To Main Page

To The Book List

International Folktales Collection

To Next Book

To Previous Book

Book No. 78

To first story in the book press: 3548

To last story in the book press: 3551

Surinam Folk-Tales

Penard A. P, and Penard T. E

Surinam Folk-Tales, Penard A. P, and Penard T. E., The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 30, No. 116, April-June, 1917, pp. 239-250.

Surinam Folk-Tales

A. P. and T. E. Penard

The Journal of American Folklore

Vol. 30, No. 116 (Apr. - Jun., 1917) (pp. 239-250)

Dutch Guiana, or Surinam, with its diverse population, offers an exceptionally fertile field to the student of folk-lore.

Scattered through the jungles bordering the numerous waterways, especially on the banks of the more or less inaccessible creeks, and in the open savannas, there are several tribes of Indians. There also are the so-called Boschnegers (Bush Negroes), descendants of Negroes who escaped from slavery in the early days, and, in defiance of the authorities of the time, set up independent communities in the wilderness, retaining many of their African customs and beliefs. But for the investigator who does not care to experience the hardships and dangers of a trip through the wild river-lands, in the sun-baked savannas, or to the practically unknown hinterland, there still remain excellent opportunities in city, town, and plantation, among the extremely mixed and interesting population in which the Negro element heavily preponderates.

So far as the writers are aware, no Negro folk-tales from Surinam have ever been published in English, and even in other languages the number published is comparatively small. The following bibliography, comprising only those items in which the tales are actually recorded, while not very extensive, is probably not far from complete.


1. M. D. Teenstra. De Landbouw in de Kolonie Suriname. Groningen 1835, Tweede Deel, p. 213.

Two fragments.

2. J. Crevaux. Voyages dans l'Amerique du Sud. Paris, 1883. 190 p.

One story.

3. H. van Cappelle. Surinaamsche Negervertellingen (in Elsevier's Maandschrift, November, 1904, 14 [No. 11]: 314-327).

Two stories and reference by title to six others. The author states also that twenty-five stories were collected for him by Mr. M. H. Nahar. The writers are not aware that they have been published. [1]

4. — Suriname in Woord en Beeld (in Nederlandsche Zeewezen, July 15 1905, 4: 212-214).

One story.

5. (H. F. Rikken). Ma Kankantrie (in De Surinamer, Paramaribo, 1907, Chapter VI). Five stories. This work is one of the most interesting dealing with the negro folk-lore of Surinam.

6. H. Siebeck. Buschnegerm&rchen aus Surinam (in Hessische Blatter fur Volkskunde [Leipzig, 1908], 7 [pt. 1] : 10-16).

Three stories, collected by F. Stahelin.

7. F. Stahelin. Tiermarchen der Buschneger in Surinam (in Hessische Blatter fur Volkskunde [Leipzig, 1909], 8 [pt. 3]: 173-184).

Six stories.

8. (Anonymous). De Spin en de Teerpop (in Voor Onze Jeugd; Bijlage van het Maandschrift Op de Hoogte, March, 1911, 8 : 40-41).

One story, by "Tante Jo."

9. J. G. Spalburg. Bruine Mina, De Koto-Missi. Paramaribo, 1913, pp. 10-12.

One story.

10. H. Schuchardt. Die Sprache der Saramakkaneger in Surinam (Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam; Amsterdam 1914, Afd. Letterkunde, Nieuwe Reeks, Deel 14, No. 6, p. 41).

One story.


The sounds of the words in the Negro language appearing in this

article are as follows : —

a like a in what

e like e in red

i like ee in feet

o like o in more

au like ow in cow

oe like oo in boot

The consonants have the same sound as in English, with the exception of j, which is pronounced like y in year.

In general, the spelling will be found to agree with that given either in Wullschlägel's Deutsch-Negerenglisches Wörterbuch (Löbau, 1856) or in Focke's Neger-Engelsch Woordenboek (Leiden, 1855); but the writers have deviated from both authorities wherever they deemed it advisable for the sake of uniformity, without introducing forms which would confuse the Dutch reader. The Dutch diphthong oe, having the sound of oo in the English word boot, has been retained for the same reason.

