The Egyptian ankh (pronounced unk) is an iconic symbol dating back to 3,000 BC. That’s over 5,000 years ago, and to put that into perspective…, 5,000 from now it will be the year 7,000. What symbols from today do you think will survive until then?
The question is, what does the Ankh symbol, commonly referred to as the “Egyptian symbol of life”, really mean?
Why did ancient Egyptians use this symbol, and what does it represent?
In this article we explore the ancient symbolism, meaning, and origin of the legendary Ankh. And we’ll do so by examining the minds, perspectives, and theories of leading experts in the field of Archeology and Egyptology.
Let’s Dive In.
Ancient Origins And Egyptian History of The Ankh Symbol
The Ancient Egyptian cross, commonly known as the Ankh, is thought to originally have been an Egyptian hieroglyph used to represent the word “life”.
By proxy, the ankh symbol then became known as the “Egyptian symbol of life”. Literally a symbol for the word “life”.
Specific origins aside, what is known for sure, is that the ankh dates all the way back to the Earliest Egyptian Dynasty which dates back to the years 3,150 – 2,613 BC.
The oldest depictions of the Ankh symbol were found on the walls of ancient tombs where gods like Isis and Osiris are shown carrying the Ankh symbol in a clenched fist by their side.
Because the Ankh symbol was, originally, only being associated with kings, gods, and burial chambers, In the “New Kingdom” (which dates back to 1,549 BC) , the Ankh symbol became commonly known as ann easy way to associate with the “eternal life”, the ”afterlife”, the Egyptian gods, and the Egyptian royalty.
Egyptologists today now understand that the Ankh took on many different meanings overtime.
The Egyptian Ankh Meaning & Symbolism
When most of us think about ancient Egypt, we typically think of famous Icons like King Tut, Cleopatra, The Great Pharaoh Rameses, The Pyramids, and The Sphinx. These are the most well known ancient Egyptian figure heads, but none of them lived in the same time period. In fact, not even close.
It’s admittedly hard to conceptually put the full timeline of ancient Egypt into perspective. As an example, it’s strange to think about the fact that Cleopatra lived closer in time to the internet, than she did to the construction of the pyramids.
The point is, the meaning that the ankh symbol took on a changed meaning over time. Although today, it is believed by scholars that the ankh is a symbol, which over time, has quite universally been seen as a symbol of “life” and symbol for “divine power”. As through-out ancient history, the Ankh is consistently portrayed being held by the Egyptian gods, often carrying the ankh by its top loop.
The Changing Meanings of the Ankh Symbol
1. The Ankh as the Ancient Egyptian Symbol of Life –
Above all else, the ankh symbol was commonly believed to be the ancient Egyptians ‘symbol for life’. And with that symbol came a ‘promise from the gods’ of eternal prosperity in life after death.
The ankh symbol is a hieroglyph which represents “nh” (pronounced ankh) meaning “life” or “breath of life”. The hieroglyph appears in a massive number of inscriptions and was often used as a decorative symbol.
Many Egyptian gods are depicted bearing an Ankh to represent their authority and immortality. Occasionally, the god (or goddess) extends the Ankh to the Pharaoh, indicating both the gift of life and the purification of the soul.
2. The Ankh’s Spiritual Meaning – Funeral Context –
In Egyptian hieroglyphics gods and pharaohs are commonly shown holding an ankh either by their side, or up to the face of another god or pharaoh.
According to Egyptologists, these hieroglyphics reflect the mentality of ancient Egyptians that death was merely a transition in life to the ”afterlife” (the eternal life).
To ensure a safe passage to the afterlife, Egyptians would place the ankh in sarcophagi (coffin) 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.
3. The Ankh And the Union Between Heaven & Earth
Another name for the ankh is the “Key of the Nile”. And when the sun sets on the nile river (as pictured above) it becomes clear why the “key of the nile” is a fitting name for the Ankh.
According to Professor Joshua J. Mark author for WorldHistory.org …
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 pictures of the setting sun, this theory makes sense.
Dr. Poe has proposed that the ankh’s horizontal ‘crossbar’ symbolizes the sunrise and sunset (life and death, east and west).
Others experts agree, saying that the ankh very well may represent the sun, as the sun is the ultimate provider of life on Earth.
4. The Ankh & The Egyptian Goddess Isis –
In the origin story of Ancient Egyptian Mythology, the all-powerful God Osiris is killed by his jealous brother Set. Set (also referred to as Seth) dismembers Osiris’s body so that his soul cannot travel to the afterlife.
As ancient legend has it, Osiris’s wife, and sister, Isis (this was normal back then – but, yeah gross) collected Osiris’s body parts and put them back together. With his body reassembled 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 and meaning of protection in the life after death.
Many gods of Egypt are shown etched in stone hieroglyphs holding the ankh, but the goddess Isis is shown holding the Ankh more frequently than others. 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.
5. The Ankh and the “Knot of Isis” (Tyet) –
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.
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.
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.
More commonly, the tyet, similar to the ankh, is seen as a symbol for Isis and for life.
6. Ankh Symbol – Ramses, the Divine Gods, and Royalty –
Aside from just Isis, the ankh has long been associated with the divine. Almost 2,000 years after the Ankh was first used in ancient tombs, it was still being used by New Kingdom Egyptian Pharaohs and Gods.
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, Rameses II (1279 – 1213 BC) used the ankh regularly in hieroglyphics. After Rameses, the ankh would be popularly used throughout the remainder of Egyptian history.
Even as recently as 2018 , as reported by Egyptian newspapers, a new status of Ramses was discovered in the Temple of Kom Ombo and he was still holding his Ankh.
7. The Ankh as a Symbolic Mirror – King Tut
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).
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.
8. The Ankh – Fertility – Male & Female Sexual Meaning –
One of the more mainstream explanations for the shape of the ankh is that it represents the union between male genitalia and female genitalia.
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 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 his wife Isis.
Meaning Of the Egyptian Ankh Today and in Modern Times
The true original meaning of the ancient Egyptian ankh may have been lost in the ‘sands of time, left for us to figure out at some point in the future.
Still, 5,000 years later, the ankh holds meaning.
The ankh symbol today remains a globally recognized ancient symbol representing a highly advanced culture which remains mysterious in m any ways. If you were to show the ankh to any random person on the street and ask then what it means, they probably wouldn’t have a clue. But they would immediately 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 brought 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 even wore an ankh necklace.
The revival of Ancient Egyptian religion, fascination, and symbolism emerging from the 1970’s but has carried onwards even since.
Did the ancient Egyptian use psychedelics? You bet They Did – Check Out This Article
Ankh Jewelry Today –
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 its 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 much more advanced than today’s society in their understanding of the universe, and our place within it.
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BONUS CONTENT: The 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 –
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.
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