaku, yuh ketch him shut.” It’s a reminder to be thankful for what you have, as it was Anansi’s greed that got him into trouble in the first place.
The most important story, perhaps, is Anansi’s dispersal of wisdom. While Anansi was already very clever, he had the idea to hoard all the world’s wisdom in a large pot and keep it in a safe place. Even though the pot had been sealed, Anansi still worried that it wasn’t secure enough. So one day he took the pot in secret to a thorny tree with the intention of hiding the pot among the tallest branches. The pot was too big for Anansi to carry in his arms, so he tied it in front of him and proceeded to climb. Like this, the pot was in the way and Anansi kept sliding down the tree, growing more and more frustrated with each failed attempt.
Now on that particular day, Anansi’s young son Ntikuma had followed the spider god to the tree, unbeknownst to his father. He watched as Anansi struggled to climb the tree and couldn’t help but laugh.
“Why don’t you tie the pot to your back?” Ntikuma suggested, “Then you’d be able to grip the tree!”
Anansi was so annoyed by his own failure and the realization that his child was right that he accidently dropped the pot, spilling the wisdom everywhere. At that very moment a storm picked up and washed the wisdom into a river. The river took the wisdom out to sea, where it was spread all over the world, so that there is now a little for everyone.
While Anansi chased his son home in the rain, he was reconciled to the loss of wisdom, saying “What is the use of all that wisdom if a young child still needs to put you to right?”