Wander around the colossal, ancient ruins of any archaeological site in Egypt and you won’t fail to notice one very distinctive, reoccurring symbol. A cross with a teardrop-shaped loop at its top, often simply plain and gold, but sometimes ornamented with symbols or decorative flourishes, the Ankh is one of the most recognizable icons from ancient Egypt. However, just what does this mysterious, revered, and deeply emblematic symbol actually represent? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
What is the Ankh?
Although the true origin of the Ankh is unknown, experts can agree that it is one of the most ancient, sacred symbols of Egypt. It is often represented in most Egyptian imagery and inscriptions alongside the djed and was symbols, usually carried by a variety of Egyptian gods and goddesses. It is said to be a duplicate of the cross of the Tau, an equally well-known occult symbol, with the addition of a loop to the top of the horizontal bar.
The Ankh is most commonly recognised as a hieroglyph for “life” or “breath of life”, symbolizing both mortal existence and the eternal afterlife. However, look a little closer, and you’ll soon discover that it’s symbolic value goes so much deeper than that.
The Ankh in Egyptian writing
Also known as “the key of life”, the Ankh was most commonly used in Egyptian art and hieroglyphic writing to represent the word for “life” and, by extension, as a symbol of life itself. Furthermore, it was used in writing as a trilateral sign, representing a sequence of three consonants. This particular sequence was also present in several other Egyptian words, including the words meaning “mirror” and “floral bouquet”.
The Ankh in art
In art, the Ankh may have been used decoratively more than any other hieroglyphic sign. It often appeared as a tangible object that represented life or of substances related to it, such as air or water. It was most commonly depicted held in the hands of Egyptian deities, or being given by them to the pharaoh. This represented their power to sustain life and to revive human souls in the afterlife. However, the sign was also commonly used in the decoration of architectural forms, such as the walls and shrines within temples, and libation vessels and sistra were also often shaped like it.
Given that the Ankh was used in writing as the name for objects such as floral bouquets, mirrors, and mirror cases, it should come as no surprise that such items were often also made in its shape. In fact, the association of the Ankh with the mirror held further meaning, as Egyptians believed the afterlife was a mirror image of life on earth and mirrors themselves were believed to contain magical properties. They were often used for divination purposes and played a valuable, symbolic role during the Festival of the Lanterns for the goddess Neith.
Amulets were made in the shape of the Ankh and other hieroglyphic symbols. They were intended to impart the wearer with qualities represented by the sign and were worn in daily life, as well as placed in tombs to ensure the well-being of the departed in the afterlife. They were believed to have contained magical powers, the ability to attract particular deities, and to provide the wearer with supernatural benefits and charms.
The Ankh in religious imagery
The ancient Egyptians believed that life was a force that circulated throughout the world, and that all living things were a manifestation of this force and, thus, fundamentally tied to it. The creation of the world was the point at which life came into existence, and cyclical events like the rising and setting of the sun were considered as re-enactments of this creation. Sustaining life was, therefore, a crucial task of the deities who governed these natural cycles. This is why the Ankh was so frequently depicted in the hands of the gods as a representation of their life-giving power.
The Egyptians further believed that, after death, their lives could be renewed in the same way as life in general. For this reason, the gods were often portrayed in tombs giving the Ankh to humans. In tomb paintings and inscriptions, deities were often depicted placing the Ankh against the lips of the soul in the afterlife to revitalize and open it to life after death. The goddesses Ma’at and Isis, as well as the gods Osiris and Amun, were most commonly illustrated with the Ankh in this respect.
The cult of Isis
While many of the gods of Egypt are depicted holding the Ankh, Isis is most often portrayed with it. At one point, Isis was considered the most popular goddess in Egypt and her cult promised eternal life through personal resurrection. The association of the Ankh with such a powerful goddess imbued it with greater meaning; it was linked specifically with the great goddess who could save souls and provide in the afterlife.
The cross of the Ankh was later also closely associated with the solar gods of Atum and Ra. In the imagery associated with these cults, a solar disc with beaming rays of light grasping onto the Ankh was interpreted as a symbol that the life of all living things is given by the sun.
A symbol of life
According to some interpretations, the circle on the upper part of the Ankh symbolizes the Nile River delta. The vertical bar then represents the rest is the river itself, which, for the arid region of Egypt, is essential for feeding and sustaining life. In this sense, the Ankh literally embodies the “key of life”.
A symbol of fertility and harmony
The Ankh is also believed to be a powerful symbol of fertility, signifying a harmonious combination of the deities Osiris and Isis; of the male and the female. In this respect, the cross itself represents the male organ, while the loop symbolizes the female uterus. So, the Ankh embodies the perfect union of the two potent forces of creation to give birth to new life. It is a visual symbol of an ever-fluctuating life; a dynamic balance between active male and passive female energies.
A symbol of the dawn and resurrection
Based on images of the Ankh in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, another interpretation is that it is a symbol for dawn. Within this context, the cross represents Genesis, life, and the passage of time, while the circle above is the sun, rising every day and initiating the beginning of a new day.
The key to all hidden knowledge
From a spiritual perspective, the Ankh embodied the key to all hidden knowledge and the unravelling of the mysteries of life and death. In this interpretation, the cross represents death and the circle symbolizes the eternal soul that has no beginning or end.
A universal symbol
In terms of universal symbolism, the cross denotes life as a combination of male and female principles across many cultures. Essentially, it is a symbol of human existence, with the crossing of the points representing the core essence of the human spirit and the point of origin. In turn, the loop symbolizes eternity, the unknown, and the infinitely knowable. When combining these two features, the Ankh becomes a symbol of a permutation of the human with the divine. Simultaneously, everything above the cross represents the realm of the eternal, the place of divinity and infinite knowledge to which the spirit of the human returns. Thus, the Ankh in this interpretation is a profound metaphysical encryption that indicates the true meaning of human life as a ‘point’, which contemplates its eternal nature so as to recognize the true essence of its existence.
The Ankh in mysticism and Egyptian Magick
Although the Ankh is best known as the esoteric symbol of Egypt, some researchers have claimed that it may even have come from more ancient times. It can be interpreted, therefore, as a symbol of generations of mysticism and a secret code transmitting sacred knowledge.
It is also believed that the ancient Egyptians portrayed the Ankh on their amulets in an attempt to prolong life on earth. At the same time, they buried the deceased with their amulets to ensure that the departed would be prepared for life in another world; they believed that the Ankh looked just like the key that opened the gates to heaven.