What does the bird symbol in Taboo mean?

The mysterious Sankofa mark tattooed on Tom Hardy's James Delaney is actually a real symbol

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While watching atmospheric new period drama Taboo over the last few weeks, you might have noticed the continuing appearance of a mysterious bird symbol that appears to have some significance to Tom Hardy’s lead character James Delaney.

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Remember it? Well, it’s beginning to look like this mark (apparently called a Sankofa) is a pretty big deal in Taboo, previously being scratched on the floor of a ship by James last week and now cropping up again in his mother’s fireplace for this week’s episode (below).

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And of course James also has it tattooed on his back (see below), but apparently doesn’t know its true significance as it was done to him by his mysterious captors in Africa. So what could it mean?

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Well, with a little research it turns out “Sankofa” is a word from the Twi language of Ghana (the same one spoken by James throughout the series) which roughly means “go back and get it” and also refers to an Adinkra symbol (markings used by the Ashanti people of Ghana to represent concepts and aphorisms) of a bird turning its head back towards its body to take an egg off its back. The very symbol that we keep seeing in the series…

Apparently, the symbol appears frequently in traditional art and has since been adopted by ex-pat African people around the world to represent the need to reflect on and consider the past in order to build a successful future. Not too far a stretch from James’ dark past, future plans and the themes of this series in general, no?

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A real version of the Sankofa symbol

And the fact that the bird is presumably also a mother turning back to fetch her child (the egg) adds another layer to the image – James’ mother may have made the mark for him to find, somehow – even if we’re still not quite sure why James’ captors chose to mark him in this way, or how it connects to his non-African mother (though she may have just had an interest in the culture that mirrors her son’s later immersion in it).

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Anyway, we’re sure that James will find out the symbol’s meaning and how exactly it applies to his own life soon. After all, it may be that what it represents has a more direct application to his plans than we currently realise – and might just reveal the dark secrets of James’s past that we’ve all been waiting to find out.