Akan Symbolism

Symbolism plays an important role in African art, and in Akan society in particular, it is found in every aspect of life. What we now look upon as works of art were, in most cases, functional objects, but they had a literary and metaphysical quality as well. Even the crudest artifact could have profound meaning, and although craftsmanship was deeply appreciated, the aptness of the symbol was at least as important. Many Akan symbolic designs were all pervasive. They appeared on funerary urns, in plaster designs on old shrines, on chiefs' applique cloths, on kuduo, forowa, linguist staffs, umbrella tops, swords, jewelry, and all other items of stool paraphernalia. They are printed on the textiles so popular in Ghana today, on pottery, bracelets and on adinkra cloth. Kente cloth patterns also have names, many of which embody proverbs and sayings that express the philosophy of the Akan. Without knowledge of these proverbs and of the ideas behind them, which constitute the foundation of Akan culture, one could not be considered seriously as an elder or have the respect of society. They still play an important part in life today, particularly in relationships between people: a speaker who uses the apposite proverb or moral tale can, for example, win the sympathy of a crowd. Beautiful as many of the Asante craft works are, they were never intended to be looked at for purely aesthetic reasons.

 

ABOSODEt (SWORD ORNAMENT
Abosodeé (swod ornament). Ejisu bird with canons and gunpowder kegs.

 

It was at the chiefs' courts that symbolism was most obvious. Almost every object of stool paraphernalia had meaning, and in some cases might represent two or three ideas at the same time. For example, a sword by its type and name had one, the ornament (abosodee), which was fixed below the hilt, had another, and the sword probably had a general name used for specific occasions only. Thus the Asantahene's Keteanofena swords represent two kinds of spiritual elements, the sunsum and the kra, which chiefs and commoners alike inherit from their ancestors. In procession, those on the right of the chief are called the akrafena. They represent the soul or spiritual side of the chief and are used in purification ceremonies and on other important occasions. They sometimes have white scabbards or are washed with hyire (white clay). The largest of these swords is the Mponponsuo, whose name means "responsibility." Both hilt and blade are encased in a sheath of leopard skin decorated with gold: the leopard stands for power and bravery, the gold for wealth. The gold abosodee is in the form of a gaboon viper holding a hornbill, which in this case symbolizes patience. The story behind the motif is that the hornbill borrowed money from the snake and refused to repay it. The snake waited until the dry season, when there was only one drinking pool, and finally caught the hornbill. The sword, made for Asantehene Opoku Ware I, honors his dedication to his people, and is used by Asante paramount chiefs in swearing allegiance to the Asantehene. It is always kept near the Golden Stool and like it is a spiritual symbol of the Asante nation.

This one item thus embraces history, folklore and theology. Whatever its artistic merit, it is the symbolism that is of paramount importance. What a chief wore on a public occasion was dictated by meaning and not appearance, although this was often magnificent. Colors had special significance: black, red, orange and other "dark" colors for funerals and mourning; gold for richness; blue and silver for the queenmother; white for purity or joy, or for the funerals of the very old; brown for seriousness of purpose and war. A chief chose his symbols carefully, and they were studied just as carefully by his visitors and by his own people. On their interpretation could depend life or death. The way they were combined made up a silent language, subtle and sometimes deliberately open to more than one interpretation. Each new Asantehene carefully chooses the symbols he will put on his personal swords, for they express what he hopes and expects will be his special contribution to the stool, or office.

To understand stool paraphernalia, a knowledge of history is necessary, for many of the objects were made in commemoration of historical events. The symbol Adwetakyi Anomaa weremfoo, the bird that carries cannon and gunpowder, illustrates this point. Its body is often made up of a wisdom (reef or square) knot, which stands for the brave man who is able to defend himself and his people. The bird image appears on rings worn by elders and chiefs, on swords and linguist staffs, and is a royal appellation. The symbol is an old one and it is said that originally only the Asantehene and other great chiefs honored for exemplary service to the paramount stool were allowed to use it. It appears on the Antoa stool sword, for Nana Poku Agyeman I, Antoahene, was a brave man. He took the heads of two chiefs in battle and brought them back to the Asantehene. For his achievements and after purification he was renamed Opoku Ware Katakyie and, by order of the Asantehene, given a state sword with the bird on it. The Amakomhene, whom he serves, also has the symbol on his sword. In his case it seems to be connected with the river Mframaha, from which one of the first chiefs, Nana Adu Twum, drank. It was said that when he got up in the morning no one else could use the stream until his water had been fetched. The water was neither particularly sweet nor sweet-smelling, but this bird is a symbol of his guardianship. People caught at the river were fined or punished. In this case the bird stood for the strong guardian. The Agonahene and the Adontenhene also have the right to use the bird.

knot, which stands for the brave man who is able to defend himself and his people. The bird image appears on rings worn by elders and chiefs, on swords and linguist staffs, and is a royal appellation. The symbol is an old one and it is said that originally only the Asantehene and other great chiefs honored for exemplary service to the paramount stool were allowed to use it. It appears on the Antoa stool sword, for Nana Poku Agyeman I, Antoahene, was a brave man. He took the heads of two chiefs in battle and brought them back to the Asantehene. For his achievements and after purification he was renamed Opoku Ware Katakyie and, by order of the Asantehene, given a state sword with the bird on it. The Amakomhene, whom he serves, also has the symbol on his sword. In his case it seems to be connected with the river Mframaha, from which one of the first chiefs, Nana Adu Twum, drank. It was said that when he got up in the morning no one else could use the stream until his water had been fetched. The water was neither particularly sweet nor sweet-smelling, but this bird is a symbol of his guardianship. People caught at the river were fined or punished. In this case the bird stood for the strong guardian. The Agonahene and the Adontenhene also have the right to use the bird.


  • 12-3-2011

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