The Surinam Negro is an excellent story-teller, and many of the tales collected show no mean attainment in the art. As may be expected, many of the stories may be traced to African sources, naturally influenced by the New-World surroundings. A number are of undoubted European origin, retold with characteristic alterations and additions. There are also some which seem to have no exact counterpart elsewhere.

The stories lose much by translation, and there can be no doubt that one must be thoroughly familiar with the expressive Negro language in order to appreciate them to the fullest extent. There is always that intangible something in the manner of the narrator, the quaint and often forceful expressions, the hushed whisper or sudden outburst, the gesture, the imitative speech, the chanting phrase or little song, the occasion upon which they are told, the very environment, that impart to these stories an interest which it is impossible to maintain in translation or to appreciate in the comfort of a well-lighted library in a distant land.

As in other places in the West Indies, the stories go by the name Anansi-(s)tori (e.g., Spider-Stories), because in the majority of them Anansi, the Spider, is the chief actor. But there are many so-called Anansi-tori in which Spider does not play any part; and even the orthodox European nursery-tales, such as "Cinderella" and "Little Red Riding Hood," sometimes go by the same name.

Anansi is a wise, wily, treacherous rascal; a liar, a thief, and a murderer. His chief claim to attention lies in the display of his matchless cunning, which upon all occasions stands him in good stead and often is the means of saving his life. He is a supernatural being, now appearing in human form, then again as the bona-fide spider of our natural-histories. He possesses the power to increase his size or diminish it at will, and his resources are without limit. Indeed, he is a wonderful creature, this Anansi.

The name "Anansi" applies to all members of the order Araneina. Sometimes the narrator refers specifically to the large bush-spider (Mygale sp.), but he has particularly in mind the husky, long-legged crab-spider (Heteropoda venatoria) commonly found in dwelling-houses in Surinam. These harmless house-spiders conceal themselves in the triangular spaces formed by the overlapping boards, where the latter are secured to the upright studding and columns of the buildings. These little holes are called postoros or postoe holo ("post-holes").

This curious life-habit of the spider gives rise to the closing statement of a large number of the stories, to the effect that to this day Anansi lives in the postoros. And so also there is a series of stories accounting for the markings on the spider's back, — usually the result of a beating he receives at the hands of some one he has deceived.

But the explanatory element is not essential to the majority of the stories. In many of the tales exhibiting this tendency the object is not to account for some natural fact; but rather, in the development of the plot, circumstances arise which lend themselves readily to an amusing explanation of the origin of some trait or fact, and furnish the narrator with a suitable formula for the end of his story. In some, however, the motive is deliberately explanatory. The story of "How Man made Woman respect him," here related, is of this type; and so are a number of others collected, among which we may mention tales accounting for the origin of Monday and the origin of labor-pains.

Among the animal-actors we find Dog, Horse, Ass, Cow, Goat, Cat, Rat, Elephant, Whale, Deer, Howling Monkey, Agouti, Aboma (Boa constrictor and Eunectes murinus), Snake, Caiman, Tortoise, Snail, Toad, Vulture, Cock, Hen, Wren, Sen-sen (cricket), Cockroach, Fly, and many others. But chief of these is Tiger (the jaguar), the mortal enemy of Anansi. Kings and princesses, and ordinary men and women, also play their part; and trees, vegetables, celestial bodies, inanimate objects, diseases, and even Death itself, are characters endowed with the power of speech. Then, too, there are hosts of mythical beings, among which may be mentioned the watramama (a water-spirit), the boesi-mama (a wood-spirit), the jorka (ghost), the bakroe, [2] the leba, [3] the mysterious azema, [4] and a legion of other takroe sani ("bad things").

Anansi-tori are not told exclusively to children. They form an important diversion for the older people. They are told in the mining-camps, around the camp-fire in the woods, at small gatherings, and at wakes (dede-hoso). But they are gradually going out of fashion, and the day is not far when they will be completely supplanted

by the European tales. It is considered unlucky to tell Anansi-tori in the daytime; but, if this is to be done, the narrator may avert the evil consequences of his indiscretion by first plucking a hair from his eyelids.

