The Magical Spiderman: Anancy
drop off de earth so BOP an dat was de end of Brer Nanci... an Mama
Goat an er tree kiddies live appily fe days ...
OVER THE years the spider trickster figure Anancy has suffered the stigma of being pointed to as representative of all that is wrong with Jamaican society when in fact historically he represents much to be proud of. Anancy's place in Jamaican culture lies in the research of scholars, in the telling of tales from generation to generation, in popular theatre, in song and dance and in popular dialect where the word "anancy" can be used instead of "ginnal" to mean someone who is slightly devious or uses wit to outsmart others. As a source of West Indian social history, Anancy, however, is invaluabnsformer and folk hero, scholars refer to Anancy as an archetype of new world experience (Rohlehr, 19, p. 184). He is complex and irreducible; simultaneously literal and metaphoric. His multiple selves have adapted over time. In the Caribbean Anancy emerged as a survivor of the Middle Passage (the second leg of the Triangular Trade that brought slaves to the Caribbean and sugar and other commodities to Europe). Many see the small spider with the larger than life character as "representative of the principles of cunning, subtlety and intelligence as techniques of survival which the slave employed in the New World" (Rohlehr, 19, p. 184-5). Anancy is said to have spoken to the slaves' empowerment while undergoing immense subjugation. He symbolized transformative possibility. In addition, identification with Anancy meant repudiation of connection with the image of the good-for-nothing "Sambo" of slaves as "lazy, docile, and irresponsible characters given to lying and stealing" (Elkins, 1976, p. 82).
Anancy exists in Jamaica as "Ananse," "Anansi" and "Anancy," in Haiti as "Ti Malice" and in Curacao as "Nansi" (Purchas-Tulloch, 1976, p. 225). The name is rooted in the West African culture of the Akan-Ashanti for whom Anancy was considered the Sky-God. ("Ananse" means spider in the West African Twi language). Transcending these differences of name, the spider-figure provides images of memory and survival, compromise and obstinacy, past and present, that are directly related to a wider process of creolization which is crucial to the formation and understanding of the West Indian cultural heritage. Creolization, according to renowned West Indian historian, Kamau Brathwaite, is defined as " a cultural action, material, psychological and spiritual based upon the stimulus response of individuals to their environment and as white/black, culturally discrete groups to each other" (1971, p. 296).
All Anancy tales, and folk tales in general, have similar beginnings and endings reminders not to blur illusion with reality. Trickster tales can be grouped under four distinct themes (i) amusing tales, (ii) tales with morals, (iii) aetiological tales accounting for how things came to be and (iv) etymological tales, accounting for how things came to be named (Rattray, 1930). They often involve some use of magic and a "trick" and tend to be repetitive with expansible and parallel and patterned image sets. An expansible image is one that is repeated and expanded on. A parallel image set involves two different images, which upon closer look are seen to actually be similar in an indirect manner. An example of a patterned image set is a good girl/bad girl dichotomy. Whatever the structure of the tale, the end result is usually one of laughter, yet these trickster tales, whether educational tools, architects of ritual escape, vehicles of psychological release (that in West Africa served to maintain social order and in the West Indies, ironically contributed to the maintenance of the status quo) or meta-social commentators, clearly illustrate the unquestionable relationship between folk tales, social reality and cultural development.
AND SOCIAL HISTORY
In "The Elephant and the Frog," (West and South Africa) Mr. Frog attempts to win the affections of his sweetheart by proving he can have Mr. Elephant act as his riding horse. In "The Tortoise and the Elephant," (Northern Nigeria) Mr. Tortoise seeks to prove he can win a bet made with other animals that he can have Mr. Elephant act as his riding horse. In "The Mallam, The Spider and the Hyena," (Gold Coast) the spider intends to win a bet he makes with the mallam regarding winning a popularity charm in exchange for bringing back the hyena to act as the horse he stole.
In Jamaica the tale exists as "Anansi and Tiger" collected in 1890 by Pamela Milne-Holne and as "Tiger as Riding Horse" collected in 1924 by Martha Beckwith and "My Fada's Bes' Ridin' Horse," collected in 1973 by Laura Tanna. The meaning of the tale, the smaller animal harnessing and humiliating the larger, in these cases to win female admiration, took on added meaning within the context of slavery, which affected its subsequent metamorphoses in the post-slavery society. It is possible that the tales were combined in Africa as a result of trading amongst tribes from different parts of Africa, during the Middle Passage or on the plantation when slaves from different parts of Africa were mixed together. All three versions contain the same key characters the spider and tiger. The later versions do include newer riding accoutrements, such as whips (instead of twigs like Mr. Frog used), and imagery such as courtrooms - indications of the time periods in which the tales were told. In these tales, the idea of humiliation may also have been more exaggerated than in African versions possibly indicating a desire to change the existing social order with humiliation seen as more powerful than a simple death. It is important to note the introduction of the whip, however, as a symbol of violence an indication of the level of violence existing within slave society and afterwards.
In Jamaica, awareness of Anancy transcends racial, ethnic and class boundaries. Sayings such as: "Why do dogs fight cats? Why do owls hoot? And why do wasps sting? Is Anancy mek it," have survived as testament to his enduring presence. As such Anancy is a cultural figure that demands a second and deeper look. To stop at the idea of 'ginnalship' is to do the magical spiderman, and Jamaican history, an injustice.
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted January 27, 2003
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