The traditional web of legend and lore that allegorizes human nature — particularly its propensity for wisdom, ingenuity, resourcefulness, yet also for the shrewdness and duplicity that often goes hand-in-hand — spans across world cultures. As it stretches from one corner of the globe to another, from Japan to India to the Lakota region of the Dakotas, a clever, illusion-spinning, shape-shifting, 8-legged trickster appears, but no more frequently than in West Africa. Tracing back along one of the web’s strongest radial threads leads directly to Ghana, to its allegorical spider figure, Kwaku Anansi.
Anansi, the Trickster Spider
Enmeshed in the intricate webbing of Akan-Ashanti folklore — between its aetiological weft (tales that explain the natural world, i.e. “How the Leopard became Spotted”) and etymological warp (stories that explore how words are derived, i.e. “How the Ram came to be called Odwanini”) — is Anansi, the spider-god, and his apologues, or morality tales.
At once intelligent and cunning, insightful and mischievous, Anansi — intermediate and sometimes rival of the sky god Nyame — spins into existence the sun, moon, stars and the stitched edge that prevents day from unraveling into night. Humanity is bound together by his threadwork, through the knowledge he imparts — from agricultural savvy to architectural know-how — and through the whole corpus of tales that he, in a test of wits, acquires for humankind: Anansesem, or “spider stories”, also known as Nyankonsem, the “words of the Sky-god” himself.
Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom
The spider’s antics, traditionally recounted only after dark, were given rare light when recorded and transcribed directly in Twi from Ashanti storytellers by Africanist R.S. Rattray. One of the most beloved of the Anansesem is the tale that is now known worldwide as Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom.
SE 'YOYE A NYANSA BA OMANM' y Ese Kwaku Ananse na owo ho, na oprapraa nyansa nnyina boaa'no na ode guu toam'. Ose ode foro dua ako sen so, na nyansa nnyina asa asase so. Na omaa so se ode koro, na oko duruu dua a, ode eko sen so, ase, na ode homa sa toa no so, na ode yaneye, na toa no bedii n'anim', na ode kaa dua no se oforo. Oforo, foro, foro a, twon! Na ode aka no bio, nso oforo, foro, foro, twon! Na ne ba, Ntikuma, gyina ho a, ose, "E! w'ani awu, nkra wo danee toa no too w'akyi a, nkra watimi afo'." Ose, "So ho ne wo mpan'insem." Na wasan aforo bio sara, nsoso pasa! Afei na ofwe ha, na ode toa no too n'akyi. Afeidie ode kaa no, kra! kra! kra! ona okoro no. Oduruu dua no nkon, ose, "Kwaku Ananse mawu Afio, me 'ba, kete, kete, kete, me, me wo ho yi, maboaboa nyansa nnyina ano, na se ebi aka na me ara manhu, na me 'ba, totofefewa, na wakyere me!" Na osoo toa no mu, na tintini! na atoo toa no twene, na tesee! Ene se nyansa obiara nyaa bie, na wo a wanko ho ntem no, ene (sebe) 'kwasea. M'anansesem a metooye yi, se eye de o, se ennye de o, momfa bi nko na momfa bi mmere me.
HOW IT CAME ABOUT THAT WISDOM CAME AMONG THE TRIBE
They say that Kwaku, the Spider, was there, and that he swept up all knowledge, gathered it together in one spot, and placed it in a gourd pot. He then declared that he would climb a tree and go and hang it on it, so that all wisdom on earth would be finished. So he took it up to go with it, and when he reached beneath the tree where he was going to hang it, he took a string, and tied it to the gourd, and hung it in front of him, and he set himself to climb the tree.
He climbed, and climbed, and climbed; in vain. He strove again, again he made to climb, and climb, and climb; in vain. Now, his son, Ntikuma, who was standing by, said, “Oh, your eyes have surely died (for shame), would it not have been better if you had turned round the gourd and put it on your back, then doubtless you would have been able to climb?”
He (the Spider) said, “Clear out, you and your old-fashioned sayings.” Then he turned to climb once more as before, but once again, fruitlessly. Then he considered long, and (finally) took the gourd and put it behind him. Then he set himself to climb, and mounted swiftly, Kra! kra! kra! (was the sound of his climbing); there he goes.
He reached where the branches began to spread out from the stem, and he said (to himself), “I, Kwaku Ananse, by the lesser god, Afio! I might as well be dead, my child who is so small, so small, so small there was I, I collected all wisdom (so I thought) in one place, yet some remained which even I did not perceive, and lo! my child, this still-sucking infant, has shown it me.”
Then he seized that gourd, and there was a sound of rending, tintini! and he cast it away, and there was a sound of scattering, tesee!
That is how every one got wisdom; and any one who did not go there in time (to pick some up) is — excuse my saying so — a fool. This, my story, which I have related, if it be sweet, (or) if it be not sweet, take some elsewhere, and let some come back to me.
Sources and Further Reading
- Rattray, R.S. (1930). Akan-Ashanti Folk-Tales. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. Preserved by the Aluka Digital Library.