keeping wisdom safe

It’s the time of year when I tell Anansi stories.

A favourite (among many favourites) is Anansi and the pot of wisdom.

Here’s how wikipedia has it:

Anansi and the dispersal of wisdom

Another story tells of how Anansi once tried to hoard all of the world’s wisdom in a pot. Anansi was already very clever, but he decided to gather together all the wisdom he could find and keep it in a safe place.

With all the wisdom sealed in a pot, he was still concerned that it was not safe enough, so he secretly took the pot to a tall thorny tree in the forest. His young son, Ntikuma, saw him go and followed him at some distance to see what he was doing.

The pot was too big for Anansi to hold while he climbed the tree, so he tied it in front of him. Like this the pot was in the way and Anansi kept slipping down, getting more and more frustrated and angry with each attempt.

Ntikuma laughed when he saw what Anansi was doing. “Why don’t you tie the pot behind you, then you will be able to grip the tree?” he suggested .

Anansi was so annoyed by his failed attempts and the realisation that his child was right that he let the pot slip. It smashed and all the wisdom fell out. Just at this moment a storm arrived and the rain washed the wisdom into the stream. It was taken out to sea, and spread all around the world, so that there is now a little of it in everyone.

Though Anansi chased his son home through the rain, he was reconciled to the loss, for, he says: “What is the use of all that wisdom if a young child still needs to put you right?”

Here’s an illustration of the story, from Peggy Appiah’s admirable collection The Pineapple Child and Other Tales from Ashanti. The illustration’s by Mora Dickson.

I dressed up a bit for some of the tellings. My good friend Matthew kindly lent me some of his Ghanaian clothes and things again. I wrestled  with The Cloth and managed to get it into roughly the right shape.

Not only does Ghana have all that wisdom in the Anansi stories, there is even wisdom in all the patterns and symbols that adorn all sorts of artifacts, the adinkra symbols.

Look at the stool. It has the Gye Nyame symbol, (meaning “except for god”).

And the staff or stick. That has the sankofa symbol, a bird reaching behind it for an egg.

Sankofa means, apparently, ‘to go back and get it.” I read here that the “symbol often is associated with the proverb, ‘Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,’ which translates to, ‘It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.'”

Here, I’ve gathered up (from lots of the symbols:

gye nyame sankofa sankofa adinkrahene funtunfunefu denkyemfunefu denkyem dwennimmen akoma ntoaso nyame nti nyame biribi wo soro
bin nka bi akokonan fihankra eban akoben nkonsonnkonson owo foro adobe akoma hwemudua hye wonhye
nkyimu sesa woruban epa dame dame ese ne tekrema nyame nnwu na mawu nyansapo odo nnyew fie kwan mate masie fofo
wawa aba aya nyame dua mframadan nea ope se obedi hene woforo dua pa a wo nsa da mu a boa me na kete pa me ware wo
tamfo bebre duafe mmusuyidee osram ne nsoromma kintinkantan bese saka asase ye duru mpataro nsaa
tamfo bebre duafe mmusuyidee osram ne nsoromma kintinkantan bese saka asase ye duru mpataro nsaa


  1. mick said

    A lovely and very satisfying story Simon
    The symbols are hypnotic in that array; they seem to suggest a condensed wisdom that has been distilled through may forms and filters
    Its also what I spend my time trying to do in my diary during briefing meetings, rather than recording that the Nursery is due to have fluoride varnishing today
    Sankofa: a good job its not wrong or I would have a packed lunch container in every room in the school.

    • simonsterg said

      I have a lot of empty lunch boxes in the staff room. It is not wrong to go back and get it, but it is easier to do it tomorrow.

      • simonsterg said

        I bet you’ve come up with a few potent symbols during briefings. A lot of the adinkra symbols link with proverbs. Along with the Anansi stories, they give a sense of a subtle wisdom-tradition.

        My friend and colleague Isobel uses them as a starting point with Year 6 – they go on to design their own symbol that represents them.

        And Matthew has quite a few in his house – the Gye Nyame one especially.

  2. egotoagrimi said

    I fell in love with these 60 symbols. Would it be too much if I tried to turn them into fonts to type on the computer? Just a crazy idea…

    • simonsterg said

      Yes, there’s something kind of alphabetical about them isn’t there! Except that unlike our letters – which only distantly were pictograms – ox, house… aleph, bayt… alpha beta… these ‘letters’ already have a whole lot of meaning distilled into them so economically. Those familiar with them must have to just see one to see a whole thought or set of thoughts condensed into it.

      As they are reproduced again and again
      it doesn’t seem at all too much. I for one would like to see the results.

  3. I posted something about a pot of gold, yesterday. It came back to me again and again, thinking that maybe there was a story about a pot of gold, or why did I think of that, but could not find it and thought you might know. I did not realise your post was about a pot of wisdom ! I am going to change it or add “wisdom” and link it to your post, if you do not mind 🙂

    Your pupils are so lucky to have a teacher who dresses up so elegantly and tell them beautiful stories !

  4. […] find it fascinating that, like the Ashanti adinkra symbols, wisdom and understanding seems to have been locked into these characters right from the […]

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