Ankh, the Egyptian Cross of Life: Meaning and History
There are hundreds of different religions. Each religion has its own characteristic symbols and signs. Just as the symbol of Christianity became the cross, known in many variations, and before it was a sign of a fish, the Egyptian cross, also called "ankh" is also a symbol of the ancient religion of Egypt. The ankh, which is essentially a cross with a circle, also commonly called a "cross of life" or "key of life," is a special symbol that can be dated to the beginning of the dynastic period, from 3150 to 2613 B.C. The Egyptians believed that their stay on earth was only part of a greater eternal life, for the ankh symbolizes both the afterlife and a mortal existence on earth. Let us discover the different meanings and uses of this Egyptian cross.
Interpretations of the Ankh Cross
Some interpret this symbol according to its two parts: the oval shape symbolizes the eternity of the living deities, and the cross that emerges from it is a symbol of continuation and extension. In Egyptian hieroglyphics since the Old Kingdom, the ankh symbolized life, but not the normal, ordinary life that we think of. The ancient Egyptians associated the ankh with the spiritual life of the soul that most of us do not even think about in our daily lives.
But the ankh is also subject to other interpretations. It combines the two forces of life: the male and female symbols of Osiris and Isis. It is the union between heaven and earth, and the unification between the feminine and masculine principle.
It was also a symbol of fertility, as the loop of the sign was associated with a woman's womb. Later, the ankh was given a magical meaning because it was believed to possess a mystical life force. Mystics and lovers of secret knowledge in the 19th century, and even in the 20th century considered the ankh as a powerful symbol of prosperity, health, good fortune and protection from defeat, downfall and total destruction.
The ankh cross and the gods
In ancient Egypt, it was usually painted or carved in association with the gods. Numerous representations of the cross angee have been found on funerary paintings, in tombs, statues, and temples. Mirrors were also often carved in the shape of an Egyptian cross.
The gods involved in judging the dead may possess the ankh. They usually hold it by the buckle or in each hand, with their arms folded over their chests. Some place it under the nose of the deceased, as if to breathe eternal life into them. Many reliefs in ancient Egyptian temples show scenes in which the king is offered the ankh-in this case, the sign emphasizes the pharaoh's divine nature.
Depending on its color, Ankh took on a particular meaning: in brilliant silver it signified life on earth, in oxidized silver it was related to the world of the dead and the West. In gold or painted yellow, it represented the South. Green, it correlated with the green Nile and the North. Blue, it corresponded to the deities and the sky.
There are many representations of Egyptian deities holding the ankh. Ma'at, the goddess of truth, holds an ankh-like figure in her hand. However, the goddess Isis is most often seen holding it. Also, Atum, the sun god of Heliopolis, and Sekhmet, a warrior goddess and a goddess of healing, were often depicted with the ankh.
Isis and The Ankh Cross
The ankh entered into popular use in Egypt during the early dynastic period with the rise of the cults of Isis and Osiris. The association of the ankh with the djed mentioned above is supported by the first images of Isis with the sheath of the djed before the appearance of the ankh.
The cult of Osiris became the most popular cult in Egypt until the cult of Isis - which told the same story and promised the same rewards - dominated it. Osiris continued to be greatly admired but, over time, became a secondary figure in the story of his resurrection and rebirth. At the beginning of the first dynastic period, however, it was the cult of Osiris that dominated because he was the god who died and came back to life, bringing life to others. Isis, at that time, was a mother goddess associated with fertility, but she was soon united with Osiris as a devoted wife who saved him after his murder by Set and brought him back to life.
Many of Egypt's gods are depicted holding the ankh but Isis more often than most. Over time, Isis became the most popular goddess in Egypt and all the other gods were seen as mere aspects of this most powerful and all-encompassing deity. The worship of Isis promised eternal life through personal resurrection. Just as Isis had saved her husband Osiris from death, she could save those who had placed their faith in her. The association of the ankh with such a powerful goddess gave it a greater meaning in that it was now specifically linked to the great goddess who could save her soul and provide for her needs in the afterlife.
The Ankh Cross in Egyptian Temples
In Egyptian tombs and in other arts, the ankh appears frequently. A symbol of imperishable life force, the ankh was painted on the walls of temples, on stelae, and in friezes of objects, especially near the feet, to offer divine protection to the dead.
It often appears at the fingertips of a god or goddess in images that depict deities from the afterlife bestowing the gift of life on the mummy of the dead person.
This symbol was often worn as an amulet by the Egyptians, either alone or in combination with two other hieroglyphs meaning "strength" and "health. Mirrors were often made in the shape of an ankh.
How is the Ankh illustrated?
One Ankh Cross
We discovered many ways in which the Cross of Life was used. In the Temple of Amen, an Egyptian pharaoh can be seen holding three of them with one hand. They symbolize the threefold face of eternal life: yesterday, today, and tomorrow, all connecting into one.
Life, strength, and health-were the foundation of the ancient Egyptian mentality and are present in almost everything the Egyptians put forth in the world. They ended correspondences with these words, carved and painted them on stone walls, and probably intermingled enthusiastically when they met and argued.
Multiples Ankh Crosses
Numerous representations show it in series forming a flow of life. The representation shows a young initiate wearing a perfumed cone on his head and covered with white linen. He is shown framed by two priests, one of whom wears a wolf mask. Each of the priests holds a jug above the young man's head from which a stream of Ankh escapes. In this scene, they form a flow of life, waves of light and water breath.
This is obviously a ritual intended to give the applicant access to a new life, to spiritual life.
The ankh associated with the scepter Ouas :
Originally it was a stick with a forked lower end intended to capture snakes. It is often depicted as the head of a dog or donkey with long pointed ears and a forked lower end. The dog's head represents Seth. He is only held by pharaohs or deities as a badge of his power.
The association of these two symbols is extremely common in reliefs and frescoes. Examples are very numerous in Egypt but we can find the most known here:
- On the walls of the southern temple of Karnak
- On the south doorway of Karnak, six friezes of seven ankh, each with a horizontal branch forming an arm and holding a Wuas scepter in each hand.
The ankh associated with the pillar of Djed and the scepter Ouas :
This is the classical triplet of Egyptian symbols to which other smaller amulets are sometimes added. In this case, the ankh is always the most powerful key of the three.
In this case, the dead pharaohs are candidates for rebirth, they go to a female deity, who makes her breathe the sign Ankh, and Ouas, who gives her life, representing the divine milk.
In other representations, it is the pillar of Djed that plays the main role, for if the Ankh is the Osiris, the Djed is its emblem. It represents the backbone of the god with its cervical vertebrae as well as the principle of stability, the backbone of the world. Straight, the Djed symbolizes the return to order and permanence.
It can then be found, just like the Ankh, in an anthropomorphic form, the head represented by the four plates. Two arms each holding a Ouas scepter in their hands and wearing an Ankh on each wrist as a bracelet.
The Ankh Cross nowadays
Today, the Egyptian cross continues to be carried by a wide range of people. It is a very popular symbol in the fields of cinema, decorative arts, tattooing and jewelry. For the latter in particular, many versions of the ankh are offered, ranging from the simplest to the most sophisticated.
Many fans of the "new age" style and neo-Paganism use the ankh in a more generic way as a symbol of life or sometimes of wisdom.
In the Western esoteric doctrine Thelema, it is considered as the union of opposites as well as a symbol of divinity and heading towards its destiny.