The Anansi Folk Tales Collection

Spider Trickster Tales from Jamaica

Spider Trickster Tales from Jamaica: The Anansi Folk Tales Collection
From the John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

On 35mm microfilm

According to Robert Hill, Professor of History & Editor-in-Chief of The Marcus Garvey & UNIA Papers at UCLA, these Anansi tales are the single most important collection of original folktales from the Caribbean in existence for facilitating research and teaching in the area of cultural studies of the African Diaspora, popular culture, and ethnomusicology.

The collection
The collection consists of nearly 5,000 handwritten stories, each with a typed transcript, giving variants of about 200 basic trickster tales. The texts were written in Creole by 1,124 school children from 97 primary schools (both public and private, including various religious denominations) in Jamaica in 1930-1931 in response to a contest organized by the Jesuit missionary and ethnologist Joseph John Williams to collect material on the oral tradition of tales concerning the spider "Anansi" (usually written "Anancy" in Jamaica) and/or other animal and human figures. It is the largest manuscript collection of Anansi folk tales in existence.
The original manuscripts are contained in school "bluebooks" per student. The penmanship is usually quite good and the stories are easily legible. Many are illustrated with drawings made by the children and include music and the lyrics of songs. The transcripts are typewritten one to a single sheet and interleaved with the relevant stories. The collection has been microfilmed in its entirety.

Trickster tales
Trickster tales concerning animal or human protagonists are a well-known feature of oral traditions worldwide. The trickster is often an animal, but can also be a human figure and is thought to possess special powers. The tales combine elements of violence, deception and magic and the hero is variously perceived to be godlike or a fool, a destructive villain or an innocent prankster. The tales may be grouped in cycles and serve both ritualistic and entertainment purposes. Various trickster protagonists are the coyote among Native Americans of the west and the African trickster hare, who became "Brer Rabbit" in the US southeast. The spider trickster of the peoples of West Africa, "Anansi", was transmitted to the Caribbean by slaves brought over in the colonial period, especially to Jamaica, where he is known as "Anancy" or "Brea Nancy".

The collector
Joseph John Williams, S.J. (1875-1940) was a prominent ethnologist with a strong interest in religious beliefs and psychic phenomena in Jamaica and their links to West African culture. He first visited Jamaica in 1907 and served as a missionary there in the period 1912-1917 becoming closely acquainted with the African-Jamaican population of the island's central and western "parishes" (districts) and their folklore and customs. His first book, Whisperings of the Caribbean (1925), contains recollections of his experiences there. He went on to publish major studies of West Indian religious culture, including Voodoos and Obeahs (1932) and Psychic Phenomena of Jamaica (1934). Starting in 1932 he lectured in cultural anthropology at Boston College, where he established a very extensive collection of mostly printed materials on Africa and the Caribbean, named in honor of his father Nicholas M. Williams. The Anansi manuscripts form part of this collection. They were gathered with the cooperation of the Jamaican Director of Education, who distributed Williams's circular calling for contributions to his contest to schools all over the island.

Importance for research
Such a body of material forms a unique resource for research, but until today the collection is not as widely known as it should be. Covering the whole island as it does with contributions from children from varied religious and social backgrounds, who would have heard these stories at home from parents and grandparents or in other cultural contexts, it provides a truly remarkable snapshot of Jamaica's oral traditions at a moment when they were still very much alive. It is fortunate indeed that these stories were captured and preserved thanks to Williams's initiative. Now their publication on microfilm will make them more easily accessible to scholars working in various fields, including Caribbean studies, African and African-American studies, ethnology, folklore, and linguistics.