West African symbols that represent concepts or aphorisms
Adinkra are symbols from Ghana that represent concepts or aphorisms. Adinkra are used extensively in fabrics, logos and pottery. They are incorporated into walls and other architectural features. Fabric adinkra ary woodcut sign writing as well as screen printing. Adinkra symbols appear on some traditional Akan goldweights. The symbols are also carved on stools for domestic and ritual use. Tourism has led to new departures in the use of the symbols in such items as T-shirts and jewellery.
Calabash adinkra stamps
Samples of recorded Adinkra symbols
The symbols have a decorative function but also represent objects that encapsulate evocative messages that convey traditional wisdom, aspects of life or the environment. There are many different symbols with distinct meanings, often linked with proverbs. In the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah, they were one of the means for "supporting the transmission of a complex and nuanced body of practice and belief".
1817 Adinkra mourning cloth
Adinkra symbols were originally created by the Bono people of Gyaman, an Akan people of Ghana. Gyaman King Nana Kwadwo Agyemang Adinkra originally created or designed these symbols and named it after himself 'Adinkra'. The Adinkra symbols were largely used on pottery, stools etc by the people of Bono. Adinkra cloth was worn by the King of Gyaaman, and its usage spread from Bono Gyaman to Asante and other Akan Kingdoms following its defeat. It is said that the guild designers who designed this cloth for the kings were forced to teach the Asantes the craft. Gyaman king Nana Kwadwo Agyemang Adinkra's first son, Apau, who was said to be well versed in the Adinkra craft, was forced to teach more about Adinkra cloths. Oral accounts have attested to the fact that Adinkra Apau taught the process to a man named Kwaku Dwaku in a town near Kumasi. Over time all Akan people including the Fante, Akuapem and Akyem all made Adinkra symbols a major part of their culture as they all originated from the ancient Bono Kingdom.
The patterns were printed using carved calabash stamps and a vegetable-based dye. The cloth features fifteen stamped symbols, including nsroma (stars), dono ntoasuo (double Dono drums), and diamonds. It is now in the British Museum.
1825 Adinkra cloth
The next oldest piece of adinkra textile was sent in 1825 from the Elmina Castle to the royal cabinet of curiosities in The Hague, in response to an assignment from Major F. Last, who was appointed temporary Commander of Dutch Gold Coast. He had the cloth commissioned from the Fante Paramount Chief of Elmina for William I of the Netherlands, which would explain why the Coat of arms of the Netherlands is in the centre. The other motifs are typical of the older adinkras. It is now on display in the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.
Adinkra cloths were traditionally only worn by royalty and spiritual leaders for funerals and other very special occasions. In the past they were hand-printed on undyed, red, dark brown or black hand-woven natural cotton fabric depending on the occasion and the wearer's role; nowadays they are frequently mass-produced on brighter coloured fabrics
Anthony Boakye uses a comb to mark parallel lines on an adinkra cloth in Ntonso, Ghana.
Anthony Boakye prints an adinkra cloth with a calabash stamp in Ntonso, Ghana.
The present centre of traditional production of adinkra cloth is from Ghana, Ntɔnso, 20 km northwest of Kumasi and in Ivory Coast. Dark Adinkra aduro pigment for the stamping is made there, by soaking, pulverizing, and boiling the inner bark and roots of the badie tree (Bridelia ferruginea) in water over a wood fire. Once the dark colour is released, the mixture is strained, and then boiled for several more hours until it thickens. The stamps are carved out of the bottom of a calabash piece. They measure between five and eight centimetres square. They have a handle on the back, and the stamp itself is slightly curved so that the dye can be put on with a rocking motion.
Sample of symbols listed
Recorded sample of fifty three adinkra symbols and their meanings
Adinkra symbols recorded by Robert Sutherland Rattray, 1927
More information: Number, Symbol Name ...
