Koen Uffing | Not once, but twice. Anansi stories in the Atlantic world


Anansi stories are considered “trickster” folktales about a small spider that uses his intelligence and trickiness to triumph larger creatures. During the Atlantic slave trade, the stories crossed the ocean with the slaves through oral tradition. This thesis is devoted to Anansi’s globetrotting journey. It asks whether and how changes in cultural-historical circumstances have affected the spider’s stories, and how possible mutations were made visible by storytellers. I argue that between 1890 and 2020, altering political and cultural contexts resulted in shifting attitudes about the Anansi fables, but not in changes to the stories themselves. Rather, the spider’s tales kept hanging on to their most important characteristics, which were as crucial to the Anansi mythos in 1890 as they were in 2020. Hence, Anansi always managed to preserve his own identity, even as the world around him changed.

Given the diverse contexts in which the folk tales were distributed and the enormous upheavals commonly associated with that time period – the two World Wars, decolonization and the Cold War come to mind in this regard – one would perhaps expect to see many transformations in the evolution of the spider’s fables. But that did not happen. Instead, the substance of the Anansi tales remained relatively unchanged over the course of those 130 years. From the late nineteenth century all the way to the twenty-first century, Anansi’s antics were defined by the same three core characteristics: the spider’s regular engagements with powerful forces of antagonism, the trickster’s witty antics, and the character’s secular and anthropomorphic disposition. For this reason, the actual text of the Anansi stories remained mostly the same.

What did change over time, however, were the attitudes and ideas held about the spider. At the turn of the nineteenth century, colonial attitudes dominated Anglo-American discourse about the Surinamese and Jamaican Anansi tales. By drawing on the themes of European supremacy to narrate collections of Anansi stories, European and American authors not only explored the substance of Jamaican or Surinamese folklore, but also implicitly worked out a normative contrast between the “black” sphere of Afro-Caribbean culture and the “white” world of European civilization. As a result, collectors of Anansi stories effectively legitimized the idea of Anglo-European superiority, and thus, colonial rule.

Koen Uffing is een historicus met een passie voor schrijven. Hij heeft veel geschreven over herinneringscultuur en de Noordse mythen. Samen met Anne Rozekrans beheert Koen Pinkerness: een Engelstalige blog waarin zij schrijven over de moderne versies van historische mythen. Ook is Koen actief als editor bij Scribbr en als social media manager bij Volt. Deze scriptie schreef hij voor zijn afstuderen aan de Universiteit Leiden.

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