The Anansi-tori is formally opened with the words "Er tin tin," the meaning of which is substantially "Once upon a time." The expression is universal; and even riddles are introduced by this formula : thus, —

      Er tin tin, mi mama habi wan pikin, a habi dri hai;

      Ma alwasi san doe hem, nanga wan hai nomo a de krei.

                    Wan kokronoto.


      Once upon a time, my mother has a child, it has three eyes;

      But no matter what ails it, with one eye only it cries.

                    A cocoanut.


If the story is not popular, the listeners will at once interrupt with the words, "Segre din din," the meaning of which is not known to the writers; but it is not improbable that it is merely a convenient rhyme to "Er tin tin." If the story is monotonous or poorly told, the narrator is interrupted by an amusing conversation between two or more of the audience, followed by a so-called koti-singi ("cutting-song"), in which all present join. This usually has the desired effect of discouraging the story-teller. Below is an example of the dialogue and koti-singi:

First Speaker. A kroejara ("canoe ") is coming from Para.

Second Speaker. What is in the kroejara?

First Speaker. A big pagara. [5] And in it there is a smaller pagara. And in this one there is a still smaller pagara, etc.

Second Speaker. And what is in the very smallest pagara?

First Speaker. A letter. And in this letter there is a reply containing the koti-singi, "Fin, fin, fin, tori; ja ha lei agen, ha lei agen." [6]


The four stories here recorded have been selected from a number of Negro tales collected by one of the writers [7] in Surinam. It is the intention to publish in the near future the entire collection, comprising more than eighty tales, some of which were taken down in the original Negro dialect, the so-called Sranam- or Ningre-tongo (Surinam or Negro language), known briefly as Ningre (Negro). The first three stories were chosen because they have not previously been recorded from Surinam. The fourth is included to show the Surinam narrator's treatment of familiar themes.

Arlington. Mass.,

March 14, 1916.

[1] Since the above was written the stories referred to (39 instead of 25) have been published by Dr. van Cappelle in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde van

Ned. Indië; The Hague, 1916, Deel 72. Afl. 1 en 2, 233-379.

[2] The bakroe is commonly conceived as a dwarf, one side of whose body is wood, and the other flesh. When any one approaches him, the bakroe presents his side of wood to receive the blows which he expects; but he may also take the form of an old woman, an animal, a headless cock, or an inanimate object. He haunts bridges, ditches, and wells. Bakroes are not very malicious unless molested, but they allow themselves to be used by the obiaman ("sorcerer") in his evil practices.

[3] The Leba is the spirit of Misery. She is described as having the appearance of an old woman whose body is completely covered with rags. She is bowed down by a heavy burden of debts and sins, a portion of which she is constantly attempting to pass to the unwary wanderer who approaches her. Especially children fall an easy prey to her cunning. The presence of leba in a person manifests itself by loss of appetite, listlessness, — a feeling as if the body were carrying an unnatural weight. At first amulets are applied; and all kinds of light objects, such as dry leaves or pieces of cork, are worn by the sufferer with the idea of reducing the heavy weight. But if these means fail, then the patient must submit to the wiwiri-watra ("herb-water") treatment, which is administered by the obiaman.

The reader will find more detailed descriptions of leba and bakroe in an article by F. P. and A. P. Penard entitled "Surinaamsch Bijgeloof," in the Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde, Deel 6y,Afi. 2 (The Hague, 1912), 157-183.

[4] The azema, or azeman, is represented as an old woman who can cast off her skin

and pass through very small openings, such as keyholes. She sucks the blood of her victim, who gradually loses his health. The azema may be caught in various ways. One way is to find the skin she has cast off, and rub the inside of it with Cayenne pepper: the azema will not be able to put on the skin, and may be captured. Another way is to throw some rice in front of the door: the azema feels compelled to pick up the grains, which takes her so long that she is still busy at daybreak, when she may be captured. The notion of azema is evidently closely allied to that of the Werwolf and the Vampire.

[5] A sort of basket.

[6] "Fine, fine, fine story! yes, he lies again, he lies again."

[7] A. P. Penard.

To Next Book

To Privious Book