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Sex symbolism in the art and jewellery of tribal peoples

One of the things that has always intersted me is that in tribal cultures the female form is used. Fecundity or fertility is celebrated, particularly through the mother goddess. The full figured Venus is a source of immense power, luck and protection. Note in the figs below the use of the diamond shape from the early prehistoric shape of woman to the Berber carpet.

In his seminal work on Moroccan carpets spun by Berber women, Barbatti ( Berber Carpets of Morocco – The Symbols Origin and Meaning. ACR Edition pub 2008)

examines the pre historic, Paolithic and Neolithic cave paintings and fertility objects of those periods, noting how such marks as crosses, diamond or lozenge shapes, zig zag lines near or on animals quite clearly denote the feminine and the masculine. Men with erect penises hunt animals that are marked with and surrounded by Xs and Vs denoting the feminine, straight lines and zig zags denote the masculine.

Moving into descriptions of carpets these symbols are used in almost exactly the same ways by Berber tribeswomen. Their language - stories of marriage, sex and birth can be made out.

In these rural Moroccan carpets just as in ancient symbolism The chevron is the sign for the vulva or for opened thighs. The X represents the female body with arms and legs spread out. It shows the woman 'open' ready to concieve. The diamond or lozenge combines the concepts of the womb, the vagina and the mother's body. The shapes with extended sides can be the body with womb and can contain dots ie an embryo or have something falling out ie a birth.

Much of the symbolism of these pre historic cultures was adapted and used in tribal textiles, jewellery and other artefacts.

Bruno Barbatti’s study of the Berber Carpets of Morocco, points out very clearly and concisely that certain artifacts have been hitherto mistakenly viewed by the West . From the patterns of carpets to the symbols in jewellery ie the hamsa (hand of Fatima), to the African cross.

Tuareg crosses, a Moroccan khamsa shape and a Moroccan boghdad.

These have possibly evolved from a pre historic symbolism rooted firmly in the body of woman, her genitals and their functions.

With the Berber carpet and its symbolism, the bride introduces her own intuition and imagination into the design and creates a portrait of herself. ‘The carpet is her silent writing without words’. She displays herself seated, in her best dress and jewellery. ‘Plugs’ next to and in the bottom part of the dress and in the flattened lozenge as well as in the three toothed ‘combs’ are male symbols and show her expectation of her husband. The desire for children is expressed in the chains of the matrix shapes along the edges, with a dot as a sign of fertilisation and in the birth signs in the lower half of the carpet.

I turn the page of Barbatti’s book and see a carpet with a great big central diamond shape surrounded by erect masculine lines. (see first picture) A vulva surrounded by penises or swimming sperm… Here we have pure sex right in ones face! One can almost blush at the overt sexuality and representations of genitalia, mating and birth depicted there. But of course far more beautiful and meaningful than any pornography.

Below the Tuareg khomeissa which is seen as the precursor of the hand of Fatima or khamsa


The diamond or lozenge shape in Berber carpets, in jewellery, (or in for example the Tuareg Khomeissa which here actually looks like a prehistoric Venus, with torso and legs) denotes the womb, the safe enclosure, the home, the protector, the woman. Woman is life and woman is luck.

Barbatti concludes that these symbols deriving from the human reproductive organs should not be seen as coming from a primitive or childlike mankind but one that is moulded by an intuitive intimate contemplation of the self – the expression of a material reality fundamentally residing in the human body both male and female. One without the other makes no sense at all.

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