Adinkra symbols

This article is about the Ashanti visual symbols. For the term in theoretical physics, see Adinkra symbols (physics).
Adinkra symbols recorded by Robert Sutherland Rattray, 1927

Adinkra are visual symbols, originally created by the Ashanti, that represent concepts or aphorisms. Adinkra are used extensively in fabrics and pottery. They are incorporated into walls and other architectural features. Fabric adinkra are often made by woodcut sign writing as well as screen printing. Adinkra symbols appear on some traditional Akan goldweights. The symbols are also carved on stools for domestic and ritual use. Tourism has led to new departures in the use of the symbols in such items as T-shirts and jewelry.

Calabash adinkra stamps carved in Ntonso, Ashanti.

The symbols have a decorative function but also represent objects that encapsulate evocative messages that convey traditional wisdom, aspects of life or the environment. There are many different symbols with distinct meanings, often linked with proverbs. In the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah, they were one of the means in a pre-literate society for "supporting the transmission of a complex and nuanced body of practice and belief".[1]


1817 Adinkra cloth

Ashanti oral tradition dates the arrival of adinkra to the end of the 1818 war with Gyaaman. However, the Englishman Thomas Edward Bowdich collected a piece of adinkra cloth in 1817, which demonstrates that adinkra art existed before the traditional starting date.[2] Bowdich obtained this cotton cloth in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti Empire. The patterns were printed using carved calabash stamps and a vegetable-based dye. The cloth features fifteen stamped symbols, including nsroma (stars), dono ntoasuo (double Dono drums), and diamonds. It is now in the British Museum.

1825 Adinkra cloth

The next oldest piece of adinkra textile was sent in 1825 from the Elmina Castle to the royal cabinet of curiosities in The Hague, in response to an assignment from Major F. Last, who was appointed temporary Commander of Dutch Gold Coast. He probably had the cloth commissioned for William I of the Netherlands, which would explain why the Coat of arms of the Netherlands is in the centre. The other motifs are typical of the older adinkras. It is now on display in the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.[3]

Adinkra cloth

Adinkra cloths were traditionally only worn by royalty and spiritual leaders for funerals and other very special occasions. They are now worn by anyone, stylishly wrapped around women or men on any special occasion.[4] In the past they were hand printed on undyed, red, dark brown or black hand-woven cotton fabric depending on the occasion and the wearer's role; nowadays they are frequently mass-produced on brighter coloured fabrics.

Anthony Boakye uses a comb to mark parallel lines on an adinkra cloth in Ntonso, Ashanti.
Anthony Boakye prints an adinkra cloth with a calabash stamp in Ntonso, Ashanti.

The present centre of traditional production of adinkra cloth is Ntɔnso, 20 km northwest of Kumasi.[5] Dark Adinkra aduro pigment for the stamping is made there, by soaking, pulverizing, and boiling the inner bark and roots of the badie tree (Bridelia ferruginea)[6] in water over a wood fire. Once the dark colour is released, the mixture is strained, and then boiled for several more hours until it thickens. The stamps are carved out of the bottom of a calabash piece. They measure between five and eight centimetres square. They have a handle on the back, and the stamp itself is slightly curved, so that the dye can be put on with a rocking motion.

Symbols listed by Rattray

Symbols recorded by Robert Sutherland Rattray

Robert Sutherland Rattray recorded a sample of fifty three adinkra symbols and their meanings in his Religion and Art in Ashanti (Oxford, 1927):

