Egyptian Symbols: Ankh

The ankh is one of the most widely used representations of symbolic ancient Egypt. It has appeared in several art palettes and hieroglyphic artifacts all over Egypt. Despite its popularity, its origin and meaning is still subject for much debate. Some say, it is associated with a sandal strap presumably because of its shape. Others believe it was a totem of the shapes of the reproductive organs of the male and female human species. For others, it is a representation of the sun, the horizon and the path the star follows for them to meet. It is also assumed to be a ceremonial girdle making it associated with other symbols – the Djed and the Sa.

The ankh or the ´nh in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs represent life and signify “the breath of life”. It resembles the thoracic vertebra of the bull in cross section. It is often associated with several deities because it is linked with creation of life and vivacity especially of humans and the immortality of the gods and goddesses. It is often extended to the pharaoh as a gift of life and a tool of purification. In Upper Egypt, various scenes in the temple include the pharaoh flanked by two gods. The two gods, one believed to be Thoth, pours little ankhs in water to cleanse the pharaoh. The power of the ankh as depicted in the time of the Amarna period extends to the royal family as well. In this period, the rays of the Aten have ankhs pointing towards the members of the royal family.

It is quite commonly found in the hands of the funerary deities conferring the gift of afterlife into a mummy of a dead person. The dead is often referred to as the ankhu and the sarcophagus is known as the neb-ankh or “the possessor of life”.

During the Middle Kingdom, the ankh became associated with mirrors. In fact, many mirrors during that period, took the form of this popular hieroglyph as a means of viewing another world.

The ankh is also a popular symbol in amulets most commonly in gold (the metal of the sun) or copper but never silver. Together with Djed (representing stability and the Was (representing strength), the amulet bearer invokes a powerful protection from the deities.

Its popularity is very evident in Egyptian culture that several materials took the same shape as the ankh including spoons and the sistrum.

It is associated with several deities. It believed to be a combination of the womb of Isis and the penis of Osiris. It is connected with Anubis in his role as protector of the dead, with Sekhmet as a war goddess, with Hapy as the god of the waters of the Nile and with Amun as the creator god who brought the breath of life. It may also be seen carried by Hathor, Ptah, Sobek, and Satis.

When the polytheistic religion in Egypt became obsolete, the ankh took a new form in the Coptic Christian religion as the cross known as Crux Ansata or the “cross with a handle or the eyed cross”.