In today’s post we will be delving into one of the most prominent symbols of ancient Egypt, the ankh. Here is everything you need to know about the ankh symbol, also known as the Egyptian cross, its meaning, symbolism, origin, appropriation into a Christian cross and modern uses.
The Appearance Of The Ankh Symbol
The ankh is made of a loop that looks like an inverted teardrop joined by a T-shaped cross at the bottom. Most of the time, the three arms of the ankh widen as they reach their ends unlike a Latin cross where all the arms would be of equal width.
Some sources suggest that, after Christians appropriated the symbol, the drop-shaped loop became a circle over time in their own variation.
The Origin of The Ankh Symbol
Also known as the key of life, the key of Nile, crux ansata, the coptic cross, the cross with a handle/handled cross and the Egyptian cross, the ankh is one of the most prominent ancient Egyptian symbols that has been heavily featured in hieroglyphics and artworks.
Although its first documented use dates back to the time of the First Dynasty of Egypt around 3000 BCE, it is thought that this symbol actually is older than that with the exact origin of the symbol still remaining unknown.
On a side note, some experts think that the ankh and the tjet, also known as the knot of Isis, could be the very same symbol or closely associated with each other.
The Meaning And Symbolism Behind The Ankh/The Egyptian Cross
In general, the ankh is considered to be the symbol of life, eternal life and fertility.
In hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, the symbol has been used to denote life. In artworks, it was used to represent life, air and water, the two elements that were closely associated with it.
The ankh also known by the name ‘the key of life’ symbolizes eternal life and can be seen in the hands of many Egyptian gods in the artworks of ancient Egypt.
Sometimes these gods are depicted handing over the ankhs to pharaohs or kings and that is interpreted by experts as an act to preserve the immortality of these important figures. Pharaohs were kind of considered divine beings at the time.
Initially, only pharaohs were allowed to wear or carry an ankh initially. This situation changed with the New Kingdom of Egypt that ruled Egypt between the 16th and 11th centuries BC which allowed everybody to wear or use the ankh.
There are some artworks that feature Isis and Anubis placing ankhs on the lips of dead people to revitalize them in the afterlife.
Some hieroglyphics also feature ankhs being fed to kings, an act that could be interpreted as ‘giving life’ to them.
The ankhs were seen as keys that unlocked the door of the afterlife for the souls of the dead. They were sometimes placed in sarcophagi and tombs to ensure that the soul of the person who passed away was able to move on to the afterlife. When you think of it, the key of life becomes just the perfect way to represent eternal life in that sense.
It is also believed to represent the three life-giving forces of significant importance in ancient Egypt; the sun, water and air.
The Ankh As A Symbol of Fertility
The ankh was also considered a symbol of fertility in ancient Egypt as it was believed to symbolize the sexual union of a man and a woman. This could be interpreted as just another way that the ankh represents life, the creation of life, ‘the life to come’, that is.
Some sources suggest that the symbol is a combination of the male and female symbols (or the loop and the cross or the vertical beam represent female and male sexual organs, respectively), therefore, it is a powerful symbol of fertility.
That becomes an even more powerful theory when you think of how the ankh got the name ‘the key of the Nile’.
The Ankh As The Key of The Nile Representing The Union of Osiris and Isis
The ankh is called the key of the Nile because it is also thought to be the symbol representing the union of Egyptian gods Osiris and Isis and/or the combination of the symbols of these deities.
Ancient Egyptians believed that the river Nile flooded when Osiris and his wife/sister Isis ‘united’ and this brought fertility to the dry lands of Egypt. That is another reason why the ankh is considered a symbol of fertility in the general sense and also the specific reason why it is called the key of the Nile.
The Ankh Becoming A Christian Symbol: The Cross With A Circle On Top
During the Christianization of Egypt in the 4th and 5th centuries, Coptic Christians appropriated the ankh symbol and turned it into a symbol for Christianity.
Many symbols of ‘the old faith’ were not accepted or looked favorably upon by Christians in Egypt at the time but the ankh was not one of them. The reason behind this is thought to be the fact that the ankh represented the afterlife and the eternal life promised by Jesus Christ.
Coptic Christians used a cross they called crux ansata (meaning ‘the cross with a handle’ in Latin) that had a circle on top instead of a drop-shaped loop. This symbol was what they named the coptic cross initially, but that changed over time. Today, the coptic cross is a cross with four arms of equal length.
The Ankh As a Pagan Symbol
The ankh was adopted as one of the symbols of Kemetism/Neterism, also known as Egyptian neopaganism, a new religion that started in the 1970s which aims to reestablish the ancient Egyptian religion.
In the 1960s and the 1970s, hippies also used the symbol to represent their rejection of materialism.
Neopagans, pagans and followers of the New Age religions use the ankh to symbolize life, eternal life, rebirth, wisdom and power in modern culture.
It is also important to note that the ankh symbol is used by African and Egyptian people to represent their roots and heritage, today.
This is the end of our piece on the ankh symbol, its meaning and origin. If you liked reading it, you will probably enjoy reading our extensive list of ancient Egyptian symbols here.
On the other hand, please click here if you would like to read more about pagan symbols and their meanings. Thanks for reading with us!