The ankh is a pervasive symbol in ancient Egypt. The meaning of the ankh conveys the idea of life or the force that generates living. It has been found on all types of materials, including leather, stone, copper, and wood, although it is most often used on gold. The ankh appears in all eras of ancient Egyptian life and is one of the oldest symbols. However, the exact origin of the symbol is not known. Kemetologists and Egyptologists have searched many documents seeking to discover the first instance of the ankh. This has proven to be a difficult task because of the provenance of the symbol as well as its antiquity.
The form of the ankh is an oval supported by a “T.” Thus, its shape has given rise to many theories about its original meaning. The three most prominent ideas are that the symbol represents the coming together of the male and female genitalia, a type of sandal worn by ancient Egyptians, and the Knot of Isis, which appeared on many fabrics in ancient Egypt. No one knows for certain whether any of these explanations is true because there are no records of the Egyptians giving advice about the origin of the symbol. Much like the djed, the symbol for stability, or the was, the symbol for power, the ankh reflects a concern with the practical life of the people.
As a symbol of life, the ankh was also used to represent regeneration or be used as an amulet to protect one against misfortune or as a talisman to bring good fortune. There was an intense interest on the part of the ancient Egyptians to ensure that their fortune was good, particularly as it related to the life after death. The concentration on prolonging life by ensuring that death would have no control over the body meant that they looked for every advantage to secure a firm position on eternal life. The ankh was used in greetings, salutations, and leave-taking. When the Egyptian wrote a letter or a treatise, one of the most appropriate endings was to wish for the recipient all life, or eternal life, ankh neheh.
There is some thought by Kemetologists that the House of Life, a compound of buildings used for the temple library, the archives of spiritual chants, and other information available to priests, was dominated by images of the ankh. In fact, this symbol is sometimes shown as a scepter that was held in the right hand of deities, who could apply it to the nostrils of the dead to resurrect them. To speak of a House of Life was to discuss the appropriate ways of maintaining the society against all forms of anarchy, chaos, and death.
The best philosophers, priests, and councilors went to the House of Life to investigate all issues that related to living forever. So obsessed was the society with life that the wisest among the Egyptians were employed in the process of searching out the keys to life. Thus, the ankh represented the most profound turn of the Egyptian mind toward eternity. Everlasting life was first conceived by the Egyptians. One can also see many examples of the ankh being held by the loop as if it were a key, giving the impression that many Egyptians believed that the ankh held the key to immortality. It could conquer death and bring about resurrection because, in its essence, it was a power over death that had been granted by God.
Ankhs that were made out of faience, wax, metal, and gems were popular during the 18th and 19th dynasties as jeweled objects of power. Per-aa (pharaoh) Tutankhamen had a mirror shaped as an ankh. His name meant “The living Image of Amen.” Thus, Tutankhamen carried the great name of Amen alongside the symbol of life. When Howard Carter opened the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings, he discovered many objects that had the ankh symbol on them. It appeared to be everywhere in the tomb.
But Tutankhamen was not the only king whose tomb was full of ankhs. Ramses, Tuthmoses, Senursert, and other per-aas had reigns that included the presence of many ankhs on jewelry and other personal objects. Other kings also used the ankh as a symbol of life generating power. Senursert is seen in a famous pose holding two ankhs to his chest. This is an example of the use of the ankh for protection, security, and life. One could avoid chaos and death by the use of the ankh.
Few symbols have ever been as widespread as the ankh. The ancient Egyptians seemed to have created the symbol of the ankh on every occasion that was fraught with decision making. Much like the Yoruba orisha Eshu, the deity of the crossroads, the ankh in ancient Egypt, although not a representative of a deity, is a powerful object for social and political transformation. People believed that the ankh situated over the neb could render them protected from all problems. In fact, the symbols suggested that they would have all life. Death would be unable to conquer them because they would go into death with the symbol of immortality. The ankh retained its influence among the Egyptian people long after the end of the dynastic period.
Even when Christianity became the religion of Egypt, the people were still using the symbol of the ankh. For a while the ankh and the cross were used simultaneously until the Christians soon replaced the ankh with the cross. Thus, the venerable African ankh moved into popular culture and has remained one of the most recognizable human symbols.