A Discussion of Representations of the West African/West Indian Trickster “Ananse” in Children’s Literature

This paper will examine the representation of the archetypal West African/ West Indian Trickster figure, Ananse, from children’s stories in a number of cultures. Beginning with an examination of some common aspects of the Trickster figure from mythologies around the world, the essay will examine the presentation and role of the Trickster Ananse in children’s tales from several cultures. It will be argued that, although Trickster characters such as Ananse perform sophisticated functions as cultural “actors”, they are also excellent teaching aids as they introduce children to many of the complexities of the human condition that are common to us all – regardless of race, religion, class or gender.

The Trickster character is one of the most universal characters in the history of human literatures. Critics have noted that, whatever form or name such Tricksters take, they all share a characteristic “elusiveness” and, for lack of a better word, “trickiness”:

. . . the trickster appears in the myths and folklore of nearly every traditional society, sometimes as a god, more often as an animal. Seemingly trivial and altogether lawless, he arouses affection and even esteem wherever his stories are told, as he defies mythic seriousness and social logic. Just as skilfully, he has slipped out of our contemporary interpretive nets to thumb his nose at both scholarly and popular understanding of so-called primitive peoples. Yet these peoples too know their tricksters as the very embodiment of elusiveness. (Pelton, 1)

In the above passage we see some of the common attributes of the Trickster. There is the fact that Tricksters – such as Ananse – are almost always male. As with many features of the Trickster, the reasons for this have been lost in the mists of time, and modern explanations vary (Hyde, 8). However, clearly this has not harmed the popular appeal of the character over time.

A large part of this popularity is due to another attribute of the Trickster, and one of particular importance in his representation in children’s stories: his lawlessness. Parents today may find this aspect of the Trickster troubling in children’s stories. However, an honest appraisal of the stories would suggest that it may be this very feature of the Trickster character that makes him so popular to youngsters. The Trickster’s tricks embody his energy and dynamism, and make him irresistibly appealing to young people (Hyde, 7, 9).

Another common feature of many Trickster stories is that they represent the struggles of an “underdog” against a more powerful enemy, who can be defeated only by intelligence. African animal Trickster stories reflect this trait. Some scholars have noted that when slaves were transported from Africa to work on plantations in the American south, they brought with them the animal Trickster of their African tradition, and adapted him into “the emblem and culture hero who symbolizes freedom for all those held in bondage” (Hamilton, 13).

In this way, Tricksters such as the African Ananse spread across continents and cultures. Moreover, recalling the characteristic trickiness and subversive nature of these characters, their appeal among generations of African Americans is not hard to understand:

. . . the African animal trickster tale offered a model of behaviour for equalizing conditions between masters and slaves by breaking the rules of a system that gave slavemasters a clear economic, political, and social advantage . . . . as in the traditional African trickster tales, the paradigm of the powerless overcoming a much more powerful adversary by means of subterfuge holds true. (Ammons, 164)

It should be noted, however, that there are significant differences across cultures regarding representations of the Trickster. For example, African-West Indian-American Tricksters such as Ananse are seldom represented as self-defeating fools as are Tricksters from some other cultures (although we will examine an exception to this below) (Ammons, x). However, it is difficult for modern critics to bridge the divides of culture and time to discover just how cultures such as those in West Africa centuries ago saw Tricksters such as Ananse.

Laughter, humour and irony permeate everything Trickster does. The reaction of the audience in aboriginal societies to both him and his exploits is prevailingly one of laughter tempered by awe. . . . Yet it is difficult to say whether the audience is laughing at him, at the tricks he plays on others, or at the implications his behaviour and activities have for them. (Radin et al., x)

An excellent representation of this dual aspect of the Trickster may be found in the African Trickster character Ananse. Ananse (Anansi/Annancy) is the Trickster of the Tshi and Ashanti people, and was brought by slaves from the West African coast (in what is now southern Ghana) to the West Indies. The word Ananse means “spider” in the language of the Ashanti, and all Ashanti stories, whether about spiders or not, are called Ananesem (Hamilton, 45). Some seventy-five of these stories have been collected, of which Ananse appears in twenty-five. The stories themselves were transmitted as part of an oral tradition, and were told primarily to children (Pelton, 20, 30).

Consider the Ananse tale A Story, A Story. Here we see some of the characteristic features of the Trickster. Ananse is a sort of storytelling “Prometheus” who, instead of bringing fire to 5 mankind, brings stories. Significantly, Ananse seems to be both part human (whom he cares for) and part divine (as he is capable of spinning “a web up to the sky” to meet the Sky God (Haley, 4). Not surprisingly, the Sky God is a great and intimidating figure who presents Ananse with three challenges before he will give him stories. He laughs at the weak figure he sees before him:

“Twe, twe, twe,” chuckled the Sky God.

“How can a weak old man like you,

so small, so small, so small, pay my price?”

(Haley, 6)

It is not hard to see why children would like this underdog. He no sooner appears than he is disregarded by the stronger characters. Of course, it comes as no surprise that Ananse meets the challenge of the Sky God; capturing a fierce leopard, a nest of hornets, and a fairy-spirit by using imagination rather than strength. In return, the Sky God carries out his side of the bargain and gives Ananse his box of stories which, from that time on, are known as “Spider Stories” (Haley, 28).

