Adinkra symbols are a unique representation cultural expressions, concepts, values and traditional mythology of the Akan of Ghana and Gyaaman of Ivory Coast. The intricate symbols of Adinkra have an appealing but also represent objects that encapsulate evocative messages that convey traditional wisdom, aspects of life or the environment. The Adinkra symbols and meanings express subjects that chronicle the history, philosophy, and heritage of the Asante people. The heritage dates back to the prehistoric time when Africans inscribed on walls and caves as a means of written communication.
All about Adinkra
The intricate symbols of Adinkra have an appealing quality that represents reminiscent messages of traditional wisdom, cultural and religious aspects of the Ashanti and Akan communities. Adinkra means ‘goodbye’ or ‘farewell' in the Akan language. Wearing of traditional outfits adorned in Adinkra has been a practice amongst Akan and Ashanti for centuries.
Traditionally, only the nobles and religious leaders had the privilege to adorn Adinkra cloths on special events. However, in modern times, Adinkra has been adopted and extensively been integrated into fashion, architecture, wood carvings, jewelry furniture, pottery and so forth.
Legend has it that the Adinkra is christened after the king of Gyaman, Nana Kofi Adinkra. The Asante artists were later to learn the Adinkra designs King Kwodo Adingras son, Appau after Asante defeated Gyamnan. It continues to insinuate that Nana Adinkra dressed in patterned cloth, in response to his grief on being taken to the capital of Asante, Kumasi.
The symbols on Asante’s traditional fabric are also known as Adinkra. These emblems were originally crafted by the Akan community.
Among the hundreds of all Adinkra symbols and their meaning that have been recorded and preserved, the former symbols hold intangible fables, proverbs, folktales, songs, and phrases. The Adinkra also portray important events, the behavior of flora and fauna plus the human's behavior
Ancient symbols in retrospect
The greatest civilizations like the Egyptians, Native Americans, Romans, and Greek had intricate and complex symbols we can still study today. These ancient symbols are consistent with geometry laws - the foundation of the universe. These symbols and emblems were cherished in ancient civilization. It has been studied that living organisms like plants, seashells and so on have geometry embedded in their design, further implying of advanced ancient knowledge.
Ancient symbolic Pictures that formed works of art sheds interesting knowhow few can comprehend.
Think about the papal cross, Chinese dragon, Star of David, Horned God Symbol, Eye of Horus, the list is endless. They are common to sight but have you ever posed to wonder what they mean, or the massages or possible energies they possess to those who revere them?
African Symbols have been perfected by Africans since time immemorial. From ornaments, tattoo, scarification, cloth patterns, shields emblems to shaving styles - all incorporated African tribal symbols in one way or the other. The study of Adinkra will open your eyes to other frontiers of African symbols and meanings so crucial to understanding the religious and cultural aspect of the African people.
The Adinkra cloth
The Adinkra cloth has the Adinkra symbols embedded into its fabric. The Adinkra traditional outfits have outlasted the modern fashion era. In ancient times, Adinkra used to be the preserve of the Ashanti royals and spiritual leaders. In modern Ghana and Africa expect to spot its use amongst all individuals of any social position.
- The Adinkra funeral cloth is common to have three shades of colors - Red, black and brown.
- The Ghanaian designers use symbolic pictures or themes to create patterns on cloth even to other accessories other than fabric.
- The dye or ink utilized for printing the fabrics is harvested from the bark of specific trees. Most times they still use the old traditional printing techniques - the block - stamp and the screen printing method.
- Stamping is accomplished pressing the dye in sequence into the cotton cloth secured to the ground by pegs. Today, batik method like the one used to print Kitenge and Ankara fabrics is being adopted with the hope the use of indelible dye will offer a new lifeline to the Adinkra.
Adinkra symbols and meaning
Before we delve into the list of Adinkra symbols and their meanings. It is good to take notice that they are around 400 known Adinkra symbols, but for purposes of this piece I will narrow down to the most common ones. I have detailed well each Ghana Adinkra symbols and their meanings so free to dig in!
Most if not all Adinkra symbols and their meanings have been assigned a unique literal, symbolic and proverbial expression.
Here's the list:
ADINKRAHENE (Chieftain of Adinkra symbols)
It’s the African symbols of power charisma and leadership. This symbol was instrumental in defining the objectives of other symbols. It amplifies the important role of leadership.
Adinkra symbol of dependency of a palm tree. It is a used as a sign of wealth, ruggedness, and vitality.
This is a hydrous shrub. It symbolizes chastity alongside good tidings, holiness, and cleanliness.
AKOBEN (war horn)
It is one of the most popular Adinkra and African warrior symbols. The symbol represents vigilance and heroism. The traditional Akoben horn was used to signal a call to battle. The Akan symbols like that of a crossed swords were the popular emblem on battle shields of Akan warriors. The swords also represent a legitimate administrative authority.
