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Anansi as classical hero.

Although the introduction of the term multi-cultural canon might give rise to all sorts of musings on the dynamics of cultural elements in literature, it is nevertheless clear that, in this particular setting, its aim is just to help us form a notion of what, in our multi-cultural Holland, may be called classical youth literature. I myself would suggest expanding the term, from multi-cultural canon to world canon, because although multi-cultural may sound quite less ethnocentric than, for instance, Western-European, the allusion is still to those cultures that we here in Western-Europe get to deal with--a somewhat arbitrary criterion anyway.

So, what I understand by the term multi-cultural canon is, primarily, a canon of classical world literature, whether or not such happen to be known here in the Netherlands. Such a canon would consequently not only include the classical works that became the foundation of Western culture, like the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other Greek classics; the Jewish Bible; and the Icelandic Edda, but just as well for instance the Quran, the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic, the Hindu Mahabharata and Ramayana, the mythical Chinese adventure Journey to the West--with as great hero the Monkey King, who we sometimes come across in this country displaying his prowess in the Chinese puppet theater--the Turkish shadow-play characters Hacivat and Karagoz, and Australian Aboriginal folk tales.

Neither would I limit the term classical world literature only to written literature, but I would also include oral traditions: songs, dances, folk theater, shadow plays, as well as folk tales like fables, fairy tales, dilemma tales, myths, and legends. Such tales often constitute the groundwork of that which is now considered the canon of classical literature, and might therefore be labeled protoclassical. Although many folk tales have been put down in writing, the majority may very well not be. But the unwritten nature of such tales does not render them any less classical. They derive classicality from some other source.

What Makes a Classic?

The question that logically follows is, What makes a classic? The well-known Dutch dictionary Van Dale Groot Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal by Groot Van Dale answers with the following definition:

1. Pertaining to Greek or Roman antiquity.

2. Excellent, outstanding, exemplary in its kind, accepted or adequate as model, to which enduring authority is attributed.

3. In the spirit of writers of antiquity.

4. Reflecting inner peace and moral stability.

5. Traditional. (1631)

By referring first of all and in such a matter-of-course manner to Greek and Roman antiquity, the editors of Van Dale give away a Eurocentric point of view; and beyond that point, they are somewhat at a loss. Expressions such as "excellent," "accepted as model," "of enduring authority," and "traditional" all approach the essence of the concept, but fragmentarily.

On the other hand, if classical works are indeed to express "inner peace" and "moral stability," we could summarily dismiss all of folk literature as non-classical--at least all the rough, the unrefined--that which Patricia van Reet calls ongeschminkt [unembellished]. There is little inner peace shown by a giant who eats his seven children or by Anansi who shakes off his creditors by getting them to gobble up each other and then shoots down a witch living in a chicken-legged hut with a fence made of human bones and skulls.

In his article on youth adaptations of The Odyssey, Karel Maartense sees as the most striking trait of classical texts the fact that they all "have been not only repeatedly translated and republished, but also variously adapted" (Leesgoed 155). But that attribute is one very superficial. The fact that they are so often revisited stems from qualities rooted in the very nature and structure of such works. Ed Franck, one of the editors of the prestigious series of classic adaptations by publishing houses Averbode and Becht, captures, in my view, the gist of the matter in his following comment in an interview in that same issue of Leesgoed:
 The real, true classics have what Jung would call 'archetypal
 values': those elements of a people's subconscious that emerge
 in--among other things--myths and legends, revealing details about
 the deepest parts of the human soul and about man's circumstances
 in this life: about the human condition. (159)

This answer to "What makes a classic?" also suits me when it comes to the Anansi tales.

Who is Anansi?

In a nutshell: Anansi, the clever forest spider, is the leading character in the Afro-Caribbean tales bearing his name. He is a roguish figure that comes to us from the oral tradition of the Ashanti people of Ghana, resembling in character the better-known Reynard the Fox. Anansi is a shameless boor, a schemer who unblushingly breaks taboos for the sake of a quick meal, a cunning scoundrel, audacious, selfish, lustful, unthankful, and immoral. He doesn't even think twice about killing his fellow animals if it will get him a nice snack, and he knows no remorse. But Anansi is at the same time a master in the art of living. Although his uncontrollable greed sometimes makes him end up in dire straits, he always knows how to keep his composure and remove himself from the predicament, in style. Anansi has had his share of beatings, but is still unbeaten. Anansi is, ultimately, an anarchistic underdog who most enjoys to make a fool of the high-and-mighty of the animal world, living by the principle that "if the lion's skin cannot, the fox's shall." Thus, he sometimes takes up for the "little fellow" of the animal world--albeit unintentionally, for Anansi only plays do-gooder to his own benefit.

