You are on page 1of 7


The ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol that was most commonly used in writing and in
art to represent the word for "life" and, by extension, as a symbol of life itself. Its use continued
through the Coptic Egyptians who adapted it as the crux ansata, a variant form of the Christian cross.

The sign has a cross shape but with an oval loop in place of an upper bar. The origins of the symbol
are not known, although many hypotheses have been proposed. It was used in writing as a triliteral
sign, representing a sequence of three consonants, Ꜥ-n-ḫ. This sequence was found in several
Egyptian words, including the words meaning "mirror", "floral bouquet", and "life". In art the symbol
often appeared as a physical object representing either life or substances such as air or water that are
related to it. It was especially commonly held in the hands of deities, or being given by them to the
pharaoh, to represent their power to sustain life and to revive human souls in the afterlife. It was one
of the most common decorative motifs in ancient Egypt and was adopted by neighbouring cultures as
an artistic motif. Since the late 20th century, in the Western world, the symbol has come to be used
decoratively, as a symbol of African cultural identity, Neopagan belief systems, and the Goth An ankh

Use in writing
Use in religion and art
Ancient Near East
Coptic Christianity
Modern use
Works cited
Further reading
External links

Use in writing
In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, the ankh was a triliteral sign: one that represented a
sequence of three consonant sounds. The ankh stood for the sequence Ꜥ-n-ḫ, where n is
in hieroglyphs
pronounced like the English letter n, Ꜥ is a voiced pharyngeal fricative, and ḫ is a voiceless or
voiced velar fricative (sounds not found in English).[2] In the Egyptian language, these consonants
were found in the verb meaning "live", the noun meaning "life", and words derived from them, or
such as sꜤnḫ, which means "cause to live" or "nourish".[1] One of the common uses of the term [1]
was to express a wish that a particular person live. For example, a phrase meaning something like
"may you be healthy and alive" was used as a polite phrase in contexts similar to the English
phrase "if you please", and the phrase Ꜥnḫ wḏꜣ snb, meaning "alive, sound, and healthy", was used as an honorific for the pharaoh
when he was mentioned in writing.[3]
The same consonants were found in the word for "mirror" and the word for a floral bouquet, so the sign was also used in writing
these words.[4] The three consonants also compose the word for a looped rope-like object found in illustrations on many coffins from
the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055–1650 BC). The EgyptologistsBattiscombe Gunn and Alan Gardiner believed these objects to besandal
straps, given that they appear in pairs at the foot of the cof
fin and the accompanying texts say the objects are "on the ground under his

Early examples of the ankh sign date to the First Dynasty (c. 3000 BC).[7] There is
little agreement on what physical object the sign originally represented.

Many scholars believe the sign is a knot formed of cloth or reeds,[8] as early
versions of the sign show the lower bar of the ankh as two separate lengths of
flexible material that seem to correspond to the two ends of the knot.[4] These early
versions bear a resemblance to thetyet symbol, a sign that represented the concept of
"protection". For these reasons, both Heinrich Schäfer and Henry Fischer thought
the two signs had a common origin,[9] and they regarded the ankh as a knot that was
used as an amulet rather than for any practical purpose.[8][10]
First Dynasty stone dish in the shape
of an ankh embraced by a pair of
Hieroglyphic writing used pictorial signs to represent sounds, so that, for example,
arms representing the ka[6]
the hieroglyph for a house could represent the sounds p-r, which were found in the
Egyptian word for "house". This practice, known as the rebus principle, allowed the
Egyptians to represent things, such as abstract concepts, that could not be pictured.[11] Gardiner believed the ankh originated in this
way. He pointed out that the sandal-strap illustrations on Middle Kingdom coffins resemble the hieroglyph and argued that the sign
originally represented knots like these and came to be used in writing all other words that contained the consonants Ꜥ-n-ḫ.[5]
Gardiner's list of hieroglyphic signs labels the ankh as S34, placing it within the category for items of clothing and just after S33, the
hieroglyph for a sandal.[12] Gardiner's conclusion has been accepted by some other Egyptologists; James P. Allen, in an introductory
book on the Egyptian language, assumes that the sign originally meant "sandal strap" and uses it as one of the major examples of the
rebus principle in hieroglyphic writing.[1]