List of symbols and Information
Number Symbol Name Literal Meaning Further Details Related Symbols
1 Aban a two-storied house, a castle this design was formerly worn by the King of Gyaman alone
4 Adinkira 'hene the Adinkira king 'chief' of all these Adinkira designs
8 Agyindawuru the agyin tree's gong the juice of a tree of that name is sometimes squeezed into a gong and is said to make the sound pleasing to the spirits
Akam an edible plant, possibly a yam
9 Akoben the war-horn
12 Akoko nan tia 'ba, na nkum 'ba A hen treads upon chickens but does not kill them
13 Akoma a heart, with a cross in the centre
[None listed] No. 13
14 AKOMA NTOSO the joined hearts
18 Aya the fern the word also means 'I am not afraid of you', 'I am independent of you' and the wearer may imply this by wearing it
20 BI NKA BI no one should bite the other
23 DAME-DAME name of a board game symbol of intelligence and ingenuity
25 Dono the dono drum
26 Dono ntoasuo the double dono drums
27 Duafe the wooden comb
28 Dwenini aben the ram's horns
30 Epa handcuffs
34 Fihankra the circular house
35 Se die fofoo pe, ne se gyinantwi abo bedie what the yellow-flowered fofoo plant wants is that the gyinantwi seeds should turn black A Bono saying. One of the cotton cloth designs bears the same name. The fofoo, the botanical name of which is Bidens pilosa, has a small yellow flower, which, when it drops its petals, turns into a black spiky seed. Said of a jealous person.
37 Funtunfunefu Denkyemfunefu Siamese crocodiles They share one stomach yet they fight over food
38 Gyawu Atiko the back of Gyawu's head Gyawu was a sub-chief of Gyaman who at the Adae Kesse ceremony is said to have had his hair shaved in this fashion
39 Gye Nyame 'Except God' or 'Only God'
41 Hye wo nhye He who would burn you be not burned
44 Kojo Biaden
47 Papani amma yenhu Kramo The (large number of) people who do good prevents us knowing who really are Mohammedans as adherents of Islam are enjoined to do good works in the community, and increasing numbers of non-Muslims are also doing so, we can no longer use that criterion to distinguish those Muslims living amongst us
49 Kuntinkantan bent and spread out kuntinkantan is used in the sense of 'do not boast, do not be arrogant'
50 [None Listed] copied from Europeans
Non listed Kwatakye atiko at the back of Kwatakye's head Kwatakye was a war captain of one of the Gyaman kings; at the Adae Kesse ceremony he is said to have cut his hair after this fashion
Non listed Mmrafo ani ase the keloids on a Hausa man
55 Mmra Krado the Hausa man's lock
56 Musuyidie something to remove evil a cloth with this design stamped upon it lay beside the sleeping couch of the King of Gyaman, and every morning when he rose he placed his left foot upon it three times
58 Mpuannum five tufts (of hair)
62 Nkonsonkonson links of a chain
63 Nkotimsefuopua certain attendants on the Queen Mother who dressed their hair in this fashion. Similar to a swastika.
66 Nkyimkyim the twisted pattern
68 Nsaa from a design of this name found on nsa cloths
69 Nsirewa cowries
70 Nsoroma / Nsoromma a child of the Sky / Child of the Heavens referring to the saying: Oba Nyankon soroma te Nyame so na onte ne ho so, 'Like the star, the child of the Supreme Being, I rest with God and do not depend upon myself.' / the pattern was on the King of Gyaman's pillow
71 Ma te; Masie I have heard (what you have said); I have hidden it this extols the virtue of being able to keep a confidence
Non listed Nyame, biribi wo soro, ma no me ka me nsa O God, everything which is above, permit my hand to touch it the pattern was stamped on paper and hung above the lintel of a door in the palace. The King of Gyaman used to touch lintel, then his forehead, then his breast, repeating these words three times
74 Nyame dua an altar to the Sky God
76 Nyame nwu na ma wu May Nyame die before I die
Non listed Obi nka obie I offend no one without a cause
84 Ohene niwa (in) the king's little eyes To be in the king's favour
85 Ohen' tuo the king's gun
86 Kodie mmowerewa the eagle's talons
96 Sankofa turn back and fetch it
97 Sankofa turn back and fetch it
98 Sepow a knife thrust through the cheeks of a man the man is about to be executed to prevent his invoking of a curse on the king
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