Anansi: The Original Spider Man!

09 Feb

Most of the content on this blog focuses on Black writers in America. Yet, it would be remiss of us if we did not feature tales from other parts of the world, specifically Africa.

African folktales are defined as ‘the storytelling and oral history of African American culture.’ In America we have Br’er Rabbit, a folktale legend in the American South. We’ll discuss him later in the blog. For now, we turn our attention to Anansi who is known as:

“a cunning and intelligent spider, and is one of the most important characters of West African and Caribbean folklore. He is also known as Ananse, Kwaku Ananse, and Anancy; and in the Southern United States he has evolved into Aunt Nancy. He is a spider, but often acts and appears as a man. The story of Anansi is akin to the tricksters Coyote, Raven or Iktomi found in many Native American cultures.” (Wikipedia)

When I was a child, I read the Anansi tales in an old Negro anthology and I laughed at the situations he wound up in, but taking a closer look at these tales, the one constant that has stuck with me is that Anansi used his wits and wisdom to get through a particular situation or conflict. Although he was less than perfect, the lesson I gathered from the folktales is Anansi always found a way out of trouble, no matter how deep he found himself in.

I don’t know whether our children have heard of Anansi the Spider-Man instead of that costumed guy who has three plus movies and a long comic book history to his name. Although African folktales were best recited by word of mouth, there were enough tales that revealed the human nature in all of us. The trickster protagonist in the folktales is usually an animal, and I believe that works best when presenting a tale about the human condition. The following stories about Anansi reveal that.

If you take a trip around the internet, there are an abundance of Anansi tales to share. While the samples below are brief, I invite you to visit the following websites and witness for yourself the wit and wisdom of this ‘spider-man’ in action:


In the beginning, all tales and stories belonged to Nyame, the Sky God. But Kwaku Anansi, the spider, yearned to be the owner of all the stories known in the world, 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. Do you think you can do it?”

Anansi replied to the Sky God: “I can do it. What is the price?”

“My price is three things,” the Sky God said. “I must first have Mmoboro, the hornets. I must then have Onini, the great python. I must then have Osebo, the leopard. For these thing I will sell you the right to tell all the stories.”

Anansi said: “I will bring them.”

He went home and made his plans. He first cut a gourd from a vine and made a small hole in it. He took a large bowl and filled it with water. He went to the tree where the hornets lived. He poured some of the water over himself, so that he was dripping. He threw some water over the hornets, so that they too were dripping. Then he put the bowl on his head, as thought to protect himself from a storm, and called out to the hornets: “Are you foolish people? Why do you stay in the rain that is falling?”

The hornets answered: “Where shall we go?”

“Go here, in this dry gourd,” Anansi told them.

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, saying: “Oh, yes, but you are really foolish people!”

He took his gourd full of hornets to Nyame, the Sky God. The Sky God accepted them. He said: “There are two more things.”

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.”

When Onini, the python, heard Anansi talking to himself, he said: “Why are you arguing this way with yourself?”

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.”

Onini said: “It’s useless and silly to argue when you can find out the truth. Bring the pole and we will 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.

“I can stretch no more,” 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. Then he went to the other end and tied the tail to the pole. He wrapped the vine all around Onini, until the python 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. My opinion wasn’t as good as my wife’s. But you were even more foolish than I, and you are now my prisoner.”

Anansi carried the python to Nyame, the Sky God, who said: “There is one thing more.”

Osebo, the leopard, was next. Anansi went into the forest and dug a deep pit where the leopard liked to walk. He covered it with small branches and leaves and put dust on it, so that it was impossible to tell where the pit was. Anansi went away and hid. 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 he said: “Ah, Osebo, you are half-foolish!”

When morning came, Anansi went to the pit and saw the leopard there.

“Osebo,” he asked, “what are you doing in this hole?”

“I have fallen into a trap,” Osebo said. “Help me out.”

“I would gladly help you,” Anansi said. “But I’m sure that if I bring you out, I will have no thanks for it. You will get hungry, and later on you will be wanting to eat me and my children.”

“I promise it won’t happen!” Osebo said.

“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 not merely half-foolish, you are all-foolish.”

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. As he twisted and turned, he got so dizzy that Anansi had no trouble tying the leopard’s feet with vines.

Anansi took the dizzy leopard, all tied up, to Nyame, the Sky God, saying: “Here is the third thing. Now I have paid the price.”

Nyame said to him: “Kwaku Anansi, great warriors and chiefs have tried, but they have been unable to do it. You have done it. Therefore, 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 that is why, in parts of Africa, the people love to tell, and love to hear, the stories they call “spider stories.” And now, you have heard one too.


Author: unknown
It was the dry season. Anansi’s people were starving. He told his people that he was going to find food. He left and walked many miles, until at last he saw smoke from a distant village.

When he got there the town was full of cassava–just cassava! One cassava asked, “Would you like us roasted, fried, or boiled? Anansi told them that it didn’t matter, so they roasted themselves.

The spider was just sitting down to eat when he saw a column of smoke on the horizon. He asked, “My people, who lives at that far place?” One cassava told him that plantains (bananas) live there. The spider started to leave but the cassavas didn’t want him to go. Anansi left anyway.

When he reached the village, the plantains approached him. They all asked if he wanted them roasted, fried, or boiled. He told them it didn’t matter because he was so hungry that he would eat them anyway at all. Anansi just sat down to eat when he saw smoke rising from a town near the horizon. He asked who lived there, and the plantains said that the rice lived there. The spider started to leave but the plantains urged him to stay. It was too late, but Anansi left anyway.

Anansi came to the village with the rice. The rice asked if he wanted them roasted, fried, or boiled. He responded with the usual answer. The rice boiled themselves so that he could eat them. Anansi was just beginning to eat when he saw a smoke cloud rising not know who lived there. Anansi took off toward the town thinking that it might be something better than rice.

Anansi walked for a long time. When he finally got to the place, he stopped and rubbed his eyes. He couldn’t believe it! It was his own village! Anansi fainted.

When he woke up his wife gave him a bowl of fish bone soup. He told her his story, but she didn’t believe him. No one ever believed him because no one was ever able to go to those villages.

There are more websites with links of stories to perhaps read to your kids or to view yourself.

A fable involving Anansi:

Jamaica Anansi Stories:

Something for the kids

Sorry Peter Parker, you weren’t the first:

One more website

Hopefully this list will inspire your curiosity!

Charles Chatmon
Executive Director
Los Angeles Black Book Expo

1 Comment

Posted by on February 9, 2011 in Uncategorized


One response to “Anansi: The Original Spider Man!

  1. jaelma

    February 10, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Great to see that others know of the "original" spiderman! It is so important that we all work to teach the next generation about these wonderful folktales! wishing you all the very


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