[ News | Go - Kingston | Discover Jamaica ]


The Magical Spiderman: Anancy

Complete List of Past Pieces
Port Royal Earthquake
Port Royal Earthquake : I Was There
June 20, 1965: Martin Luther King Jr. visits Jamaica
Bog Walk Tube
For Your Listening Pleasure
The Road to Freedom
Birth of Independence
Hurricane of 1780
Tragedy at Kendal 1957
The Ward Theatre 1912
The Guarded City: Port Royal 1690
The Triumph of Will:1960s
The History of Our Parishes
Jamaica and the Great War
Jamaica's Grand Hotels
Celebrating Christmas Jamaica 'Style'
Disaster - The Earthquake of 1907
The Great Exhibition of 1891
The Mutiny On The Bounty & The Arrival of The First Breadfruit 1793
The Fall Of A Gentle Giant: The Collapse of Tom Cringle's Cotton Tree
Jamaica's Botanical Gardens
All Hail The State Visit Of Emperor Haile Selassie I
Jamaican Healer And War Heroine Mary Seacole
Mistresses Of The Sea: Female Pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny
The Capital City: A Historic Look At Kingston
Riots Here: Send Help At Once
A Historic Portrait of the Town Where Jamaica's Tourism Began
Devon House -The first 500 years in Jamaica
Jamaican Coffee - A beverage of distinction
Jamaican Rum - A kill-devil of a drink
Jamaica Festival - What a Bam Bam
Captivated by Jamaica - Sir Hans Sloane's Passion for Jamaica
Captivated by Jamaica Pt II - Noel Coward, Errol Flynn and Ian Fleming
The Founding Of The BITU & The JLP
The Founding Of the People's National Party
Lewis Hutchinson: The Mad Master
A Pioneer, A Survivor: Dr. Cicely Williams

Henry Morgan: The Pirate King

Claude McKay: Jamaica's First Poet Laureate
Frazier versus Foreman on the Sunshine Island 1973
The Magical Spiderman: Anancy
The Case Of The Shark Papers
Katherine Dunham - Matriarch of Modern Dance
Money - The Roots of Jamaican Currency
Simon Bolivar: El Liberatador
Old Time Tellin's: A Closer Look At Jamaican Proverbs
Recollections of World War II
Place Names - A Window to Jamaica's History & Character: Wnat's In A Name?
The History Of Spanish Town
A Cultural Explication Of Empire: Lady Nugent's Journal
The History Of Falmouth: Boom Town Of The 19th Century
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists- Prof. Louis Grant 1913 - 1993 Part I
Dreamers Among Us - Famous Jamaican Scientists-Part II
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Jews In Jamaica
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Chinese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Lebanese
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Indians
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Irish
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Africans
Out Of Many Cultures: The People Who Came - The Germans
Colourful Characters - Jamaican Birds
The Stamp Of History: The Jamaican Postal Service
The People Who Came - The English
Old-time Jamaican weddings
In this place dwelt Horatio Nelson
Printing in Jamaica
Museums in Jamaica
Gibraltar Camp: A Refuge From War
The history of the Salvation Army in Jamaica CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS
Somewhere beyond the sea
A fascination with football
Jamaican Horse racing History
A Time to Live...Jamaican Birth Rituals
A Time to Die Death rituals
Deadly superstitions

Feedback To the Series

"I have found your articles on the Pieces of the Past most entertaining and interesting to read. For me as a historian these pieces come at a time when Jamaicans need to reconnect themselves with their past and the Gleaner's efforts through this medium is quite commendable.

I have found especially today's article on the 1780 hurricane to be quite of interest to me as I am currently involved in bringing to light the role of natural disasters in the development of Jamaica's history, culture, society, economy and politics and the article on the "Hurricane of 1780" has greatly aided in this direction. Keep up the good work and I look forward to more interesting and historically significant pieces from this series." - Kerry-Ann

The First 500 years in Jamaica

We're taking you for a stroll down memory lane for the next six months. Along this journey,we will relive several events which
significantly impacted on the social, political and economic development of Jamaica. As we travel share your experience with us...

Send your comments to:

Pieces of the Past,
The Gleaner Company Ltd.,
7 North Street, Kingston;

E - mail us:

Fax 922-6223.

Illustration by June Bellew, page 84 of 'Jamaican Folktales and Oral Histories' by Laura Tanner. Institute of Jamaiaca Publications Ltd.

