By Marcia Davidson
August 2, 2003
The Ashanti handed down to us brilliant folktales about the trickster Anancy, the spider-man, as the hare is the chief character in the Yoruba folktales and the tortoise in the stories of the Ibo people. Songs often accompany the stories and have inspired many Jamaican folksongs.
Anancy the Spiderman was brought from the west coast of Africa by the first slaves and went into business as the only therapy for three centuries of hideousness. He took on the trappings of the tribal oral historian, with an interpretive addition. As Jamaicans are wont to do, they added innumerable prodigy - Brer Tacoma, Brer Tiger and others to the Anancy folktales.
Anancy is quick-witted and intelligent surviving the odds and tricking those around him. He personifies the quality of survival so admired by Jamaicans. You may see his name spelled in a variety of ways; Anancy, Anance, Anansi (‘Nansi) or even Brer Nansi.
Bra ‘Nansi filled the role of storyteller hero or villain. He was great at disguises, omniscient but nonetheless willing to be chopped to prove a moral. He was something to everyone: his indestructibility, knowledge and wit were an investment in hope. The stories were usually satirical and cynical. They never had a live-happily-ever-after ending. Anancy’s devotees were always on the lookout for the unexpected; everywhere were challenges that must be faced lest they come in at the back of the neck.
The tradition of oral folklore however, is alive and well on the island of Jamaica, and preserved in the pages of children’s storybooks. Children’s folklore and literature thrives in the stories of Anancy. Nearly all Jamaicans tell bedtime ‘Nansi stories to their children, making them up as they go along. But the big storytellers invariably village matriarchs, are much sought after and are always warmly welcomed to the guest seat on the coffee-drying limestone terrace behind the footlights of fireflies. The Anancy stories belong to “evening time.”
As Rex Nettleford states in his introduction to Walter Jekylls, Jamaican Song and Story, "in order to cope with an unstraight and crooked world, one needs unstraight and crooked paths." As a child, playwright and author, Louise Bennett recalls that everything that happened in the world was caused by Anancy." As a child Louise Bennett, at the end of each Anancy story, would have to say, "Jack Mandora, me no chose none." This was because Anancy sometimes did very wicked things in his stories, and the children would have to let Jack Mandora, the doorman at Heaven’s door, know that they were not in favor of Anancy’s wicked ways.
As in the West African stories Anancyi is “craven” (greedy) and, being small and weak, he wins by guile not by strength. It is Anancy “who mek wasp sting, who mek dog belly come hollow, who mek Jackass bray.”
Anancy is an indestructible and irresistible spider who is both, "fooler and fool, maker and unmade, wily and stupid, subtle and gross, the High Gods accomplice and his rival." Anancy is generally a figure of admiration whose cunning and scheming nature reflects the indirection and subtleties necessary for survival and occasionally victory for the Black man in a racist society.
In Jamaica, Anancy, the descendant of a West African deity takes on special significance in a society, which has its roots in a system of slavery. It is as though every slave strove to be Anancy and he who achieved the Spider-form became a kind of hero. Anancy’s greatest attributes however, are his character flaws. Anancy is far from a perfect folk hero, and many of his characteristics are egotistical, selfish, and ignorant. Regardless of the wealth of character flaws he possesses, Anancy has an irresistibility that has been preserved in its most uncorrupted form.
The character flaws of Anancy were a direct link to the problems that the people of Jamaica were facing. It was always necessary for the black people of Jamaica to survive. After slavery, that meant moving into the interior away from the plantations. It is here, that Anancy was created and Walter Jekyll was able to document the stories and songs of a dynamic people. Anancy uses his wit and cunning to survive. In many cases, the larger animals of his stories, the Lion, Snake, and Monkeys are representations of the white man in Jamaica. For example in the tale, "Tiger Story, Anancy Story," all of the history of Jamaica and the animals are told as Tiger Stories. It is not until Anancy approaches the tiger and asks him if the stories could be changed to the Anancy Stories that the true survival begins. The tiger, dismisses the spider’s request, and tells him that if he can accomplish two impossible tasks the stories can be called the Anancy stories. Through his trickery, Anancy successfully accomplishes the two successful deeds and forces the Tiger to rename the tales as the Anancy Stories.
What this represents to the reader and the listener is that the history of Jamaica before Anancy’s accomplishment, was a "white mans history." Like many colonized West Indian and African countries of the early twentieth century, white colonists believed that the history of these individual countries did not begin until the arrival of the white man. What this tale does is take back the history and stories of Jamaica, and returns them to Anancy’s and the black people of Jamaica.