The Ashanti use the Anansesem (pronounced Ah-Nahn-Sih-Sam), as these tales are known in Ghana, to amuse as well as to teach, and this continues to be the case although their influence is on the decline due to the influence of the mass media. The many riddles, adages, and sayings in these tales serve as a source of mythical-religious wisdom and as a form of training in language skills. At the same time, they also serve as a way to draft the limits of proper association. Morals can, after all, be taught by recounting immoral deeds; the Old Testament does the same. Moreover, Kwaku Ananse--that is his full name in the Ashanti language--has direct access to the god Nyankopon, although he is to him more of a rival than a messenger. In fact, his tales were formerly known as the Nyankonsem: the tales about God. But, by means of a shrewd trick, Kwaku Ananse managed to have them named Anansesem after him instead.

Solace and Protest

Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the slave shipments, the Anansesem reached the "new world." On the plantations, a regime of cruelty prevailed. Expressions of the original culture were forbidden, but telling Kwaku Ananse tales was one thing that could be done anywhere, quietly, remaining undetected. Ananse tales thus became a source of solace to the oppressed and came to serve as means of protest--an aspect of particular significance. As this protest function grew in importance, their mythic-religious function abated. The creator-god Nyankopon secularized into a worldly king or village chief. Kwaku Ananse gained an opponent he did not have back in Ghana: Tiger, big and strong, but dim and bumptious. Tiger became his archenemy. And, it would not have been too difficult to see in this brute a taskmaster or plantation owner.

The stories morphed, adapting to the flora and fauna, social conditions, and technical development in the Caribbean. Names changed: Kwaku Ananse became Anansi in Suriname and Nanzi in the Netherlands Antilles. His wife, Aso, became Akooba in Suriname and in the Netherlands Antilles, Shi Maria, reflecting Christendom's influence. And, while in Ghana he had just a few children--the best known being his son Ntikuma--in the Caribbean these multiplied to number about twelve in all, with the youngest being called Boy in Suriname and Pegasaya in the Netherlands Antilles. It is as if the change of circumstances had infused these tales with new impetus. They certainly developed into a fabric richer than that which had left Ghana. Two traits remained unchanged, though: First of all, Anansi's character--he still is that same sly scoundrel, that die-hard fellow--and secondly, the motifs and structure of the stories.

Then, in the twentieth century, immigrants from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles brought the Anansi tales with them to the Netherlands. Here--as well as in Great Britain--the stories knew something of a new renaissance. They caught on immediately, and not only among Surinamese children, but also among Dutch, Chinese, Turkish, Moroccan, Chinese ..., in brief, children of all nationalities.

In Holland, the stories again underwent a range of changes, adjustments to modern society. The most important of these has been perhaps their being written down and published. During the past quarter of a century, for example, at least twenty-five children's books with Anansi tales in Dutch were published. In the better ones, Anansi's complex character--as well as the crude and sometimes racy nature of the stories--remains intact. Two of these are Anansi, de spin weeft een web om de wereld [Anansi, the Spider Weaves a Web Around the World], by Noni Lichtveld in 1984, and Anansi tussen God en duivel [Anansi Between God and the Devil] in 1997 by the same author, in which Anansi bears a striking resemblance to Surinamese army leader Desi Bouterse, allusions to powerful rulers being a long-time characteristic of Anansi tales. Yet, many other books show vulgarization and dullness. In such ones, Anansi's sting has been taken out, and what we are left with is nothing more than a vulgar buffoon.

Is Anansi a Classical Character?

In addition to such story collections, an important thesis on Anansi tales, or rather about Antillean Nanzi tales, appeared in 1983. It was published by W. J. H. Baart and titled: Cuentanan di Nanzi ... Een onderzoek naar de oorsprong, betekenis en functie van de papiamentse spinverhalen [Nanzi Tales--A Study into the Origins, Meaning, and Function of the Papiamentu Spider Stories]. Now in 2004 it remains the only thorough recent study of the subject published in Dutch. This study serves to shed light on the question of whether Anansi tales may be considered classical, and, if so, on what grounds.

W. J. H. Baart, a protestant minister, originally left for the Netherlands Antilles as a missionary but fell under the spell of the Nanzi stories. He learned the local language, Papiamentu, and analyzed the thirty Nanzi tales as they had been put in writing in 1952 by Nilda Pinto, comparing them to authentic Anansesem written down as seventy-five tales by cultural anthropologist R.S. Rattray on the Gold Coast of the 1930s. He came across extensive scholarly literature on the Anansesem as well as on similar tales from other ancient cultures, written not by literary scholars but by cultural anthropologists, psychologists, and religious historians. Such tales are labeled trickster tales.

