African Mythologies

African Goddesses and Tricksters

Who are the major tricksters in African mythology?

Many African tricksters stand out. Several are known primarily for their trickery in the course of theft or even murder. The Bantu Hlakanyana, who had once been a participant in creation, is such a trickster, as is another Bantu figure, Dikithi, who had one arm, one leg, and one eye. Easily the most famous African tricksters are the West African gods Eshu, also known as Elegbara or Legba, and Ananse (Anansi) the Spider.

Eshu is an orisha, one of the spirits of Yoruba and Fon mythology. His spirit apparently accompanied the slaves to the new world; he remains an important presence as Papa Legba in Voodoo in Haiti, Cuba, and elsewhere. Legba is the spirit of verbal and nonverbal communication, a god of fertility, and the guardian of crossroads. Like Hermes in Greece, he is a penetrator of the dark world. In Dahomey, his penetrating phallic symbol, like the phallic herm of Hermes, is often placed outside of dwellings as a protective talisman.

Ananse (Anansi) is ubiquitous among West African peoples. He is the Spider, the weaver of stories. The term Anansesem (“Spider Stories”) refers to a whole collection of orally transmitted Ananse tales. Ananse tales travelled with slaves to America, where the trickster takes forms such as “Aunt Nancy” and Br’er Rabbit.


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