Few African mythical figures have crossed oceans and not only survived the centuries but have thrived and evolved like ANANSI. He’s the archetypical trickster. A spider god. And a hero to African peoples across the globe. Known by a dozen or more names, Anansi’s origins are strong and rooted in the Ashanti people’s mythos. Here we don’t just meet the tricky spider-man, we learn of his origins, inspiring tales, and the modern forms he’s taken on. But don’t be surprised if you feel like you still don’t know him…he is a shapeshifter and trickster, after all.
The mythical figure known as Kwaku Anansi originated with the Akan peoples of West Africa. More specifically with the Ashanti, a nation of people living in modern South Central-Ghana and parts of Togo and Côte d’Ivoire. Sadly, the Ashanti once thrived as an empire until the British seized ultimate control in the twentieth century. The Ashanti had an ongoing tumultuous relationship with Europeans, namely the British, for centuries, which involved gold and slave trade. A relationship that ended in the destruction of the Asante state when the British exiled the Asantehene and absorbed the state into their Gold Coast empire in 1902.
Yet the rich folk tales and beliefs of the Ashanti have survived and thrived. One of the Ashanti people’s spirits, the spider Anansi, has gained worldwide fame, particularly in recent years. In spite of the Ashanti peoples trials and tribulations, the spirit Anansi carries on the sacred tales of its people. His stories have been carried all over the world including to the United States and the Caribbean in the minds and souls of the enslaved. Kwaku Anansi is now known worldwide and ubiquitously celebrated in many forms of modern African spirituality.
The name Anansi means spider, for this is how the god manifests most often. But Anansi has many names including Kwaku Anansi, Aunt Nancy, Ananse, Anancy, Kompa Nanzi, or Sis Nancy. The spider god is a trickster and shapeshifter which is why his names and forms are many. In addition to appearing as a spider, he also appears as a spider with a man’s face or a man with spider features (yes, sort of like Marvel’s Spiderman but much cooler!) Interestingly, he doesn’t just appear as a male figure though. Hence his female nicknames Sis Nancy and Aunt Nancy.
Anansi’s domains include wisdom, story-telling and story-keeping, strength, shapeshifting, survival, creation and destruction. He is known as a trickster spirit but is beloved by many despite his tricks. In fact, during the Colonization of the New World, the memory and mere name of Anansi bestowed hope and courage in those who were kidnapped, enslaved and forced to endure hardships unknown. According to author Jim Barrow in African Mythology, “rather than the important of Anansi to diminish socially, it became celebrated as a symbol of slave survival and resistance. The reasons being that Anansi was able to use his cunningness an trickery to turn the tables of oppression.”
You might be wondering, why the spider? Why would a powerful trickster god manifest as a tiny arachnid? A creature that’s often forgotten, stepped on, or even feared? The spider as an earthly creature is much more powerful than you’d think. It is small but has creative abilities unmatched. Think of how quickly the spider spins its web. How delicate are the strands that catch its prey?
The spider represents that divine paradox we so frequently discuss here on Otherworldly Oracle. It is the embodiment of creation and destruction. And Anansi proves time and time again he brings life and opportunity, but when the need arises he also brings death and misfortune. Just like the spider. In some stories, Anansi is the creator of the planetary bodies: the sun, moon and stars. And in others, he’s the inventor of writing, farming and hunting. He teaches human beings how to provide for themselves. And survive. In other tales, he steals and destroys.
The spider is intricately woven (pun intended) into many ancient mythologies as being the spinner of fate. It isn’t just linked to Anansi but to other spinning deities associated with the fate of human life: Arachne, Spider Grandmother, The Norns, The Fates and even the Norse trickster god Loki. Interestingly, Loki’s name may translate to spider! And while Anansi’s web is typically illustrated as being his web of stories, we have to remember he holds the stories of all mankind in his web. Therefore, he’s the keeper of records and knows one’s past, present and destiny.
There are many stories of Anansi leading the hero or main character in a story through a twisted web of trials, puzzles, and riddles only to lead them to their true destiny. His story, yet again, reminds me of many other trickster spirits across multiple cultures. While the trickster is feared for his unpredictable actions, he almost always teaches the individual a valuable lesson. One that the person wouldn’t have learned otherwise. Kwaku personifies this timeless tale.
For the Anansesem chosen here, we decided to provide examples of Anansi’s vibrant, life-giving aspect and of his destroyer aspect. For he is both. He encompasses all aspects of life and helps hold humanity in balance.
