Here’s What The Egyptian ‘Ankh Symbol’ Means

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As someone who has always been fascinated by ancient symbols, exploring the meaning behind the ancient Egyptian ankh symbol is right up my alley.

The Egyptian ankh (unk) is an iconic symbol dating back to 3,000 BC, which was over 5,000 years ago.

The big question is, what does the ankh mean? Why did ancient Egyptians use this symbol? What is the symbolism behind the ankh? Should I wear the Ankh symbol?

Decoding the symbolism of an object from a culture and civilization that lived over 5,000 years ago is not easy. But that’s what makes the ankh so fascinating to millions of inquiring minds today.

In this article we find the truth behind the meaning of the Ankh, by exploring the minds, perspectives, and theories of leading experts in the field of archeology and Egyptology.

Let’s Dive In.

Origin And History of The Ankh Symbol

The Ancient Egyptian cross, commonly known as the Ankh, is thought to originally be an Egyptian hieroglyph used to represent the word “life”. By proxy, the ankh became known as the “symbol of life”.

Ancient Egyptian Ankh symbol Here's What The Egyptian 'Ankh Symbol' Means

Unlike the known origin of the Eye of Horus and the Eye of Ra, the exact origins of the ancient ankh symbol are unknown. And according to Dr. Andrew H. Gordon, who has a Ph.D. in Egyptology – “There is not a complete consensus on what physical object the Ankh sign originally represented.”

What is known for sure, is that the “key of life” or the “cross of life”, as the ankh is commonly referred to, dates all the way back to the Earliest Dynasty in Ancient Egypt (3,150 – 2,613 BC).

The oldest depictions of the ancient Ankh symbol were found in tombs where gods, such as Isis and Osiris, are depicted carrying the Ankh symbol in their clenched fist by their side. Because of the depictions of the Ankh being associated with kings, gods, and tombs, the Ankh has long been associate with the “eternal life”,”afterlife”, Egyptian gods, and Egyptian royalty.

Egyptologists today now understand that the Ankh took on many meanings overtime. Scholar Adele Nozedar agrees with  Dr. Andrew H. Gordon, and writes – “The volume of meaning that can be squeezed from such a simple symbol is awe-inspiring.”

The one meaning for the Ankh that stands out, and has clearly stood the test of time, is the well-established powerful symbol for a safe “eternal life”.

What is the Meaning of Ankh Symbol and What Does It Symbolize?

(The Ankh in Ancient Egyptian Culture)

Changing Meanings –

When we think of ancient Egypt, we often think of King Tut, Cleopatra, Pharaoh Rameses, The Great Pyramids, and The Great Sphinx.

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These are the most iconic ancient Egyptian figure heads, but it’s hard to put the timeline of ancient Egypt into context.

For example, Cleopatra lived closer in time to the internet, than she did to the construction of the pyramids.

The point is, the meaning of the ankh symbol changed over time. Although universally seen as a symbol of life and divine power as the Ankh is portrayed most often being held by Ancient Egyptian gods carrying it by its loop.

Here’s all the meaning of the Ankh as it changed over time.

The Ankh as the Ancient Egyptian Symbol of Life –

Above all else, the ankh symbol was believed to be the ancient Egyptian ‘symbol of life’, and the gods’ promise of prosperity in the eternal life after death.

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The symbol is also an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph which represents the hieroglyph ´nh (ankh) meaning “life” or “breath of life”. The glyph appears in an incredible number of inscriptions and was often used as a decorative device. Many of the gods of Egypt are depicted bearing an Ankh to represent their vivacity and immortality. Occasionally, the god (or goddess) extends the Ankh to the Pharaoh, indicating both the gift of life and the purification of the subject.

The Ankh’s  Spiritual Meaning – Funeral Context –

In Egyptian hieroglyphics gods and pharaohs are often shown holding an ankh either by their side or holding an ankh up to the face of a god or another royal.

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According to Egyptologists, these hieroglyphics reflect the mentality of ancient Egyptians, and that death was merely a transition to the afterlife…, to the eternal life. To ensure a safe passage to the afterlife Egyptians would  place the ankh in sarcophagi which meant that the deceased mummy would be able to resurrect safely and live happily in the afterlife.

