Monday, August 5, 2019

Anansiland (Following folktales around the world 116. - Ghana)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Akan-Ashanti Folk-tales
R. S. Rattray
Clarendon Press, 1969.

This is a fairly old collection, from sometime in the 1930s when Ghana was still referred to as the Golden Coast. It contains 75 tales collected straight from the oral tradition, both in the original language and in English. They were transcribed by the author himself, who believed that asking locals to write stories down would result in losing the best phrases of oral language. This, and some other fascinating topics are discussed in the Introduction - for example, the question of the origin of Ashanti tales, why there are so many vulgar stories among them, and why most characters are named after animals. The book is illustrated by the drawing of local artists who tried their hand at making spoken stories visible for the first time (and apparently had arguments over whether Anansi should be portrayed as a spider or as a man).


Since the book is full of Anansi stories, obviously I had a lot of favorites among them. We find out a lot about the spider-trickster from these tales: why he is bald (because he tried to hide cooked beans under his hat and it burned his hair off), how he won Aso for his wife (with trickery, although the end of that story is fairly tragic, since their first, illegitimate child is killed), or why he runs on the surface of the water (because he is afraid of crocodiles).

Among my favorites was How Anansi distributed wisdom among people - he had all the wisdom in a gourd and he tried to climb up a tree to hide it, but he had a gourd hanging on his stomach and he could not climb. When his son told him to put the gourd on his back instead, Anansi got angry that all the wisdom in the world could not teach him that, so he shattered it to pieces. This was not the only thing Anansi was responsible for; there were many others, such as How white people got hoes (Anansi set off a magic hoe, that kept hoeing until it reached Europe), Why children play in the moonlight (because Anansi made peace between Sun, Moon, and Night), How illnesses came to be (Anansi scattered them around when Nyame took his wife), How disagreement was born (when Anansi defeated a man in a lying contest), or Why there is toothache (because a giant bird kept stealing people's jaws, and Anansi got them back, but got them mixed up). And of course the book contains the most famous Anansi story about How Anansi got all the stories in the world (with the help of his clever wife Aso), and why they are now called anansesem. Sometimes, however, it was Anansi that got the short end of the stick - in one story, when Anansi looked for a fool, it was Crow who turned the spider's own greed and laziness against him.
There was a great, although a little dark chain story about Why children should not be left alone. In it, a Leopard visited the lonely child of a hunter, and asked about all the trophies, and the boy chanted the names of all the animals his father had killed. When they got to the Leopard trophy, the boy got scared and started again, and his father got home just in time to kill the vengeful Leopard. On the other hand, in the story about The origin of friendship it was a human child and a leopard child who swore brotherhood to each other, and when bigoted people killed the leopard, the human man died too. On a lighter note, there was a lovely tale about Why the colobus monkey's tail is white, in which animal ing courting beat the poor monkey up and left him on a garbage heap - but a girl fell in love with him anyway.
Another tale I really enjoyed talked about how No one is useless in a tribe. A family chased a "foolish" boy away, but when they were later invaded by a mischievous spirit, it was the fool who managed to chase it away. Another tale had a very similar moral about how If a relative wants to go with you, you should not refuse - in this, two older brothers tried to leave the youngest behind, and on the way to the market they tricked him into buying useless things, but the boy managed to turn all of them into something profitable.


I once again encountered the tale of the husband and wife who understood each other from symbols. From Caribbean countries I was also familiar with the story of shapeshifters (in this case, pigs) who leave their animal skins behind, until people rub salt and pepper on the inside so they can't put them on again. In the Aladdin tale type where a cat and a dog bring back a boy's stolen magic ring the thief was, obviously, Anansi. I was also familiar with the story type where Anansi brought an entire village of people to Nyame, by repeatedly tricking people into trading him more valuable things.
There was an interesting "kind and unkind girls" variant that explained Why one should not ask payment for something that was lost. In this case, there was no evil stepmother, the two sisters sent each other out for impossible tasks, only one of them knew how to be polite, and the other didn't. Also, once again, there was the well-known dilemma tale about the girl rescued by three suitors together.

Where to next?


  1. Wonderful review Csenge! It made me remember some stories I hadn't told in a while. I checked on the books availability. It seems it really is old and rare but several universities near me in North Carolina have copies. I guess that might be the case in other parts of the US. (By the way, I enjoy your posts!)

    1. Thank you! :) I'm glad you enjoy the posts! And yes, the book is a bit hard to find, I got it back when I was still living in the US...