Ankh The Egyptian Key of Life

Unlocking the Secrets of the Ankh ☥: How this Ancient Egyptian Symbol Continues to Inspire and Intrigue Today

In Occult by Chris A. Parker

The Ankh ☥ is a potent symbol that has been utilized for ages in many different nations, religions, and traditions. Ankh has a unique shape that looks like a cross with a loop at the top. It is also called the “Key of Life.” Many people across the world have been fascinated and intrigued by this symbol, which is said to represent the notion of life and immortality.

In this article, we will look at Ankh’s history, meaning, and cultural significance in ancient Egypt, as well as how it is used and what it means today. We’ll also look at the conflicts and arguments surrounding this enigmatic symbol, and try to explore some of the mysteries that have kept the Ankh among the most interesting and enigmatic symbols of all time.

Ankh Etymology

The ideogram for the ankh is a trilateral phonogram composed of the three consonants “cnḫ.” Consonant c is represented by a supporting arm Arm Hieroglyph, consonant n by waterwater Hieroglyph, and consonant by a circle hieroglyph for ḫ (it is still not clear what this represents).

The Ankh is a symbol for “life,” but it can also indicate “sandal strap” or “mirror.” In writings, the symbols are frequently combined to represent the verb “to live.” Here, the signs are repeated in an apparent attempt to highlight their connection to life hieroglyph. (Read more in Enno Neeteson’s paper “The origin of the Ankh sign”)

Meaning and Symbolism of the Ankh

As is often the case with religious or spiritual symbols, this sign has more than one meaning. Although the Ankh is considered to be the Egyptian representation of life, it also has other symbolic interpretations. It is also easy to think of the ankh symbol as a representation of the life-sustaining elements of water, air, and the sun. Of course, given its age, the ankh symbol’s meanings may have changed through time.

One theory says that the T in the bottom half of the cross represents the man’s sexuality, while the handle in the top half represents the woman’s uterus or pubis. This shows the balance and harmony of opposites, the union of the sexes, and, most importantly, reproduction and the circle of life. This lets us see this symbol not only as a sign of life now, but also of life in the future and immortality. It may also stand for happiness, vitality, and fertility.

The strength of the sun, which the ancient Egyptians believed to be the source of all life and vigor, is likewise linked to this symbol. It is thought that the loop at the top of the Ankh depicts the sun rising over the horizon, while the vertical line represents the sun’s passage through the sky. The horizontal line, however, is thought to depict the horizon, where the sun rises and sets every day.

An antique wall with ankh signs and hieroglyphics-
Antique wall with ankh signs and hieroglyphics. Image from Depositphotos

Additionally, the shape of Ankh has a circle on top, which represents the heavenly realm and the spirit of Ra, the ancient Egyptian Sun God. This circle also acts as the key’s grip, from which it is carried by gods.

This cross was also put on the lips of deceased pharaohs, as the ancient Egyptians believed that death was only a passageway to the afterlife and eternal life. Because of this, it is frequently depicted in the hands of Egyptian gods like Osiris, Isis, and Anubis. By holding the Ankh, gods, and goddesses could grant passage to the underworld to the departed.

The Ankh was also thought to have therapeutic qualities. It was frequently worn as an amulet to ward off disease and foster both physical and mental health.

Because of the ankh’s connection to the afterlife, Coptic Christians in Egypt adopted it as their own symbol in the fourth century CE (more about this below).

History and Origin of the Ankh

The Ankh is an ancient Egyptian symbol that has been a part of this civilization for thousands of years. It is also known as the “key of life” or the “key of the Nile”. The sign has been employed in a variety of ways and may be seen on several ancient Egyptian objects and monuments. The Ankh is said to have been created somewhere between 2686 and 2181 BC, during the Old Kingdom, and it soon rose to prominence as one of the most significant symbols in Egyptian culture and religion.