Under the Cocoa Tree

Before probing further into the character of the trickster, let us examine the following authentic Ghanaian Kwaku Ananse tale. It is a careful adaptation of Rattray's collection: Akan-Ashanti Folk-tales.

Allow yourself to travel to a small village of clay huts in the Ghanaian jungle. No running water, electricity, radio, or TV. It is around five in the afternoon. The work for the day is done. Shadows are getting longer, but it is still hot and dusty. We all sit down on the reddish dirt under the shadow of a cocoa tree, forming a circle. Children are running around at play. Babies are suckling. Try to peer past this translation and see the storyteller himself. He narrates with zest, modulating, singing, joking, asking questions, making up riddles, using wordplay, and addressing some of us directly at times. We listeners comment, applaud, laugh, poke our neighbors, interrupt by bursting spontaneously into song, enact the story, or call out that we know an even more fantastic tale, which we then go on to share as an intermezzo.
 How Dispute Came Among the Tribe

 There once lived a man called Take-no-Dispute. Because he
 was such a curmudgeon, he built a little hut to live in all by
 himself. One day, the mouse deer came to visit him, and they sat
 down cozily under a palm tree. Some palm nuts fell to the ground,
 and the mouse deer said: "Father Take-no-Dispute, your palm nuts
 have ripened."

 Take-no-Dispute said: "Palm nuts always ripen three clusters
 at a time. I will hack them all off, and when I boil them to extract
 the oil I will get three jugs of oil. I will take the oil to Akase
 and buy with it an old woman at the market. She gives birth to my
 grandmother, who carries my mother within her, who in turn carries
 me. And as my mother is giving birth to me, I will be there."

 The mouse deer said: "You're lying."

 Take-no-Dispute then grabbed a stick and struck the mouse
 deer on the head, killing him.

 After that, an antelope came by. He too sat down with
 Take-no-Dispute under the palm tree, and it happened exactly as
 before. And so it went on happening to all the animals.

 Kwaku Ananse then swung his bag over his shoulder and left
 for Take-no-Dispute's village. They greeted, and Take-no-Dispute
 prepared a meal for Ananse.

 They sat down under the palm tree, and palm nuts started falling.
 A nanse kept stashing them into his bag until it was full. When he
 had finished his meal and palm nuts still kept falling, Ananse said:
 "Father Take-no-Dispute, your palm nuts have ripened." The host
 told Ananse the same story he had the others. After he had finished,
 the Spider said: "It is true, what you say. Now, let me tell you
 something. I have okra growing on my field, and when they ripen,
 I might join seventy-seven long hooks and still not be able to reach
 them. Do you know how I manage? I lay down flat on my back,
 and so I can pick them. I use my weenie."

 Take-no-Dispute said: "I see. Tomorrow I am paying you a
 visit, because that is something I really need to see."

 On his way, Ananse chewed on the nuts he had gathered and
 spit them out on the ground. The next morning, Take-no-Dispute
 set out for Ananse's village. However, when Ananse had come
 home the day before, he told his children: "Someone is coming
 here tomorrow who doesn't want to be contradicted. If he asks for
 me, tell him that yesterday my weenie broke in seven places, so
 that I had to take it to the blacksmith to fix, and that, as the
 blacksmith didn't have it ready in time, now I am away finishing the

 When Take-no-Dispute arrived, he asked: "Where is your

 The children repeated what Ananse had told them, and asked
 him if he had not seen the blood lying on the road. He said he had,
 and asked for their mother.

 They replied: "Yesterday Mother went to the river, and her
 water jug almost fell and broke to pieces hadn't she caught it in
 time. But, you know how that is, she didn't quite finish catching
 it; so she returned there now to finish."

 Take-no-Dispute said nothing.

 Just then, Ananse came home. He told his children to make
 some food ready for their guest. But they used just one tiny fish
 and lots of peppers. When Take-no-Dispute ate the stew, the peppers
 burned his mouth so badly that he asked Ananse's son Ntikuma to
 fetch him some water.

 The boy went to the water jug, but didn't bring back any water.

 When Take-no-Dispute asked him for water again, Ntikuma
 told him: "You know, we have three different kinds of water. My
 father's is all the way on top, that of my mother's fellow-wife is
 in the middle, and my mother's is underneath. I may only fetch my
 own mother's water. But if I don't do so very carefully, it will
 cause a quarrel in the tribe."

 Take-no-Dispute said: "You're lying, you punk!"

 At once Ananse said: "Beat him to death!"

