The Ankh: Ancient Symbol of Life

What is the general meaning behind this well-known heiroglyph?

Detail of Sculpture at Temple of Ramesses III

Bob Krist/Getty Images

The ankh is the most well-known symbol to come out of ancient Egypt. In their hieroglyphic system of writing the ankh represents the concept of eternal life, and that is the general meaning of the symbol.

Construction of the Image

The ankh is an oval or point-down teardrop set atop a T shape. The origin of this image is highly debated. Some have suggested that it represents a sandal strap, although the reasoning behind such a use is not obvious. Others point out the similarity with another shape known as a knot of Isis (or a tyet), the meaning of which is also obscure.

The most commonly repeated explanation is that it is a union of a female symbol (the oval, representing the vagina or uterus) with a male symbol (the phallic upright line), but there's no actual evidence supporting that interpretation.

Funeral Context

The ankh is generally displayed in association with the gods. Most are found in funerary images. However, the most surviving artwork in Egypt is found in tombs, so availability of evidence is skewed. The gods involved in the judgment of the dead may possess ankh. They may carry it in their hand or hold it up to the nose of the deceased, breathing in eternal life.

There are also funerary statues of pharaohs in which an ankh is clutched in each hand, although a crook and flail — symbols of authority — are more common.

Purification Context

There are also images of gods pouring water over the head of the pharaoh as part of a purification ritual, with the water being represented by chains of ankhs and was (representing power and dominion) symbols. It reinforces the close connection the pharaohs had with the gods in whose name he ruled and to whom he returned after death.

The Aten

Pharaoh Akhenaten embraced a monotheistic religion centered on the worship of the sun disk, known as the Aten. Artwork from the time of his rule, known as the Amarna period, always includes the Aten in images of the pharaoh. This image is a circular disk with rays terminating in hands reaching down toward the royal family. Sometimes, although not always, the hands clutch ankhs.

Relief of Akhenaten and Nefertiti under the rays of the sun-god Aten, Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Relief of Akhenaten and Nefertiti under the rays of the sun-god Aten, clutching ankhs—Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Print Collector/Getty Images 

Again, the meaning is clear: eternal life is a gift of the gods meant most specifically for the pharaoh and perhaps his family. (Akhenaten emphasized the role of his family much more than other pharaohs. More often, pharaohs are depicted alone or with the gods.)

Was and Djed

The ankh is also commonly displayed in association with the was staff or djed column. The djed column represents stability and fortitude. It is closely associated with Osiris, god of the underworld and also of fertility, and it has been suggested that the column represents a stylized tree. The was staff is a symbol of the power of rulership.

Together, the symbols appear to offer strength, success, longevity and long life.

Uses of the Ankh Today

The ankh continues to be used by a variety of people. Kemetic pagans, dedicated to reconstructing Egyptian traditional religion often use it as a symbol of their faith. Various new agers and neopagans use the symbol more generically as a symbol of life or sometimes as a symbol of wisdom. In Thelema, it is viewed as the union of opposites as well as a symbol of divinity and moving toward one's destiny.

The Coptic Cross

The early Coptic Christians used a cross known as a crux ansata (Latin for "cross with a handle") that resembled an ankh. Modern Coptic crosses, however, are crosses with arms of equal length. A circle design is sometimes incorporated into the center of the symbol, but it is not required.

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Your Citation
Beyer, Catherine. "The Ankh: Ancient Symbol of Life." Learn Religions, Sep. 8, 2021, Beyer, Catherine. (2021, September 8). The Ankh: Ancient Symbol of Life. Retrieved from Beyer, Catherine. "The Ankh: Ancient Symbol of Life." Learn Religions. (accessed March 23, 2023).