The First Spider-Man

A Note on Myths

It was through myths that began to understand the world around me. Funnily enough, I related to stories about ancient deities from peoples past to connect with present people. I think, despite our growth and development since B.C., we’ve still got a lot of growing to do. I say this because of eight-year-old, suburban, immigrant-heritage me relating at all. I’m not entirely surprised by the relativity of narrative after all this time due to my beliefs in the slow development of human nature.

Stories are one of those magical things we don’t fully understand. I firmly believe the integration of technology, psychology, and experiential storytelling will be our next level of narrative. We began with myths in caves and around fires. We moved to paintings and written words. Now, we visually represent in graphic novels and video formats. Next, we’ll be in the stories we weave.

I believe the power of story is becoming less underestimated day by day. Although Google Analytics hasn’t confirmed it, the emphasis of storytelling in entertainment, marketing, leadership, and beyond sure does. That’s why I’m going to continue mythic Mondays. I began with Plato’s criteria for myths. I touched on a marvelously adapted modern hero. I’ll continue to evaluate myths using Platonic standards, as well as Aristotelian, Jungian, and Campbellian.

I’ve got quite a bit to learn, but I hope my exploration into this ageless magic enriches you, too.

A Man of Many-legged Talents

Before I ever heard of Peter Parker, I met a much trickier man. I remember how real he seemed. His cunning and wit, his selfishness and helpfulness, his comeuppances, his curses, and his gifts. He gave as often as he took, reminding me a few real people I knew. He went by a few names, but the one I best recall is Anansi (a.k.a Anancy, Ananse, Aunt Nancy, Hapanzi, Nanz (Asante)).

The story goes that Anansi is as much man as spider, although he wasn’t made that way. The Akan and Asante or Ashanti peoples of West Africa tell how he stole from Nyame, the Father Sky God. As with adapted myths, there a few variations. In some versions, he is punished for annoying his father with his general trickery. In others, he is split in two, becoming a spider, with eight legs. This is as a “just dessert” for blaming an actual spider for a lie he made to Nyame (E2BN).

Even after becoming a spider, he still continues his shenanigans. Anansi seems to have no problem approaching Nyame, despite being cursed/blessed with his spider shape. He asks for all wisdom in the world and the sky god tasks him with three challenge of wit. Anansi tricks his way through all three challenges, earning the world’s wisdom. He continues to use this wisdom in a number of ways.

Initially, Anasi seems invested in himself, often using his ability to spin tales from his newfound wisdom and constant cunning for self-gain. For example, after earning all the world’s wisdom, Nyame instructed Anansi to share it. He instead kept it locked in a jar. He wished to hide the jar in a tree but couldn’t manage on his own, only possessing a spider’s strength. His son suggested a better way to get the jar in the tree. When it worked, Anansi threw a temper tantrum and broke the jar on the ground.

Caribbean Currents

He often learns things the hard way, as do we all. Anansi’s foibles continue from West Africa to the plantations of the Caribbean. No longer is he simply tricking turtles and monkeys. He now consorts with cows, toads, hares, Brother Death, and more (Cronise and Ward; Jekyll). As wise as he seems to occasionally become in Africa, he loses much of said wisdom when moving to Jamaica with the people who tell of him.

Although some of the major attributes to this trickster remain largely the same, we see some newer traits develop. For example, the brashness and defiance in the face of authority intensify with the plight of slaves’ resentment towards their captors. He reflects his people, becoming far more reactive. Anansi becomes a quick-witted, snarky god, capable of quick evasion. When reminded of the inescapable, oppressive force of slavery, this hard-to-catch god mocks the slave trade, inspiring rebellion.

The Spider-Man Today

Often credited with bringing writing and story peoples of West Africa (Asante), it’s no surprise Anansi survived the arduous journey across the sea and into today. From his growth and change as a sign of wisdom, cunning, and creativity to one of rebellion and evasion, this master of story has woven himself into modernity’s mythos, too.

