One of the most distinctive of all Egyptian symbols, recognised widely even by people who have no knowledge of hieroglyphs, is the ankh. This upright cross, with a loop replacing the top vertical, is a popular decorative element used on all sorts of tourist souvenirs, from jewellery to tea towels and, because of its resemblance to a keyhole, the fobs of many Egyptian hotel keys. For the Copts, the ultimate descendants of the ancient Egyptians, the ankh is known as the crux ansata, a form of Christian cross typical of the Coptic Church. Various alternative cultures of the 20th-century Western world have adopted the ankh as an emblem of peace and love, and it has become accepted as a symbol of ancient Egyptian esotericism and African origins.
The meaning of ankh in the ancient Egyptian language is ‘life’ and derivative words such as ‘to live’ and ‘living’ or ‘alive’. As is usual with hieroglyphs used to convey such abstract concepts, the ankh was chosen on the principle of homophony, where two or more words have similar pronunciation, despite having very different meanings. When written in full, the ankh is accompanied by two alphabetic hieroglyphs which emphasise the phonetic value of the basic sign. To distinguish between different meanings of ankh, an additional sign – known as a determinative – defined the nature of the word. But, most often, the ankh sign appears without the extra signs, especially when combined with other amuletic hieroglyphs as part of a decorative frieze in temple decoration.
Although it must have been a commonplace item for the Egyptians, the nature of the object represented by the ankh is not immediately apparent to modern eyes. Traditionally, a single-stroke determinative indicated when the word was exactly what the sign depicted and, in the case of the ankh, this is a sandal strap. The Egyptians, even the kings, are commonly depicted barefoot, but sandals of leather or papyrus were worn for practical and ceremonial purposes, and were provided for the dead. Among the offerings for the support of life after death painted on the interior walls of Middle Kingdom coffins, sandals were frequently shown next to a mirror, for which the word was the ankh followed by the determinative for metal (as described in my article in AE 138). Since the words for both these funerary offerings are homophones for ‘life’, this seems to be an example of the Egyptian fondness for metaphorical representation.
Prominent among the funerary offerings depicted in New Kingdom tombs are bouquets and garlands of flowers. In the text describing the presentation of floral offerings to the sculptor Ipuy (TT217), the word for ‘garland’ is written with the ankh, together with its phonetic complements, and the determinative for cord or string. In the Tomb of Nakht (TT161), who was the ‘bearer of floral offerings in the Temple of Amun’ during the reign of Amenhotep III, there are depicted many elaborate arrangements of flowers and leaves, with stems twisted and bound into distinctive shapes – particularly the loop of infinity (shen) and the ankh. Spoons for unguents or scented ointments, another commodity deemed essential for the afterlife, were often carved in the form of an ankh with the handle shaped like a bunch of flowers or papyrus stems, a reference to both the garland and the revivifying effects of breathing in the perfume.
Cereals were among the most important food supplies and, while there were several words for specific types, like wheat and barley, there were also generic words that could be translated as ‘grain’ or ‘corn’. One such was written with the ankh followed by the signs for the corn measure, suggesting that grain (which was the basis of the Egyptian economy and the foundation of the national diet) was known as ‘sustenance’ or ‘that which sustains life’. In another reference to nourishment, ankh means ‘goat’, with the appropriate determinative, and the feminine ending suggesting a nanny goat.
Since the written language of ancient Egypt was ‘unpointed’, meaning that vowels were omitted or only hinted at, it is quite possible that some words written with the ankh were pronounced somewhat differently from the word for ‘life’. However, ‘life’ and associated concepts were the principal meanings of the word ankh . The verb sanx (literally ‘to cause to live’) means ‘to nourish, feed or preserve’ and was also used in the sense of ‘to perpetuate’. The Egyptians believed that the name was an aspect of the personality, which had to be remembered (either in spoken or written form) to ensure life after death. The eldest son of the deceased, whose duty it was to ensure that his parents’ names were memorialised, was known as ‘the son who causes their names to live’. As a noun, sanx was used for ‘sculptor’ – a craftsman who creates images of living beings which, by means of the opening of the mouth ceremony, could be made to live.
As a noun, ankh can mean ‘living person’ or ‘mortal being’, and the plural means ‘people’, or ‘the living’ as opposed to ‘the dead’. Divinity was also represented by the ankh, the symbol being carried by gods as a sceptre. A significant element of the ceremonial dedication of a new pharaoh was a ritual lustration or baptism performed by Horus and Thoth, confirming his elevation to divine status. The streams of water emerging from the libation vases are shown as chains of ankh hieroglyphs. Kings are regularly depicted standing before or being embraced by deities who reaffirm the gift of divinity by holding the ankh to the royal face. Akhenaten basked in the life-giving rays of his personal deity, the sun-disc Aten. Symbolic of the divine protection enjoyed by Pharaoh, an anthropomorphised ankh may be seen standing behind the king’s throne or running behind his chariot, holding a sacred standard or a ceremonial fan or sunshade.
A cursory examination of any temple or tomb wall is likely to reveal examples of the ankh used in multiple contexts, and more meanings will be found in texts, many of which were composed and created in the temple scriptorium – known as pr anx, ‘the House of Life’ (as described by Roger Forshaw in AE 138s).
All images: Hilary Wilson, unless otherwise stated