Children always surprise me when they play, and when they’re in our Once Upon a Time exhibit, they are always finding new things to do that I didn’t see coming. This past Saturday, my son, who is four, spent the better part of ten minutes hiding behind the big pretend “melon,” hollering “Hey, I’m a melon! Don’t you want to eat me?!” at anybody who passed. Other kids would grab the melon and make a thundering “Gobble, gobble!” or such before my son would jump out to say “I’m really a spider! I tricked you!” and the eater would run away in playful shrieks. Repeat, frequently. Not at all bad for a kid who first heard this story about thirty seconds before he ducked behind/inside that melon.
Anansi, the spider hiding inside that melon, features in dozens of folk tales. He’s typically traced back to western Africa, in the region that is now the nation of Ghana, and made his way to the Caribbean and the colonies that would later become the United States in the 1600s, during the days of the slave trade. Anansi lived in oral telling for hundreds of years before his exploits were printed. He is most often literally a spider, but in some variants from Jamaica, he’s a human with four arms and four legs.
The Anansi story that is spotlighted in the Once Upon a Time exhibit is one of his most popular outings and emphasizes how clever Anansi is to think his way out of a bad situation. Writer Eric Kimmel and artist Janet Stevens have recreated many of Anansi’s adventures in storybooks that are published by Scholastic. In this story, Anansi lets his greed get the better of him, and eats so much of a melon, tunneling his way into it as he munches, that he grows too fat to escape it! The only way out is to have someone shatter the melon, so, pretending to be a talking fruit, he starts mocking all the other animals of the jungle, hoping that one of them will take the mysterious melon to the hot-tempered Monkey King.
Learning about Anansi, I was most interested to learn that, between the Caribbean and many of the communities of the southeastern US, he transformed from a spider into a rabbit. Arguably the most famous of the “Uncle Remus” tales of Br’er Rabbit involve the bunny losing his temper with an inanimate statue, striking it, and getting stuck. Remarkably similar stories are also told about Anansi getting his head, arms, and legs stuck in tar traps.
There’s no consensus among folklorists about precisely why the spider of the 1600s was replaced by a rabbit in the 1800s, but both characters, and many other derivatives, are classic examples of a trickster. The character is sometimes portrayed as good, with a mischievous side, and sometimes amoral, and sometimes downright rotten and needing to learn a lesson, but in all the trickster’s forms, he is smart and clever and can think his way out of any situation, even the ones that resulted from his own poor choices.