“West Indian Folk Tales” retold by Philip Sherlock

What struck me about these stories is the similarity between traditional folk tales in different parts of the world. I grew up, of course, with British or European stories, whereas these stories are either of Carib or African origin. Yet many of them sounded familiar, not in the specifics but in the general themes — explaining the world and how things came to be the way they are, through stories with animals as characters illustrating different aspects of human behaviour.

What was also interesting about these stories was that the moral was not always clear. The spider Anansi figures heavily in the African-origin stories, and he often tricks the other animals or acts selfishly, taking advantage of their generosity or trust. Sometimes this works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. The outcome wasn’t as predictable as I’d expected it to be.

The first few stories are from the Carib people, the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Caribbean who gave the region its name but suffered heavily under European colonisation and are now very few in number. They explain the origins of the people, saying they used to live on the moon but saw in the bright procession of worlds around them there was one that looked dull and needed cleaning. So they went down to Earth on cloud chariots to clean it, but got stuck here when the cloud chariots broke loose and floated away. They cried out to Kabo Tano ( the ‘Ancient One’) for help, and he gave them a huge Coomacka Tree with all kinds of fruit and vegetable. Then he ordered them to cut it down, and each one took cuttings from it. “And so, to this day, every Carib has food close to his dwelling.” Then there are stories to explain the animals, for example how the sun-spirit Arawidi created the dog as a companion for humans, molding it out of fish. The part he held in his hand became the nose, and that’s why every dog has a cold nose.

Then the majority of the stories are those the enslaved Africans brought with them to the West Indies from their homelands. Many of them are originally Ashanti tales – in the West African language Twi, the word for spider is “ananse”. The characters in these stories are animals, but with human characteristics, for example living in houses, wearing clothes, talking, paying each other money. Anansi the spider, the central character, is often greedy and selfish, scheming to outwit the other animals, but is portrayed sympathetically – as the weakest animal, he can’t compete physically with the tigers etc, so has to use his wits.

One interesting parallel with the Carib stories was the trajectory of all the animals living together as friends at first, before pulling apart and becoming enemies as a result of some trick. For example in the Carib stories, the reason man needed the dog as a companion was that all the other animals had deserted him after times were hard and he started hunting them to stave off his hunger. In the African stories, Anansi and Tiger used to be friends, but Anansi stole Tiger’s lunch one day and so Tiger retreated deep into the bush and Anansi hid in a tree, safe in his web.

I would be interested to know how this book was put together – what the original sources were, and how much the modern-day author Philip Sherlock adapted them. It was always a question in my mind, particularly when I saw striking parallels with other cultures. For example the character of the Wise Owl appears in both the African and Carib stories, and is of course also familiar from European stories. It’s quite amazing that people in three different corners of the world should see an owl in the same way – reminds me of the parallels I’m seeing in “The Golden Bough”, a massive compilation of myths and traditional beliefs from around the world that I’m reading gradually over several months. For me, this was the most interesting part of these stories. I enjoyed them for themselves and their characters too, but mostly for the unexpected feeling of deep familiarity.

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