The fact that no one knows what the ankh originally stood for is probably the most interesting thing about it. Egyptologist Sir Alan H. Gardiner (1879–1963) says it came from a sandal strap with a vertical post attached to the sole at the toes and a top loop that went around the ankle. Gardiner reached his conclusion because the terms for ankh and sandal strap had the same spelling despite having a distinct sounds. The word “nkh,” which shares the same origin as “ankh,” was used in ancient Egypt to describe sandals. Moreover, the sandal was a common item in ancient Egyptian everyday life, and the ankh sign came to represent life. Yet there has never been a lot of acceptance for this viewpoint.

The idea of Egyptologist E.A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934 CE), who thinks it derives from the goddess Isis’ belt buckle, is regarded as more likely but is still not commonly recognized. The ankh was compared by Wallis Budge to the Egyptian symbol Tjet, also known as the “knot of Isis,” a ceremonial belt believed to depict female genitalia and denote fertility. 

Magnificent bas relief of the god amun
Magnificent bas-relief of the god Amun. Image from Depositphotos

This theory, that the ankh came from a symbol for fertility, fits with what the ankh has always meant, from ancient Egypt to the present day. The Egyptologist Wolfhart Westendorf (1924 – 2018 CE), supports Wallis Budge’s claim by pointing out the similarities between the ankh and the Tjet as well as the use of both symbols from a very early period in Egypt’s history. From ancient times, the ankh has stood for life, the hope of endless life, the sun, fertility, and light.

The Ankh was frequently depicted in funeral art because it was thought to have the ability to safeguard the deceased as they traveled into the afterlife. It was frequently linked to the deity Osiris, who was the god of the afterlife, and it was also employed in religious rituals. Furthermore, hieroglyphic writings and temple walls commonly included this symbol.

It was frequently employed as a sign of authority and as an amulet to guard the bearer against danger.

During the time of the New Kingdom, about 1550–1070 B.C., the Ankh was also a prominent symbol. It was frequently paired with other symbols during this time, including the Eye of Horus and the Djed pillar.

One of the earliest examples of an ankh symbol is a stone vase with an ankh-ka form that was made during the 1st Dynasty (about 3000 BCE) and is presently on exhibit at the MET Museum in New York.

An ivory comb with the name of King Djet of the First Dynasty is another source for one of the ankh symbol’s early appearances.

See more Egyptian Art artifacts depicting Ankh, in MET Museum.

Comb with the name of Djet
Comb with the name of Djet. Egypt Museum

The Ankh in Ancient Egyptian Culture and Religion

Ancient Egyptian culture and religion placed a high value on the Ankh. It was frequently portrayed in works of art, hieroglyphs, and even in temple and tomb architecture. Isis, Osiris, and Ra were just some of the many gods and goddesses that were connected to this symbol.

In ancient Egyptian religion, the Ankh was thought to be the source of life and rebirth. It was also linked to the idea of Ma’at, which represented the universal principles of harmony, balance, and justice.

Given its prominent placement on the walls of temples and tombs during later dynasties, the significance of the ankh symbol is undeniable. Only gods, or pharaohs on exceptional occasions, are depicted bearing the symbol of life. Even the highest officials were not allowed to hold the ankh.

As previously stated, it was thought that the Ankh symbol symbolized the key to the afterlife and that the gods and goddesses could allow the dead to enter the underworld by holding the Ankh. It was often used in funeral art, like on tomb walls and sarcophagi.

In addition to being connected to the afterlife, the Ankh was also associated with fertility and rebirth. It was frequently employed in delivery ceremonies and was connected with Isis, who was regarded as the protector of mothers and children.

At religious events, the Ankh was also a symbol of power and authority. It was frequently seen in the hands of pharaohs, who were thought to have the ability to bestow life and reign over both the living and the dead. It was also utilized at the crowning of new pharaohs to signify their power and authority as Egyptian rulers.

Related reading: Maat’s “Feather of Truth” and The 42 Negative Confessions – Opens in new tab

Giving the Ankh
Giving the Ankh. Image from Depositphotos

The Ankh and the Goddess Isis

As the cults of Isis and Osiris first gained popularity in Egypt during the Early Dynastic Period, the ankh became widely used. Images of Isis wearing the Tjet girdle before the introduction of the ankh confirm the relationship between the ankh and the Tjet discussed previously.

