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The creative skills of the Ashantis are exhibited through several media: music, dance, art, etc. In art, the Ashantis are credited with the creation of certain visual symbols known as Adinkra. The symbols represent certain human concepts, values, and ideas which have been creatively expressed through art. Adinkra symbols convey wisdom through the messages they carry, and also showcase the rich, distinctive culture of the Ashantis. Adinkra symbols are used in fabric designs, logo designs, pottery, woodcraft, etc. In recent years, a growing number of tattoo lovers are incorporating the Adinkra symbols into their body art.
Today, I present to you some Adinkra symbols, their names and what they symbolise. The collection was sourced from the brilliant work of Jean MacDonald. As you go through them, you may come across one or two that symbolise who you are, or what you stand for. Please feel free to share that in the comment box below the post.
|SESA WO SUBAN|
‘change your attitude’
Named after the horn blown by Ashantis to alert people of a battle
Symbolises: vigilance, wariness
Symbolises: understanding, agreement
‘I’ll marry you’
Symbolises: commitment, promise
‘good sleeping mat/bed’
From the saying that “A woman who has a good marriage is said to sleep on a good bed”.
Symbolises: a good marriage
|BOA ME NA MEMMOA WO|
‘help me and let me help you’
Symbolises: interdependence, cooperation
|NEA ƆPƐ SƐ ƆBƐDI HENE|
‘he who wants to be king’
Taken from the saying “Nea ɔpɛ sɛ ɔbɛdi hene no sua ɔsom ansa” which means “He who wants to be king must first learn to serve”
Symbolises: service, humility, leadership
Suggests a well-built house that withstands windy and other bad weather conditions.
Symbolises: fortitude, readiness for life’s challenges, strength
Symbolises: God’s presence and protection
Named after the hardy plant, fern, which is known to grow under difficult climatic conditions. Willis, W. B. (1998) notes that “An individual who wears this symbol suggests that he has endured many adversities and outlasted much difficulty.”
Symbolises: endurance, resourcefulness
|NEA ƆNNIM NO SUA A, ƆHU|
‘he who knows not, can know from learning’
Symbolises: education, quest for knowledge
Named after the web of the spider, who is well known in Ghanaian folktales as possessing many different traits.
Symbolises: wisdom, creativity, complexities of life
‘five tufts of hair’
Named after the traditional hairstyles of priestesses.
Symbolises: devotion, priestly office, adroitness, loyalty
‘the occiput of Kwatakye’
The symbol represents the occiput of Kwatakye, an ancient Ashanti war captain.
Symbolises: bravery, valour
|ONYANKOPƆN ADOM NTI BIRIBIARA BƐYƐ YIE|
‘by the grace of God, all will be well’
Symbolises: hope, faith, providence
|NYAME YƐ ƆHENE|
‘God is king’
Symbolises: God’s supremacy, majesty
‘the talons of the eagle’
The strength of the eagle, which is known as the mightiest bird in the sky, is concentrated in its talons.
Symbolises: strength, power, bravery
‘sword of war’
This symbol follows the design of a popular motif in the heraldic shields of many former Akan states.
Symbolises: courage, valour, heroism
‘sew in readiness’
Symbolises: readiness, preparedness, steadfastness, hardiness
Symbolises: change, dynamics of life
From the expression “Fawohodie ne ɔbrɛ na ɛnam” which translates as “Independence comes with hardwork.
Symbolises: freeedom, emancipation, independence
A valued possession of the ancient Akan woman used to comb and plait her hair.
Symbolises: feminine beauty, cleanliness
‘that which cleanses and removes bad luck’
Symbolises: good fortune, sanctity
|ƆSRAM NE NSOROMMA|
‘the moon and the star’
Reflects the bonding harmony between a man and a woman.
Symbolises: love, harmony, faithfulness
‘sack of cola nuts’
The cola nut is one of the cash crops grown in Ghana. It played a significant role in the economy of Ghana in the past (and still contributes today).
Symbolises: affluence, power, abundance, wealth
|ASASE YƐ DURU|
‘the earth has weight’
Symbolises: providence, Mother Earth’s divinity
‘knot of reconciliation’
Symbolises: reconciliation, peacemaking, pacification
‘a type of hand-woven fabric’
Nsaa is a high-quality Ashanti fabric woven by the hand. The Nsaa Adinkra symbol reflects the saying “nea onnim nsaa no ɔtɔ n’ago”, which he translates as “He who does not know authentic Nsaa will buy the fakes.”
Symbolises: authenticity, genuineness, excellence
‘the crossed divisions made on Adinkra cloth before stamping’
Symbolises: skillfulness, precision
Slave trade in Africa saw the introduction of handcuffs to cuff slaves. Later, chiefs began to use handcuffs to cuff offenders of the law. The symbol discourages all forms of slavery while reminding offenders of the uncompromising nature of the law (Agbo, 1999)
‘the design of the draft board game’
Symbolises: intelligence, ingenuity
|ƐSE NE TƐKYERƐMA|
‘the teeth and the tongue’
The idea that the teeth and the tongue depend on each other in role playing inside the mouth. A conflict may develop between them, but they resolve it themselves and move on. Taken from the saying “Ɛse ne tɛkyerɛma nya asɛm a, wɔn a na ɔsiesie”.