Various authors have argued that the sign originally represented something other than cloth. Some have suggested that it had a sexual
meaning.[13] For instance, Thomas Inman, an amateur mythologist in the nineteenth century, thought the sign represented the male
and female reproductive organs, joined into a single sign.[14] Victor Loret, a nineteenth-century Egyptologist, argued that "mirror"
was the sign's original meaning. A problem with this argument, which Loret acknowledged, is that deities are frequently shown
holding the ankh by its loop, and their hands pass through it where the solid reflecting surface of an ankh-shaped mirror would be. In
2004, Andrew Gordon, an Egyptologist, and Calvin Schwabe, a veterinarian, argued that the origin of the ankh is related to two other
signs of uncertain origin that often appear alongside it: the was staff, representing "power" or "dominion", and the djed pillar,
representing "stability". According to this hypothesis, the form of each sign is drawn from a part of the anatomy of a bull, like some
other hieroglyphic signs that are known to be based on body parts of animals. In Egyptian belief semen was connected with life and,
to some extent, with "power" or "dominion", and some texts indicate the Egyptians believed semen originated in the bones.
Therefore, Calvin and Schwabe suggest the signs are based on parts of the bull's anatomy through which semen was thought to pass:
the ankh is a thoracic vertebra, the djed is the sacrum and lumbar vertebrae, and the was is the dried penis of the bull.[15]

Use in religion and art
In Egyptian belief, life was a force that circulated throughout the world. Individual living things, including humans, were
manifestations of this force and fundamentally tied to it.[16] Life came into existence at the creation of the world, and cyclical events
like the rising and setting of the sun were thought of as reenactments of the original events of creation that maintained and renewed
life in the cosmos. Sustaining life was thus the central function of the deities who governed these natural cycles. Therefore, the ankh
was frequently depicted being held in gods' hands, representing their life-giving power. The Egyptians also believed that when they
died their individual lives could be renewed in the same manner as life in general.[17] For this reason, the gods were often depicted in
tombs giving ankh signs to humans, usually the pharaoh.[18] As the sign represented the power to bestow life, humans other than the
pharaoh were rarely shown receiving or holding the ankh before the end of the Middle Kingdom, although this convention weakened
thereafter. The pharaoh to some extent represented Egypt as a whole, so by giving the sign to him, the gods granted life to the entire

By extension of the concept of "life", the ankh could signify air or water. In artwork, gods hold the ankh up to the nose of the king:
offering him the breath of life. Hand fans were another symbol of air in Egyptian iconography, and the human servants who normally
carried fans behind the king were sometimes replaced in artwork by personified ankh signs with arms. In scenes of ritual purification,
in which water was poured over the king or a deceased commoner, the zigzag lines that normally represented water could be replaced
by chains of ankh signs.[20]

The ankh may have been used decoratively more than any other hieroglyphic sign. Mirrors, mirror cases, and floral bouquets were
made in its shape, given that the sign was used in writing the name of each of these objects. Some other objects, such as libation
vessels and sistra, were also shaped like the sign. The sign appeared very commonly in the decoration of architectural forms such as
the walls and shrines withintemples.[4] In contexts such as these, the sign often appeared together with the was and djed signs, which
together signified "life, dominion, and stability". In some decorative friezes in temples, all three signs, or the ankh and was alone,
were positioned above the hieroglyph for a basket that represented the word "all": "all life and power" or "all life, power, and
stability". Some deities, such as Ptah and Osiris, could be depicted holding a was scepter that incorporated elements of the ankh and

Amulets made in the shape of hieroglyphic signs were meant to impart to the wearer the qualities represented by the sign. The
Egyptians wore amulets in daily life as well as placing them in tombs to ensure the well-being of the deceased in the afterlife. Ankh-
shaped amulets first appeared in the late Old Kingdom and continued to be used into the late first millennium BC, yet they were rare,
djed, and was were more widespread.[22]
despite the importance of the symbol. Amulets shaped like a composite of the ankh,

Ankh signs in two-dimensional art were typically painted blue or black.[23] The earliest ankh amulets were often made of gold or
electrum, a gold and silver alloy. Egyptian faience, a ceramic that was usually blue or green, was the most common material for ankh
amulets in later times, perhaps because its color represented life and regeneration.
An ankh made of Egyptian faience Ankh-shaped mirror case from the Frieze of ankh, djed, and was signs
tomb of Tutankhamun atop the hieroglyph for "all"