In Egypt, the cult of Osiris was popular until it was replaced by the cult of Isis, which had the same benefits and told the same story. Although Osiris was still greatly admired, over time his role in the narrative of his rebirth and resurrection was reduced.

Yet from the start of the Early Dynastic Period, Osiris’ cult predominated since he was the deity who had died and come back to life, providing life to others. Isis was a fertility goddess and mother goddess at this time, but she soon married Osiris and became his devoted wife. She saved him after Set killed him and brought him back to life.

Isis is seen holding the ankh more frequently than the rest of the other Egyptian gods. She eventually surpassed all other gods in popularity in Egypt, where all other deities were viewed as mere facets of one supremely potent and all-pervasive divinity.

The cult of Isis promised everlasting life through personal resurrection. In the same way that Isis saved her husband Osiris from death, she could also save those who believed in her. Associating the ankh with such a powerful goddess gave it more meaning since it was now linked to the great goddess who could save one’s soul and provide for them in the afterlife.

Ankhs and Pharaohs

Ancient Egyptians associated the Ankh with pharaohs and their divine authority. The Pharaohs were in charge of preserving the universe’s balance and order since they were seen as the gods’ earthly representatives. The Ankh was considered a strong symbol that reflected the Pharaohs’ capacity to give and sustain life, and it was frequently shown in hieroglyphics and other creative depictions alongside Pharaohs.

When a pharaoh or other Egyptian ruler is shown with an ankh in art or artifacts, it usually means a blessing or a wish for a long life. Actually, the meaning of the ankh symbol was deduced from the fact that this hieroglyphic symbol includes the letters that make up the word “life”, which is frequently included in the names of pharaohs. King Tutankhamun is a great example of this.

The royal cartouche of the Pharoah Tutankhamun
The royal cartouche of the Pharoah Tutankhamun. Image from Depositphotos

The tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun serves as an illustration of Ankh’s relationship to pharaohs. On the walls of his tomb were depictions of the Ankh, which represented the king’s capacity to prolong life and deliver wealth to his followers. Moreover, the Ankh was frequently depicted on the foreheads of pharaohs, emphasizing their divine connection to the gods and their dominion over life and death.

Another example of Ankh’s connection to pharaohs is Akhenaten. Akhenaten, who ruled during the 18th dynasty, was renowned for his extreme religious changes, such as the promotion of monotheism and the worship of the sun deity, Aten. Akhenaten employed the Ankh as one of the symbols to signify the strength of the Aten and its power to provide and maintain life.

Examples of Ankh Depictions in Egypt

Because of its significance, the ankh is frequently depicted in art and architecture; in fact, it is one of the most widely used ornamental symbols. The ankh may be seen on a wide variety of items, including fans and mirrors, as well as on architectural elements like temple walls and columns. The Ankh, which is often shown in black or blue, has also been cast in gold for protection amulets. There have also been pieces of ceramic found with the symbol on them.

Here are some illustrations of the Ankh from ancient Egypt:

