The stories made up an exclusively oral tradition, and indeed Ananse himself was synonymous with skill and wisdom in speech. It was as remembered and told tales that they crossed to the Caribbean and other parts of the New World with captives via the Atlantic slave trade.
Stories of Ananse became such a prominent and familiar part of Ashanti oral culture that the word Anansesem — “spider tales” — came to embrace all kinds of fables. Peggy Appiah, who collected Ananse tales in Ghana and published many books of his stories, wrote: “So well known is he that he has given his name to the whole rich tradition of tales on which so many Ghanaian children are brought up — anansesem — or spider tales.”Elsewhere they have other names, for instance Ananse-Tori in Suriname, Nansi in Guyana, and Kuent’i Nanzi in Curaçao.
How Ananse got his stories
There is an Ananse story that explains the phenomenon of how his name became attached to the whole corpus of tales:
Once there were no stories in the world. The Sky-God, Nyame, had them all. Ananse went to Nyame and asked how much they would cost to buy.
Nyame set a high price: Ananse must bring back Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, the Mmoboro Hornets, and Mmoatia the dwarf.
Ananse set about capturing these. First he went to where Python lived and debated out loud whether Python was really longer than the palm branch or not as his wife Aso says. Python overheard and, when Ananse explained the debate, agreed to lie along the palm branch. Because he cannot easily make himself completely straight a true impression of his actual length is difficult to obtain, so Python agreed to be tied to the branch. When he was completely tied, Anansi took him to Nyame.
To catch the leopard, Ananse dug a deep hole in the ground. When the leopard fell in the hole Ananse offered to help him out with his webs. Once the leopard was out of the hole though he was bound in Ananse’s webs and was carried away.
To catch the hornets, Ananse filled a calabash with water and poured some over a banana leaf he held over his head and some over the nest, calling out that it was raining. He suggested the hornets get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening.
To catch the dwarf he made a doll and covered it with sticky gum. He placed the doll under the odum tree where the dwarfs play and put some yam in a bowl in front of it. When the dwarf came and ate the yam she thanked the doll which of course did not reply. Annoyed at its bad manners she struck it, first with one hand then the other. The hands stuck and Ananse captured her.
Ananse handed his captives over to Nyame. Nyame rewarded him with the stories, which now become known as Ananse stories or Anansesem.