 Take-no-Dispute said: "But why should they beat me to death?"

 Ananse replied: "You hate it when people dispute what you
 say, but you still dispute what others say. That's why I say you
 should be beaten to death."

 So they beat Take-no-Dispute to death.

 After he was dead, Ananse cut up his flesh into little pieces
 and spread them around. And that is how contradiction came among
 men." (Rattray 106-9)

What Is a Trickster?

In this authentic tale, recorded before 1930, Ananse clearly emerges as a trickster. Contradiction is one of the most basic traits of the trickster. A trickster like Ananse is an extremely complex character. His trickiness works on different levels. He is that cunning, crafty liar full of schemes, both clown and fool, both subtle and rude. But he is at the same time also that unfathomable, ambiguous character that with roguish delight evades every attempt at describing him. He is a dual character that effortlessly merges at the very least two otherwise opposite roles into his personality. He shows traits both positive and negative, both earthly and heavenly. He is a benefactor as well as a deceiver, conveying both good and evil to mankind. In the above story, for instance, Ananse, together with his children, is a master-deceiver. Yet, at the same time he is also the one who provides humanity with an important social element, namely contradiction.

Other tales too show Ananse bestowing social, cultural, as well as natural givens on mankind. In some, his effects are positive, like those that explain where wisdom came from, how language originated, and how man came to have hoes to cultivate the ground. Others, on the negative side, explain how sickness, jealousy, and toothaches originated, and why children are spanked. Such tales portray Ananse as contributing to the shaping of the world as it is. And as unappreciated as his contribution may often be, the role he fulfils is nevertheless divine, one reserved, in Greek mythology for instance, for gods and demigods. The trickster serves as exemplar by being the counterexample, fulfilling his role with a humorous and cheerful demeanor, intent on enjoying life as well as on surviving.

The Trickster Embedded in the Socio-Cultural Structure

This depiction of the trickster cannot be anything but flawed, however, because in each culture the trickster shows a different face--or rather, several different faces. All tricksters are jesters and buffoons, but in each instance, other features are emphasized. One trickster character may be more of a destroyer, while another more of a creator. One may be satirical, another clever and playful. Take for example the little mouse deer Kantjil, an Indonesian fable character that, although astute, is much more benign than Anansi.

The trickster is, in each case, both outwardly and inwardly, fully embedded in the social, cultural, and religious context of his particular culture. There is no such thing as the typical, universal trickster. Religious historian Robert D. Pelton in particular, one of Baart's foremost sources, draws attention to the fact that each trickster character exhibits distinct culturally determined characteristics. This he does in his book titled: The trickster in West-Africa, A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight, published in 1980 (notice his reference to "mythic irony" and "sacred delight.")

According to Pelton, who here presents himself as a true structuralist, "we must concentrate on his [the trickster's] relationship with the societies which have imagined him so carefully and enjoyed him so hugely" (Pelton 17). In his view, it is not so much the number of trickster-like traits Ananse might have, as how his structure functions in relation to other structures within Ashanti society that should be of foremost interest. Pelton refers in that context to Rattray, who suggests that the Anansesem might have some sort of cathartic effect, serving to consolidate the social structure: "Resentments can be aired and rascals satirized in a way that does not entail the rupture of communal ties, but instead corrects faults by ridicule and thus mends the social fabric" (31).

The Trickster as Rite-of-Passage Symbol

Although Pelton's static structuralism may be ripe for criticism, he also points out one quite interesting and much less rigid concept formulated by Mircea Eliade, in which the trickster is seen as a symbol of man during his rite of passage--that transitional phase between childhood and adult life. More pointedly, the trickster would embody that phase itself. It is a no-man's-land between past and future, when you are neither fish nor fowl, so to speak--a state utterly at odds with the regular social order and its hierarchy. It is a condition in which susceptibility works as a recreating force, from which one emerges transformed. And Ananse is just such a transformer. Belonging to different worlds at once, he gets away with breaking the rules of society: mistreating his guests, lying, sleeping with his daughter-in-law, ignoring biological laws, coaxing Nyankopon out of his tales, and showing general disregard for powers divine.

The Trickster--An Archetype?

In the course of his research, most studies Baart came across dealt with the countless Native-American trickster tales, and he was surprised at the many similarities Native American tricksters bear to Kwaku Ananse. But trickster-like figures in other cultures parallel Ananse in some respects as well, like Reynard the Fox, the Commedia dell'Arte's Pulcinella, and by extension the Dutch Jan Klaassen and his other European relatives like Punch and Judy in England, Polichinelle in France, the Poesjenellen in Antwerp, Kasperl in Germany, and Kasparek in the Czech Republic. There is also Loki, from the Icelandic Edda tales, Kantjil, the little Indonesian mouse deer, and the Turkish Nasreddin Hodja. And then there is Hermes, the resourceful, inventive, and larcenous mediator between gods and men of Greek mythology, who also shows trickster-like qualities.

