Liberal Arts Blog — African Myths: the Spider, the Hare, the Tortoise

Liberal Arts Blog — Tuesday is the Joy of Literature, Language, Culture, and Religion Day

Today’s Topic: African Myths: the Spider (Akan), the Hare (Bantu), the Tortoise (Bantu)

Anything worth saying was said better in Aesop. Agree? Disagree? If the latter, what exactly is missing? Were the messages of Aesop the same or different from those of the animal tales of other cultures? If our DNA is the same, does it follow that our folk tales should be roughly the same with minor variations a function of the local landscape and wildlife and the random events of history? Today, a few notes on some intriguing characters from the mythology of the Akan and Bantu peoples. Most Akans (about 20 million) live in Ghana, but some in the Ivory Coast and Togo. Bantus number roughly 350 million, comprising speakers of over 500 distinct languages spread over most of the countries of central and southern Africa including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (76 million), Tanzania (45 million), South Africa (40 million), and Kenya (37 million). The most famous Akan is probably Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary General of the United Nations (1997–2006) . The most famous Bantu would be Nelson Mandela, a member of the Themba tribe and a native speaker of a Bantu language (Xhosa). Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.

ANANSI — the cunning little spider who triumphs over the larger foes

1. The Anansi tales were brought to the Americas by the transatlantic slave trade.

2. “Anansi was often celebrated as a symbol of slave resistance and survival, because Anansi is able to turn the tables on his powerful oppressors by using his cunning and trickery, a model of behavior used by slaves to gain the upper hand within the confines of the plantation power structure.”

3. “Anansi is also believed to have played a multifunctional role in the slaves’ lives; as well as inspiring strategies of resistance, the tales enabled enslaved Africans to establish a sense of continuity with their African past and offered them the means to transform and assert their identity within the boundaries of captivity.”

NB: “Anansi becomes both an ideal to be aspired toward, and a cautionary tale against the selfish desires that can cause our undoing.”

THE BANTU TRICKSTERS: the hare and the tortoise.

1. While the hare is the most prominent character in Bantu fables, the most powerful hero is the turtle who is even more clever than the hare.

2. Their principal antagonists are the hyena, the lion, the elephant, and the leopard.

3. Local variations are legion. Near the Congo River, for example. the hero is the antelope. In some Zulu cultures, the ferret takes on the role of hare.


1. The “Uncle Remus” stories of Joel Chandler brought the character of “Br’er Rabbit,” rooted in these African myths, to a wider audience and were in turn the basis for the Disney film “Song of the South” which featured the Academy Award Winning Song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” “Through his language of trickery, Brer Rabbit outwits his oppressors, deconstructing, in small ways, the hierarchy of subjugation to which his weak body forces him to physically conform.”

2. The “Signifying Monkey” is a similar figure in African American culture derived from Yoruba mythology. The monkey outwits the stronger lion by speaking metaphorically rather than literally. The clueless lion gets stomped on by the elephant.

3. In his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt wrote of his aunt from Georgia: “She knew all the ‘Br’er Rabbit’ stories, and I was brought up on them. One of my uncles, Robert Roosevelt, was much struck with them, and took them down from her dictation, publishing them in “Harpers,” where they fell flat. This was a good many years before a genius arose who, in ‘Uncle Remus’, made the stories immortal.”

NB: The “Uncle Remus” stories and “Song of the South” are now thought to be racist and offensive. The plantation setting is too idyllic and the dialect inauthentic. “Disney has not released Song of the South on any home video format in the United States, nor is it available on their streaming platform Disney+.” Akan people

Bantu peoples


Bantu mythology

Myths and Legends of the Bantu: Chapter XVIII: Legends of the Tortoise

Br’er Rabbit

Kofi Annan

Xhosa language



Signifying monkey

Kwaku Ananse (film)

Click here for the last three years of posts arranged by theme:

PDF with headlines — Google Drive


Please share the coolest thing you learned this week related to words, language, literature, religion, culture. Or, even better, the coolest or most important thing you learned in your life related to Words, Language, Literature (eg. quotes, poetry, vocabulary) that you have not yet shared.

This is your chance to make someone else’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart. Continuity is key to depth of thought.