While Ananse was a figure of admiration above, in “Ananse the Spider in Search of a Fool” we can see Ananse outwitting himself Bryan, 3-10). The story is simple, with an engaging repetitive structure; however, the underlying message is complex. Ananse has devised a plan to trick some foolish person into fishing for him for nothing, allowing Ananse to gain all the benefits of the 6 other’s labour. However, his friend Crow turns the tables on Ananse, and uses the Trickster’s own greed to inflict a painful lesson on the Spider:

Tears of pain flowed from Ananse’s eyes. Then suddenly they became tears of shame. For, at last, Spider Ananse realized that when one seeks to make a fool of another, he is bound to make a bigger fool of himself. (Bryan, 10)

This humiliation of a folk icon suggests something of the complex social role played by the Trickster Ananse. He is sometimes admirable – as in the previous story – and sometimes despised, as in the story immediately above. Readers of the above stories would get a troubling sense that Ananse is a far more complex and sophisticated character than is commonly found in children’s literature.

This aspect of his nature carried across the Atlantic on slave ships. In “That One, Anansi” (Hamilton, 46-51) – an Ananse story from the West Indies – we encounter the Trickster again taking advantage of a friend; in this case Big Alligator’s generous offer of a place to sleep. The narrator tells us: “Anansi be up to something, for true” (Hamilton, 47). While Big Alligator’s daughter suspects Anansi wants to get into their 7 kitchen to eat their eggs, and she leaves scorpions in the jars to trap him, Anansi somehow knows about the trap and successfully steals all the food he can eat. Then he manages his escape by promising a boatman half his land; which, of course, he had no intention of giving. The end of the story sees Anansi getting away with premeditated theft where, in the words of the editor: “After much twisting and turning, Anansi shows he can never be trusted” (Hamilton, 107).

A second story is set in Africa – “Magic Anansi” (Hamilton, 52-7) – with one of its main characters being a tiger; a creature not found in the West Indies. Tiger, who anthropomorphically lives in a house, selfishly decides he wants the house all to himself, and kicks out Anansi, who lives on the roof, and Goat who lives under the house. Fleeing the threats of Tiger, Anansi uses his magic to help Goat escape. The story concludes with Anansi fleeing across the river on his spider thread; the smaller creature outwitting the stronger Tiger.

The final Anansi story in the Hamilton volume is “Cunnie Anansi Does Some Good” (Hamilton, 58-71), which bears a very deceptive title as this story shows the Trickster at his ruthless worst, as opposed to doing “good”. The adjective “cunnie” means “cunning”; a indication of the West Indian Gullah speech – a mingling of Ashanti, English , French and Spanish languages used by these Africans on Plantations in the West Indies and American South (Hamilton, 45, 108).

In the story, Cunnie Anansi meets his young friends Sima 8 Tiger and Breda Parrot and tells them they should become thieves, and mask themselves and change their names:

“Every house we come to, they have to tell us our new names,” says Cunnie Anansi. “And if not?” asks Sima. “Then we take their food. We Tie’um and heave’um up a tree.” “Good news! Good news!” roars Sima Tiger. All three sins as they go along. (Hamilton, 60- 61)

Oddly enough, the first house they come to belongs to Breda Parrot’s mother. The three trick Mum Parrot, tie her up – “She’s squawking every which way” (Hamilton, 62) – and steal all her food. They do the same with Mumma Tiger; but when they come to Mutha Anansi’s house, Anansi’s mother is able to evade the trick question because of Anansi’s coaching. Later, when the frustrated Tiger and Parrot attempt to avenge themselves on their tricky friend, Ananse lets them fall which causes Tiger to break a leg, and Parrot to break a wing. Mutha Anansi promises to heal them if they free their mothers so “they can scold and switch you” (Hamilton, 70), and promise never to steal again (Hamilton, 71).

What are readers – especially modern adults thinking of stories for the education of children – to make of this 9 contradictory figure? By most moral standards, Ananse is far too deceitful and cruel to be an acceptable role model for children. However, Tricksters sharing characteristics with Ananse have been widely popular for centuries in cultures from Africa to Europe to North America. Are all of these morally deficient, or perhaps our understanding of the function of characters in children’s stories needs to be revised?

Children are more complex intellectually and emotionally than many adults given them credit for. To attempt to teach them that the world is a bright and sunny place where virtue is always rewarded, and vice punished, and that people are always entirely good or bad, would be unethical and perhaps useless as well. Tricksters such as Ananse represent a variety of moral positions at different times because humans assume a variety of moral positions at different times. In a sense, Ananse represents both our aspirations and our shames. As such, he has been an excellent model for children as they grow to understand the complexities of human life.

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  • Ammons, E., and White-Parks, A. (1994) Tricksterism in Turn of the Century American Literature: A Multicultural Perspective. Hanover: University Press of New England.
  • Bryan, A. (1971). “Ananse the Spider in Search of a Fool.” in The Ox of the Wonderful Horns and Other African Folktales. New York: Atheneum.
  • Haley, G. (1970). A Story, A Story. New York: Atheneum, 1971.
  • Hamilton, V. (1997) A Ring of Tricksters: Animal Tales from America, the West Indies, and Africa. New York: Blue Sky, 1997.
  • Hyde, L. (1998) Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Pelton, R. (1980). The Trickster in West Africa: A Study in Mythic Irony and Sacred Delight. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Radin, P., Kerenyi, K., and Jung, C.G. (1956). The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. New York: Greenwood.

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