AKOKO NAN (A hen’s leg)
Represents a symbol discipline and caring. Like the name suggests; the hen tramps on its chick, but will not kill them. This portrays the protective and nurturing nature of parents. The message it seeks to convey is the promotion of child care, without necessarily spoiling them.
Aban (Literally: Fortress)
Adinkra symbol for strength and authority.
This Adinkra symbol signified by several linked hearts. It is a symbol of understanding or accord.
ANANSE NTONTAN (spider’s web)
Anansi is one of the wisdom symbols depicted a spider in some Akan folktale. It is majorly a representation of the spirit of knowledge, wisdom, and ingenuity.
ASASE YE DURU (Earth has mass)
It is the symbol of providence and the supreme being of Mother nature. The symbol promotes the importance of the Earth in sustaining the existence of life.
It depicts endurance, tolerance, and willpower. The fern plant is known to be hardy to harsh climatic conditions. Any person adorning the symbol advocates for utmost endurance against hardships and tribulations, just like the fern tolerates difficulties in sustaining growth.
BESE SAKA (A bag of cola nuts)
Bese Saka represent a sign of affluence, power, wealth, plenty and union. The symbol underscores the importance of agriculture (cola nuts) and trade and boosting their social - economic fortunes.
BI NKA BI (No one is supposed to bite the other)
Symbolizes peace and unity. The BI NKA BI motif is based on an imagery of two fish locking on each other's tail. The sign is meant to keep people in check against any devious acts of provocation or civil strife. The image is based on two fish biting each other tails.
BOA ME NA ME MMOA WO (Come to my aid and I will reciprocate likewise)
Adinkra symbol of teamwork and interdependence.
DAME - DAME
Symbol representing the principles of intelligence and ingenuity.
Adinkra symbol signifying beauty and hygiene - feminine attributes. The Ghanaian symbols have been noted to put to the spotlight the qualities of a woman like affection, love, and tenderness. The wooden Duafe used for hair tidiness was a treasured object of Akan woman.
Adinkra symbol of a double drum. It represents strength and unity.
Symbol of versatility. The ability of the crocodile to survive within a water habitat but survive on air demonstrates the potential to adapt to prevailing conditions.
DWENNIMMEN (ram’s horns)
An Adinkra symbol for strength with virtues of humility. A ram will fight aggressively against a rival but will give in humbly to be butchered. This accentuates strength goes in hand with humbleness.
EBAN is one of the traditional symbols in Ghana symbolizing protection and security. According to the Akan people, a residence secured with a fence is the ideal homestead. The role of the fence is regarded to be a symbol that protects the family from external factors.
It is a mark of law and justice, servitude, enslavement, and captivity. The experience of Africans in the hands of Arabs during the slave trade is the origin of one of the many Ghanaian symbols depicting oppression. The symbols abhor all forms of slavery while warning lawbreakers of the stringent nature of the law.
ESE NE TEKREMA (The teeth and the tongue)
It is a symbol advocating for friendship and mutual co-existence. The interdependence interplay between the teeth and the tongue assures they work as a team irrespective of the conflict that is prevalent.
Symbol of independence, liberty, and autonomy.
Symbolizes security and sense of security. Nothing signifies the truth to this meaning that the architectural designs of the Akan dwellings that had only one single heavily fortified entrance/exit.
FOFO (yellow flowering plant)
Am emblem denoting jealousy, discontentment, and envy. “When the Fofo’s petals drop, they turn into black spiky - like seeds. The nature of the Fofo petals is likened to a jealous man. True to the symbol, the Akan possess a proverb - “Sedee fofo pe ne se gyinantwi abo bidie,” that suggests the jealous feeling of a fofo plant towards a gyinantwi - whose seeds are envied to turn black.
GYE NYAME (except for God)
This is one of the Ghanaian traditional symbols honoring supremacy of Divine deity. This symbol depicts the importance Ghanaian people place on their spiritual identity that is reflected in the religious motif.
HYE WON HYE (That which does not burn)
Symbol denoting imperishability and tolerance. The benefit behind this symbol is highlighted by the acts of traditional shamans who could tread on burning embers without it consuming their feet. From those heroic acts, it’s a source of inspiration in times of need
KETE PA (good bed)
An African symbol of a family that signifies the marriage institution. It’s normally said that a lady who has a comfort of a stable matrimony normally lies on a pleasant bed.
KWATAKYE ATIKO (Hairstyle of an Asante war leader)
It;'s a symbol of courage and heroism. This Adinkra symbol is a symbolism of Kwatakye’s hairstyle. These type of Ghanaian traditional symbols are known to represent bravery and valor. An Akan brave warrior is named after the symbol.
MATE MASIE (What I hear, I keep)
It highlights wisdom, intelligence, and shrewdness.
MPUANNUM (five bunches of hair)
Adinkra symbol of sacerdotal and loyalty. This symbol is said to be the hairstyle of joy. It is the designated as the official hairstyle of the priestesses and the hairdo tie is the basis of the Adinkra symbol.
