Whoever thinks Spider-Man was invented by the West couldn’t be more wrong. Such a claim is, at best, only half-right — and that’s if he’s talking about the version that dons a red-and-blue costume, climbs along skyscrapers, saves entire cities and, away from all that drama, lives the quiet life of a devoted academic called Peter Parker.
There is another version of Spider-Man, however, though not nearly as handsome or agile as Parker and his alter-ego, and his fame owes more to brain than brawn. He is KWEKU ANANSE — one of the oldest, most eminent symbols of Ghanaian culture. You may have heard of him; if not, well, read on.
Now, ‘Ananse’ (a variant of which is ‘Anansi’), in Ghana’s Akan language, refers to the spider. Exactly what Ananse – – the folktale character — is, though, isn’t nearly as clear. Per the context he (or ‘it’, if you wish) is placed in, Ananse could be a spider, a man, or a combination of both (Spider-Man, yeah). There is more to Ananse, though; he is sometimes depicted as a god of sorts, and all those facets of his personality fuse to produce a larger-than-life. mosaic of a ‘deity-homo-arachnid’ — whatever that looks like.
The story of how this little guy got to lay claim to divinity, though? Well, Wikipedia — that great repository of knowledge — tells it best, via one of the best-known stories spawned around the Ananse legend. Here goes:
“Once there were no stories in the world. The Sky-God, Nyame, had them all. Anansi went to Nyame and asked how much they would cost to buy. Nyame set a high price: Anansi must bring back Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, and Mboro the Hornet. Anansi set about capturing these. First, he went to where Python lived and debated out loud whether Python was really longer than the palm branch or not as his wife Aso says. Python overheard and, when Anansi explained the debate, agreed to lie along the palm branch. Because he cannot easily make himself completely straight a true impression of his actual length is difficult to obtain, so Python agreed to be tied to the branch. When he was completely tied, Anansi took him to Nyame. To catch the leopard, Anansi dug a deep hole in the ground. When the leopard fell in the hole Anansi offered to help him out with his webs. Once the leopard was out of the hole he was bound in Anansi’s webs and was carried away. To catch the Hornets, Anansi filled a calabash with water and poured some over a banana leaf he held over his head and some over the nest, calling out that it was raining. He suggested the bees get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening. Anansi handed his captives over to Nyame. Nyame rewarded him by making him the god of all stories.”
Pretty cool summary, huh?
Actually, the final sentence of that lengthy narrative goes some way in explaining why all folk stories in the traditional Ghanaian setting are collectively named after Ananse, with the generic term ‘Anansesem’ applying regardless of whether or not they have the fellow among the protagonists. And that’s why, down here, we like to refer to him as ‘The Ubiquitous One’. He’s really everywhere, believe me.
Yet even in the many stories he actually lights up, Ananse doesn’t always emerge the hero. On the contrary, he is often portrayed — usually through his own fault — as a villain, but merely the kind of rascal whose mischief may just draw applause from the observer even on his worst days. The typical Ananse story has a sly friend trying to outwit all others and, in the end, proving too smart for everyone (himself included, of course), culminating in epic failure and embarrassment time and again. Such is Ananse’s legendary cunning that the designation ‘Anansesem’ also refers to any tale that is too good to believe. And such is the razor-sharp edge to Ananse’s wits that, as a popular Ghanaian saying states quite aptly, an attempt to deceive Ananse is effectively the ultimate act of self-deception.
Ananse, to my people, is almost real, which is why he features so heavily in mythology. He has his own household, comprised of some very interesting and diverse characters: Nyame (Ananse’s father and Sky-God); Asase Yaa (his mother and Earth-Goddess); Okonore Yaa (Ananse’s long-suffering wife); Ananse’s children: smart Ntekuma; Tikelenkelen the big-headed one; Nankonhwea with his spindly limbs; Afudohwedohwe barely able to save himself from falling over his bulging belly; and, oh, the beautiful Anansewaa, subject of Efua Sutherland’s classic novel (really, you’ve got to read that if you haven’t already).
It isn’t only in his homeland, though, that Ananse is celebrated. His fame, since the era when the transatlantic slave trade was a thing, has long transcended these shores. Of all the vestiges of home slave raiders attempted to flog out of their African captives, Ananse — along with Br’er Rabbit, a folk character of identical repute transported in the hearts of slaves from the Bantu-speaking lands of south and central Africa — was one of few memories that remained vividly etched on their minds after crossing over into the New World. It is believed that inspiration, conscious or otherwise, from Ananse’s guile armed those slaves who, in a bid to stand proud, resorted to craftiness in rousing themselves against their cruel lords.
It’s also why Ananse has so many aliases throughout the Caribbean (terminal for so many African slaves): Bru Nansi (Virgin Islands), Annancy/Anancy (Jamaica, Grenada, Costa Rica, Colombia and Nicaragua), Anansi (Trinidad and Tobago), Anansi Drew (The Bahamas), Aunt Nancy (South Carolina), Cha Nanzi (Aruba), Kompa Nanzi (Curaçao, Bonaire) and Ba Anansi (Suriname), et al.
Fast-forward a few centuries and, in the face of modernity and its intricate web (forgive the pun) of strings, one might think our spider-man would struggle to retain a place in the spotlight and carve a niche for himself in the pantheon of latter-day superheroes; WRONG! Ananse is going nowhere and, in fact, has only pushed for a more pronounced presence in recent memory.
Among several appearances in the realm of popular culture, Ananse has starred in two episodes of ‘Gargoyles’, a Disney cartoon series, in the PBS children’s series ‘Sesame Street’, and a number of choice comics. For what it’s worth, Ananse is the proud bearer of the roots for half the name of English rock band ‘Skunk Anansie’.
And so, in more ways than one, Ananse continues to live — as much on our screens as by the fireside (where ‘Anansesem’ is traditionally told in rural Ghana) — neither to be drowned by the sands of time nor robbed of all the credentials that have always established him as one of Ghana’s greatest yet often understated ambassadors.
Move over, Mr Parker. . .
Ananse never dies!