The trans-Atlantic slave trade was a critical episode in world history. Between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, more than twelve million Africans made the involuntary journey from their homelands to the Americas. Some two million of these people died on the voyage, while the rest arrived in a hostile environment purposefully out to break their spirits.
How did Africans and their descendants cope with forced displacement? One form of solace lay in folklore and religion. Scholars once claimed the so-called Middle Passage broke Africans’ connections to their native cultures. We now know this to be false. Elements of African folklore and religion survived the trans-Atlantic crossing. Here are six figures from African folklore in the Americas.
1. Anansi: The Arachnid Trickster of West African Folklore
Although facets of African folklore did endure in the Americas, they often took on new forms depending on local contexts. The figure of Anansi the spider survived more intact than most. Anansi originated as a trickster deity among the Akan people of modern Ghana. He has always been depicted as a spider (the name Anansi translates directly to “spider” in the Akan languages). Unlike the negative image of spiders in Western popular culture, Anansi is a revered repository of wisdom. For hundreds of years, storytellers have told his stories in order to instruct children and instill moral values.
According to one Anansi story, humans did not originally possess the gift of storytelling. Storytelling was originally monopolized by Nyame, the supreme god in the Akan religion. Humanity’s boredom frustrated Anansi, so the spider traveled to the sky to argue with Nyame. To the spider, humans deserved to know how to spin tales for themselves.
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Nyame, ever the gatekeeper, only offered to give Anansi his legends on the condition that he complete a job for him. To win the stories for humankind, Anansi had to return to Earth and capture four dangerous creatures.
Anansi followed the sky god’s advice. Returning to Earth, he cleverly tricked and captured each creature by exploiting their most basic weaknesses. Anansi took his animal cargo to Nyame, who granted the spider’s request despite his frustration. The trickster spider returned to Earth once more carrying Nyame’s stories. He gave them to humans, who have passed down tales of his adventures for generations.
To this day, Anansi remains one of the most prolific figures from African folklore. His impact can be felt not only in West Africa but in the Caribbean and North America as well.
2. Br’er Rabbit: Black America’s Take on the Trickster
Trickster figures can be found in folklore across cultures. While Anansi is perhaps the most famous trickster from African folklore, others do still exist. Another, similar trickster with roots in African folklore is Br’er Rabbit.
In the many parts of Africa historically affected by the slave trade, cultures have told stories of heroic and intelligent rabbit and hare figures. Br’er Rabbit is largely a descendant of these tales. Recounted in stories passed down through the generations across the American South, Br’er Rabbit became widely known after Joel Chandler Harris published his Uncle Remus tales in 1881. In these stories, Br’er Rabbit uses his intelligence to thwart the ambitions of his larger rivals. Although he might initially get stuck in one of their traps, he is ultimately able to think on his feet and escape. He was even featured as a cartoon character in Disney’s infamous 1946 film Song of the South. Due to its racialized portrayal of Black characters, this movie still has not seen a home release in the United States.
3. Shango: The Thunder God with a Trans-Atlantic Reach
Shango, the god of thunder for the Yoruba people of Nigeria, is perhaps the most powerful figure from African folklore on this list. Yet unlike thunder gods from other cultures such as Zeus, Shango originated as a human being.
The Yoruba religion speaks of Shango as having been the fourth king of Oyo, a real medieval state that dominated southwestern Nigeria for over 500 years. He was a strict leader and conqueror who was intrigued by magic. Through his experimentation with the magical arts, Shango created lightning, with disastrous results; the palace of Oyo was destroyed, along with much of his family. Feeling ashamed and defeated, Shango left Oyo and committed suicide. However, death was not his end. Shango became an orisha (a Yoruba divinity), capable of sending lightning down to attack Oyo’s enemies. He is usually depicted wielding an axe — a symbol of his warrior spirit.
In the Americas, Shango gained a widespread following during and after the Atlantic slave trade. Today, Shango is a major orisha in the Cuban Santería and Haitian Vodou traditions, as well as the Brazilian Candomblé faith.
4. High John the Conqueror: Conjure and the Power of Roots
The figure of High John the Conqueror is intimately connected to African folklore and religious traditions. High John the Conqueror isn’t so much a character in a story, though, as he is the manifestation of a plant. In the nineteenth-century, a popular African American religious tradition known as “Conjure” roots or charms were seen as vehicles to achieving good fortune in life.
One version of the legend, noted by Zora Neale Hurston in 1943, does give High John a distinct personality. A prince from the Kingdom of Kongo, his spirit never crumbled despite his enslavement. That being said, Hurston’s version of the story is the only one so far recorded to humanize High John. The original source of the High John root is not precisely known, although some scholars associate it with the tropical plant Ipomoea purga.
During the nineteenth century, the High John root functioned as a good-luck charm for Black people who used it. Users might take it in the hope of achieving financial prosperity, sexual prowess, or protection against evil. Today, interested consumers can find High John roots for sale on websites such as Amazon or Etsy.
5. Mami Wata: A Spiritual Connection to the Sea
What happens when you combine a mermaid with Medusa? You might just get the most widely known incarnations of the spirit Mami Wata! A water spirit often associated with snakes, Mami Wata is one of the most emblematic spinoffs from African folklore in the Caribbean.
It’s hard to trace the exact origins of the Mami Wata cult. Several African peoples all the way down the continent’s Atlantic coast have long valued and revered water deities. Mami Wata herself is a modern amalgamation of many of these spirits under a single name. She does not have an “official” depiction; sometimes she has a serpent’s lower body, while other times she might look completely human.
In the Caribbean, Mami Wata is linked with both healing and wealth. She can reward followers with earthly prosperity or punish them severely for failing to honor her. In this regard, she is similar to other gods of health and wealth from around the world.
6. The Flying Africans: From African Folklore to American Legend
The legend of the Flying Africans is not particular to any African diaspora subculture. It seems to have been widespread across North America and the Caribbean. The tale has also left a distinct impact on African American and Afro-Caribbean literature and art, such as in Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon.
The Flying Africans tale stemmed from enslaved Africans’ desire for freedom from bondage. According to the legend, Africans and their descendants escaped from the shackles of chattel slavery by literally taking flight and returning to Africa. Some real-life events inspired versions of the tale. In Georgia, for instance, the self-drowning of mutinous Igbo slaves in May 1803 remained in local memory through the 1930s. Interviewers and anthropologists from the Federal Writers’ Project recorded accounts of the story from participants. These accounts were included in the book Drums and Shadows, which was published in 1940. The story of the Flying Africans is one of the most intriguing examples of African folklore being reshaped in a North American context.