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 ...

By Dr. Rebecca Tortello

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).

The Trickster Tale
The survival of the trickster tale was not an accident as it was "socially and psychologically best suited to the condition of the Negro in the New World" (Tiffin, 19, p.21). With his cleverness and unfailing ability to have an answer for every situation, Anancy reminds us that slaves were not ignorant, weak, passive individuals who merely accepted their fate and did nothing to challenge it. Part of Anancy's strength comes from the fact that before transplantation to the West Indies, he was grounded in an ancient African system of belief in a unified world in which Man, beasts and spirits, even inanimate objects were always part of the natural order of things (Levine, 1977, p. 33). On transplantation to the Caribbean these beliefs remained strong and animal trickster tales allowed the slaves to express their wildest fanstasies and their deepest anxieties without fear of retribution. The tales did not stay the same, however, and in their alterations they became acts of creolization ­ responses to a new environment, dramatizing efforts to manipulate it verbally and symbolically (Joyner, 1984, pp. 174-5). Anancy tales were and are measures of self-reliance and self-affirmation. Animal tricksters like Anancy who think like humans and experience human emotions without being treated as such, served to implicitly indict the dehumanizing system of slavery.

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.

The connection between Anancy tales and social history is perhaps best illustrated by looking more closely at one tale, "My Fada's Bes Ridin' Horse," collected in Africa and then in Jamaica some 50 years apart. Collecting the telling of a tale on video, audiocassette or in writing, with or without photographs, can never equal the actual experience of participating in a storytelling session. There can never be a substitute for actually hearing a tale told and experiencing the art and drama involved. The interaction between storyteller and audience differs each time ­ an experience, which sadly, due largely to increasing Americanization of Jamaican culture, is becoming increasingly rare. The tale is also found in West and South Africa as "The Elephant and the Frog," among the Yoruba in Nigeria as "The Tortoise and the Elephant" and among the Hausa in Northern Nigeria and the Gold Coast as "The Mallam (learned man), the Spider and the Hyena." All share the same plot in which the trickster transforms an animal bigger than himself into his riding horse. Each deals directly with the trickster's desire to resolve a personal conflict ­ the desire for greater admiration through the achievement of personal satisfaction based on the manipulation of others ­ but contains different elements that speak to the society in which it was collected.

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.

* In a 1978 article on the migratory experience, renowned Jamaican sociologist and Harvard Professor Orlando Patterson discussed ideas for why the spider was well-suited to West Indian slave societies while the rabbit seemed to work better for slave societies in the American South. He proposed that where the spider is a migrant who carries his home in his belly and flies by the same medium with which he builds his home, the rabbit is sedentary, his home is a stationary warren. Cunning and venomous, the spider can bite and kill, whereas the rabbit is passive and non-threatening. Therefore the spider is an appropriate symbol of the instability present in West Indian slave societies and the rabbit of the non-migratory tendencies of the slaves in the American south, where the system of slavery was considered to be less harsh than that in the West Indies. 

Brathwaite, E. K. (1971). The Development of Creole society in Jamaica. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Elkins, S. (1976). Slavery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Levine, L. (1977). Black culture and black consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Patterson, O. (1978). "The Mirgratory experience: An interpretation," in Adams, R.S. and McNeil, W. H. (Eds). Human Migration: Patterns and policies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; Purchas-Tulloch, J.A. (1976). "Jamaica Anansi: A survivor of African Oral Tradition." Diss. Howard University. Ann-Arbor, MI. 1978; Rattray, R.S. (1930). Akan-Ashanti folktales. Oxford: Clarendon Press; Rohlehr, G. (1981). Pathfinder. Trinidad: College Press; Tanna, L. (1984) Jamaican folk tales and oral histories. Kingston: Institute of Jamaica Publications Ltd.; Tiffin, H. (1982). "The metaphor of Anancy in Caribbean literature" in Sellick, R. (Ed). Myth and metaphor. Adelaide: Centre for Researc in New Literatures in England; Tortello, R. (1991). "The Magical spider-man: The Metaphormoses of Bredda Anansi." Diss. Harvard University.

Coming February 24:
This series explores the
unbelievable story of the Shark papers.

Give Us Your Feedback | Read what others had to say

A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted January 27, 2003
Copyright 2001-3 . Produced by Go-Jamaica.com