Since February is Black History month in the US, I thought I’d write about another of my writing patrons, Anansi the Spider, King of Stories. I first learned of Anansi from my college friend Moses Elango, who is from Cameroon, but many people encounter Anansi long before their college years: Anansi is a common figure in African and African-American folklore (in parts of the US, he’s known as “Aunt Nancy”; in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, he turns up as “Mr. Nancy,” and the follow-up Anansi Boys tells the stories of his children). While he shares a lot of characteristics with traditional mythic trickster figures like the Native American Coyote, he is most celebrated as a storyteller and master of knowledge and words. In the Akan culture where he originated, knowledge of oral history was considered profoundly important and the ability to speak eloquently and recount engaging stories was a mark of superior intellect; storytellers often served as “court linguists,” the most revered of all court positions not directly tied to the royalty itself.
Anansi takes the form of a spider because of his ability to “weave stories,” though he didn’t invent stories himself. According to the traditional mythology, stories exist separate from the mind (which explains why we writers sometimes shrug off explaining our best stories and offer simply that “the idea just came to me”), and, like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to share with humanity, Anansi ventured into the sky to retrieve the stories from the sky-god Nyame. Nyame demanded a heavy price in exchange for the stories: Anansi, a simple spider, needed to capture Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, the Mmoboro Hornets, and Mmoatia, the dwarf, and bring them all to Nyame. Anansi accepted the challenge and then easily captured all the creatures not through force but through cunning use of trickery and debate—he used his intellect and his gift for words to catch his quarry. Nyame handed over the stories and Anansi in turn shares them with humanity.
Of course, Anansi is not an entirely magnanimous character, sometimes choosing to hoard his knowledge or to use his intellect to trick human beings, steal food, or other mischief, which is why he’s considered a trickster figure. But I think this works perfectly well with his role as the King of Stories, because anyone who’s ever tried to wrestle a story away from an unwilling muse knows just how troublesome Anansi can be. Still, we keep coming back for more, keep asking Anansi for stories, and most of us are willing to offer him anything in return for a good tale.