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Book No. 14

To first story in the book press: 425

To last story in the book press: 437

Ananzi Stories

Dasent George Webbe

Ananzi Stories, George Webbe Dasent, 1904 (Appendix to Popular Tales of the Norse), New York: G. P. Putnanm's Sons, Edinburgh: David Doouglas, 1904

THE Negroes in the West Indies still retain the tales and traditions which their fathers and grandfathers brought with them from Africa. Some thirty years back these "Ananzi Stories," as they are called, were invariably told at the Negro wakes, which lasted for nine successive nights. The reciters were always men. In those days when the slaves were still half heathen, and when the awful Obeah was universally believed in, such of the Negroes as attended church or chapel kept their children away from these funeral gatherings. The wakes are now, it is believed, almost entirely discontinued, and with them have gone the stories. The Negroes are very shy of telling them, and both the clergyman of the Church of England, and the Dissenting Minister, set their faces against them, and call them foolishness. The translator, whose early childhood was passed in those islands, remembers to have heard such stories from his nurse, who was an African born; but beyond a stray fragment here and there, the rich store which she possessed has altogether escaped his memory. The following stories have been taken down from the mouth of a West Indian nurse in his sister's house, who, born and bred in it, is rather regarded as a member of the family than as a servant. They are printed just as she told him, and both their genuineness and their affinity with the stories of other races will be self-evident. Thus we have the "Wishing Tree" of the Hindoos, the Kalpa Vriksha of Somadeva, and of the German Fairy Tales in the "Pumpkin Tree," which throws down as many pumpkins as the poor widow wishes. In one story we have "Boots" to the life, while the man whom he outwits is own brother to the Norse Trolls. In another we find a "speaking heart," which reminds us at once of the Egyptian story of Anessou and Satou, as well as of the "Machandelboom," and the "Milk-white Doo." We find here the woman who washes the dirty head rewarded and the man who refuses to wash it punished, in the very words used in "The Bushy Bride." We find, too, in "Nancy Fairy," the same story, both in groundwork and incident, as we have in "The Lassie and her Godmother;" and most surprising of all, in the story of "Ananzi and Quanqua," we find the very trait about a trick played with the tail of an ox, which is met with in a variation to "Boots who ate a match with the Troll." Here is the variation: "Whilst he was with the Troll, the lad was to go out to watch the swine, so he drove them home to his father's house, but first he cut their tails off, and stuck them into the ground. Then he went home to the Troll, and begged him to come and see how his swine were going down to Hell. But when the Troll saw the swine's tails sticking out of the ground he wanted to pull them back again, so he caught hold of them and gave a great tug, and then down he fell with his heels up in the air, and the tails in his fist."

They are called "Ananzi Stories," because so many of them turn on the feats of Ananzi, whose character is a mixture of "The Master-thief," and of "Boots;" but the most curious thing about him is, that he illustrates the Beast Epic in a remarkable way. In all the West Indian Islands, "Ananzi" is the name of spiders [Compare Crowther's Yoruba Glossary, where Alansasa is given as the Yoruban for spider. The change of n into l is not uncommon, even supposing the West Indian word to be uncorrupt]. in general, and of a very beautiful spider with yellow strips in particular. The Negroes think that this spider is the "Ananzi" of their stories, but that his superior cunning enables him to take any shape he pleases. In fact, he is the example which the African tribes from which these stories came, have chosen to take as pointing out the superiority of wit over brute strength. In this way they have matched the cleverness and dexterity of the Spider, against the bone and muscle of the Lion, invariably to the disadvantage of the latter.

After this introduction, we let the Tales speak for themselves, only premising that the "Jack-Spaniard" in the first story is a very pretty fly of the wasp kind, and, like his European brother, very small in the waist; that the "Cush-cush," is a little red yam which imparts a strong red dye to everything with which it is boiled; and that the "Doukana" is a forest tree which bears a fruit, though of what kind it is hard to say.


SINCE writing the Introduction to this Appendix, the Translator has been able to consult "The Vocabulary of the Oji Language, by the Rev. H. N. Riis, Basle, 1854," and "A Grammar of the Akra or Ga Language, by the Rev. J. Zimmermann, Stuttgart, 1858," both which excellent works prove beyond all doubt, not only that these West Indian Ananzi stories are spider stories, but that similar tales called by the same name still exist in abundance on the west coast of Africa. These two languages, and others closely akin to them – of which the Yoruba is one – are spoken by the tribes now settled on the Gold Coast, but which reach inland as far as the Kong mountains. The Asánte – once so formidable to the ear of the British public under the term Ashantee, and still so odious for their slave hunts – are the most powerful race among them, and have reduced most of their kindred to subjection. The following passages from the works of Messrs. Riis and Zimmermann sufficiently prove the connection between the West Indian "Spider Stories" and those of West Africa. They also show that the true spelling of the word should be Anánsi.

"Anánse, subst., a spider; Anansisém, subst., story, tale, fable; to anansisem, to tell a tale, from ananse and asem literally a tale of Ananse, a mythic personage, generally called Agya Ananse, father Ananse, to whom great skill and ingenuity is attributed; probably a personification of the spider and its ingenuity as displayed in making its web." – Riis, p. 147.

Better still Zimmermann,

"Ananu (Oji ananse) n. spider. This animal is the subject of many superstitions; for instance, that it has a bad influence upon children sleeping in the same room; it plays, moreover, a principal role in their fables, in which the acting personages are mostly animals; whence these fables are called in Oji spider stories, anansesem. The spider is represented as speaking through the nose, and its hobbling walk and other peculiarities are correctly imitated by the voice and gestures of the relater." – Vol. ii., p. 17.

At vol. i., p. 193, we have two specimens of such stories, the first of which, about Anansi and his son, reminds one of one of the many stories of Boots and his Brothers; while in the second, the "Little Birds" reveal to a hunter the conduct of his wife at home. The root of the word Anansi, in different African dialects, is nan, ran, or lan, all which are verbs, meaning to spin. Anansi is therefore, the spinner. The connection between it and aranea, ἀράχνη, and lana, will be evident to philologists.

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