Within African traditional religions and Afro-diasporic traditions, there are sacred symbols and signs used for special purposes – especially calling upon and communicating with the spirits of that tradition. Unfortunately, they are often appropriated and misused outside of their respective religions due to pop culture interests and neopagan misinterpretations.
For reference and to help combat the spread of misinformation about these symbols, I’ve included some basics about some of the most well-known signs of ATRs.
In the African traditional religion of Haitian Vodou, the spirits called Lwa represent different powers, personalities, and energies that can be represented visually through veves. Veves are sometimes used by mambos and houngans (Vodou priests and priestesses) to call upon Lwa to help with certain rituals and ceremonies. The veve carries the energy of a Lwa and attracts that Lwa to come down.
It’s important to note that a veve cannot be used by anyone without the extensive training and specialized knowledge of a mambo, houngan, or another kind of qualified Vodou practitioner. The Lwa are very powerful spirits, and if used in the wrong ways a veve can anger them rather then peacefully draw them to come and work with you.
Unfortunately, it’s all too common to see people get veve tattoos or draw them for personal uses, which is extremely inappropriate outside of Vodou tradition. Sometimes folks also associate a veve with an Orisha, but in actuality, Orishas are from a completely different culture and set of religions than Haitian Vodou.
Patipemba / Firma
The patipemba (also known as a firma) is very similar to the veve in some ways, but from a different culture and religion. They are spiritual drawings that connect the signatures of spirits from Congo culture – the nkisi, mpungo, and nfumbe – in the Afro-diasporic religion, Palo. There is a complex, multifaceted system of symbols that come together to create a patipemba, and only the fully initiated priests of Palo (Tata/Yayi or Palero/Palera) and those who they are teaching can learn to draw one.
Unlike most veve of Vodou, a patipemba is used to do more than drawn down a spirit but also ask them to do specific things for the priest. There are pre-made traditional patipemba, but some experienced Paleros can also channel spirit to create new ones.
The Ashanti and Baoules cultures of West Africa (primarily in Ghana) have a special set of symbols called adinkra. They are used as cultural symbols and sometimes for ritual purposes as well. Each Adinkra symbol has a rich set of meanings and associations, and many are linked to proverbs or wise sayings.
Historically, special adinkra clothes were only worn by royalty or spiritual leaders on special occasions, but nowadays Adinkra designs are mass-produced due to tourism. You can find adinkra symbols used extensively in fabric, pottery, architectural, t-shirt, and jewelry designs. In Black Panther, Shuri wore the Wawa Aba, an adinkra symbol, on her t-shirt.
If you’d like to learn more, there’s a full directory of adinkra symbols that explain their meanings and uses at Adinkra.org.