Monday, May 22, 2017

Enter Anansi! (Following folktales around the world 26. - Suriname)

Today I continue new blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts under the Following Folktales label, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

It's Anansi time!!!

Suriname folk-lore
Melville J. Herskovits - Frances S. Herskovits
Ams Press, 1969.

This book was first published in 1936, and it definitely carries the signs of its time ("Notes on the culture of the Paramaribo Negroes"). It is quite heavy, being almost 800 pages long. The upside is that it is a folklore publication, which managed to dodge the judgmental tone, reporting facts and observations instead, about the culture, beliefs, and customs of the black population (of African descent) of Paramaribo and its region. The folktale chapter contains almost 150 stories in mirror translation, along with ample footnotes (including sources for other variations of each tale), an introduction to the storytellers, and multiple versions of certain stories collected and published side by side.
The introduction chapter on folklore and folk belief was just as fascinating. There was an entire section on the meanings of head kerchiefs tied in different ways, and the stories they told by each variation. I also read about such intriguing things as the mati (a birthday party organized to celebrate lesbian relationships), the trefu (individual food-related taboos that people inherited from their parents), the various souls each person has, and the personal gods that regulated their life and their worship (which, interestingly, could be of African descent, but also local indigenous gods). In the back of the book, there are chapters of dreams, riddles, sayings, and musical notes for the songs inserted into the folktales.


With this book, we arrive to the home turf of Anansi the Spider! More than half of the tales were Anansi stories, and the entire folktale chapter was traditionally labeled as Anansi-tori (Anansi stories), a common name for tales in general.
I was very excited to find several Anansi stories that I have not encountered before. For example, Lies hurt more than a wound featured Anansi proving the title proverb by (quite literally) smearing a king's reputation. In Monkey's urine is sweet, he tricked Tiger into drinking monkey pee repeatedly (poor monkey did not fare well in the process). There was a fun story where Anansi competed in eating hot peppers to win a princess' hand, and another one where his wife enchanted kitchenware so that it would run away from her greedy husband. I especially loved the story where Anansi pretended to be American, putting on a hilarious fake accent, in order to be welcomed as a special guest to a feast. In another story, he pretended to be an angel. Spider-angels for the win.
If course there were also cool stories that did not feature Anansi. For example, in Plot to Cook Goat, Tiger and Dog captured a goat for dinner - but Dog felt sorry for it, and helped it get away. In Animal Gratitude and Human Duplicity, a hunter rescued a Rat, a Snake, and a Human Being. Guess which one betrayed him, and who saved him, in the end...


Orlando Jones as (an amazing) Anansi
in Starz's new American Gods show
Most of the well-known, classic trickster tales appeared in the book, many of them in several variations. Of course we had the Tar Baby, the tug-o-war between Elephant and Whale, the Magic Rock, Riding Tiger and Escape by Switching Places (see also: Br'er Rabbit in the Uncle Remus tales), Eating Tiger's intestines (as opposed to balls or tail, in other versions), and the Feast of Anansi and Tortoise, where they mutually tricked each other.
Of course, once again, we had a race-running tale (Tortoise vs Deer), and also the Contest of the Birds about who can fly the highest (won by Hummingbird hitching a ride on Eagle's back). There was also a version of King Midas' ears, featuring Anansi and the unusual beard of a Pharaoh, and a version of the fairy tale known as Filomena from Haiti, where the cruelty of a stepmother comes back to harm her own children.
The second half of the tale collection featured a lot of classic fairy tale types. I found a close variation on the story that I know as Marie Jolie from J. J. Reneaux's Cajun folktales. There were also local variants for Cinderella, the Magic Flight, the Extraordinary Companions, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin (Akantiudu), the Marks of the Princess, and even the tale I know as the Canary Prince from Italy.

Where to next?
Next week, we are entering the Caribbean! Starting with Trinidad and Tobago.


  1. What I always find fascinating about folk tales is how similar they can be in cultures that may never have mixed. Though I'm not sure there is another version of a tiger drinking a monkey's supposedly sweet urine.

    1. Trickster tales travel extremely well. I would not be surprised if I found that somewhere else too :D

  2. That sounds like an amazing book. I applaud you finding all these great stories from around the world.

    I know it's a short book, but allow me to suggest "The Rainbow Crow," for when you get to the America's. (Northeast/ MidAtlantic)