Because the symbol is often found on the sarcophagus of pharaoh, many archeologists believe that the ankh may also symbolically represent the union between heaven and earth.

The Ankh Represented by the Sun and the Earth –

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Professor of Philosophy Joshua J. Mark write for WorldHistory.org that –

“the ankh represents the sun coming over the horizon, and the union of heaven and earth. This association with the sun means that the ankh is traditionally drawn in gold – the color of the sun – and never in silver, which relates to the moon.”

Author and Egyptologist Dr. Michael Poe believes he’s found evidence that the round oval or “loop” of the ankh represented the Sun rising above, but not quite above the horizon. The horizontal crossbar represents the horizon. And the vertical section below the crossbar is the “Path of the Sun” or reflection of the sun in the water of the Nile river.

If you look at the picture of the setting sun, this could make sense.

Dr. Poe has proposed that the ankh’s horizontal ‘crossbar’ symbolizes the sunrise and sunset (life and death, east and west). He believes the ankh represents the path of birth, life, and death. It

Others experts agree saying that the ankh may represent the sun, as the sun is the ultimate provider of life.

The Ankh & The Egyptian Goddess Isis –

In the origin story of Ancient Egyptian Mythology, the all-powerful God Osiris is killed by his evil (and jealous) brother Set. Set (also referred to as Seth) dismembers Osiris’s body so that his soul cannot travel to the afterlife.

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However, Osiris’s wife and sister Isis (this was normal back then – but still gross) collected Osiris’s body parts and put them back together. This way that Osiris could, at least, still rule the underworld.

The association of the ankh with the powerful goddess Isis tied it to a greater meaning. The Ankh was linked specifically with Isis, who could save one’s soul and provide for them in the afterlife. Thus the ankh’s symbolism of protection in the life after death.

Many of the gods of Egypt are shown etched in stone hieroglyphs holding the ankh, but the goddess Isis is shown holding the Ankh more often than most. Egyptologists believe that the ankh either came from, or is directly related to, the ‘knot of Isis’ (AKA the tjet or tyet), which is a symbol for both protection and fertility.

The Ankh and the “Knot of Isis” (Tyet) –

The tyet is an ancient Egyptian symbol which (similar to the ankh) also dates back at least 5,000 years ago to the earliest Egyptian dynasties. Sometimes called the “knot of Isis”, the Tyet is almost the same shape as the Ankh, except with the “arms” folded in, instead of projected outward like the Ankh symbol does.

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It is unsure if the Tyet was originally connected to Isis in the early kingdom, but by the time of the  New Kingdom of Egypt (1550–1070 BC) both the Tyet and ankh were directly connected with the Goddess Isis.

Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge (who dies in the 1930’s) believed that the ankh (and possibly the tyet) may have originated as the belt-buckle or even sandal of the goddess Isis. Some scholars have even suggested that the tyet might depict the cloth Isis used during menstruation, but this claim has not been confirmed for sure.

More commonly, the tyet, similar to the ankh, is seen as a symbol for Isis or for life.

Ankh Symbol – Divine Gods and Royalty –

Aside from Isis, the ankh has long been associated with the divine. Almost 2,000 years after the Ankh was first known to originate, it was still being used by Egyptian Pharaohs and Gods.

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During the New Kingdom Dynasty (which ranged from 1,570 – 1,069 BC), the ankh became associated with the god Amun-Ra and divine royalty. The ankh became what we call today “mainstream” during this timeframe, and was regularly used as a sacred symbol.

It was during the New Kingdom Dynasty, that the greatest (and most famous) pharaoh of the time period,  Ramesses II (1279 – 1213 BC) used the ankh regularly in hieroglyphics. From here on the ankh would be used throughout the remainder of Egyptian history.

The Ankh as a Symbolic Mirror –

During the age of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ (2,040-1,782 BC) the word “nkh” was used as the word for mirror. As a result, a number of ‘hand-mirrors’ were crafted in the shape of the ankh. Including an ankh mirror that was found in the tomb of  King Tut (Tutankhamun).

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It seems doubtful that the ankh originally represented a mirror, and more likely that mirrors were made to reflect the sacred symbol’s likeliness.