One of the most well-known Anansi stories is from the Akan-Ashanti peoples. It tells of how Anansi traveled into the heavens to find and talk to the sky god Nyame. The sky god was the keeper of all stories, including the Akan peoples’ sacred tales, and so Anansi yearned for this divine knowledge. The sky god had kept it for himself for far too long. And so Anansi wanted to know the stories and tell them to the people. The spider god offered the sky god money and riches. But the sky god instead asked Anansi to prove himself by capturing four elusive earthly beings including a fairy, a leopard, mythical hornets and a python. These weren’t regular animals – they were demi-gods, of sorts. And had their own unique powers.
After much time and energy, Anansi accomplished the task and gave up his own mother for the cause (who went willingly, mind you). The sky god was so impressed with Anansi’s feat that he upheld his end of the bargain – he granted the wisdom of the world’s stories to the spider. Therefore ALL sacred stories became known as spider tales or anansesem.
This spider tale is one that might seem sad or violent in today’s standards. However, it’s a tale of survival. The story goes that Anansi had to feed his family. And so concocted a plan to trick the local animals into getting dangerously close to a gun. And yes, you can guess that Anansi used the gun to catch and eat meat. But mainly this was done to feed his family. This legend is a clear demonstration of Anansi’s trickster capabilities but also reinforces the need to “do what you need to do” to stay alive.
In the oldest tales, Anansi appears simply as a spider. Or as a man with spider characteristics. However, the truth is that Anansi takes on any manifestation he so chooses. His shape shifts from one region to another, from one individual to the next. Truly we can’t even say whether Anansi is strictly male nor female, for he takes on many genders and sometimes none at all. Hence his polar nicknames Aunt Nancy and Bro’ Nancy. However he appears, Anansi always carries with him the fateful essence of the spider. He’s also taken to popping up in modern literature and film.
One of our favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, wrote his best-selling novel American Gods in 2001. Since then, the book has been made into a TV show by Freemantle North and Lionsgate. It ran for three seasons and gained notable popularity among fantasy-lovers and even neo-pagans. Why? Because some of the ancient gods of our ancestors are written into American Gods and sparked interest in many…including the spider god Anansi. His character is particularly riveting in the show. In addition, Gaiman wrote a follow-up novel called Anansi Boys in 2005, centered on our favorite spider spirit. Which will also be a show on Amazon very soon!
“Everybody going to be dead one day…just give them time.” ~ Gaiman, Anansi Boys
There’s some speculation that our spider deity actually inspired Marvel’s Spiderman. While we can’t confirm of deny this of Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics empire, it is mentioned in the 2003 Amazing Spiderman Volume 2 that Kwaku was the first Spiderman to ever have existed. Being that he manifests in spider-form or as a man with spider features, it’s totally plausible.
It should go without saying that if you plan to invoke and work with Anansi that you should approach him with the utmost respect and reverence. Understand the culture and people from whence the spider god came. Kwaku Ananse was brought to the Americas on the backs of enslaved Africans. His memory has survived and grown because of the culture in the U.S. and the peoples from West Africa. Have a respect and understanding of what the people endured and henceforth survived. If you don’t have respect for the African diaspora and culture, Anansi will not have respect for you.
The best way to get to know a deity of any kind is to start by reading and researching. Read everything you can get your hands on – books, online articles, magazines, short stories. Watch documentaries on the mythology, movies featuring the deity, and listen to podcasts on them. The same goes for Kwaku. You won’t fully understand who he is unless you understand where he comes from. And his people.
If you plan to work with the spider god on a regular basis, set up an altar for his presence. This could be as simple as a bookshelf, top of a nightstand, or a corner of the kitchen counter. Cleanse and charge the space in his name. Then add things that represent the deity: spider altar cloth, spider images, webs, and stories. Include incense, candles, bowls and cups for offerings.
Are you scared of spiders? Kwaku may be coming to you to teach you valuable lessons. To get you over your fear. Dive deep into the symbolism of the spider – creation and destruction, transformation and the weaving of fate. Ask the spider god how to best understand what the spider represents or comes to teach you in your life.
As Anansi is the keeper of all stories, he enjoys hearing a good story. Write your life’s story down. Speak it to Anansi out loud. Write poetry. Publish a book. Join a theater group. Anything that allows you to tell your own story. The god of stories will appreciate it.
The spider god enjoys regular offerings of liquor, candy, and tobacco. But, as we said before, he prefers to hear or read a good story. Riddles, jokes, and funny skits are also appreciated as offerings. The trickster deities always have a good sense of humor! Acquire a spiderweb whose spider has abandoned it, place it in a jar and add it to Anansi’s altar.
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