Symbolises: friendship, interdependence
|NYAME NNWU NA MAWU|
‘God never dies, therefore, I cannot die’
The soul of man is known to be immortal. A man will die in the flesh, but his soul is believed to rest with God through eternity.
Symbolises: God’s omnipresence, perpetual existence of man’s spirit
This Adinkra symbol conveys the idea that “a wise person has the capacity to choose the best meeans to attain a goal. Being wise implies broad knowledge, learning and experience, and the ability to apply such faculties to practical ends” (Willis, 1998)
|ƆDƆ NNYERA FIE KWAN|
‘love never loses its way home’
Symbolises: power of love
‘I’ve kept what I’ve heard’
Signifies the act of hearing and taking into consideration what someone has said.
Symbolises: wisdom, prudence, knowledge
‘a type of plant’
Willis, W. B. (1998) notes that “when the fofo’s petals drop, they turn into black spiky-like seeds. The Akan liken the nature of this plant to a jealous person.”
Symbolises: jealousy, envy
‘the ladder of death’
From the expression “Owuo atwedeɛ, ɔbaakofoɔ nforo” which translates as “The ladder of death is not climbed by a single person”. This symbol reminds people of the transitory nature of life, every person will die someday.
This symbol is perhaps, the most used Adinkra symbol in Ghana. This reflects the highly religious nature of Ghanaians.
Symbolises: supremacy of God
‘return and take it/Return to your roots’
Symbolises: history, theimportance of learning from one’s past
‘chief of all Adinkra symbols’
This symbol is said to have inspired the creation of all the Adinkra symbols.
Symbolises: leadership, greatness, charisma
The siamese crocodiles share a single stomach and yet fight over food. This symbol expresses how harmful and worthless it is to fight amongst ourselves as tribesmen or countrymen.
Symbolises: democracy, unity
The crocodile survives both in and outside water.
‘a ram’s horns’
The ram has a very strong pair of horns with which it fights opponents but submits humbly to slaughter.
Symbolises: humility, strength
‘because of God’
Willis, W. B. (1998) notes that “This stalk is depicted as the staff of life in many cultures. It symbolizes to the Akan that food is a basis of life and that they could not survive if not for the food that God has placed here on Earth for their nourishment. ”
Symbolises: faith, trust in God
|NYAME BI WƆ SORO|
‘there’s a God in the heavens’
This symbol reminds people that there’s a God up in the heavens who listens to prayers.
Symbolises: hope, faith
Symbolises: initiative, dynamism, versatility
‘stars – Children of the heavens’
|BI NKA BI|
‘no one bites the other’
Symbolises: peace, harmony
‘the leg of a chicken (hen)’
From the expression “akokɔ baatan nan tia ne mma nso ɛnkum wɔn” which means “the hen steps on her chicks but do not kill them”. This signifies the corrective and protective nature of parents.
Symbolises: nurture, discipline
Named after the ever popular Ashanti communal housing architecture, with a single compound, entrance and exit.
Symbolises: security, safety
Symbolises: safety, security, love
Symbolises: unity, human relations
|ƆWƆ A ƆREFORO ADƆBƐ|
‘A snake that is climbing a raffia tree’
Climbing of the raffia tree is very difficult for the snake due to its thorns. Only persistence and prudence sees it through.
Symbolises: persistence, prudence, steadfastness
Symbolises: patience, tolerance
|HWƐ MU DUA|
Symbolises: thorough examination, diligence, quality control
‘that which does not burn’
Draws its meaning from traditional/fetish priests especially in the Ashanti region of Ghana who are able to walk through fire without burning.
Symbolises: endurance, power
‘the enemy will suffer’
Symbolises: jealousy, envy
|WOFORO DUA PA A|
‘when you climb a good tree’
This is taken from the proverb “Woforo dua pa a na yɛpia wo” which means When you climb a good tree, you are given a push”. This is to say good deeds attract support.
Symbolises: support, encouragement, cooperation
|WO NSA DA MU A|
‘if your hands are in the dish’
From the expression “Wo nsa da mu a, wɔnni nnya wo” which means “If your hands are in the dish, you’re not left behind in the eating process”
Symbolises: participatory activity, democracy, pluralism
‘seed of the Wawa tree’
From the knowledge that the seed of the Wawa tree is very hard.
Symbolises: hardiness, toughness, perseverance
Agbo, A. H. (1999). Values of Adinkra symbols. Ebony Designs and Publications.
Willis, W. B. (1998). The Adinkra dictionary: A visual primer on the language of Adinkra. Pyramid Complex.
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