What is the meaning of the ankh ?

What is the meaning of the ankh ?

The ankh (☥; also ansata cross and also known as the key to life), is an ancient and sacred Egyptian symbol. The Ankh cross essentially symbolizes life and immortality. The ankh represents the union of male and female (the opposites) and the eternal cycle of life.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that the human soul was made up of five parts: the Ren, the Ba, the Ka, the Sheut, and the Ib. In addition to this, they believed that everyone had a Ba-bird with which they would be reunited after death..

Ancient Egyptians often portrayed and depicted the Egyptian gods and goddesses carrying it by its loop or bearing one in each hand, arms crossed over their chest, or worn at the elbow.

Ancients Egyptians frequently carried the ankh as an amulet, either alone, or in connection with two other hieroglyphs that mean "strength" and "health" in Egyptian. As a hieroglyphic function, the ankh, in addition to meaning "life," takes on different nuances, depending on the context in which it is placed, though always with mystical and religious overtones.

ankh meaning

Ankh Meaning

General meanings

The original meaning of this symbol in Egyptian culture remains a mystery to Egyptologists; in fact, many and conflicting theories speculate on the origins of the ankh. Many have speculated it is:

  • a stylized representation of the womb;
  • the lace knot of ancient Egyptian footwear, the Egyptian sandals. Proponents of this theory include Alan Gardiner who speculated that the origin of the ankh can be traced back to the lace of ancient Egyptian footwear. This interpretation (the circular part surrounds the ankle, the horizontal lace connects to the upper, and the vertical part is connected with the toe of the shoe) can be interpreted in a mystical sense, keeping in mind that Egyptian wisdom saw life as a path to be traveled, full of negativities alternating with positivities, which each man travels to reach his own goal, his own realization, understood also from a ankh spiritual point of view: it connects to the concept of Going, carried by the pantheon deities as a symbol of eternal energy; it connects to the circumambulation of the Circle in Egyptian ritual Magic;
  • a symbolic representation of the rising of the sun, with the circle symbolizing the Sun that has just risen from the horizon represented by the horizontal line. The vertical section below the horizontal line would symbolize the Sun's path
  • a representation of Egypt itself: the upper part would be the delta of the Nile and the vertical section below the Nile itself, while the two horizontal arms would depict the Libyan desert, to the west, and the Arabian desert, to the east;
  • As a symbol of the union of the two cosmic principles it also stands for the mystical union between heaven and earth, that is, the contact between the divine world and the human world, as well as the union of the two principles understood as generating existence. The key designation of life, as well as a reference to the shape of the symbol itself, also stands for the eschatological meaning of the symbol: the ankh is in fact also eternal life, thanks to which man is able to overcome death, to achieve rebirth.
  • As a symbol of life and immortality, its meaning is extendable to that of a symbol of the universe, since the cosmos is pure life, pure existence and eternal alternation of regulatory cycles, as well as constantly generated by the alternation of principles in eternal opposition.

The carter theory 

 Proponents of this theory include Howard Carter who states that the origin of the ankh can be traced to the symbolic mystical union of the two principles, the male principle and the female principle. In fact, the two parts of the ankh, the tau below and the loop above, correspond to the symbols of two of the most important deities of the Egyptian religion, Isis and Osiris. The loop is the Isis symbol, probably a stylization of the womb; the tau, or a cross without the upper extension of the vertical arm, on the other hand, is the symbol of Osiris, referable to the penis;

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Alternative Theory

The symbol consists of a looped cross with a straight vertical line at one end and two flanking horizontal lines at the other.

The horizontal lines represent Isis and Osiris, while the vertical line represents their son Horus (the pharaoh). The symbol thus represents the union of Horus and his parents, as well as their perpetual union with him. It could also be seen as a representation of pillars supporting a roof—which in this context symbolise the "pantheon" of gods—with Pharaoh being Horus' replacement once he had ascended to join them.

We can also see the vertical line as representing Isis' arm around her husband's waist, while she embraces him from behind with her arms. Below this embrace is written "nfr", meaning good, beautiful or perfect; this refers to their son Horus who it was believed ruled Egypt during its Golden Age under his parents' guidance.

