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The Ankh is arguably one of the most recognizable symbols of ancient Egypt. This symbol consists of a ‘T’ shape with a teardrop set on it. There are several hypotheses as to what the Ankh represents literally. Symbolically, however, the Ankh is a representation of eternal life.

The ancient Egyptians frequently used the Ankh as magical amulets and this sign can also be found in various contexts, including tomb paintings and texts. Although the Ancient Egyptian civilization came to an end, the Ankh, as a symbol, continued to be used. It is still utilized in the present day by certain groups of people.

Sandals and Belts

Several explanations have been put forward to explain the origins of the Ankh, i.e. the object that it was supposed to represent originally. One of the most commonly accepted ones is that the Ankh was a sandal strap, with the loop on the top of the sign going around the ankle. This speculation was made by Sir Alan Gardiner, a British Egyptologist.

An alternate interpretation was put forward by E. A. Wallis Budge, another British Egyptologist. According to Wallis Budge, the Ankh could have been meant to represent the belt buckle of Isis, one of the major goddesses of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. This received support from WolfhartWestendorf, a German Egyptologist, who pointed out that both the Ankh and the Knot of Isis, or Tyet, (another sacred symbol which has a similar shape to the Ankh) were used as ties on ceremonial girdles.

The Ankh
Mural depicting Isis in the tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings (KV17). (Public Domain)

Yet another interpretation of the Ankh, though perhaps less accepted than those of Gardiner and Wallis Budge, is that the ‘T’ was meantto represent the male component (an upright phallus), whilst the teardrop shape was meant to represent the female element (a vagina or uterus). The proponents of this interpretation argue that the Ankh was meant to be a symbol of fertility. Whilst this interpretation is one of the commonly repeated ones, there is a lack of evidence supporting it.

Eternal Life

Although it is not entirely clear as to what physical object the Ankh derived its form from, it is generally accepted that it is a symbol of eternal life.In many paintings found in ancient Egyptian tombs, the ankh is seen to be placed on the lips of the deceased by a deity, normally Isis or Anubis. This was meant torevitalize the person’s soul in the afterlife, and to give it a life after death. Other deities of the ancient Egyptian pantheon are also depicted holding the Ankh, including Osiris, the god of the Underworld, and Ma’at, the goddess of truth and justice.

The Ankh
of a vignette from the Book of the Dead of Ani. The sun disk of the god Ra is raised into the sky by an ankh-sign (signifying life). (Public Domain )

 

Furthermore, the popularity of the Ankh may be said to be greater than that of the ancient Egyptian gods themselves. For example, during the 18th Dynasty, the pharaoh Akhenaten decided to do away with the old gods in favor of one single god, Aten. This deity is usually depicted as a Sun with hands in the shape of sunbeams extending from it. Often, these hands carry Ankhs.

This is true as well following the end of the ancient Egyptian civilization. In Early Coptic Christianity, for example, the Ankh was slightly modified to represent the Christian cross. The Ankh became a symbol of life after death.

Ankh
Ankh-shaped mirror from the tomb of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings, Egypt. (Public Domain)

New Meaning for an Ancient Symbol

Around the 1970s, there was a revival of the of ancient Egyptian religion (known as Kemetism or Egyptian Neopaganism), and the Ankh was adopted as its symbol. Today, the Ankh is not only used by practitioners of Kemetism, but also by various other New Age and neo-pagan groups. The Ankh is regarded by such groups as a sign of power or wisdom, or used to show that they honor the gods of Ancient Egypt.

on wall at KomOmbo in Egypt depicting an ankh. (Public Domain)

Top image: Hand with an Ankh 2, Ramses II, 1275BC, Louvre, Paris. Source: Asaf Braverman/CC BY NC SA 2.0

By: Wu Mingren                               

        

References

Beyer, C., 2017. Ankh – Ancient Symbol of Life. [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/ankh-ancient-symbol-of-life-96010

Daugherty, M., 2014.Kemetism – Ancient Religions in our Modern World [Online]

Available at: http://anthropology.msu.edu/anp455-fs14/2014/10/02/kemetism-ancient-religions-in-our-modern-world/

Mark, J. J., 2016. The Ankh. [Online] Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Ankh/

www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk, 2017. Ankh. [Online] Available at: http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/ankh.html

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