Adinkra Symbols

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Associated most often with a multitude of symbols, the term “adinkra” is more accurately used to denote a symbolic funerary message given to transitioning and/or departed souls. The term “di” means “to make use of” or “to employ,” and the term “nkra” means “message.” Literally, then, adinkra means “to make use of a message,” but when spoken together, the term is understood to mean “to leave one another” or “to say goodbye.” Moreover, because the term “nkra” has “kra” (life force; soul) at its root, adinkra is further understood as a message that a transitioning and/or departed soul takes with it on its return to Nyame. Thus, adinkra is a type of language.
Although it is clear that the Akan have used adinkra for many centuries, there has been much academic debate over the exact origins of the symbols. The most commonly accepted legend comes from the stampers (those who create/produce adinkra). Legend has it that the symbols gained their name from Nana Kofi Adinkra, the famous 19th-century king of Gyaman, located in neighboring Cote d'lvoire. King Adinkra was said to have challenged the authority of the then Asantehene Nana Osei Bonsu Panyin by making a replica of the Sika Dwa (golden stool).
The result of this spiritual violation of the Asante nation was the Asante-Gyamn War in which the Gyamans were defeated. The Asantehene was said to have admired the craftsmanship of the replica Sika Dwa, which was adorned with various symbols, so much so that he forced the defeated Gyaman craftsmen to duplicate the symbols and also teach Asante craftsmen how to produce them themselves. So begins the Akan legacy of adinkra symbols.
The Akan believe that the entire world is composed of two realms—the physical (living) and nonphysical (spirit). In their cosmology, there is no clear distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds—the two complement each other and often overlap. The physical is directed by the power of the spiritual—Nyame, the Abosom (deities/divinities), and the Nsamanfo (ancestors). Each individual transitions through these two realms by way of the Akan life cycle: birth, puberty, marriage, physical death, and rebirth.
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Close-up shot of two adinkra stamps carved out of calabash gourds, from Ghana. Used mainly when someone dies, the adinkra symbols are stamped on fabric worn on funeral occasions. Source: Karen Low Phillips/iStockphoto.
Thus, the Akan do not regard physical death as the end of life, but as the transition from Earthly life to spiritual life. It is a transition that each individual must make to reach the spiritual world and continue to live as Nsamanfo. Physical death instead renders family relationships eternal, and the rituals performed by the living Abusua (family) emphasize the unbroken bonds between those living on Earth, the departed sunsum (spirit), and Nsamanfo. It is the responsibility of those living on Earth to perform the Ayie so that the sunsum can properly transition to the Asamando (ancestral world); if not, the sunsum will transform into an unsettled and malevolent spirit and may come back to harm the family.
Thus, great satisfaction is derived from the performance of the Ayie, and the community looks down on those who do not properly bury their kin. Unlike in Western society, where the dead are generally mourned by friends and family, in Akan societies, the entire community mourns the loss of one of its members. Communal performance of appropriate rites helps to strengthen the bond between the living and the Nsamanfo. The Ayie is performed in four stages: (a) Adware (preparation of the corpse), (b) Adeda (lying in state) and Siripe (wake-keeping), (c) Asie (burial), and (d) Ndaase (thanksgiving). In contemporary times, the Ayie usually takes place over the course of a weekend.
To demonstrate the grief caused by the loss of a loved one, family members must wear black and refrain from wearing white or any bright colors, jewelry, or any adornment that may be perceived as “flashy” until the Ayie has been performed. During the funerary rituals, the wearing of particular and appropriate cloths demonstrates the attendees' spiritual and emotional state—that of mourning. Those who attend the funeral must wear colors of mourning, which include dark red, brown, black, and maroon. If the person dies at an old age, mourners may wear white; and often to connote extreme mourning, chief mourners (close relatives) may wear bright red.
During the initial stages, it is appropriate for close relatives to wear solid black cloth, whereas friends and distant relatives may wear cloth adorned with hand-painted and hand-embroidered adinkra symbols. The wearing of adinkra cloth communicates farewell messages to the transitioning/ departed soul and furthermore informs the larger community in attendance of the message that particular attendees wish to offer.
Many of adinkra symbols are representative of Akan cosmology. They represent symbolic illustrations of Akan proverbs that portray the ontology, ideology, and spirituality of the people. Many express particular notions about Nyame and his or her attributes. Some examples of adinkra symbols that specifically encode Akan cosmology are shown as follows.
File:AR Adinkra Symbols img 8.jpgFile:AR Adinkra Symbols img 9.jpg
Figure 1 Asase ye Duru
File:AR Adinkra Symbols img 1.jpg “Asase ye duru se po.” The earth is heavier than the sea. Symbol of providence and the divinity of Mother Earth
Figure 2 Gye Nyame
File:AR Adinkra Symbols img 2.jpg “Abodee santan yi firi tete; obi nte ase a onim n'ahyase, na obi ntena ase nkosi n'awie, gye Nyame.” 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 Nyame. Symbol of the omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and immortality
Figure 3 HYEWO NYHE
File:AR Adinkra Symbols img 3.jpg “Burn; You do not Burn” “Because God does not burn, I will not burn.” Symbol of permanancy Figure 4 Nsoroma

File:AR Adinkra Symbols img 4.jpg

“Oba Nyankonsoroma te. Nyame so na nte ne ho so.” A child of Nyame, I do not depend on myself. My illumination is only a reflection of His. Symbol of faith and dependency on a Supreme Being
Figure 5 Nyame BiribiWo Soro
File:AR Adinkra Symbols img 5.jpg “Nyame biribi wo soro na ma me nsa nka!” God, there is something in the heavens, pray let it reach me! Symbol of hope and inspiration Figure 6 Nyame Dua
File:AR Adinkra Symbols img 6.jpg Tree of Nyame Symbol of the presence of Nyame and Nyame's protection
Figure 7 Nyame Nwu Na Mawu
File:AR Adinkra Symbols img 7.jpg “Nyame Nti, menwe wura.” Since God exists, I will not feed on leaves [like an animal or beast]. Symbol of faith and trust in Nyame
Figure 8 Sunsum
“I Live not when Nyame is not!” Symbol of the perpetual existence of the human spirit
Figure 9 Nyame Nti
“The Spirit” Symbol of spirituality, spiritual purity and the cleanliness of the spirit

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Further Reading

  • Opoku, K. A. (1978). West African Traditional Religion. Accra, Ghana: FEP International Private Limited.
  • Willis, W. B. (1998). The Adinkra Dictionary: A Visual Primer on the Language of Adkinkra. Washington, DC: The Pyramid Complex.