Mysterious Symbols

January 11, 2012

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The Tuareg have long regarded inadan with some apprehension because of their ability to craft objects from the mysterious interaction of fire and metal, and because of their perceived role as mediators with the spirit world.

Tuareg jewelry, made of silver, red copper, brass, tin, aluminum and, more recently, gold, abounds with delicately engraved designs. Among them are discs, stars, rosettes and zigzags. A circle, for example, typically represents the eye of the chameleon; a half circle, the moon; and cross-hatching, crocodile teeth. The symbols no doubt have sacred significance.

Many scholars believe that the Tuareg may have forgotten the original religious value of these symbols as they converted to Islam under the pressure of Arab colonization beginning in the seventh century. Primary motifs are the triangle and the diamond, particularly on the most spiritually potent objects: protective amulets. Scholar Malika Grasshoff reports that for a related Berber/Amazigh group, the Kabyle of Algeria, these shapes frequently represent the female vulva, signifying the life-giving power of women and nature. In much of the world, the triangle and diamond have been associated with female divinity from remotest times.

Could Tuareg artwork thus point to veneration of a sacred female in pre-Islamic times? Elsewhere in North Africa—in ancient Egypt and Carthage, for example—female divinities were prevalent. Tuareg culture has a long matrilineal strain: the Tuareg consider themselves descendants of a great female ancestress, Tin Hinan, and reckon lineage and social rank through the mother’s line. Historically, women have held positions as tribal leaders, and they still enjoy great behavioral freedom. They go about unveiled (while the men cover their faces); they may divorce at will, own the family tent and control their own property.

Some scholars have conjectured that one popular Tuareg motif, the Cross of Agadez (above), may originate in the symbol for the Carthaginian goddess Tanit. Others note its resemblance to the shape of goddess pendants found in the tomb of Tin Hinan, to the Egyptian ankh, or to the sign for the planet Venus. Still others see the cross as masculine in nature, denoting the symbol for Mercury or even the shape of a phallus.

Thomas Seligman remains wary about assigning meaning to Tuareg symbols. “These are all interesting hypotheses,” he says, “but there’s not enough evidence to allow for any definitive judgments, particularly because these ideas may not necessarily hold meaning for the Tuareg themselves.”

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