The god Banebdjedet with a The god Horus offers life to the
scepter combining the was and king, Ramesses II.
djed with the ankh

Ancient Near East
The people of Syria and Canaan adopted many Egyptian artistic motifs during the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000–1500 BC), including
hieroglyphs, of which the ankh was by far the most common. It was often placed next to various figures in artwork or shown being
held by Egyptian deities who had come to be worshipped in the Near East. It was sometimes used to represent water or fertility.[25]
Elsewhere in the Near East, the sign was incorporated into Anatolian hieroglyphs to represent the word for "life", and the sign was
used in the artwork of the Minoan civilization centered on Crete. Minoan artwork sometimes combined the ankh, or the related tyet
sign, with the Minoandouble axe emblem.[26]

Artwork in the Meroitic Kingdom, which lay south of Egypt and was heavily influenced by its religion, features the ankh
prominently. It appears in temples and funerary art in many of the same contexts as in Egypt, and it is also one of the most common
motifs in the decoration of Meroitic pottery.[27]

Coptic Christianity
The ankh was one of the few ancient Egyptian artistic motifs that continued to be used after the Christianization of Egypt during the
4th and 5th centuries AD.[28] The sign resembles the staurogram, a sign that resembles a Christian cross with a loop to the right of
the upper bar and was used by early Christians as a monogram for Jesus,[29] as well as the crux ansata, or "handled cross", which is
shaped like an ankh with a circular rather than oval or teardrop-shaped loop.[30] The staurogram has been suggested to be influenced
by the ankh, but the earliest Christian uses of the sign date to around AD 200, well
before the earliest Christian adoption of the ankh.[31] The earliest known example of
a crux ansata comes from a copy of the Gospel of Judas from the 3rd or early 4th
century AD; the adoption of this sign may have been influenced by the staurogram,
the ankh, or both.[30]

According to Socrates of Constantinople, when Christians were dismantling
Alexandria's greatest temple, the Serapeum, in 391 AD, they noticed cross-like signs A crux ansata in Codex Glazier, a
inscribed on the stone blocks. Pagans who were present said the sign meant "life to Coptic manuscript of theNew
come", an indication that the sign Socrates referred to was the ankh; Christians Testament
claimed the sign was their own, indicating that they could easily regard the ankh as a
crux ansata.[32]

There is little evidence for the use of the crux ansata in the western half of the Roman Empire,[33] but Egyptian Coptic Christians
used it in many media, particularly in the decoration of textiles.

Modern use
Much more recently, the ankh has become a popular symbol in modern Western culture, particularly as a design for jewelry and
tattoos.[14] Its resurgence began when thecounterculture of the 1960sstirred a greater interest in ancient religions. In the 21st century
it is the most widely recognized symbol of African origin in the Western world, and it is sometimes used by people of African
descent in the United States and Europe as a symbol of African cultural identity. The ankh also symbolizes Kemetism, a group of
religious movements based on the religion of ancient Egypt.[34] The sign is also popular in the Goth subculture, being particularly
associated with vampires, because an ankh pendant appears prominently in the 1983vampire film The Hunger.[35]

The sign is incorporated twice in the Unicode standard for encoding text and symbols in computing. It appears as U+2625 (☥) in the
Miscellaneous Symbolsblock[36] and as U+132F9 ( ) in the Egyptian Hieroglyphs block.[37]

1. Allen 2000, p. 27
2. Allen 2000, pp. 15–16, 27
3. Allen 2000, p. 217
4. Wilkinson 1992, p. 177
5. Gardiner 1915, pp. 20–21
6. Fischer 1972, p. 5
7. Fischer 1972, pp. 12–13
8. Gordon & Schwabe 2004, pp. 102–103
9. Fischer 1972, p. 13
10. Baines 1975, p. 1
11. Allen 2000, p. 3
12. Allen 2000, p. 441
13. Gordon & Schwabe 2004, p. 104
14. Webb 2018, p. 86
15. Gordon & Schwabe 2004, pp. 104, 127–129
16. Finnestad 1989, pp. 31–32
17. Tobin 1989, pp. 197–198, 206–208
18. Tobin 1989, pp. 197–198
19. Hill 2010, pp. 240, 242
20. Wilkinson 1992, pp. 177–179
21. Wilkinson 1992, pp. 181, 199
22. Andrews 1994, pp. 6, 86
23. Baines 1975, pp. 18–19
24. Andrews 1994, pp. 86–87
25. Teissier 1996, pp. 104–107
26. Marinatos 2010, pp. 122–123
27. Elhassan 2004, pp. 11–12
28. Du Bourguet 1991
29. Hurtado 2006, p. 136
30. Bardill 2012, pp. 166–167
31. Hurtado 2006, pp. 140, 143–144
32. Bardill 2012, pp. 167–168
33. Bardill 2012, p. 168
34. Issitt & Main 2014, p. 328
35. Ladouceur 2011, p. 7
36. Unicode 11.0 Character Code Charts: Miscellaneous Symbols(
37. Unicode 11.0 Character Code Charts: Egyptian Hieroglyphs(