  • The Hatshepsut Temple: Many representations of the Ankh sign may be seen at the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, which is situated in Deir el-Bahri in Luxor. They include reliefs portraying Hathor giving the Ankh to Hatshepsut and depictions of Hatshepsut holding the Ankh.
  • Tutankhamun’s Tomb: Many Ankh symbols, which are thought to have been employed in religious rites, can be seen on the walls and ceiling of Tutankhamun’s tomb, which is situated in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings. Several scenes also show the pharaoh holding the Ankh.
  • The Karnak Temple Complex in Luxor is full of ankh symbols. There are also sculptures of the god Amun holding an ankh and reliefs of pharaohs giving the symbol to the gods.
Karnak temple in Luxor, Egypt
Karnak temple in Luxor, Egypt. Image from Depositphotos
  • Jewelry: Necklaces, bracelets, and earrings include the Ankh symbol, which was a common theme in ancient Egyptian jewelry. The symbol was frequently used in complex patterns alongside other symbols like lotus flowers and scarabs.
  • Papyrus: Papyrus scrolls, which were used for writing and sketching, frequently featured the Ankh symbol. It was commonly employed to symbolize the idea of life and vitality in the religious writings and drawings that were regularly included on these scrolls.
  • Obelisks: The Luxor Obelisk, which is situated in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, is one of several Egyptian obelisks that display the Ankh symbol. Originally, the obelisks were put in front of temples and were thought to represent the sun god Ra.
  • Amulets: In ancient Egypt, the Ankh symbol was a popular amulet, and small charms in the shape of the Ankh were worn to protect against harm and bring good luck. Gold or other valuable materials were frequently used to make these amulets.
  • Funerary Art: The Ankh sign was frequently seen on sarcophagi, coffins, and tomb walls. The deceased were frequently depicted holding the Ankh or receiving it from a god in these representations, signifying their link to the afterlife and their hope for eternal life.
  • Sculptures: The Ankh symbol is included in numerous sculptures of Egyptian deities, including Osiris, who is frequently shown holding it as a representation of his control over both life and death. Another common image of the Ankh-holding goddess Ma’at is that of the goddess of truth and justice.
  • Hieroglyphs: The Ankh was widely employed in hieroglyphs, where it symbolizes life and immortality. It was frequently combined with other symbols, such as the Eye of Horus and the Djed pillar, to symbolize many facets of Egyptian religion and mythology.

The Ankh and the Christian Cross

Both the Ankh and the Christian cross are representations of spiritual ideas about life and death. Despite the fact that they are unique symbols connected with different civilizations and faiths, there are similarities between them that have resulted in comparisons and, in some instances, overlaps.

As Christianity spread more in the fourth century CE, many of the symbols of the old religion fell out of favor and were either banned or forgotten. One of these was the djed symbol, which is closely related to Osiris, although the ankh cross was still in use.

Even though other parts of the ancient religion disappeared, the ankh kept its original meaning of life and promise of eternal life.

Author Adele Nozedar comments:  “Powerful symbols frequently stray across cultures despite their origins, and the ankh is no exception. Because it symbolizes immortality and the universe, it was initially borrowed by the fourth-century Coptic Christians, who used it as a symbol to reinforce Christ’s message that there is life after death”.

The Ankh cross, which was a sign of eternal life, lost its loop at the top and became the Christian cross. Like the ancient ankh, Christians wear the Christian cross for the same reason: to show that they believe in their god and all that he promises.

In the fourth century CE, Coptic Christians in Egypt took the ankh as their own because of its connection to the afterlife. This use of the ankh as a symbol of Christ’s promise of eternal life through faith in his death and resurrection is probably where the cross got its start as a symbol of faith in Christianity.

The fish was a fertility symbol employed by the early Christians in Rome and other places as a demonstration of their faith. They would not think to use the cross, a well-known execution method, any more than someone today would decide to wear an amulet depicting a lethal injection or an electric chair. The ankh cross, which was already well-established as a sign of life, was simple to incorporate into the early Christian faith and remained a symbol of that faith.

Another thing that the two symbols have in common is that they are both used in Christian and Coptic Christian art. The Ankh is known as the “Crux Ansata” in Coptic Christianity, which originated in Egypt, and is used as a symbol of eternal life. It is frequently shown being held by Christ’s hand in Coptic art.

The cross was occasionally shown in early Christian art with a circle or ankh-like sign, known as the “chi-rho” symbol, which was meant to represent Christ.

But it’s important to note that, even though the two symbols have some things in common, their meanings and associations are very different. The Ankh is a representation of ancient Egyptian religion and the cycle of life and death, whereas the cross is largely connected to Christianity and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

While some Coptic Christians have accepted the Ankh as a symbol of eternal life, this usage is different from the symbol’s original significance and connection to ancient Egyptian religion. Similarly to this, even though the Christian cross has been modified by several civilizations and used in a variety of contexts, it is still primarily linked to Christianity and the core beliefs of the religion.

