The Ankh symbol appears in most ancient Egyptian carvings as a hieroglyphic character. Still, many need clarification on what precisely this symbol is and what it represents.
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The Ankh Symbol
The Ankh symbol resembles a cross, but it has a petal-shaped loop instead of a vertical upper bar.
The cross-like symbol has many names, but the most known are “Key of life” and “Key of the Nile.” The symbol has had many interpretations, but the predominant one is that it represents eternal life. Another theory that will be difficult to put down once discussed is that the Ankh is the first —and original— cross created.
When it comes to the ancient Egyptians and the symbols they used, there is always a sea of information and a plethora of interesting stories. This is mainly because the ancient pharaohs always had a theory or a meaning for everything they did and made. Today, we will learn some facts about the Ankh Symbol and its intriguing history.
1. The Ankh symbol symbolises the union of Male and Female Powers
The first thing you should keep in mind is that anything related to the ancient Egyptians may have numerous theories; some are odd yet fascinating.
Most of the theories presented below on the Ankh symbol are based on an original story about the marriage of two important ancient gods in Egyptian mythology, Isis and Osiris. Because of their marriage, many believe the Ankh cross combines Osiris’ T shape (male sexual organs) with the oval of Isis at the top (female uterus). So, simply put, the combination of the two symbolises the union of opposites and the life cycle that begins with reproduction.
Theory 1 – The Ankh Cross Meaning
The Ankh symbol represents both genders or, in other words, the harmony between the sexes. The lower T of the cross represents male sexual characteristics, while the upper part, the cross’s handle, stands for the uterus or the woman’s pelvis. Together, they represent the unity of opposites.
If you connect the dots, you can see how the key of life got its name, as it represents reproduction and, thus, the cycle of life.
Theory 2 – Egyptian Ankh Meaning
The Key of Life represents the balance of opposing forces, namely femininity and masculinity. It can also refer to other aspects of life that require harmony between these two powers, such as happiness, energy, and, of course, fertility. It’s no wonder the Ankh is synonymous with such features, showing how important they were regarded in ancient Egypt.
2. The Ankh symbol is worn as an amulet by some people
You’ve probably seen someone wearing the key of life symbol and wondered, “What does wearing the Ankh symbol mean?” Of course, everything has a deeper meaning, and this is the case with the oldest civilisations.
Let us travel back in time to ancient Egypt, when people wore an Ankh and Eye of Horus pendant as an amulet. They believed that wearing an Ankh would protect them from harm.
Now, let us come back to the present time. Many wear the Ankh and Horus eyes talismans to attract good fortune and luck. It is believed that wearing both the Ankh and Horus eyes on your chest will give your heart chakra extra power. In addition, many believe that wearing both symbols on your throat encourages creative and honest communication.
The real question is, do you believe in such a thing? And which symbol would you get? the Ankh or Horus eye?
3. Many people confuse the Ankh with the Isis Knot
The Ankh and Isis Knot are two different symbols that many confuse together, so let’s learn the difference between the two ancient Egyptian symbols.
It’s unknown how the Isis Knot came to light. It is a symbol portraying a knotted piece of cloth. Some think its hieroglyphic sign was originally a modified version of Ankh. When you think about it, the mysterious symbol is similar to an Ankh in one way or another, except that its transverse arms are curved downward.
Tyet —also written Tiet or Thet— is another name for the Isis Knot. According to some sources, the meaning of this symbol is very similar to that of the Ankh.
Ancient Egyptians mainly used the Tyet symbol for decoration. It can be found alongside the Ankh and Djed signs and the sceptre— all symbols that frequently appeared in ancient artefacts and the ancient Egyptian language. The Isis Knot takes the form of an open loop of cloth from which swings a long strap flanked by a pair of loops.
The symbol was connected to Isis during the New Kingdom, possibly because of its frequent connection to the Djed pillar. As a result, the two characters became related to Osiris and Isis. It was named “the knot of Isis” because it resembles the knot that secures the gods’ garments in many pharaonic cravings. It’s also known as “Isis’ girdle” and “Isis’ blood.”
To clear up any confusion: the difference between the Ankh and the Isis Knot is only in shape; both serve the same purpose, but one —the Key of Life— is more commonly seen and used than the other.
4. The Ankh symbol was buried with the majority of ancient Egyptians
We all know that ancient Egyptians believed in the afterlife or that death is only a transitional phase to the afterlife or eternal life. That is why you will find mummies buried with all their belongings, including their organs, mummified.
Ancient Egyptians always placed an Ankh on the lips of the deceased to help them open the door to a new life—the afterlife. This consequently gave rise to the symbol being referred to as the “Key of Life.” Most of the mummies from the Middle Kingdom are found with mirrors in the shape of the Ankh. The most famous Ankh-shaped mirror was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The association of mirrors with Ankhs was not by chance; ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was only a mirror image of the life they had on Earth.
