The Egyptian Ankh – Key of Life
Is there an ancient symbol as widely recognized as the Egyptian Ankh? Especially in the New Age and new spirituality movements, the ankh seems to have a special place. In ancient Egypt, the ankh was one of the few symbols that were in continued usage from very early periods to very late periods. It was especially prominent in the Amarna period, alongside the aten.
In Latin, it is called the crux ansata – or cross with a handle. In ancient Egyptian, the word for ankh is “nkh“, which means sandal strap. This association is one of the theories of the origin of the ankh being a sandal strap, as stated by Alan Gardiner in his book Egyptian Grammar published by Cambridge University Press.
But the word, when read phonetically, sounds very much like the ancient Egyptian word for “life”, hence the ankh’s usage as a symbol of life, and by extension, eternal life.
Understanding Eternal Life
Eternal life in ancient Egypt was lived very similarly to the daily life they had, plowing the land, building things, eating, drinking and enjoying their friends and family.
It was conditional on the rituals and procedures that had to be performed before, during and after the burial of the deceased, which means that eternal life was not something all Egyptians enjoyed, no matter how honestly they may have lived their lives.
Unfortunately for the masses, these rituals and procedures were only available for those who could afford it. But, mercifully, the ancient Egyptians did have certain rituals that the dead would have to partake, such as the Judgments, to be able to pass onto the next life, and these were available to everyone.
I have a few pages and videos on death and the afterlife explaining some of these beliefs and practices:
In the later periods, eternal life was considered one of the four gifts the gods could bestow a righteous person, the others being prosperity, children and a good burial. This is sometimes referred to as the Four ka’s.
Uses and Depictions of the Egyptian Ankh
In ancient Egypt, the importance of the ankh is very obvious from how it is depicted in the hands of gods and goddesses. You’ll see different ways the gods held the Egyptian ankh.
One way was to hold it in one hand, by the top of the loop. They would hold it by their sides, or they would have one in each hand, also holding them from the top of the loop, and have their arms crossed over their chests.
When being offered to the deceased, they would hold it up to the noses, with the loop pointing towards the deceased, in order to give them the “breath of life.” Sometimes deities offered it to each other in the same manner.
The dead also held the ankh. One way was to hold out their hands flat up, with the ankh and other symbols, usually the djed and was, on top. This is a typical offering stance to the gods.
Actually, these three symbols together have an interesting connection.
The god Ptah, the creator god from Memphis who became one of the most important deities in Egypt, was depicted holding a composite staff that was made up of all three symbols – the djed pillar, the ankh symbol and the was scepter – representing stability, eternal life and power respectively.
The goddesses Wadjet and Nekhbet were also depicted holding the ankh in their own ways – with Wadjet holding it in her coils and Nekhbet carrying it in her talons along with the shen ring.
The Egyptian ankh was used as an amulet – worn by the living and the dead – as a necklaces or other jewelry or just placed on top of the deceased. Its form was also made into mirrors, and libation dishes. It’s interesting to note that the word for mirror
was similar to that for ankh, and in ancient times, mirrors were either made of a dark, polished material like stone, or dark dishes that would be filled with water to reflect the image of the person looking at its surface.
That may also be why the Egyptian ankh is associated with water. And later on, the ankh mirrors were usually made with copper and were sometimes beautifully and colorfully decorated.
The ankh was also used in ancient Egyptian names. For example: Tut-ankh-amun (meaning Tut given life by Amun), and Unas-Ankh, a possible son of King Unas.
Source of the Depiction
Until now, there is no one theory that has been confirmed to be the original source of the Egyptian ankh’s depiction. There are a few different hypotheses, each one with evidence to corroborate it.
Union of Male and Female
We’ll begin with possibly the most poetic, yet least accepted theory by ancient Egypt scholars and Egyptologists. This theory circulates more in the spiritual communities and New Age movements, though when you consider it, it does seem to make a lot of sense.
Here the ankh seems to be a union of male and female, with the loop representing the womb and the cross representing male genitalia. Some have likened it to the union of Isis and Osiris, whom together would symbolize the whole and whose union would initiate the inundation of the Nile every year, and as such, the ankh would be called the Key of the Nile.
This theory also suggests that when the deities are passing the ankh to the deceased, it symbolizes conception, and hence the rebirth into the afterlife.
The Nile Valley
Another theory that is also not well received by the academic or scholarly community also relates the Egyptian ankh to the Key of the Nile. On the physical plane, the Egyptian ankh represents life, and as a gift of the divine, it represents eternal life. It is sometimes called the Key of Life, or the Key of the Nile, perhaps because the Nile was (and still is to a high degree) the source of life to Egyptians. In this sense, some have hypothesized that its form represents the Nile Valley – with the loop being the delta, the stem being the Nile, and the two arms being the East and West of the Nile.
The Knot of Isis
The tyet is another mysterious symbol that doesn’t have one clear explanation that everyone can agree on. But its resemblance to the Egyptian ankh is undeniable, and it seems to also represent eternal life and possibly also resurrection.
It’s called the Knot of Isis because it looks like a knot that was used by ancient Egyptians to tie their clothes. It’s also sometimes called the Buckle of Isis, perhaps because it was sometimes worn on a belt, as well as the Blood of Isis, perhaps because it was used as a funerary amulet made of red stones.
The theory that the ankh originated from the tyet is one that was presented by E. A. Wallis Budge and Wolfhart Westendorf.
The Sandal Strap
As mentioned earlier, this theory put forth by Alan Gardiner has to do with the linguistic/grammatical correlation between the name of the ankh and the word for sandal strap in ancient Egyptian. Though interesting, he also corroborates the Knot of Isis theory for the origin of the ankh in the same book.
A Bull’s Thoracic Vertebra
This is one of the newer theories, put forth by Calvin Schwabe and Andrew Hunt Gordon. They take their inspiration from the idea that ancient Egypt was very much a cattle culture – which is true, cattle and cattle herding was central to ancient Egypt, and agricultural activities were heavily dependent on cattle. This can be further observed in how so many deities and cosmic elements took on the form of cattle in depictions.
The bull’s spine does have some semblance to the scepter of Ptah, with the djed as the base of the spine and the was staff attached to it, and the thoracic vertebra resembling the ankh. Bulls were symbols of power and life-force, and were sacrificed as part of religious rituals. Pharaohs associated themselves with bulls in order to associate with the bull’s power.
So far, this seems to be the most widely accepted theory, though a symbol as complex and enduring as the Egyptian ankh will always remain difficult to pinpoint in terms of origin, use and symbolism on a universal level.
Relation to Other Religions and Spiritual Paths
The Egyptian ankh is not limited to Egypt, or to its ancient past. Until today, the ankh is used in Egypt, mainly by the Coptic Christian community who refer to it as the Coptic Cross. As a symbol of renewal and eternal life, it has many correlations with Biblical Christian themes.
For a long time, Egypt was mainly Christian, after Mark came to Egypt in the 1st Century ADE. And naturally, the ancient symbols mixed with the new religion and Coptic Christianity has since been a beautiful tapestry of both ancient traditions.
What other symbol does the ankh look like to you? Maybe you noticed that it resembles the symbol for “female” in biology? This actually comes from the symbol for Venus in astrology, which also represents copper in alchemy.
The ankh is also present in Hermeticism, which is a spiritual path that was created from the mixing of the philosophies of Hellenic scholars in Alexandria with ancient Egyptian wisdom teachings and mystery schools.
Beyond Egypt, the ankh was found in parts of ancient Greece, ancient Cyprus, and Asia minor. And after its revival in neopagan and New Age spiritual circles, it can be found all over the world.
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