The Symbolic Power of Maasai Beadwork

Cultural traditions Maasai Beadwork Traditional Techniques Women artisans

Prior to contact with Europeans, Maasai women crafted intricate adornments with beads they made from clay, wood, bone, copper, brass, shells, seeds, and dried grasses. Glass beads were introduced in the 19thcentury by Europeans.

Beaded jewelry is worn by both men and women. The colors and patterns communicate information about the wearer’s age, social status, marital status and whether they have male or female children. Both men and women wear beaded pendants that signify the age class or generation to which they belong.

The colors and arrangements of beads in jewelry and other embellished objects is a symbolic language meant to convey personal identity and community belonging. For example:

  • Red is associated with strength, bravery and is compared to the blood of a cow that is slaughtered for community celebrations.
  • Blue symbolizes energy and the sky from which rain comes that helps to sustain the people and the cattle.
  • Green represents health and fertile land that provides food for people and cattle.
  • Orange and yellow are associated with hospitality and suggest the color of animal skins the make up a bed offered to guests.
  • White is the color of purity and nourishing cow’s milk.
  • Black represents the people in unity, harmony, and solidarity while also acknowledging the struggles that must be endured as a community.

Black and white are common color combinations in Maasai designs as in the Mini Beaded Wall Hanging, which features a simple and elegant pattern based on traditional ceremonial motifs. 

Many of us have jewelry that is symbolically meaningful to us. Whether its a wedding ring, a family heirloom, or perhaps a pendant that reminds us of spiritual beliefs. Similarly, many jewelry pieces are worn for their seemingly magical properties. For example, a necklace that reminds us to have courage in the face of challenge or a gemstone that is thought impart purity.  Do you have jewelry that is meaningful, beyond the decorative, to you? 


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  • Molly Acord on

    How interesting!

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