I am a great believer in what I call Whisper Theophany—meaning that God is all around us, and continually sending us Divine Messages: we simply have to be alert to them. Today, walking Mr. Kirbles in the back yard (no, he didn’t do his Business, and we always have to second-guess him; he hasn’t yet evolved that particular method for telling us when he would like to go out), I noticed a smallish, orange-toed spider in the corner of the yard, who had spun a veritable Verrazano Narrows Bridge of a web there, and was waiting, patiently, for his next meal to fly into it.
“Good morning, Brother Spider,” I greeted him. He said nothing, but swayed slowly back and forth, quietly and confidently hanging onto his home and place of business, remarkably steady on a somewhat windy Florida day, with the sun shining, secure amid his ingeniously planned-and-executed network of guy wires, stays, and buttresses.
I remembered the legend of Anansi, the African Spider, and how he was the wisest of jungle creatures, able to outsmart the other beasts. Looking at my new neighbor—and who knows for how long?—it was easy to tell why.
I believe that Anansi’s reputation for cleverness and trickery must have appealed to the African slaves, and how they longed to reverse the power structure which kept them on the bottom. I remember a short tale from the Civil War, when a former-slave-turned-freeman was proudly marching with his comrades into the South, musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, when his regiment passed a line of defeated Confederate soldiers, marching North into captivity. There, amid the prisoners, the African-American saw his former master, looking dejected. He waved gaily to his former master, and greeted him:
“Hello, Master!” he called, “Bottom rail on top, now!”
I saw from my research about Anansi that he originated among the Ashantis of West Africa, and spread to the Caribbean, along with various name changes. Here is a fundamental tale of this spider-god-human-survivor which I believe will resonate with any reader who values human freedom and survival:
How Anansi got his stories
There is an Anansi story that explains the phenomenon of how his name became attached to the whole corpus of tales:
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, the Mmoboro Hornets, and Mmoatia the dwarf.
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 hornets get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening.
To catch the dwarf he made a doll and covered it with sticky gum. He placed the doll under the Odum (Tree of Life) where the dwarfs play and put some yam in a bowl in front of it. When the dwarf came and ate the yam she thanked the doll which of course did not reply. Annoyed at its bad manners she struck it, first with one hand then the other. The hands stuck and Anansi captured her.
Anansi handed his captives over to Nyame. Nyame rewarded him by making him the god of all stories.