With the advent of Peter Parker in 1962, a gawky white boy from New York finds himself part of the now complicated identity of a Spider-Man. This comic book version took over 20 years to actually connect to the original Spider. In 1988, Kwaku Anansi was created on a variant world in the Marvel multiverse, Earth-616 (Fandom). He served as a guide to myth for the contemporary Spider-Man.

Another iteration of the Spider occurs under the well-informed pen of the Prince of Stories, Neil Gaiman. In the novel American Gods, a colorful character named Uncle Nancy subtly mirrors the witty, paternal aspects of Anansi. He represents those stories of his people and rallies alongside the remaining modernized deities of today, particularly a Mr. Wednesday. His closeness with this character makes more sense when you know that Anansi is also called Kweku, which is Asante for Wednesday. (How clever, Mr. Gaiman.)

Gaiman additionally crafted a sequel titled Anansi Boys which begins with the legacy of the original storyteller, carried on by his sons, Fat Charlie and Spider. They dichotomize the evolution of this deity, even after his “death.” Their natural opposition and repeated successes and difficulties reflect the growth of Anansi in Africa, the Caribbean, and the present.

How Strong Is Your Weave, O Spider?

The real question: does Anansi fall under myth, folklore or fable? I’d relatively say yes to all three but I will compare his mythos to the Platonic standard below. For reference, I’ve inserted the standards below.

“(a) Myths are a monologue, which those listening do not interrupt;
(b) they are told by an older speaker to younger listeners;
(c) they “go back to older, explicitly indicated or implied, real or fictional oral sources” (d) they cannot be empirically verified;
(e) their authority derives from tradition, and “for this reason, they are not subject to rational examination by the audience”
(f) they have a psychological effect: pleasure, or a motivating impulse to perform an action “capable of surpassing any form of rational persuasion”
(g) they are descriptive or narrative;
(h) they precede or follow a dialectical exposition” (Partenie).

-When examining the myriad renditions of the assorted Anansi tales, it’s clearly of a transcribed narrative. I believe we can safely assume respected elders in any social setting would tell this story, alone and uninterrupted. This meets the first, second, and seventh requirements of the platonic standard.

-These myths often refer to a “time before.” For example, Father Sky-god existed prior to Anansi. He presumably created the Spider. Even in tales where Anansi creates the heavens, there exists a time before this creation. This meets the third standard.

-There is no scientific way to corroborate the existence of Anansi as a real person, ever, in history, thus meeting the fourth standard.

-The very evolution of Anansi alongside his people–through tribalization, colonization, slavery, and modernization–meets the fifth standard. It epitomizes tradition, especially as they establish coming from “a time before.”

-Each myth reveals some relevant life wisdom, which is not necessarily moral in nature but rather proverbial. These conclusions are rarely stated except in Anglo adaptations of traditional tales and teach the listeners how to be in various ways in life (i.e. work, love, authority, oppression), meeting the sixth standard.

-Each story also incorporates Anansi verbally interacting with another creature. This is not always in animal form, which breaks the fable “rule. Therefore, meeting and completing the platonic standards of myth.


References

Amir, Dynast. Anansi Brings Stories To The World: Children’s Fables From West Africa. Noirisme, 2014.

Asante, Molefi Kete. “Ananse | Folklore Character”. Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Ananse.

Cronise, Florence M., and Henry W. Ward. Cunnie Rabbit, Mr. Spider and The Other Beef. Project Gutenberg, 1903.

E2BN. “Origins Of Anansi Brings Stories To The World.” Myths.E2bn.Org, 2019, http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/origins11717-anansi-brings-stories-to-the-world.html.

Fandom. “Kwaku Anansi (Earth-616)”. Marvel Database, 2019, https://marvel.fandom.com/wiki/Kwaku_Anansi_(Earth-616).

Jekyll, Walter. Jamaican Song And Story: Annancy Stories, Digging Sings, Ring Tunes, And Dancing Tunes. Project Gutenberg, 2011.

Partenie, Catalin. “Plato’s Myths.” Plato.Stanford.Edu, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=plato-myths. Accessed 28 Jan 2018.

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