When examining the two impossible tasks Anancy’s was asked to perform for the Tiger, the reader soon realizes that the tasks are representations of the impossibilities that Jamaicans have faced throughout the centuries. One of these tasks requires Anancy’s to gather a swarm of bees to bring to the Tiger. The bees are very dangerous and could sting Anancy’s to death if he were to upset, or disturb their environment. The symbolism of this request illustrates the difficulties of bringing together a large group of people, who are not prepared, or are too content with their environment to face the white man, represented as the Tiger. Only through his cunning can Anancy convince the bees to come with him to see the Tiger.
In Jamaican folklore, this type of symbolism demonstrates to the reader and listener the struggles of the people of Jamaica against racism and slavery. The question that should be raised however, is as children did the Anancy Stories signify the struggles of the Jamaican people, or did they come across to children as simply adventure stories, and not stories of survival. Daryl C. Dance, author of Folklore from contemporary Jamaicans states, "As we look at the Anancy stories, we will find that they appeal to us not only because of their drama, excitement, and humor but also because we quickly perceive that, like most animal tales, these are not really about animals but about human beings, and we realize that a part of our attraction is that we recognize ourselves in the antics of these creatures."
Anancy takes many shapes; at times, he seems to be a man, and at other times, he is an insect, running his web and taking refuge in the ceiling, as author Louise Bennett describes it. What this represents for children is that even though the Anancy Stories are filled with animal characters, their characteristics are so human like that at many times when reading or listening to his stories you begin to feel as though the characters are the same people who are part of your lives and history. The effect of these stories on children was not only morally fulfilling, but pure enjoyment as well. As one interview with a Jamaica youth states: ”But the way I learnt Anancy, I knew Anancy as a child, and it was a joy-y-y! We loved to listen to the stories, we loved to hear about this little trickify man, and you know, and one thing we knew, that this man was magic, and we could never be like him. You know he is a magic man. He could spin a web and become a spider whenever he wanted to [laughter]. You cant do that, so you better not try the Anancy’s tricks, you know, but it was fun!”
This type of "magic man," or prophet in many cases is represented in several histories. Whether it is the magical lyrics of Bob Marley, the powerful speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the cunning of a small spider named Anancy, different cultures tend to glorify individuals and make them their saviors in a sense. Children see this spider perform heroic and sometimes-foolish deeds and they see a human being. It is interesting that sometimes a society so burdened with racism and subordination turns to a figure, or individual as a representative of the people. In South Africa’s case, that would be a person like Nelson Mandela, or Stephen Biko. In Jamaica, that individual is a fictional spider who for over two centuries has represented the hardships of a nation.
In North America, that type of fictional character, who represents the hardships of a country, is missing. Maybe the reason for this is that today we who live in North America, live in a place that is economically thriving. We are not subjected to the same hardships as the people of Jamaica. The reason however, I believe that a character like Anancy is missing from our society is because we are a country based on technology. Children are sent to school at seven o’clock in the morning and do not arrive home again until seven o’clock at night. There is something missing between parent and child, and in many cases, it is simply communication. I do not mean to give you my own rhetoric on how I think a parent should speak to his or her child. However, it is important to see the fundamental difference between as something as simple as children’s folklore in our society, compared to that of Jamaica to distinguish the importance of a child’s story tale.
Anancy’s presence in politics is sequential a bridge across the gulf that pre-election rhetoric creates. Anancy is an art that woos the loser even as it acclaims the victor.
The anti-fraud ink-dip had hardly dried on the fingers of Jamaican’s honest burghers after the 1980 elections when there appeared on the street a sight not seen since the Socialists had declared, for climate and economy, that the short-sleeved safari outfit could be worn at official functions. To the new “Conservatives”, these casual clothes looked very much like Cuban apparel not at all appropriate for a country making overtures to the United States. Immediately, phalanxes of twitching men losers and winners alike began appearing in the streets sweating and steaming in 3-piece suits. It was Madison-Avenue-under-the-bananas. Without violence, the political statement had been made: adios Cuba: hello America.
On the map, the island of Jamaica looks like a scared puppy swimming in deep water thrashing to escape the Cuban flail and the Florida club. “Stone a river bottom never know sun hot,” is a Jamaican proverb sometimes cited in resentment of the insensitivity of the big political powers. Maybe Anancy the Spiderman is on the ropes somewhere up front.
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