The Origin and Meaning of Adinkra Symbols

Akan Symbols Represent Proverbs on Cloth and Other Items

N'ko language of Souleymane Kande aligned with Unicode standardizations
Unicode chart for N'ko. This standard enables computes to display and recognize N'ko numbers, alphabet, and punctuation. By Author: User Antonsusi from the German Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 de, via Wikimedia Commons

Adinkra is a cotton cloth produced in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire which has traditional Akan symbols stamped upon it. The adinkra symbols represent popular proverbs and maxims, record historical events, express particular attitudes or behavior related to depicted figures, or concepts uniquely related to abstract shapes. It is one of several traditional cloths produced in the region. The other well-known cloths are kente and adanudo.

The symbols were often linked with a proverb, so they convey more meaning than a single word. Robert Sutherland Rattray compiled a list of 53 adinkra symbols in his book, "Religion and Art in Ashanti," in 1927.

The History of Adinkra Cloth and Symbols

The Akan people (of what is now Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire) had developed significant skills in weaving by the sixteenth century, with Nsoko (present day Begho) being an important weaving center. Adinkra, originally produced by the Gyaaman clans of the Brong region, was the exclusive right of royalty and spiritual leaders, and only used for important ceremonies such as funerals. Adinkra means goodbye.

During a military conflict at the beginning of the nineteenth century, caused by the Gyaaman trying to copy the neighboring Asante's golden stool (the symbol of the Asante nation), the Gyaaman king was killed. His adinkra robe was taken by Nana Osei Bonsu-Panyin, the Asante Hene (Asante King), as a trophy.

With the robe came the knowledge of adinkra aduru (the special ink used in the printing process) and the process of stamping the designs onto cotton cloth.

Over time the Asante further developed adinkra symbology, incorporating their own philosophies, folk tales and culture. Adinkra symbols were also used on pottery, metal work (especially abosodee), and are now incorporated into modern commercial designs (where their related meanings give added significance to the product), architecture and sculpture.

Adinkra Cloth Today

Adinkra cloth is more widely available today, although the traditional methods of production are very much in use. The traditional ink (adinkra aduru) used for stamping is obtained by boiling the bark of the Badie tree with iron slag. Because the ink is not fixed, the material should not be washed. Adinkra cloth is used in Ghana for special occasions such as weddings and initiation rites.

Note that African fabrics often differ between those made for local use and those that are exported. The cloth for local use is usually replete with hidden meanings or local proverbs, allowing locals to make particular statements with their costume. Those fabrics produced for overseas markets tend to use more sanitised symbology.

Use of Adinkra Symbols

You will find adinkra symbols on many exported items, such as furniture, sculpture, pottery, t-shirts, hats and other clothing items in addition to fabric. Another popular use of the symbols is for tattoo art. You should further research the meaning of any symbol before deciding to use it for a tattoo to ensure it conveys the message you desire.