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What is the Sankofa bird symbol from Taboo?

The Sankofa bird symbol tattooed — or branded — into Tom Hardy's back on Taboo
The Sankofa bird symbol tattooed — or branded — into Tom Hardy’s back on Taboo

Tom Hardy’s epic drama Taboo has drawn viewers’ intrigue with the mysterious Sankofa bird symbol which has made repeated appearances during the series so far.

But what is it, and is it a real thing?

The bird symbol first cropped up in Episode 2 when Hardy’s character James Delaney was seen chiselling it out on to the wooden floor of a ship.

The Sankofa Delaney scratches into the ship's floor on Episode 2
The Sankofa Delaney scratches into the ship’s floor on Episode 2

Then in Episode 3 the Sankofa is referenced three times. The first is when it’s mentioned by the young girl called Winter, who says she knows what it means.

Delaney then uncovers it etched into the wall above a fireplace in his mother’s old room, before revealing a version of it tattooed — or branded? — between his shoulders on his back.

The Sankofa above the fireplace in the room of Delaney's mother
The Sankofa above the fireplace in the room of Delaney’s mother05

The storyline of Taboo reveals James returned to Britain after spending a decade in Africa. And the Sankofa is actually a real ancient symbol which comes from what is modern-day Ghana.

READ: Tom Hardy on how he based his Taboo character on Bill Sykes

It is a visual Adrinka symbol created by the Ashanti people, who live in a southern region of the country. Adrinkas are images or shapes which represent ideas, principles, or concepts — and are often related to local proverbs.

The word Sankofa is from the Ashanti language, a form of Twi, and literally translated means “Go back and get it”.

The symbol is generally connected to the Ashanti proverb “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi” — which means “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

There are actually two versions. One, the version in Taboo, depicts a bird with its neck and head turned backwards as it removes an egg from its back, while the other is a stylized heart shape.

It is one of the most used of all Adrinka symbols and, like in Taboo, is often used in tattoos as well as things like jewellery.

In 1991 a cemetery containing the bodies of more than 400 free and enslaved Africans was uncovered during building works in Manhattan.

One coffin had 51 tacks in it which created what looked like the stylized heart Sankofa symbol.

The depths of the Sankofa’s relevance to James Delaney remains to be seen…

Taboo airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX.


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