The African Ankh Meaning Theory

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In Ancient Egypt

The ankh appears frequently in the artistic works of Ancient Egypt. In divine depictions it appears as a feature of the gods themselves, indicating the otherworldly nature and eternal existence of them. Inasmuch as life is its main meaning, combined with the gods it indicates their nature as cosmic forces, generators of the universe and thus of life.

The ankh was especially used as an amulet, capable of instilling health, well-being and good fortune. Often upon a person's death, whether mummified or not, the ankh was a key item, with which the body was to be buried.The ankh was often used as a funerary amulet and was thought to bestow eternal life upon its owner. It is said that when worn it would make one invisible to any form of evil or danger. If you were to hold an Ankh in each hand it would bring you knowledge of your past present and future lives. 

As a symbol for fertility it can be traced back to pre-dynastic times when it was associated with Neith, who was associated with weaving and thus fertility and childbirth; this association led to its adoption as a symbol for Isis during her marriage to Osiris later myths.

Another frequent use of the ankh was as a mirror, in which reflective glass was placed in the loop.

Ankh Earrings


Ancient Egyptians conceptions of death and the afterlife

The ancient Egyptians believed that in order to reach the afterlife, they had to be purified. They believed that only then could they become one with the gods, and in order to purify their souls, they would have to pass through a series of tests.

The Ancient Egyptians believed you could travel to the next world by traveling westward on a boat along the Nile River towards sunset. This journey would take you past a series of gates called Per-Du (which means 'House of Duat', Duat being another word for the afterlife) where each gate had its own guardian who would allow only those who were worthy to pass through.

Anubis guarded one of these gates, and he weighed your heart against Ma'at's feather to determine whether you were worthy to enter paradise (the Egyptian heaven). If your heart weighed more than her feather, then you were fed to Ammit (a female monster with the head of a crocodile, body of a lioness, wings of an eagle, legs/feet/claws of a lioness, and backside consisting entirely of an ostrich plume). 

The role of anubis :God Of Death And Funeral Rites, protector of the underworld and in the afterlife  

Anubis Egyptian God

The ankh cross is a very popular symbol in Egyptian artwork, and it's often seen as a symbol of Anubis (or Anpu). Some people believe that this is because Anubis was the god of embalming and mummification, and so he would have carried the ankh cross (which represented eternal life) with him in order to help embalm the dead!He presided over embalming, mummification, and funeral rites along with his close companions: Ma'at (goddess of truth), Anput (goddess of funerary offerings), and Thoth (god of writing and communication). Anubis was often depicted as a black jackal or a man with the head of a jackal. The jackal in hieroglyphic writing was associated with death and the afterlife because it would eat the dead bodies left on the desert sand after wrapping them for burial.

Anubis would guard the underworld gates against the unworthy, who were denied entry to the afterlife. He assisted Osiris in his role as judge of the dead by weighing their hearts against Ma'at's feather, in one hand, and a feather symbolizing truth in his other hand. If their heart is lighter than Ma'at's feather they may pass through to paradise; however, if their heart is heavier they are fed to Ammit.

In addition to guarding Osiris' body, Anubis also guarded Osiris' son Horus when he was born. He protected him from Set, who had killed Horus' father so that he could take over Egypt. Anubis hid Horus in swamps where no one could find him until he grew into an adult. 

Ankh anubis thoth ammit

Anubis then helped Isis find Osiris when she went looking for him so that she could revive him using her magical powers from Hathor (goddess of love) and Thoth (god of wisdom). He helped Isis embalm him so that he could return to life again once she found his corpse and reattach his body parts that had been scattered across Egypt by Set during his battle with Horus.

Anubis was the protector of the dead, and his name was used as a spell to help mummify the deceased. He was also known as Anpu in some areas and he is sometimes confused with another god of death named Wepwawet. The exact pronunciation of his name is unknown and it has been transliterated into English in a number of different ways, including "Onpu", "Anupu", and "Anup". However, his name was most likely pronounced "Ahn-noo-PEE" because that is how it is spelled in hieroglyphs.

