Anansi, the spider, is one of the most popular animal tricksters from West African mythology. Tricksters are mischievous figures who often oppose the will of the gods, resulting in some kind of misfortune for humans. Like many trickster figures, the wily Anansi can change his appearance to look like a human, a rabbit, a fox, or other animals.
West Africans originally considered Anansi to be the creator of the world. He often acted as a go-between for humans in their dealings with the sky god Nyame, and he supposedly persuaded Nyame to give both rain and the night to people. In most stories, however, Anansi is a crafty and cunning trickster who makes life more enjoyable for himself (or more difficult for others) by fooling humans, other animals, and even the gods themselves, often using his cleverness and knowledge of his victims’ ways of thinking to trick them and achieve his purpose.
In one well-known tale, Anansi asks God for an ear of corn and promises to repay with 100 servants. He takes the corn to a village and tells the people that it is sacred. During the night, Anansi feeds the corn to chickens. The next morning, he accuses the villagers of stealing the corn, and they give him a bushel of it to make up for the lost ear.
Anansi next meets a man on the road and exchanges the corn for a chicken. He visits another village and tells the people that the chicken is sacred. That night he kills the chicken, and the next morning the frightened villagers give him ten sheep to replace it. Anansi later exchanges the sheep for a corpse, which he takes to a third village and tells the people that it is the sleeping son of God. When the villagers cannot wake the corpse the next morning, Anansi says they have killed God’s son. The terrified villagers offer him 100 of their finest young men, and Anansi takes them to God to fulfill his part of the bargain.
There are many other tales about Anansi. Some of them were brought to the West Indies, South America, and North America by African slaves in earlier centuries. In some parts of North America, Anansi became known as Aunt Nancy or Miss Nancy in African American folklore.