Anansi Stories originated in West Africa. They were brought to Jamaica and other parts of the New World by Ashanti slaves, and were handed down orally through generations. Anansi exists as a spider, a man, or a combination of the two. His name is sometimes spelt Anancy, and his stories called Anancy stories.
Anansi is no goody-two-shoes hero. He is a greedy, lazy, inventive trickster, cunning and smart in the extreme. Anansi loves a joke, and when he's not sleeping, is always up to something.
Here is one of my favourite Anansi stories.
Anansi and Snake
Tiger was the undisputed king of the forest. Tiger Lilies were named after him. Tiger Moths were named after him. And the stories of the forest were called Tiger Stories.
Anansi was a nobody in the forest heirarchy. When the animals gathered together, they would ask idle questions like "Who is the strongest animal?" or "Who is the bravest?"
All together, they would chorus "Tiger!". And just to poke fun, they would say, "Who is the weakest?" Like a church choir, they would all sing out "Anansi!".
Anansi got sick and tired of it all.
One day he met Tiger face to face in the forest. Anansi bowed low to Tiger, but Tiger did not acknowledge Anansi in the least. He had no time to waste on such an insignificant speck.
"Tiger," said Anansi, "you have it all. Can't you just ease me up and let me have one thing named after me?"
Tiger wanted to ignore Anansi, but his curiosity got the better of him. "And just what is it you want to bear your name, Anansi?"
"The stories," replied Anansi. "I want them to be called Anansi stories."
Now Tiger loved those stories, and did not intend to give them up to this crawling nobody. Still, even the undisputed king of the forest needed a laugh sometimes. So he said to Anansi, "If you can do one small thing for me, I will let you call the stories Anansi stories or any other name you like."
Anansi didn't like the sound of this. "What one thing would that be, Tiger?" he asked cautiously.
"Nothing too hard... just capture Snake for me by the end of the week, and all the stories will be known as Anansi stories forever more."
Good thing Anansi had eight legs to stand on, because at least four of them buckled same time! This Snake was not your flimsy garden variety snake. Snake of the jungle was big. Very big. And Anansi was small. Very small.
But Anansi could think big, so he said "I'll do it."
At that, there was a huge burst of laughter from all the other animals who had been eavesdropping on the conversation. They went home, tears of amusement rolling down their faces.
Anansi went home, very worried. But thinking.
This was on Monday.
Anansi went on the trail he knew Snake travelled on everyday. He made a large noose out of a strong vine, and placed some of Snake's favourite berries inside it. He hid in the bushes, holding the other end of the vine.
Snake came slithering along the path. He spied the berries and his mouth watered. But he also spied the noose. He lay the weight of his body on the vine, then reached in and ate the berries quickly. Anansi tried and tried but he could not pull the vine to close the noose. Snake's body was too heavy!
Anansi went a little further down Snake's favourite trail, and dug a pit in the ground. He placed a luscious hand of ripe bananas in it, then smeared the sides of the pit with grease, so that Snake would slip in when he tried to get the bananas.
Snake came along the path. He spied the bananas and his mouth watered. But he also spied the grease. So he wrapped his tail around a thick tree trunk, then reached into the hole with his head and ate the bananas. If he had lips he would have licked them. He raised his head out of the pit, unwrapped his tail, and slithered away.
Anansi made a square trap out of sticks, with spaces on three sides, and a door on the other. He put some mangoes inside. Soon a piglet came along and went straight for the mangoes. He didn't notice when Anansi shut the door behind him. Anansi figured that Snake could get inside the trap through the spaces, but that he would be too fat to get out after he had eaten the piglet.
Snake came along, and saw the piglet. The creature was so terrified when he saw Snake that he went berserk, squealing at the top of his lungs and smashing the trap into pieces. The piglet fled into the bushes, and Snake's mouth did not even get the chance to water. Anansi muttered to himself, "Fool-fool, good for nuttn pig."
It was Friday, the end of the week, and Anansi was still Snakeless. He went directly to Snake's house, and sat outside, looking dejected. Snake came out and looked at Anansi in surprise. "But you bright, eeh? All week long you trying to catch me, and now you sitting here barefaced in mi yard?"
Anansi looked at Snake and sighed. "Yes, is true. But I was trying to catch you for a worthy cause. Now the other animals will continue to talk behind your back."
"What you talking about, Anansi? What they saying about me?"
Anansi said, "Well, I really shouldn't be telling you, but they saying that you believe you are the longest thing around, and that you think you are God's gift to longness, when even the shortest bamboo around here is longer than you!"
Snake was outraged. "Measure me, Anansi, measure me! Cut down the longest bamboo you can find and let me shut up those backbiters!"
Anansi ran and cut down the longest bamboo. He rested it on the ground and Snake stretched out beside it. "Call them, Anansi. Let them see that nothing around here can test me!"
Anansi scratched his chin. "Well, Snake, there's a problem. You look longer than the bamboo, but how do I know that when I go up by your head you not crawling up to look longer, and when I go down by your tail you not shifting down on that end?"
"Tie mi tail, then Anansi. if you don't believe me."
By this time curious animals were gathering around to watch.
Anansi tied Snake's tail tightly to the bamboo with some vines. Then he said to Snake, "Stretch, Snake, Stretch. You almost there. Stretch till you eyes shut and you can't stretch no more."
Anansi had never seen a snake sweat. Snake stretched till his eyes were squeezed shut, and in a flash Anansi tied his head to the pole, then his middle.
The animals who had been watching were silent. There was no laughing at Anansi this time. He had said he would capture Snake, and he did.
And from that day to this, the stories have been called Anansi stories.
Jack Mandora, mi nuh choose none!
This is one of the best known Anansi stories, showing up Anansi's tricky, clever side. Compared to others, it shows Anansi in quite a positive light, as the underdog using his brains to triumph in a hopeless situation. Other Anansi stories show up his lazy, greedy side as well, and some tell us of Anansi being too smart for his own good!
Anansi was an important character to generations of slaves, as he demonstrated the ability of the weak and the downtrodden to use brains, wit and cunning to triumph over the oppressor.
The phrase "Jack Mandora, mi nuh choose none" is usually said at the end of Anansi stories and other Jamaican folk tales. It is believed to be a disclaimer, in which the storyteller is informing heaven's gatekeeper (Jack Mandora) that the story is merely being passed on as it was heard, with nothing added to or omitted from it. This is a safeguard, as some of Anansi's activities do not take the moral highground, so to speak, and the storyteller does not want to seem to be in agreement with them!
Whatever the twist, all Anansi stories make great listening, and great reading.