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Adinkra symbols are a collection of West African symbols that are known for their symbolism, meaning and decorative features. They have decorative functions, but their primary use is to represent concepts related to traditional wisdom, aspects of life, or the environment.
Adinkra symbols are named after their original creator King Nana Kwadwo Agyemang Adinkra, from the Bono people of Gyaman, now Ghana. There are several types of Adinkra symbols with at least 121 known images, including additional symbols that have been adopted on top of the original ones.
Adinkra symbols are highly popular and used in contexts to represent African culture, such as artwork, decorative items, fashion, jewelry and media. Fun fact – many Adinkra symbols made an appearance in the popular superhero movie, Black Panther.
Below we will highlight 25 popular Adinkra symbols.
The ankh is the Egyptian symbol of life and is sometimes known as the key of life or the key of the Nile. This symbol is said to be the first cross and represents eternal life or immortality. Others give the ankh symbol a more physical meaning and say it represents water, air, and the sun as well as the cohesion of heaven and Earth.
The akofena symbol is one of the popular Ghanan adinkra symbols. Akofena translates to ‘sword of war,’ and the emblem illustrates this with two crossed swords. The swords symbolize the prestige and integrity of the supreme power, while the overall symbol represents strength, courage, bravery, and heroism.
Akoma translates to heart and is depicted by the standard representation of a heart. As such, the symbol represents many of the same meanings as a heart, like endurance, faithfulness, love, patience, tolerance, unity, and understanding. It is also said to represent tolerance and patience in the face of frustration. The heart is what makes us human and elicits emotions and connections. Weddings, especially in Ghana, will often feature this symbol.
Akoma ntoso translates to “linked hearts.” The physical symbol featuress four linked hearts to emphasize mutual sympathy and the immortality of the soul. The emblem represents understanding, agreement, harmony and unity among families and communities.
Ase ye Duru
Asase ye Duru appears almost like two hearts put together and translates to “the earth has no weight.” The symbol represents power, providence, and divinity, while also emphasizing the importance of the Earth. Asase ye dure is also known as the Divinity of Mother Earth.
The aya symbol is a stylized fern with aya translating to fern. This symbol represents endurance and resourcefulness. Similar to how ferns can grow in harsh environments, the use of the aya symbol shows that you have endured, outlasted, and evolved from adversities and difficulties.
The Baron is known as the Master of the Cemetery or Master of the Dead. He is a male Iwa of death according to the African Voodoo religion. He is the barrier between the living and the dead, and as a result, it is said that when someone dies, Baron digs the grave and transports the soul to the underworld. The symbol resembles a stylized cross on a raised platform.
Denkyem translates to ‘crocodile,’ and its symbolism is directly related to the crocodile. The crocodile is a valued animal in Ghanaian society and often appears in African mythology. Like how the crocodile is able to adapt to living on land, in water, and swamps, the symbol represents adaptability in life. The symbol shows that you can adapt and thrive in different environments and circumstances.
The duafe symbol is known as the wooden comb as its depiction resembles a comb. The symbolism extends from the fact that the duafe is an important item used by women for grooming. It is said to represent femininity, love, beauty, and care. Along with the idea of love and care, the symbol has been associated with good hygiene and being well-groomed.
The dwennimmen, also spelled dwanni mmen, translates to ram’s horns, and the symbol is said to be a bird’s eye view of two rams butting heads. It represents being humble yet strong. A ram is strong enough to fight against foes but humble enough to submit for slaughter when necessary. This contrast is said to parallel Africans who were taken to be slaves. They showed strength through the continuous fight for the rights, but also should humility by learning and adapting to American culture.
Funtunfunefu Denkyemfunefu is a Ghanaian symbol that translates to Siamese crocodiles. The symbol is a visual representation of two conjoined crocodiles, showing that even though they are independent creatures, they must work together. Building off of the idea of working together, the symbol symbolizes democracy, cooperation, cultural tolerance, and unity among different religions.
Gye nyame means except for God. Overall, the symbol recognizes the supremacy of God over all things and God’s involvement in all aspects of life. However, the exact meaning of except for God is debated. Some say that it represents that people should fear nothing except God. Others say it is a reminder that except for God, no one has seen the beginning of all creation, and no one will see the end.