The fact that trickster figures emerge independently in folklores of so many different cultures might point to their being archetypal, emanating from the collective subconscious of the human soul, as Jung asserts. But scholars disagree on whether trickster figures are indeed archetypal. In a 1954 study of the trickster among Winnebago Indians, Jung believes they do. In the introduction to his 1930 collection of Anansesem, Rattray is more inclined toward the explanation that such characters share a common origin, even oceans across: "Nowhere are outside influences more likely to be made manifest than in the realm of story-telling" (VIII).

Anansi the Trickster as Chameleon

Pelton agrees with Rattray's view. To him, the trickster is "not an archetypal Idea, but a symbolic pattern" (Pelton 3) deeply rooted in the structure of its own specific socio-cultural context. Pelton sternly warns against trying to dissect the trickster from its social structure, lest you be left, not with a living trickster, but with an abstract and lifeless concept, whether archetypal or not--good advice to keep in mind. Nevertheless, Pelton does leave out one important detail in his structuralist point of view, namely that those specific socio-cultural contexts themselves are also subject to change. In his book, Pelton deals exclusively with the Ananse of the ancient Ashanti, as if theirs were a static culture with an unchanging structure.

He is oblivious of the fact that Ananse, with his Afro-cultural context at his side, set out to see the world, and that, as a result, this context was profoundly altered, with entirely new cultures being born out of it, like soul, jazz, blues, calypso, reggae, and hybrid cultures. He fails to see how Ananse, like a true chameleon, has adapted to those new environments. That is to say, outwardly, for on the inside he is largely unaffected, still his old self--only secularized. Pelton thus fails to see that Ananse was not too rigidly trapped within his own cultural structure at all, but has proven extremely adaptable, able to make himself at home in large parts of the Caribbean as well as in Western-Europe. And in all those regions, he met with people who felt drawn to him.

Why is that? Who knows whether this trickster might yet turn out to be more of an archetype than Rattray and Pelton would have thought?

Several motifs common to Anansi tales can be found all over the world, making the possibility of a common origin less plausible. For certain motifs, derivation is still conceivable, like the self-operating items in the tale "The Wishing Table, the Gold Ass, and the Cudgel in the Sack," reminiscent of that in which Anansi lands a magical cooking pot he uses to conjure up food. Western Europe and Africa are, after all, not that far removed. But when you find a motif, like Anansi's stepping on the backs of crocodiles to the other side of the river, showing up also among the Korjaks of Northern Russia, derivation becomes unlikely and the mind starts to wander towards the idea of independently emerging primal motifs after all.

But, be that as it may, whether trickster figures are archetypal or gained their world-wide spreading through derivation, what cannot be denied is that they have been well accepted all over the world, finding plenty of fertile soil in which to evolve. Trickster tales do at the very least possess archetypal values in the way Ed Franck put it at the beginning of this article, thus ranking among the world's classics. To the question of whether the Afro-Caribbean Anansi tales are classical, we may answer "yes." It is that clustering of the primordially human, paradoxical, and elusive qualities of the trickster that establishes Anansi as an enduring, classical hero.

Works Cited

Baart, W.J.H. Cuentanan di Nanzi ... Een onderzoek naar de oorsprong, betekenis en functie van de papiamentse spinverhalen. Dissertatie. Oegstgeest, 1983-1991.

Duin, Lieke van. "Hoe Kwaku Ananse met zijn tijd meeging en toch zichzel bleef: over functieverandering van de Anansi-verhalen door migratie." Literature zonder leeftijd: tijdschrift voor de studie van kinder-en jeugdliteratuur, 32 (winter 1994): 15-36.

Leesgoed. tijdschrift over kinderboeken, Biblion Uitgeverij, Leidschendam, nr. 5, November 1994.

Pelton, Robert D. The Trickster in West-Africa: A Study of Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Rattray, R.S. Akan-Ashanti Folk-talkes. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1930.

Van Dale. Van Dale Groot Woordenboek der Nederlandse Taal. Dertiende uitgave. Geredigeerde door prof. dr. Guido Geerts en drs. Ton den Boon. Utrecht, Antwerpen: Van Dale Lexicografie, 1999.

(1) The first author, Helene Garrett, is the translator throughout.
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Author:van Duin, Lieke
Publication:Journal of Caribbean Literatures
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2007
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