In the Kingdom of Judah

In 2009, during an archaeological excavation at the foot of the south side of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a bulla bearing the impressed seal of King Hezekiah (727-698 BCE) was found. The seal, bearing the text in ancient Hebrew "Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz king of Judah," also depicts a winged sun, with two wings pointing downward, flanked by two ankhs[1].

In Late Antiquity

Roman times it is likely that the ankh influenced the symbol of the hand of Venus (or mirror of Venus), a symbol of divinity, later adopted as a symbol of the planet of the same name in astrology; as a symbol of copper in alchemy; and as a symbol of the female sex in biology.

With the imposition of Christianity, and consequent dismissal and persecution of Paganism, all symbols belonging to the sphere of the latter religious form were repressed. Nevertheless, the ankh continued to maintain a certain importance in Egypt given the deep roots the symbol had in the culture there, and it ended up being assimilated by the Coptic Orthodox Church and adopted as the very symbol of Coptic Christianity, given its similarity to the cross and the absence of zoomorphic or anthropomorphic elements, originally repudiated by the Christian religion. Hence the Latin designation crux ansata, or "anxious cross." Even in Christian times it retained its use as an amulet.

Ankh Symbol Meaning


The symbol became popular in New Age spirituality during the 1970s. The symbol is often used to represent life, immortality, fertility, and sexual pleasure.

The symbol is also used as a charm to repel evil and protect from the evil eye. In this context, it is known as the "Hand of Miriam". It is also used as a symbol of the female genitalia in Wicca.

In the form of the was-scepter, the Ankh appears on the famous Narmer Palette found during excavation of Hierakonpolis by George Andrew Reisner in 1912. The symbol is also present on a mace head of unknown provenance now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.

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Other modern facts : 

  • The ankh is a staple of the French comic book Assassin's Creed.
  • The ankh is the Seal of Death, the older sister of the Eternals family in Sandman, a series created by Neil Gaiman in 1989 under the DC Comics imprint. The series is about 7 brothers who represent the seven basic entities of human existence-and in particular Morpheus "the shaper" of dreams. The 7 brothers, in order of "existence," are: Destiny (sigil: Book), Death (sigil: Ankh), Dream (sigil: a very special helmet), Desire (sigil: Heart), Despair (sigil: hooked ring), Destruction (sigil: Sword), Delirium (sigil: random doodle)
  • Singer-songwriter Anastacia, before notoriety, tattooed the ankh on her lower back. It became a symbol of hers as it was always on display early in her career and immortalized on some of the American's albums.
  • The ankh was used by guitarist Vinnie Vincent during his brief stint in Kiss.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh!, the first series in the franchise of the same name, Shadi, the keeper of the Millennium Objects, is also the possessor of the Millennium Key, an artifact just shaped like an ankh, which allows him to probe souls. The same symbol is echoed in the Japanese depiction of the Resurrected Monster Magic card, although in the Western version it has been modified with another symbol.
  • In the science fiction film Logan's Escape an ankh key leads to a mysterious place of salvation called Sanctuary.
  • In the third episode of the Crash Bandicoot video game series, time relics are in the form of an ankh.
  • The ankh is the symbol of the choker used by Tokyo in The House of Paper.


Final words 

The ancient Egyptians believed the gods gave them many gifts, one of which was the knowledge of how to live forever by living off the offerings made to their gods. However, the only way for humans to have eternal life was through the help of Isis and Osiris.

This belief in eternal life after death through resurrection is common throughout Egyptian mythology and religion.

The Ankh symbol can be found today on many different pieces of jewelry that are worn by people all over the world - especially people who love ancient Egyptian culture. Some people wear it as a way to show their appreciation for all that ancient Egyptians have done for us! 



Original article

Mario Tosi, Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Deities of Ancient Egypt, vol. I, Ananke, ISBN 88-7325-064-5
Margaret Bunson, Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Melita Brothers Publishers, ISBN 88-403-7360-8
Guy Rachet, Larousse Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization, Gremese Publishers, ISBN 88-8440-144-5
Edda Bresciani, Great Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, De Agostini, ISBN 88-418-2005-5
Maurizio Damiano-Appia, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Ancient Egypt and Nubian Civilizations, Mondadori, ISBN 978-88-04-42876-3

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