Anansi Wins the Stories
Traditional West African/Caribbean
In the beginning, all tales and stories belonged to Nyame, the Sky God. But Anansi, the spider, yearned to be the owner of all the stories ever told or to be told, and he went to Nyame and offered to buy them.
The Sky God said: “I am willing to sell the stories, but the price is high. Many people have come to me offering to buy, but the price was too high for them. Rich and powerful families have not been able to pay. Generals ad Gods have failed. Do you think you can do it?”
“I can do it,” said Anansi. “What is the price?”
“You must bring me three things,” the Sky God said. “I must first have Mmoboro, the hornets. I must then have Onini, the great python. Then I must have Osebo, the leopard. For these thing I will sell you the right to stories ever told or to be told.”
“I will bring them all,” said Anansi.
He went home to make his plans. First, he cut a gourd from a vine and made a small hole in it. Then he took another gourd and filled it with water. He went to the tree where the hornets lived and poured water over himself and the hornet’s nest until everything was wet through and dripping. Then he put the empty water gourd over his head, as thought to protect himself from a storm, and called out to the hornets: “Are you foolish, you hornets? Why do you stay out there in the rain?”
“Where shall we go?” asked the hornets.
“Go here, in this dry gourd,” Anansi told them, and he offered them the gourd with a hole in it.
The hornets thanked him and flew into the gourd through the small hole. When the last of them had entered, Anansi plugged the hole with a ball of grass, and said: “Oh ho! You are foolish people indeed.”
He took his gourd full of hornets to Nyame, the Sky God. The Sky God accepted them, but reminded him that there were two more things yet to do.
Anansi returned to the forest and cut a long bamboo pole and some strong vines. Then he walked toward the house of Onini, the python, talking to himself. He seemed to be talking about an argument with his wife. He said: “My wife is wrong. I say he is longer and stronger. My wife says he is shorter and weaker. I give him more respect. She gives him less respect. Is she right or am I right? I am right, he is longer. I am right, he is stronger. Foolish, foolish wife of mine!”
Onini, the python, heard Anansi talking to himself, and laughed. “Why are you arguing this way with yourself? Have you turned foolish?”
The spider replied: “Ah, I have had a dispute with my wife. She says you are shorter and weaker than this bamboo pole. I say you are longer and stronger. But we were unable to resolve it.”
“It’s useless and silly to argue when you can find out the truth,” said the Python, and he asked Anansi to bring his pole for them to measure.
So Anansi laid the pole on the ground, and the python came and stretched himself out beside it.
“You seem a little short,” Anansi said. The python stretched further. “A little more,” Anansi said. “But I can’t,” Onini said.
“When you stretch at one end, you get shorter at the other end,” Anansi said. “Let me tie you at the front so you don’t slip.”
He tied Onini’s head to the pole in a thick thick knot. Then he went to the other end and tied the tail to the pole. He wrapped and wrapped the Python until he couldn’t move.
“Onini,” Anansi said, “it turns out that my wife was right and I was wrong. You are shorter than the pole and weaker. At last we’ve solved the argument! But you were even more foolish our dispute, and you must come with me.”
Anansi carried the python to the Sky God, who thanked him, and reminded him that there was one more task, the most difficult of all.
Anansi went into the forest and dug a deep pit where the leopard liked to walk, stalking his prey at night. He covered it with small branches and leaves and put dust on it, so that it was impossible to tell where the pit was. When Osebo came prowling in the black of night, he stepped into the trap Anansi had prepared and fell to the bottom. Anansi heard the sound of the leopard falling and laughed. “Foolish, foolish leopard,” he said.
When morning came, Anansi went to the pit and saw the leopard there. “Osebo, what are you doing in this hole?” he asked. “I have fallen into a trap,” Osebo said. “Help me out.”
“I would, if I were more sure of you,” Anansi said. “But I’m sure that if I bring you out, you will turn on me soon enough. You will get hungry, and later on you will be wanting to eat me and my children.”
The leopard promised and pleaded a thousand times over that he never liked the taste of spider, and that he would never, ever go after Anansi or his family.
“Very well. Since you promise it, I will take you out,” Anansi said.
He bent a tall green tree toward the ground, so that it’s top was over the pit, and he tied it that way. Then he tied a rope to the top of the tree and dropped the other end of it into the pit. “Tie this to your tail,” he said.
Osebo tied the rope to his tail.
“Is it well tied?” Anansi asked.
“Yes, it is well tied,” the leopard said.
“In that case,” Anansi said, “you are the most foolish that I have caught in any of my traps.”
And he took his knife and cut the other rope, the one that held the tree bowed to the ground. The tree straightened up with a snap, pulling Osebo out of the hole. He hung in the air head downward, twisting and turning and snarling and cursing. As he twisted and turned, he got so dizzy that Anansi had no trouble tying the leopard’s feet with vines, and dragging the leopard away to the palace of the Sky God. When he came there before Nyame, he said: “Here is the third thing. Now I have paid the price, and earned my stories.”
Nyame said to him: “Anansi, great warriors and gods have tried, but they have been unable to pay my price. You have done it, and I will give you the stories. From this day onward, all stories belong to you. Whenever a man tells a story, he must acknowledge that it is Anansi’s tale.”
And so now that my tale is done, I must tell you that it isn’t mine; it belongs to Anansi.
Note: This story is traditional and belongs to no one, except Anansi. Don’t sue me.
While the Anansi stories definitely aren’t fairy-tales, they’re certainly some of the best folktales out there (as to what the difference is, that’s a whole different post). These stories are waayyyyy outside my usual areas of expertise, but they do share some similarities to the Native American trickster Coyote stories, with which I’m more familiar. Many cultures have Anansi-figures, trickster figures who get away with everything for a smile, usually because of other people’s foolishness. Trickster Coyote is one of these figures, and Bruder Lustig (of Grimm Brothers fame) is another one. All of them share the ability to cheat Gods (Bruder Lustig actually cheats Saint Peter and the Devil both and manages to land himself a place in heaven even after he’s been condemned to hell).
If you’re looking for a good, children’s book retelling of this story, I suggest you try one that I grew up with: “A Story a Story” by Gail E. Haley. There’s a traditional Ashanti pattern of beginning a story (similar to our “Once Upon a Time” custom) which starts a tale with: “We do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go.” Then the story finishes with something like: “This is my story which I have told. If it be sweet, or if it be not sweet, take some elsewhere, and let some come back to me.” Haley’s book works within these and other traditional Ashant parameters, and is a lovely read.
A more adult version of this and other Anansi stories can be found in Neil Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys,” which follows both Anansi (or Mr. Nancy) and his two kids, Spider and Fat Charlie. At this point in the commentary, you might have noticed that I’m not really talking about the story…which is because I, sadly, know very little about African folklore, aside from a few Anansi stories (and a bunch of Sephardic Jewish tales, but that doesn’t really count). Hopefully I’ll learn more about this rich tradition in the future, and in the meantime, if someone has any info. they’d like to give me, just shoot me a line from the Contact page.