The Anansi legends are believed to have originated in the Ashanti tribe. They later spread to other Akan groups and then to the West Indies, Suriname, and the Netherlands Antilles. On Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire he is known as Nanzi, and his wife as Shi Maria. Anansi stories originated in Ghana, in Africa. The word Anansi is Akan and means spider.
In some beliefs, Anansi is responsible for creating the sun, the stars and the moon, as well as teaching mankind the techniques of agriculture. Another story tells of how Anansi tried to hoard all of the world's wisdom in a calabash. In the end he realizes the futility of trying to keep all the wisdom to himself, and releases it.
Most cultures which feature Anansi in folktales also tell the story concerning Anansi becoming the King of All Stories, not just his own. In the original Ashanti version of this story, Anansi approaches Nyame, the Sky God, with the request that he be named King of All Stories. Nyame then tells Anansi that if he can catch The Jaguar With Teeth Like Daggers, The Hornets Who Sting Like Fire, and The Fairy Whom Men Never See, he will be King of Stories. Anansi agrees, despite Nyame's doubt that he can do it. Anansi then tricks the jaguar, who intends to eat him, into playing a game that allows Anansi to tie him up. He tricks the hornets by pretending that it is raining, and telling them to hide in a calabash. He tricks the fairy with the gum/tar baby trick addressed below. He then takes them to Nyame and becomes King of All Stories. Other versions, notably Caribbean variations, of this story involve Anansi getting Snake for Lion/Tiger.
One of the few times Anansi himself was tricked, was when he tried to fight a tar baby after trying to steal food, but became stuck to it instead. The "tar-baby" tale appears in a variety of ethnic African folklore tales. It is best known from the Brer Rabbit version, found in the Uncle Remus stories. These were derived from African-American folktales in the Southern United States. Ultimately this version was adapted and used in the 1946 live-action/animated Walt Disney movie Song of the South.
Many Anansi stories deal with him attempting to trick people into allowing him to steal food or money, or something else that could turn a profit, but frequently the tricks ultimately backfire on poor Anansi.
When Anansi was first featured in a story, he was the villain who destroyed all of the crops, intending for everyone to die as a massive sacrifice to his father.
In the Kid's WB television program Static Shock a character similar to Anansi appears in an episode where Static visits Africa as an African magician character. The two join forces to fight a villain dressed as a leopard.
American Gods is a novel by Neil Gaiman that features Anansi (under the name Mr. Nancy), among other mythological characters. A later novel, Anansi Boys, follows the sons of Anansi as they discover each other and their heritage.
The English rock band Skunk Anansie (1994-2001) took the name of the spider-man of the West African folk tales, but with a slightly different spelling, and added "Skunk" to the name, in order to make the name nastier.
Anansi the Spider narrated stories from African folklore on the PBS series Sesame Street. He was voiced by Ossie Davis. These cartoon segments were introduced by Sonia Manzano who plays Maria on that show.
An upcoming villain of DC Comics' Justice League will be named Anansi. The character was first mentioned in Justice League of America #23, but wasn't named, until Justice League of America #24. His full origins have yet to be revealed. He is a large, other-worldly spider with supernatural powers. He has been manipulating the powers of Vixen and Animal Man.