Ananse is the name given to an Akan character who has become famous throughout Africa because of his insight, intelligence, and wisdom. One finds the names Ananse, Aunt Nancy, Anancy, Hapanzi, and Nanzi used for Ananse as well. He is one of the most important figures in the pantheon of cultural icons among West Africans. In actuality, Ananse is the functional aspect of the almighty creator Nyame and therefore may be seen to carry out the will of Nyame on Earth. He is able to perform many duties that are often attributed to Nyame. Thus, Ananse can cause rain to come, flowers to blossom, and maize to grow; he can prevent disasters from occurring to the villagers.
Along with his wife, Aso, Ananse can change form and may be depicted as a human, although his normal form is a spider. According to the Asante people, who are part of the larger Akan culture, Ananse can be a trickster, that is, a personality who teaches moral, ethical, political, or social values based on his ability to lead a person to the truth through example, puzzles, and the least expected turns and twists of fate.
Often associated in the Americas, especially in Suriname and the southern United States, with the spider or rabbit, the folklore surrounding Ananse appears to be quite extensive in the African communities throughout the Americas. For example, the Anansesem or Ananse-Tori, stories about Ananse's exploits, are at the core of many of the moral tales told to children in Suriname, much like the old Brer Rabbit tales were in the African American community up until the 20th century. Many of these stories have disappeared and are no longer remembered in the black communities of the Americas, but their relevance and value are undiminished in the Ghanaian context.
There are many narratives of power in the life of Ananse. He is credited in some stories with creating the sun, moon, stars, and planets. In others, it is said that Ananse is the one who brought writing, agriculture, and hunting to the Earth, teaching humans in the process how to take care of themselves in a world surrounded by bountiful fields and forests. So smart was Ananse, according to one narrative, that he collected all of the wisdom of the world in a calabash to hold for himself because he did not trust humans with such potent knowledge and information. However, wisdom kept spilling out of the calabash, and he soon saw how futile it was for one person to try to know everything and to hold it for himself. In fact, it is far better, as Ananse understood, for knowledge and wisdom to be distributed among all people, and so that is exactly what he did. Consequently, now no people are any smarter than any other people because Ananse distributed wisdom from his calabash bowl.
Of course, Ananse is really the King of All Wisdom Narratives. Nothing escapes Ananse; he knows everything, and the Asante people tell the story of how Nyame made Ananse the King of All Wisdom Narratives. One day, Ananse, in his form as a spider, approached Nyame, the Sky God, and asked him to appoint him as the King of All Wisdom Narratives. Nyame was amazed at the audacity of the spider Ananse and thought that if he had the courage to approach the Sky God in such a direct fashion, then he must be given a chance to prove himself. Nyame said to Ananse, “If you can catch and capture the Jaguar Who has Dagger-like Teeth, the Hornets Who Sting Like Wild Fire, the Invisible Fairy of the Forest, you will be King of the Wisdom Narratives.”
Nyame thought he had given Ananse a challenge that he would refuse because the likelihood of anyone achieving success with such challenges was slight. However, Ananse agreed to the challenge. Ananse went to the jaguar and asked him to play a game that would allow Ananse to tie him up with a rope. So the jaguar agreed, and Ananse got the rope and tied him up. He tricked the hornets by telling them that it was raining; indeed, Ananse could make it rain, and he told the hornets that they could hide themselves in a calabash that he had prepared for them. Once they went into the calabash, he put the lid on it. He told the invisible fairy to fight a tar baby and, when he did, he was stuck to the tar and could not escape. Confidently, Ananse took all of his prey to Nyame and showed him that he had succeeded in doing everything that was asked of him, whereupon Nyame named Ananse the King of All Wisdom Narratives. No one has ever been able to exceed the achievements of this wise personality since the time he was made the King of All Wisdom Narratives.
There are versions of Ananse stories that show him being defeated or almost defeated. For example, once when he was tricked into fighting a tar baby after trying to take some food from the tar baby, he got stuck.
The lessons of Ananse are social, ethical, and moral and are at the core of most Akan cultural responses to society.
- Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: Universities Press of America.
- Mbiti, J. (1969). African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann.
- Opoku, K. A. (1978). West African Traditional Religion. London: FEP International.