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Adinkra Symbols

Adinkra is a printed or stamped traditional cloth made by the Asante people of Ghana. The symbols which decorate the cloth are called adinkra symbols, and they have now grown in popularity so much that they are used to decorate much more than clothes, including houses, furniture, pottery, textiles, metal casting, woodcarving, architecture, etc. Each adinkra symbol has a name and also a proverb associated with it. Every adinkra symbol has a meaning which are words of wisdom reflecting the philosophy, religious beliefs, social values and political history of the Akan people.

Here are some examples of adinkra symbols.

Symbol Description

Gye Nyame

Meaning: "Except God"

Symbol of the omnipotence and the omnipresence of God. (Fear no one, except God.)

From the Akan aphorism "Abode santann yi firi tete; obi nte ase a onim ne ahyease, na obi ntena ase nkosi ne awie, gye Nyame."

Literal translation: "This great panorama of creation dates back to time immemorial; no one lives who saw its beginning and no one will live to see its end, except God."

The symbol reflects the Akan belief of a supreme being, the creator who they refer to by various names, e.g., Oboadee, Nyame, Onyankopon Twereampon.


Meaning: "Return and get it"

Symbol of the importance of learning from the past to build for the future. The symbol is of a bird that has its feet firmly planted forward, but its head turned backwards.

Sankofa is an Akan term that literally means “go back and get it”. One of the adinkra symbols for sankofa depicts a mythical bird flying forward with its head turned backward. The egg in its mouth represents the "gems" or knowledge of the past upon which wisdom is based; it also signifies the generation to come that would benefit from that wisdom. This 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”. The Akan believe that the past illuminates the present and that the search for knowledge is a life-long process. The pictograph illustrates the quest for knowledge, while the proverb suggests the rightness of such a quest as long as it is based on knowledge of the past.

Tradition has it that Adinkra, a famous king of Gyaman (now part of Cote d'Ivoire) angered the Asantehene, Bonsu-Panyin, by trying to copy the Golden Stool. Adinkra was defeated and slain in an ensuing war. It has been suggested that the art of adinkra came from Gyaman. It is also significant that adinkra means farewell, or good-bye, hence the use of the special cloth on funeral occasions (eyie), to say good-bye to the departed.

Adinkra aduru (adinkra medicine) is the stuff used in the stamping process. It is prepared by boiling the bark of badie together with iron slag. Originally the printing was done on a cotton piece lying on the ground. Today, raised platforms with sack coverings act as the printing table. The designs, cut on pieces of calabash with pieces of wood attached for handling, are dipped into the adinkera aduru, then stamped onto the cloth. Adinkra cloth is not meant to be washed.

Adinkra is one of the highly valued hand-printed and hand-embroidered cloths. Its origin is traced to the Asante people of Ghana and the Gyaman people of Cote d'lvoire (Ivory Coast). However, the production and use of adinkra have come to be more associated with the Asante people than any other group of people. Around the 19th Century, the Asante people developed their unique art of adinkra printing. Adinkra cloths were made and used exclusively by the royalty and spiritual leaders for very important sacred ceremonies and rituals.

In modern times, however, adinkra cloths are used for a wide range of social activities. In addition to its sacred usage, it is also used to make clothing for such special occasions as festivals, churchgoing, weddings, naming ceremonies and initiation rites. Today, designers use adinkra symbols in creating a wide range of products including clothing accessories, interior decoration, packages and book covers.

Each of the motifs that make up the corpus of adinkra symbolism has a name and meaning derived either from a proverb, a historical event, human attitude, animal behavior, plant life, forms and shapes of inanimate and man-made objects. These are graphically rendered in stylized geometric shapes. Meanings of motifs may be categorized as follows: aesthetics, ethics, human relations and religious concepts. In its totality, adinkra symbolism is a visual representation of social thought relating to the history, philosophy and religious beliefs of the Akan people of Ghana and Cote d'lvoire.

Please visit the following web pages to learn more about adinkra symbols and their meanings.

Adinkra Symbols of West Africa
Adinkra Symbols
Adinkra Symbology
AKOFAType Adinkra family of fonts

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