Hye Won Hye
Hye won hye translates to that which does not burn and relates to the practice of African priests walking on fiery coals without burning their feet. To walk on coals without getting scorched defies human logic and indicates their holiness and endurance. As such, hye won hye inspires people to be tough in difficult times to endure any hardship that comes their way.
Legba is a West African and Caribbean Voodoo god that goes by different names depending on the region. The symbol is made up of separate images that represent Legba’s control over communication between the human and spirits. The imagery within the symbol like locks, keys, and passageways are symbolic of Legba’s control over types of passage, for example, allowing spirits of the dead into human bodies.
Manman Brigitte is the wife of Baron (the Master of the Dead) and, like him, acts as a spirit guard of cemeteries and graves, helping to guide souls. She also can heal sickness and is the one who determines the fate of the ill and dying. The symbol for her is one of the more intricate in design featuring elements of other symbols, such as heart, crosses, and ferns.
Matie Masie translates to what I hear, I keep. The symbol shows four linked ears, which reminds people of the importance of listening and communicating. Oral history and communication are essential to African culture to help preserve their history. This symbol is a reminder of the need for wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and awareness through communication.
A Nkisi is used for worship and is a newer Adinkra symbol. Nkisi sarabanda represents spirits and the interaction between the spiritual and material world. The symbol contains African and American cultural elements showing the blending of the two cultures. It resembles a spiral galaxy and represents an interest in astronomy and nature. The arrows represent the four winds of the universe, and the cross appears as a nod to Christianity.
Nsoromma means child of the heavens and stars. It is one of the symbols of high importance to the Ghanaian people as it symbolizes that God watches over all beings. Like the stars in the universe, God is continually watching and protecting. This symbol further indicates the existence of the spiritual world where our ancestors and departed family and friends can watch over them. Ultimately, the nsoromma is a reminder that in everything you do, you are supported and strengthened by God and your ancestral heritage.
Nyame Biribi Wo Soro
Nyame Biribi Wo Soro translates to God is in the Heavens. The symbol shows two ovals conjoined together with a diamond at their meeting point. It is meant to be a symbol of hope and a reminder that God in heaven can hear your cries and prayers and act on them. This symbol is another one of the vital Adinkra symbols that show the relationship with God and is of great religious significance.
Nyame Nti is an Adinkra symbol that is of religious significance and represents an aspect of the Ghanaian’s relationship with God. The words translate to by God’s grace and the image is classified as a symbol of faith and trust in God. The symbol is a type of stylized plant or leaf. The stalk is said to represent the staff of life and symbolizes that food is the basis for life. If it were not for the food that God provides, no life would survive.
Nsibidi symbol represents nsibidi, which is an ancient style of writing that is only pre-dated in Africa by hieroglyphics. Similar to hieroglyphics, the symbols relate to concepts and actions as opposed to specific words. The literal meaning is cruel letters, but symbolically it represents love, unity, progress, and journey. The symbol is also a reminder of the passage of the African Diaspora to America.
Odo Nyera Fie Kwan
Odo nyera fie Kwan is another Adinkra symbol of great importance to the Akan people. This symbol is a visual representation of the proverb ‘those led by love will never lose their way.’ It is considered a powerful reminder of the union between two people and the power of love. The symbol is often seen at weddings, with some people choosing to engrave the symbol on their wedding bands.
Osram Ne Nsoromma
Another wedding-related symbol is osram ne nsoromma. The emblem is known as ‘the moon and the star’ and is made up of a half-moon – osram, and a star – nsoromma. The symbol represents the love, bond, and faithfulness found in marriage, or in other words, the harmony between a man and a woman, bonding through marriage.
Sankofa is one of the eight original akansha symbols from Ghana. It translates to look to the past to inform the future. The symbol is an image of a bird that is both moving forward and looking back. Sankofa is a reminder that the past must not be forgotten but acknowledged with aspects of it incorporated as we move into the future.
Yowa is the representation of the journey souls take through the living world and the realms of the dead. The arrows that form a circle on the outside of the symbol show the motion of the souls, while the cross at the center of the symbol represents where communication occurs. Overall, this symbol is known as signifying the continuity of human life through the soul and its interactions.
Adinkra symbols are used to tell stories and, in some ways, are similar to hieroglyphics. Each symbol has a deep, often abstract, meaning behind it. The above list only hints at the many Adinkra symbols and their related proverbs, lessons, and meanings.