5. The goddess Ma’at is the keeper of the Ankh
Ma’at was an important goddess in the pantheon of ancient Egyptian deities. She represented truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice. Ma’at was also the force that created and maintained the universe. She was often depicted as a woman seated or standing with an ostrich feather on her head, which is the hieroglyphic symbol for her name.
In several tomb paintings, the goddess Ma’at is illustrated holding an Ankh in each hand while the god Osiris grasps the symbol. As previously stated, the Ankh’s connection to the afterlife and the gods made it a well-known amulet in tombs and on caskets.
Ma’at is the embodiment of the fundamental order of the universe, without which life (as symbolized by the Ankh) would not be possible. The pharaohs often depicted themselves with the Ankh, representing their role in upholding the laws of Ma’at and ensuring the continuation of life. The Ankh and Ma’at together can be seen as symbolizing the intertwined nature of life and the moral order of the universe.
Another god, Anubis, and goddess Isis are frequently seen in the afterlife placing the Ankh against the lips of the soul to revive it and open that soul to live after death.
Interestingly enough, not only is one god associated with the Ankh, but there are a few that we know from the current artefacts. It’s possible that even more deities have one story or another with the Egyptian cross that Egyptologists have yet to discover or reveal.
6. Anubis – Egyptian God of the Dead
Anubis is one of the most iconic deities from ancient Egypt. Often depicted as a man with the head of a jackal or as a full jackal, Anubis is the god associated with mummification and the afterlife. He was believed to guide the souls of the dead through the underworld, determining their fate in the afterlife with the “weighing of the heart” ceremony.
In this ceremony, the heart of the deceased was weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the embodiment of truth and order. If the heart was found to be lighter or equal in weight to the feather, the soul was deemed worthy of paradise. If it was heavier, it was devoured by Ammit, a demon with the body of a lion and the head of a crocodile.
A symbol of life
The Ankh, or “key of life,” is often associated with Anubis in the context of this role as a guide and judge in the afterlife. The Ankh is a symbol of life, and in some representations, Anubis is shown holding an Ankh, a sign of his authority over life and death. His association with the Ankh symbolizes his ability to unlock the mysteries of the afterlife, to grant life beyond death, and to provide a connection between this life and the next.
Anubis’s connection with the Ankh also underscores his role in the transition from mortal life to the afterlife. This link symbolises rebirth and eternal life, a fundamental belief in the ancient Egyptian religion. In funerary art, the Ankh is often shown being offered to the pharaoh’s mouth, symbolizing the giving of life in the next world. This ‘life’ is granted by gods like Anubis, who facilitate this transition.
Anubis and the Ankh together represent the journey of the soul from this life to the afterlife and the eternal life that awaits in the ancient Egyptian belief system.
7. Isis – Goddess of Healing and Magic
Isis is one of the most significant goddesses in ancient Egyptian mythology. She was the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus, and she was known for her magical skills and protective nature. Isis was considered the divine mother of the pharaohs and was often depicted as a woman with a throne-shaped headdress or holding a papyrus sceptre, symbolizing her authority.
Isis is often associated with the ankh, the Egyptian hieroglyphic character that reads “life”. In Egyptian art, Isis is frequently depicted holding an ankh in one hand and a papyrus sceptre in the other, signifying her power over life and her royal authority.
A life-giving deity
The ankh symbolized life in both the mortal world and the afterlife in ancient Egyptian culture, and Isis’s connection with it emphasizes her role as a life-giving and protective deity. She is famous for bringing her husband Osiris back to life after he was killed by his brother Seth. By using her magical abilities, she was able to conceive her son, Horus, with Osiris, demonstrating her control over life and death.
Isis’s connection with the ankh also ties into her role as a guide for the dead in their journey to the afterlife. Like Anubis, Isis was thought to help the deceased make their way through the underworld, using the ankh as a key to unlock the mysteries of death and guarantee eternal life to those who were worthy.
Isis’s connection to the Ankh highlights her roles as a goddess of life, magic, and the afterlife, underscoring her importance in ancient Egyptian religion and culture.
8. Horus’ connection to The Ankh
Horus is one of the most significant deities in ancient Egyptian religion. The falcon-headed god is known as the god of the sky, war, and hunting, and is also recognized as a god of kingship. Horus is often depicted as a falcon or as a man with the head of a falcon.
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Horus is known as the son of Isis, the goddess of life and magic, and Osiris, the god of the dead and the afterlife. After his father Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, Horus sought to avenge his father’s death and claim his throne, representing the eternal struggle between order (Ma’at) and chaos (Isfet).
The Ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol that means “life.” Horus is often depicted in ancient Egyptian art and hieroglyphics holding an Ankh, indicating his power over life and his role as a protective deity. The Ankh, when associated with Horus, could symbolize both physical and eternal life.
Protector of Egypt
Given his role in mythology as a protector of the ruler of Egypt, Horus holding an Ankh also communicates the idea that the Pharaoh considered the earthly embodiment of Horus, is the guarantor of life, prosperity, and health for his people. This relationship further reinforces the power and authority of the pharaoh, both in this life and the afterlife.
