Transporting Mythology

In Door of Return by Reina Cowan

“Eh Kwik!”

“Eh Kwak!” 

In her book, “Tales From the Caribbean,” author Trish Cooke recounts the call and expected response that raconteurs would give in her parents’ native Dominica before launching into traditional folk stories.

With roots in African tradition oral tradition, this type of storytelling has allowed the passage of monsters and mischief-making characters across the Atlantic. Cooke notes that “originally the stories were passed down by word of mouth and the storyteller would have added and taken away parts of the story to make it work for a specific audience.” (Cooke, “Author’s note”)

Creatures like Anansi the Spider, Gang Gang Sara the Witch of Golden Lane, Papa Bwa and Mama Glo

In cases like those of Anansi or Gang Gang Sara, characters go through a transformative process upon touching down in the Caribbean, due to the physical landscapes and cultural traditions they encounter that differ from those in Africa.

Myths and characters passed down from African to Caribbean oral traditions, provide a mirror through which to examine how the experience of displacement has impacted African people as they have crossed the ocean to land on the islands.

By highlighting mythological stories based around the characters’ physical environment, I hope to illustrate how the physical aspect of colonization— establishing oneself on new ground as portrayed through myth— is integral to the Afro-Caribbean imagination and construction of self. 

Author Solimar Otero says that authors grapple with “the hotly contested spiritual boundaries found in locating different ‘Africas’ within the melded, creolized and quotidian practice of Afro-Caribbean religion.” (Otero, 7.) 

Similarly to religious tradition, I argue that in storytelling tradition, the focus on individual characters that transform from their roots in African myths then create various new “Africas” creates an essential lens through which Afro-Caribbean people can view their own creation stories as a people. 

Anansi, the spider

Originating from Ghana, and named after the Akan language word for “spider,” Anansi is a popular mythological “trickster” character.

Anansi Stories originated in West Africa. Came to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands from Ashanti slaves. Passed down orally through generations. Anansi is sometimes a man, sometimes a spider, occasionally both.

Not only transported from Africa to Caribbean mythology, but also parallels the African American character, Br’er Rabbit.

Anansi stories are some of the most popular forms of Afro-Caribbean folklore in part due to themes of intellectual resistance. Anansi stories have often been told as children’s stories or lullabies, however they encompass themes that were highly applicable to adults under the colonial social order as well. 

Among those of African descent in the New World, Anansi’s trickster nature highlights the intellectual wit and resilience that enslaved Africans needed to develop once brought to the Caribbean. Because the enslaved had little physical power over their oppressors, they often displayed small acts of resistance that were mental or psychological instead. Author Ron Cherry says that among African Jamaicans “Anansi is generally a figure of admiration whose cunning and scheming nature reflects qualities necessary to survive in an oppressive society.” (Cherry, 71.) 

Although often told to children, Cherry notes that in Jamaica, Anansi’s trickery could be interpreted as a form of “street smarts.” In major cities like Kingston, known for higher levels of violence, Anansi became a lesson in self-preservation. Anansi’s transformation from spider to man to disguise himself served a lesson to urban Caribbean people to keep their wits about them and avoid hypervisibility to avoid being a potential target for those up to no good. In cases like this, we see how the physical urban landscape parallels the teachings of this mythological creature and impacts its citizens as they move from African to Afro-Caribbean. 

The Legend of Gang Gang Sarah.

In the late 18th century, the story of Gang Gang Sarah, or the Witch of Golden Lane began to emerge.

Legend has it that one night, Sarah flew from her home in Africa to land in the Tobagonian village of Les Cocteau. From there, she went on to travel to Golden Lane to locate her lost family who she believed to be in the area.

At Golden Lane, Sara married a man named Tom. Years and years later, after his death, Sara longs to return to Africa, climbing to the top of the silk cotton tree in hopes of flying back home. But after consuming salt in Tobago, Sara discovers she no longer has the ability to fly.

Sara’s body “has absorbed the salt of Tobago, a transformative experience that ties her to the Caribbean and provides her with a changed identity.” (Skinner, Waller, 99.)

“Gang Gang Sara’s story speaks of the wish to return to Africa and of the impossibility of return.” (Skinner, Waller,99.) After living on the islands, displaced from her native Africa, Sara’s body has “absorbed the salt of Tobago.” This impact has created a sort of hybridity: now that Sara has experienced life in a new land, she can never be as she once was.

Despite being portrayed as a witch in Caribbean mythology, the legend of Sara parallels the experience of black immigrants— displaced from Africa and subject to the transformative powers of plantation life on the colonial islands. Once they have touched Caribbean soil, a new element is added to the African identity that is determined by life in the New World and the colonial encounter. 

In Afro-Caribbean culture, oral traditions allow the passage of stories and folklore characters across the Atlantic. In cases like those of Anansi or Gang Gang Sara, characters go through a transformative process upon touching down in the Caribbean, due to the physical geography and cultural traditions that differ from those in Africa.

The examples of these characters and their stories illustrate why folklore makes an essential lens to study the “creolization” of cultures between Africa and the Caribbean. Whether in their African forms of inception or in Caribbean variations that have evolved over time and oceans, characters like Anansi, Gang Gang Sara and others in this volume serve to highlight life lessons and reflect the collective imaginations of Afro-Caribbean people and their worlds.