  1. Gyawu Atiko, lit. the back of Gyawu's head. Gyawu was a sub-chief of Bantama who at the annual Odwira ceremony is said to have had his hair shaved in this fashion.
  2. AKOMA NTOSO, lit. the joined hearts.
  3. Epa, handcuffs. See also No. 16.
  4. Nkyimkyim, the twisted pattern.
  5. Nsirewa, cowries.
  6. Nsa, from a design of this name found on nsa cloths.
  7. Mpuannum, lit. five tufts (of hair).
  8. Duafe, the wooden comb.
  9. DAME-DAME, symbol of intelligence and ingenuity of a board game.
  10. Aya, the fern; the word also means 'I am not afraid of you', 'I am independent of you' and the wearer may imply this by wearing it.
  11. Aban, a two-storied house, a castle; this design was formerly worn by the King of Ashanti alone.
  12. Nkotimsefuopua, certain attendants on the Queen Mother who dressed their hair in this fashion. It is really a variation of the swastika.
  13. Sankofa, lit. turn back and fetch it. See also No. 27.
  14. Sankofa, lit. turn back and fetch it. See also No. 27.
  15. Kuntinkantan, lit. bent and spread out ; nkuntinkantan is used in the sense of ' do not boast, do not be arrogant '.
  16. Epa, handcuffs, same as No. 3.
  17. Nkonsonkonson, lit. links of a chain; as No. 44.
  18. Nyame dua, an altar to the Sky God.
  19. Agyindawuru, the agyin's (a tree) gong. The juice of a tree of that name is sometimes squeezed into a gong and is said to make the sound pleasing to the spirits.
  20. Sepow, the knife thrust through the cheeks of the man about to be executed to prevent his invoking a curse on the king.
  21. Adinkira ‘hene, the Adinkira king, and ‘chief’ of all these Adinkira designs. See No. 34.
  22. Fihankra, the circular house.
  23. Papani amma yenhu Kramo. 'The (large number of) people who do good prevents us knowing who really are Mohammedans' (i.e. as adherents of Islam are enjoined to do good works in the community, and increasing numbers of non-Muslims are also doing so, we can no longer use that criterion to distinguish those Muslims living amongst us).
  24. Mmrafo ani ase, the keloids on a Hausa man.
  25. Musuyidie, lit. something to remove evil; a cloth with this design stamped upon it lay beside the sleeping couch of the King of Ashanti, and every morning when he rose he placed his left foot upon it three times.
  26. Nyame, biribi wo soro, ma no me ka me nsa. 'O God, everything which is above, permit my hand to touch it.' This pattern was stamped on paper and hung above the lintel of a door in the palace. The King of Ashanti used to touch lintel, then his forehead, then his breast, repeating these words three times.
  27. As No. 13.
  28. Akam, an edible plant (yam?).
  29. Se die fofoo pe, ne se gyinantwi abo bedie. 'What the yellow-flowered fofoo plant wants is that the gyinantwi seeds should turn black.' This is a well-known Ashanti saying. One of the cotton cloth designs bears the same name. The fofoo, the botanical name of which is Bidens pilosa, has a small yellow flower, which, when it drops its petals, turns into a black spiky seed. Said of a jealous person.
  30. Mmra Krado. The Hausa man's lock.
  31. Dwenini aben, the ram's horns.
  32. Dono ntoasuo, the double dono drums.
  33. Ma te; Masie, 'I have heard (what you have said); I have hidden it'; this extols the virtue of being able to keep a confidence.
  34. Adinkira hene. As No. 2 1.
  35. Nyame nwu na ma wu, 'May Nyame die before I die.'
  36. Hye wo nhye, 'He who would burn you be not burned.' See also No. 49.
  37. Gye Nyame, 'Accept God.'
  38. As No. 26.
  39. Ohene niwa, '(in) the king's little eyes', i.e. in his favour.
  40. Akoben, the war-horn.
  41. Kwatakye atiko, lit. at the back of Kwatakye's head. Kwatakye was a war captain of one of the Ashanti kings; at the Odwira ceremony he is said to have cut his hair after this fashion.
  42. Akoma, the heart, with a cross in the centre.
  43. Ohen' tuo, the king's gun.
  44. Same as No. 17.
  45. Obi nka obie, 'I offend no one without a cause.'
  46. BI NKA BI, "no one should bite the other".
  47. Akoma, the heart.
  48. Nsoroma, lit. a child of the Sky, i.e. a star, referring to the saying: Oba Nyankon soroma te Nyame so na onte ne ho so, 'Like the star, the child of the Supreme Being, I rest with God and do not depend upon myself.'
  49. Nsoromma. 'Child of the Heavens.' This pattern was on the King of Ashanti's pillow.
  50. This, I was informed, was a new design copied from Europeans.
  51. Kodie mmowerewa, the eagle's talons.
  52. Dono, the dono drum.
  53. Akoko nan tia 'ba, na nkum 'ba, 'A hen treads upon chickens but does not kill them.'


  1. Appiah, Kwame Anthony (1993). In my father's house : Africa in the philosophy of culture (1st paperback edition 1993. ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-506852-8.
  2. Adinkra cloth history. University at Buffalo.
  3. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-03-22. Retrieved 2011-04-13. clickable image on right links to description
  4. on adinkra Archived August 17, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. The Story of Adinkra Ton
  6. Jansen, P. C. M. (2005). Dyes and Tannins. PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa). p. 102. ISBN 9057821591. Retrieved 2013-06-19.

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