Therefore, Horus’s connection to the Ankh, much like other deities in the Egyptian pantheon, highlights his life-giving and protective attributes, a common them seen in ancient Egyptian beliefs.
9. Sekhmet – Goddess of war and destruction
Sekhmet is a powerful and complex goddess in ancient Egyptian religion. Often depicted as a lioness or as a woman with a lioness’s head, she embodies the fierce and destructive aspects of the sun’s heat. Sekhmet is considered the goddess of war and destruction, but she also has a protective aspect against evil and rebellion. Moreover, she was seen as a healer and was linked with medicine.
Although she is a goddess of destruction, Sekhmet is also associated with the creation and maintenance of life, which is where the Ankh comes into play. The Ankh, or “key of life,” is a potent symbol in ancient Egyptian culture and represents the concept of eternal life.
As a divine figure, Sekhmet is often depicted in Egyptian art holding the Ankh. Despite her destructive nature, Sekhmet’s connection with the Ankh symbolizes her dual role as both a bringer of chaos and a protective force that sustains life.
She is also a solar deity, a daughter of the sun god Ra, and in this way, she is associated with the life-giving power of the sun, further strengthening her connection with the Ankh. In her role as a healer and a protector against diseases, Sekhmet’s association with the Ankh may represent the life-sustaining and restoring aspects of health and well-being, symbolizing her ability to stave off disease and maintain life.
In the figure of Sekhmet, the Ankh symbol may embody the complex interplay between life and death, destruction and creation, sickness and health; symbolizing the intricate balance maintained in the universe.
10. Hathor – Goddess of joy and love
Hathor is a prominent goddess in ancient Egyptian religion, often depicted as a cow goddess with head horns in which the sun disk is placed. She could also be represented in a fully human form, or as a lioness, cobra, or sycamore tree – all symbols of nurturing and protection. Hathor is a complex deity with many roles, including being a sky goddess, a mother goddess, and the goddess of love, beauty, music, dance, and joy.
Hathor is also known for her protective and life-giving aspects. She was considered to be the mother of the pharaoh, who was often depicted as her child in royal iconography. As a sky goddess, she was considered to be the wife of Horus and, in some stories, the wife of Ra.
Nurturing aspects of life
The Ankh, an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol that represents life, is often associated with Hathor due to her life-giving attributes. As a motherly figure and a goddess of joy and love, Hathor represents the nurturing aspects of life.
In many ancient artworks, Hathor is depicted holding or offering an Ankh, symbolising her ability to provide and sustain life, and often bestowing the breath of life upon the pharaoh. The association of Hathor with the Ankh emphasises her role as a nurturing, protective, and life-affirming deity.
Moreover, as a goddess of the sky and the sun, the Ankh’s loop, often interpreted as a symbol of the sun, resonates with Hathor’s solar aspects and her role in the daily rebirth of the sun. Hathor’s connection to the Ankh underscores her various roles as a life-giving, nurturing, and joyous deity, illustrating the breadth and complexity of her character within the ancient Egyptian pantheon.
The Ankh meaning in Christianity
The Ankh is a symbol deeply rooted in ancient Egyptian culture and primarily associated with their mythology and belief systems. However, due to the historical and cultural intersections in the Mediterranean region, some symbols were adopted and adapted by different cultures and religions, including early Christianity.
When Christianity began spreading through Egypt and other parts of the ancient world, many local symbols were integrated into Christian iconography to help the new religion resonate more deeply with local populations. This includes the Ankh, which bore a resemblance to the Christian cross.
The crux ansata
In this context, the Ankh is sometimes referred to as the “crux ansata” or “handled cross.” Some early Coptic Christians, members of an Egyptian sect of Christianity, used the symbol of the Ankh as a form of the Christian cross, which represents Christ’s resurrection and the promise of eternal life. The loop of the Ankh was interpreted as a halo, signifying sanctity, while the cross was seen as a symbol of Christ.
However, the Ankh is not widely recognized as a Christian symbol today. The Latin (or Roman) cross is the primary symbol associated with Christianity. Despite this, the Ankh remains an emblem of the early, localised blending of ancient religions and Christian symbols in places like Egypt.
It’s essential to understand that symbol interpretations can vary, and some Christian authorities or communities might not agree with the use of the Ankh in a Christian context, viewing it as a symbol of a non-Christian religion. It’s always recommended to consider the specific beliefs and practices of individual Christian denominations or communities.
That’s All There Is to the Key of Life Symbol
You probably had no idea the Ankh held more significance than being just a pretty accessory, which is the beauty of the ancient Egyptian era. The more you dig, the more interesting information you find about the life of the old, proud civilisation.
It is safe to say that there is at least one unusual story behind every symbol related to ancient Egyptians. A trip to the historical sites in Cairo or a long vacation in Luxor would definitely help you feast on the rich history of Egypt.