ME WARE WO (I shall marry you)
It is one of Adinkra persevere symbols. In addition, it denotes the importance of commitment and patience.
MMERE DANE (Time changes)
This is symbol celebrating change.
MMUSUYIDEE (That which removes bad luck)
It heralds good tidings and purity.
MPATAPO (knot of pacification /reconciliation)
Symbol indicting reconciliation, peacemaking and conflict resolution. Mpatapo symbol represents desires of parties in conflict to resolve their dispute amicably and in a peaceful way.
NEA ONNIM NO SUA A, OHU (He who does not know can know from learning)
The symbol is a beacon of knowledge, counsel and continued pursuit of enlightenment.
NEA OPE SE OBEDI HENE (He who desires to be king)
It is a symbol of governance, service, and leadership. The Akan expression “Nea ope se obedi hene daakye no, firi ase sue som ansa” means that you must master the skills before you seek the position of a king.
NKONSONKONSON (chain link)
This symbol is a sign of unity and partnership. A constant emphasis that a community is held together by unity and prospers on those values.
It is a symbol of creativity and versatility
A symbol embedded on the fabric as a gesture for excellence, authenticity, and legitimacy. The workmanship that goes into making the NSAA symbol branded fabrics is a reflection of the values drawn from the symbol.
NSOROMMA (child of the heavens)
It represents guardianship. It goes to showcase how the heavenly being is ever looking after His subjects.
NYAME NNWU NA MAWU (God never dies, therefore I cannot die)
An African symbol for life representing God’s universal nature and the continued reality of a human spirit. This underlines immortality state of soul.
NYAME DUA (God’s tree/ altar)
Adinkra symbol of God's existence and guardianship. The Nyame Dua is desecrated shrine Divine Liturgy is performed. It is normally built within the compound. A tree with three conjoined branches is preferred. This prop will secure water and herbs in an earthenware for special purification ceremonies or blessing rituals.
NYAME YE OHENE (God is King)
Is symbol depicting God as supreme and majestic.
NYAME BIRIBI WO SORO (God is in the heavens)
It is a symbol of hope. A solemn promise that we can seek help from above, as God is ever ready to hear our prayers.
NYAME NTI (by God’s grace)
A symbol reflecting faith and belief in God. The stem is seen as the sign of life in various African cultures. To the Akan, the soil which God has commanded to nourish the plants that form the basis of their food - without it no life could exist.
NYANSAPO (wisdom knot)
Another of the many Adinkra wisdom symbols. It signifies wisdom, intelligence, and tolerance. It is one of the most revered Adinkra symbols. This Akan symbol conveys an objective that wisdom is a requisite to making sound judgments. Being intelligent puts one in a position to utilize and apply his experience and skills for practical applications.
ODO NNYEW FIE KWAN (Love never loses its way home)
Adinkra symbol for love.
OKODEE MMOWERE (The talons of the eagle)
Adinkra symbol honoring the strength, bravery, courage, and heroism. The African eagle ferocious and daring aerial skills together with the mighty grab of its talons is a sure symbolic asset to the Adinkra. One of the nine tribes of Akan, Oyoko designates this particular Adinkra symbol as their clan motif.
ONYANKOPON ADOM NTI BIRIBIARA BEYE YIE (By God’s grace, all will be well)
Adinkra symbol of hope, belief, and Providence.
OSRAM NE NSOROMMA (The Moon and the Star)
Adinkra symbol for love, unity, and harmony. This symbol objectifies the critical importance of a holy union between a man and a woman. The Proverb: “Kyekye pe aware” connotes a deep agony that the North Star goes through as she awaits her husband, the moon who she is destined to marry.
OWO FORO ADOBE (snake climbing the raffia tree)
Adinkra Symbol of steadfastness, caution, and diligence. The raffia tree thorns are a challenge to the snake as it climbs but not a deterrent to its persistence.
OWUO ATWEDEE (The ladder of death)
The Adinkra symbol of mortality. Life has no beginning and no end - the actions of an individual in a living state will determine the nature of existence in the spiritual world long after the death.
PEMPAMSIE (sew in readiness)
The symbol of steadfastness and robustness. The emblem of the chain - link insinuates strength through the act of coalition.
Sankofa (retreat and get it)
Adinkra symbol of the value of the past. The emblem is characterized by a bird retracing its steps to get a lost egg. Symbol emphasizes it's still early to make it right once you identify your undoing.
You can have a comparative close up view of how the Adinkra shapes engage to form a unique design as seen on an Adinkra symbols chart. For sure the Akan and Ashanti have rich Adinkra symbols and their names. The few that I have highlighted are enough to get you started. Make a point in learning the meaning of all of them. You can become part of the Adinkra by buying an Adinkra outfit or shop for those symbolic adorned ornaments or accessories.