Common to many cultures around the world, folklore acts as both entertainment for the children and a way to teach them lessons. “Anansi and the Tar-baby” is one of many Jamaican folklore stories collected by Martha Warren Beckwith (1924). These stories, passed on through generations, were preserved relatively well from their origins in West Africa. All of the stories in the collection include Anansi, the trickster spider-God from West African culture. His character is a recurring one in Caribbean folklore, where he is used to convey the moral of the story. It is obvious from these stories that wisdom and common sense have been passed on from African cultures, both providing entertainment and educative content.
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This particular text relates the story of Anansi as a greedy and lazy character. He lives on a farm with his wife and children, who go to tend it every morning while he sits in the house and eats. Instead of helping around the house or on the farm, he becomes fatter from consuming all the fruits of his family’s labor, causing them to become thinner. After a while, his wife decides that she has had enough and comes up with a plan to weed Anansi out of the house. She makes a tar figure of him and leaves it outside in the yard, calling it an intruder that will not leave when speaking to Anansi. He then gets angry and eventually ends up punching the tar baby. However, his hand gets stuck in the tar, causing him to become even angrier. He then continues to punch the tar baby until he is stuck completely and, ashamed, remains in that state until death.
The lesson of this fable is relatively straightforward – it is about laziness and greed. Anansi is punished for being unhelpful and slothful, making the rest of his family work double for him. Furthermore, what is most remarkable about this lesson is that he does not get punished by some mystical powers or even his wife or children. At the end of the day, he digs his own hole by continuously punching the tar baby, not only unaware of its nature but unable to stop even after his first fist gets stuck. This is an important distinction since it teaches conscience rather than being afraid of external punishments. What ultimately kills Anansi is his pride, although it is his laziness that gets him punished in the first place. Therefore, in the short and entertaining fable, parents can teach their kids the moral standards that they would like them to follow.
Folklore stories are often passed on by ear and are only written down when put into collections or for research. Therefore, it is expected that the form in which the fable is written down is quite different from the original form that it was told. However, it should not be seen as a loss of any kind. Instead, these fables become richer as they absorb generations of culture and experience, as they start to reflect the many people that have narrated them. These fables change with the times around them and develop just as the society they are a part of does. The stories become more than just lessons that parents teach their kids, they become sociological devices that allow for a deeper view into the years they have endured.
Warren Beckwith, M. (1924). Jamaica Anansi Stories. Sacred Texts.