Leopard vs Spider

The triumph of the tiny in African folklore

Chris Ofili Afronirvana

Over the coming weeks, we'll be blogging more on African folktales as part of the inspiration behind the DM Wild Animals Collection.  This amazing painting, Afronirvana by Chris Ofili, captures the colour, warmth and positivity evident in the folkloric tradition from the continent.

Africa has an extremely rich folklore. As with European folklore, tales are often instructive used to convey general truths or life lessons. And whilst in Europe we tell children bedtime stories tucked up under our blankets at night, the tradition in Africa is sometimes called 'tales by moonlight' as the stories were first shared with the younsters by the village fire. It's no surprise then that the phrase 'it takes a village to raise a child' is thought to originate in Africa. 

Animals play an equally if not greater role in African folklore compared to European (and incidentally Chris Ofili's art inspired by his Nigerian heritage, where he often uses elephant dung alongside oil paints). But it's not the big beasts who are the heroes of the tale. Although us Brits love an underdog, it seems the desire to see the mighty fall to an unexpected rival is fairly universal. In tales from across the continent, smaller animals like the turtle or mouse use their intelligence to best animals ten times their size. The hare or rabbit is also a popular protagonist, especially in East Africa, where it takes on the role of trickster to help out his friends or simply himself. 

In fact, it is one of the tiniest animals is the most central to folklore originating in West African -the spider Anansi. Anansi is so enduring his fame reached the Americas through the tales slaves brought with them. Known as Anansy in the Caribbean, the character even transmuted to human form as Aunt Nancy by the time he reached Appalachia - a world away from his West African origins.

Anansi is the keeper of all folk tales, and indeed folktales are referred to as asansesem or 'spider stories'. The story of how the tiny spider came to have power of folktales is one that exemplifies the value placed on intelligence and cunning over physical power.

At this time all the stories were in the power of the sky god. Anansi asked to have them, but the sky god agreed only if the tiny spider could capture a python, leopard and a swarm of hornets. Not an easy feat for even a mighty lion.

Anansi was undeterred. He first persuaded the python to lie along a branch, to prove his great length. In fact, Anansi tied the proud snake to the tree then promptly delivered him to the sky god. The leopard was lured into a pit, where the sneaky spider offered to 'help' with his webs - but in fact tied him up and captured the big cat.

Anansi was obviously less averse to rain than his European cousin who failed to make it up the water spout; he managed to fake a rain storm to lure the hornets into an empty calabash shell. Trapped, the angry swarm was handed over to the sky god by the triumphant spider. Why the sky god desired a squash plant full of angry stingers is unclear.

Nonetheless, the sky god kept his word and Anansi successfully became the keeper of all tales. [Source - Wikipedia]

Daniel's Wild Animals Collection gathers together some of the larger animals who fall prey to the tiny heroes of African folktales. Blogs detailing the tricks and traps they fell for will be coming up over the following weeks. 

Shop the whole Wild Animals Collection. 

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