Ankh: Symbolism, Meaning and History

The Ankh, also called the Key of Life, is an Ancient Egyptian symbol with a history or more than 4,000 years. It represents human life and the human afterlife, but it also represented the idea of the overarching life force and energy that exists in the universe, and which never diminishes, but only transforms.

The Loop and Cross

The Ankh is a cross symbol, with an oval loop replacing the top bar. It is thought that the loop is meant to represent the sun, the crossbar the horizon, and the lower bar either the path of the sun, the path of the life-giving Nile River, or both.

The Ankh appears in Egyptian culture as a hieroglyph in the Egyptian alphabet, as a religious symbol in art, and as a physical object or amulet.

The Hieroglyph

The Ankh was one of the 700 hieroglyphic symbols in the Egyptian alphabet. It represented a “triliteral” sound, which is three consonants together. Those sounds are ‘-n-h. The ‘ represents a voiced pharyngeal fricative, the n an English n, and the h a voiced velar fricative. So, a very difficult sound for the modern English tongue to pronounce.

These three sounds together made the Egyptian world “life”, and glyph appears in all the verbs associated with life, such as to “to live”, “to nourish”, and “to save”.

The symbol also appears as a component in other words, including “mirror”, “bouquet”, and “sandal straps”.

The Object

Probably before it made its way into the Egyptian alphabet, the Ankh was a physical symbol. There is evidence for ropes tied in a loop to look like an Ankh dating back to the 30th century BC. These knotted pieces of rope seem to have been used as some kind of amulet.

In later times, these physical amulets were made from gold, electrum, or Egyptian faience, a blue ceramic material, and they are often found among burial goods.

The Ankh amulet for the living must have been linked with protection or good health, as this would explain why it was linked with the world life in the Egyptian language. The fact that it also appears among burial goods, suggest that it was also linked with the idea of life after death.

The Egyptian believed in life after death. They believed that the afterlife would be much like this life but with less work and more time for pleasure.

The Art

In Egyptian art, such as in wall reliefs and on papyri, the Ankh also appears as a physical object, placed in the hands of the gods or the Pharaoh. It appeared in scenes associated with the life-giving forces associated with these deities – as the Pharaoh was often treated as a mortal deity and the overall life of the Egyptian national dependent on him.

It also appears in scenes depicting the Pharaoh’s transition from life to the afterlife. The gods would often hold the Ankh close to the face of the embalmed Pharaoh, allowing him to breathe in the life-giving force and be reborn into the next life.

The Belief

The Egyptians believed that the world was composed of one grand life force, which came into existence when the world was created and will continue to exist until the end of days, never dissipating or diminishing, but always transforming.

Many themes in Egyptian culture relate to the theme of rebirth. The sun being reborn every day, the waters arriving each year, crops growing, being harvested and growing again, and men and women dying and being reborn into the afterlife.

The Ankh

The Ankh represented this life force that say at the centre of Egyptian belief. It was an overarching principle, but also something that could be called on by the individual for their health and prosperity, both in this life and the next.

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