Works cited
Allen, James P. (2000). Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs
. Cambridge
University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-77483-3.
Andrews, Carol (1994).Amulets of Ancient Egypt. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-70464-0.
Baines, John (1975). "Ankh-Sign, Belt and Penis Sheath".Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur. 3. JSTOR 25149982.
Bardill, Jonathan (2012).Constantine, Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age
. Cambridge University Press.
ISBN 978-0-521-76423-0.
Du Bourguet, Pierre (1991). "Art Survivals from Ancient Egypt".In Atiya, Aziz Suryal. The Coptic Encyclopedia. I.
ISBN 978-0-02-897025-7.
Elhassan, Ahmed Abuelgasim (2004).Religious Motifs in Meroitic Painted and Stamped Pottery
. Archaeopress.
ISBN 978-1-84171-377-9.
Finnestad, Ragnhild Bjerre (1989). "Egyptian Thought about Life as a Problem ofranslation".
T In Englund, Gertie.
The Religion of the Ancient Egyptians: Cognitive Structures and Popular Expressions
. S. Academiae Upsaliensis.
ISBN 978-91-554-2433-6.
Fischer, Henry G. (1972). "Some EmblematicUses of Hieroglyphs with Particular Reference to an Archaic Ritual
Vessel". Metropolitan Museum Journal. 5.
Gardiner, Alan (1915). "Life and Death (Egyptian)".In Hastings, James. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.
Gordon, Andrew H.; Schwabe, Calvin (2004).The Quick and the Dead: Biomedical Theory in Ancient Egypt
. Brill /
Styx. ISBN 978-90-04-12391-5.
Hill, Jane A. (2010). "Window between Worlds: The Ankh as a Dominant Theme in Five Middle Kingdom Funerary
Monuments". In Hawass, Zahi; Houser Wegner, Jennifer. Millions of Jubilees: Studies in Honor of David P
Silverman. American University in Cairo Press.ISBN 978-977-704-084-6.
Hurtado, Larry W. (2006). The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins
. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-
Issitt, Micah L.; Main, Carlyn (2014).Hidden Religion: The Greatest Mysteries and Symbols of the World's Religious
Beliefs. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-61069-477-3.
Ladouceur, Liisa (2011). Encyclopedia Gothica. Illustrations by Gary Pullin. ECW Press.ISBN 978-1-77041-024-4.
Marinatos, Nanno (2010).Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess: A Near Eastern Koine
. University of Illinois
Press. ISBN 978-0-252-03392-6.
Teissier, Beatrice (1996). Egyptian Iconography on Syro-Palestinian Cylinder Seals of the Middle Bronze Age
Academic Press Fribourg / Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Göttingen. ISBN 978-3-7278-1039-8 / ISBN 978-3-525-53892-
Tobin, Vincent Arieh (1989). Theological Principles of Egyptian Religion. P. Lang. ISBN 978-0-8204-1082-1.
Webb, Stephen (2018). Clash of Symbols: A Ride Through the Riches of Glyphs
. Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-71350-
Wilkinson, Richard H. (1992). Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and
Sculpture. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-05064-4.

Further reading
Fischer, Henry G. (1973). "An Eleventh Dynasty Couple Holding the Sign of Life".Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache
und Altertumskunde. 99 (2).

External links
Media related to Ankh at Wikimedia Commons

Retrieved from "

This page was last edited on 20 January 2019, at 08:39(UTC).

Text is available under theCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License ; additional terms may apply. By using this
site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. Wikipedia® is a registered trademark of theWikimedia
Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization.

Related Interests