If you don’t like spiders, you might want to skip the first ten minutes of series one, episode two of American Gods.
This is when we get our first glimpse of the Old God Mr Nancy, who is simultaneously a nattily dressed African man and a multi-coloured hairy tarantula who can incite a rebellion on a slave ship with the power of his rhetoric.
But who is Mr Nancy – and what is he doing on a Dutch slave ship crossing the Atlantic? And what is the significance of his arachnoid appearance?
Meet Anansi, the African trickster god
Anansi is a spider who often acts and appears as a man – and he’s sometimes depicted as a hybrid of the two, as a spider in human clothes or a man with eight legs. He is the god of all stories, and a trickster who pulls pranks on other animals.
As fans of the book will notice, the TV version of American Gods has given Mr Nancy an update and an upgrade. In Neil Gaiman’s novel we meet Mr Nancy in an empty cafeteria where he cuts a slightly sad figure, but showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green instead turn the clock back and place him on a slave ship with a desperate worshipper who begs him for help.
Mr Nancy – or Anansi – provides no comfort to the slave who prays to him, instead telling the huddled men how absolutely f***ed they are, how f***ed their descendants will be, and how white people will be f***ing them over for centuries to come. It’s very Black Lives Matter and very 2017.
But, cleverly, it’s also completely in line with the folk tales of Anansi. Particularly in the Caribbean, he is celebrated as a symbol of slave resistance and survival: Anansi turns the tables on his oppressors using cunning and trickery, inspiring strategies of resistance.
Where does he come from and how did he end up in America?
The legend of Anansi comes from the area now known as Ghana. Ananse means “spider” in Akan, the native language of the Akan people of the Ivory Coast. Tales are particularly common among the Ashanti people, with a strong oral tradition that passed down tales from generation to generation.
Anansi himself is tied in with that oral tradition, because the god has major skills with words (perhaps why, in Gaiman’s story, Mr Wednesday uses him as a warm-up act before speaking to the Old Gods). In fact, all kinds of fables are called “Anansesem” by the Ashanti people – that is, “spider tales”.
One folk tale goes that he was made the god of all stories by Nyame the sky-god after completing the Herculean task of catching hornets, a leopard and a python with clever tricks to outsmart them.
Stories of Anansi spread around the world in the West African diaspora, driven by the slave trade. You’ll find Anansi in Sierra Leone, West Indies, Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles. In the American South, he has evolved into the female figure of Aunt Nancy.
In American Gods, Gaiman has him living in Florida, where he gains strength by having stories told about him.
What does he look like?
In the novel, Shadow gets a glimpse at the true Anansi and it’s pretty trippy.
Gaiman writes: “He was looking at Mr Nancy, an old black man with a pencil moustache, in his check sports jacket and his lemon-yellow gloves, riding a carousel lion as it rose and lowered, high in the air; and, at the same time, in the same place, he saw a jewelled spider as high as a horse, its eyes an emerald nebula, strutting, staring down at him; and simultaneously he was looking at an extraordinarily tall man with teak-coloured skin and three sets of arms, wearing a flowing ostrich-feather headdress, his face painted with red stripes, riding an irritated golden lion, two of his six hands holding on tightly to the beast’s mane; and he was also seeing a young black boy, dressed in rags, his left foot all swollen and crawling with black flies; and last of all, and behind all these things, Shadow was looking at a tiny brown spider, hiding under a withered ochre leaf.”
American Gods is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes available every week. Episodes air on US channel Starz on Sunday nights