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The Egyptian ankh is one of the most popular and easily recognizable symbols, but it can cause confusion and is easily misunderstood. The symbol can be traced back several thousands of years and holds great cultural, religious, and social significance. It continues to be popular today, commonly worn by famous celebrities, and is very common in both art and jewelry.
A beautiful cross-like sign, the ankh has been found in Egyptian writings and artifacts for millennia. It is known to mean the Egyptian word for “Life” and throughout the years has become a universal symbol for this concept.
So, what exactly is the ankh symbol and how did it originate? And most importantly, should I wear it?
These are some questions we’re often asked about the ankh, so in this article, we cover everything you need to know about this popular symbol.
What Is The Ankh Symbol?
The earliest dated ankh symbol that archeologists have discovered is dated to 3,000 BC or 5,000 years ago, used by the First Egyptian Dynasty. There is evidence, however, that the Ankh was used even before this in Mesopotamia and Persia.
The Ankh is a cross-like symbol with a loop at the top. At first glance, it can be mistaken for the Christian cross, but a closer look will show that it’s quite different. The beauty of the Ankh lies not just in its appearance but in its meaning – life.
The ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics to represent ideas and words. If you look at inscriptions and images from the time, you’ll see the Ankh symbol was frequently used and was a popular symbol.
Meaning of the Ankh Symbol
There’s some dispute as to the actual meaning of the Ankh, with many theories hypothesizing what the actual meaning may be. However, the general consensus is that the symbol represented the concept of life.
The ankh was frequently found in the Egyptian verb live, as well as in the noun life and other derivative words such as cause to live, nourish, and others. This makes the original meaning of the ankh symbol rather obvious – “Life”.
The ankh symbol was also often used in phrases that used to express something positive such as May you be healthy and alive or Alive, sound, and healthy, which was frequently used as an honorific address to pharaohs in writing. The Ankh represented life in this world and the next, making it a symbol of continuity.
Interestingly enough, the ankh symbol was frequently found in the words mirror and flower bouquet.
Ankh Symbol – Gods and Royalty
Many of the ancient Egyptian representations of the symbol show old Egyptian gods giving the ankh sign to pharaohs, kings, and queens.
In the above image, for example, the Sun god Horus offers the life symbol to Ramesses II. In another image, the goddess Hathor – the Egyptian goddess of women, motherhood, and female sexuality – offers the Ankh to Queen Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II.
This use of the ankh symbol was very popular, especially when it came to the afterlife. It was frequently added to the sarcophagi of royalty. It’s believed that this represented the gods giving eternal life to the Egyptian kings, queens, and pharaohs, as they were believed to be demigods themselves.
What Does the Ankh Shape Represent?
There’s a bit of debate over what the shape or figure of the Ankh is meant to represent. It’s a cross with a loop, but what is this cross?
Some scholars believe that the Ankh represents a knot formed from cloth or reeds. That’s not unlikely because earlier variants of the Ankh symbol show its lower bars as two separate flexible materials that look like the ends of a knot. Such early representations made the ankh sign look similar to the tyet symbol, also known as the Knot of Isis, which represented “protection”. Many scholars believed the two were connected.
Other scholars believed that as the ankh symbol originally represented a knot, it was also very similar to the hieroglyph for a sandal. It was not uncommon for hieroglyphs to represent items of clothing. This theory suggests that the symbol of Life came from the hieroglyph of a sandal’s knot.
1. Sexual Meaning
Some other authors have speculated that it’s more likely that the ankh has a sexual origin, as it is the symbol of life, after all. Many speculate that the loop on top of the ankh is meant to represent a woman’s vagina, while the vertical line below stands for the man’s penis. The two arms of the sign, according to these scholars, represent the children created from the union of man and woman. As fitting as that seems to be, however, there is little archeological evidence to suggest it’s indeed true.
2. Mirror Meaning
Another nineteenth-century Egyptologist, Victor Loret, believed that the “mirror” meaning of the ankh sign was its original one as the ankh looks quite like a handheld mirror. A major flaw of this hypothesis, however – one that Loret himself acknowledged – was that in a lot of the representations of the ankh symbol, it was held by the loop, with the person’s fingers going through it. And since the loop was supposed to be the mirror frame in Loret’s hypothesis, this presented a problem.
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Ankh Jewelry Today
The Ankh was very popular during the 1990s, as part of the grunge movement. Today, it’s still in fashion and worn by celebrities like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Katy Perry.
In both jewelry and art, today the ankh is used as a representation of its original meaning of life and also symbolizes ancient Egypt. It’s a unisex symbol and can be worn by anyone.
The Ankh is commonly worn as a pendant, but it also makes for beautiful and symmetrical earrings and can be crafted onto rings, and bracelets, and worn as charms. Whether subtle or dramatic, the Ankh is a gentle reminder of life and the celebration of life.
Because the Ankh is so similar to the Christian cross, you may be mistaken for wearing the Ankh for religious reasons. You may find that you have to explain the symbol to those who don’t know about it.
Ankh and Christianity – Should I Wear the Ankh?
The Ankh sign has long transcended the ancient Egyptian religion and is now used in all cultures and religions as a universal symbol. There are very few religious people in the world, whether Christians or otherwise, who would object to the ankh’s use. In fact, the Ankh was one of the few Egyptian symbols that continued to be used after the Christianization of Egypt during the 4th and 5th century AD.
Early Coptic (Egyptian) Christians used the ankh symbol as a staurogram – a representation of the Christian cross itself. It was also used as a “crux ansata” – a “handled cross”. It was a cross shaped like an Ankh but with a round rather than an oval loop on top. They didn’t see a problem in adopting a pagan symbol into their religion because the pagan Egyptians at the time had explained the Ankh as a symbol for the life to come – something that the Coptic Christians readily claimed to prophecy the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The crux ansata didn’t become popular in Western Christianity, but Coptic Christians kept using it in both decorations and in media for millennia to come. Today, centuries after the fall of the ancient Egyptian civilization, even Western Christians and most other religions view the Ankh as just a harmless symbol of life.
The Ankh vs. cross comparisons don’t seem to faze a lot of people, whether Christians or not, especially since certain Christian denominations have been combining the two for such a long time. Similar to how the Christian cross has been used upside down, so has the Ankh. The inverted cross in Catholic Christianity was originally a symbol of Saint Peter, who they believed was the first Pope. In recent years, however, the inverted cross has become a symbol of anti-Christianity.
The upside-down Ankh, on the other hand, was never used in Egyptian culture or religion, but it has sometimes been used in modern art as a symbol of anti-life or death.
Where to Buy Ankh Jewelry
The Ankh is slowly becoming mainstream, but your options will be limited if searching at the brick and mortar store locally.