Egyptologist and 19th century author Victor Loret, argued that  a “mirror” was the ankh’s original meaning. However, a clear problem with this argument, which Mr. Loret himself would later acknowledge, is that Egyptian Gods and Pharaohs alike are frequently depicted in hieroglyphs holding the ankh by its loop (with their hands passing through the loop) which is where the solid reflecting surface of the mirror would be.

The Ankh – Fertility – Male & Female Sexual Meaning –

One explanation for the shape of the ankh is that it represents the union between male genitaliaand female genitalia.

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The ankh has been said to represent the ““union”” of man and woman which symbolizes the creation of life through this “”union””.

In multiple cultures, circular symbols have long represented feminine energy, while linear symbols have long represented masculine energy. In the case of the ancient Egyptian Ankh, the loop is theorized to represent the female reproductive organs, while the ‘leg’ of the cross is theorized to represent the male reproductive organ.

As we’ve all learned in biology class, the union of male and female organs leads to the creation of life. Thus this context of the ankh makes a lot of sense backing the “symbol of life” theory.

According to archeologists theories on the ankh, the symbol could be the combination of the male and female symbols representing the union between Osiris and Isis.

Ankh And Christianity – Should I Wear the Ankh If I’m Christian? –

In general, the ankh will always be associated with life in Egypt. There are no negative connotations to wearing the Ankh if you’re Christian so feel free to wear the Egyptian symbol to church with-out attracting dirty looks.

Ankh Vs. The Christian Cross –

ankh vs cross Here's What The Egyptian 'Ankh Symbol' Means

Recorded history aside…, since the Egyptian ankh and the Egyptian religion has been around for over 3,000 years before the start of Christianity, it’s hard to imagine that the ankh did not have, at least some, influence on the Christian cross – Especially given the resemblance!

History tells us that the oldest Christians in the Middle East, the Coptic Christians of Egypt, borrowed the ankh as their own. According to the World History Encyclopedia, the ankh’s already famous association with the afterlife made it an especially potent and well-known symbol for the Coptic faith to adopt.

Because the ankh cross was already an established ‘symbol of life’, it made it relatively easy to become assimilated into the early Christian religion.

Meaning Of the Egyptian Ankh in Modern Times

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The true original meaning of the ancient Egyptian ankh may have been lost in the ‘sands of time, only for us to figure out at some point in the future. Or to live on in blogs such as this one.

But today, the ankh still holds meaning.

It is still a globally recognized ancient symbol. If you were to show the ankh to any random person on the street and ask then what it means, they probably wouldn’t know, but they would identify the ankh with the ancient Egyptian culture.

In today’s modern age, the ankh represents the ancient Egyptian civilization as a whole. It’s a reminder of an advanced civilization that not only lived, but thrived 5,000 years before the internet, iphone, or social media.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s the semi-forgotten ankh symbol was “brought back to life” so to speak by the modern religion called Kemetism ( also called Egyptian Neopaganism). The social climate in the 1960’s and 70’s brough about a new wave of free expression and religious awakening.

Hippies of the 1960s and 1970s wore the ankh as a symbol they identified with to express their contempt for materialism and consumerism. In the early 70’s even Elvis Presley  wore an ankh necklace.

The revival of Ancient Egyptian religion, fascination, and symbolism emerging from the 1970’s but has carried onwards even since.

Ankh Jewelry Today –

Here's What The Egyptian 'Ankh Symbol' Means

The ankh is commonly seen in all sorts of jewelry from rings, to earrings, to chains & necklaces. Originally the ankh was only cast in gold or copper to symbolize it’s connection with the sun. But today that concept has been thrown out the window as the ankh can now be found in any medium.

Conclusion: What Does The Egyptian Ankh Symbolize

The exact origin of the ankh’s original meaning, as depicted in ancient hieroglyph’s, is still unknown. It is clear that the ankh had a deep spiritual, religious, philosophical, and divine properties and likely took on multiple meanings depending on the context.

These are the current leading symbolic meanings

  • The Sun Coming Over The Horizon
  • The Union Of Heaven And Earth
  • The Union Of Male And Female
  • A Symbol Of Life
  • A Symbol Of Protection In The Afterlife

After 5,000 years of symbolism, the ankh today has evolved into a symbol of a once great civilization, that in many ways may have been more advanced in their understanding of the universe, and our place as humans within it.

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