Ancient ruins of Karnak temple, Luxor, Egypt
Ancient ruins of Karnak temple, Luxor, Egypt. Image from Depositphotos

The Ankh in Modern Occultism

In contemporary occultism and esoteric traditions, the Ankh has maintained its significance. It has been embraced by a range of groups and people interested in ancient Egyptian spirituality, symbolism, and mythology, as well as those attracted to its relationship with life, death, and spiritual development.

In contemporary esotericism, the Ankh has been employed as a meditation and energy-work instrument. It is a symbol that some practitioners utilize to assist them in connecting with higher spiritual realms or energies or as a focal point for visualization exercises.

The Ankh’s connection to the idea of “eternal life” can also be seen as a symbol of immortality, and some individuals employ it in rituals and practices intended to assist them in developing a relationship with their own inner divinity or higher self.

Moreover, the Ankh has been utilized in several tarot reading and divination techniques. For instance, some tarot decks have an Ankh card that stands for spiritual guidance, healing, and rejuvenation.

It is related to New Age spirituality with the notions of spiritual awakening and the expanding of awareness. Practitioners can also use it as a way to heal or balance energy by holding the symbol in their hands or putting it on different parts of the body to help energy flow and stay in balance.

The Ankh is occasionally employed as a symbol in Wicca and other neo-pagan religions. It is frequently connected with the earth and water elements and is thought to signify the combination of male and female energy. (Read more about Wicca)

Last but not least, certain individuals and groups have adopted the Ankh as a symbol of spiritual resistance and rebellion. The Ankh is viewed in this context as a representation of spiritual liberty, free from the restrictions of established religions or cultural conventions. This view of the Ankh stresses its connection to spiritual development and sees it as a tool for liberation from limiting ideas or repressive systems.

Hieroglyphics in Memphis, Cairo, Egypt
Hieroglyphics in Memphis, Cairo, Egypt. Image from Depositphotos

During the 1960s, when there was a growing interest in ancient traditions and symbols, the ankh started to be frequently used. Even in modern times, the ankh is frequently used in tattoo art and jewelry.

An ankh is sometimes worn by people of African origin as a reminder of their cultural history. In addition, Kemetism, or Egyptian Neopaganism, is represented by the Ankh. Moreover, the symbol is associated with vampires in the goth subculture since they typically live on the edge of life and death.

The Ankh has also been used in pop culture, especially in works of art that use mythology or art from ancient Egypt.It has been used as a symbol of intrigue and mystery in several films, television programs, works of literature, and video games. The following are some examples:

  • The “The Vampire Chronicles,” book series by Anne Rice features the Ankh as a symbol of power and immortality, making it one of the most well-known uses of the symbol in popular culture.
  • The Ankh has appeared in several comic book series, including Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman,” where it is employed as a symbol of life and death, and in Marvel Comics, where the hero “Moon Knight” uses a golden Ankh as one of his weapons.
  • Several video games that are based on Egyptian mythology have included the Ankh, which is frequently used as a symbol of magic and mysticism. Examples of these games include “Assassin’s Creed” and “Final Fantasy.”
  • A variety of songs from many genres have made use of the Ankh, including “The Ankh” by Nas, “Ankh” by KRS-One, and “Ankh Wielding Wizards” by MF DOOM. Moreover, record covers and music videos have also included the Ankh as a visual component.
  • The Ankh has appeared in fashion designs, especially jewelry designs. It is frequently employed as a fashion statement or as a symbol with religious or cultural significance.
  • The Ankh has appeared in several movies and television series, including “The Mummy” film (1932), in which it is used by the Isis statue to set on fire a magick scroll, and “The Spectacular Spider-Man” (TV series), in which the character Doctor Octopus uses an Ankh-shaped amulet to channel supernatural energy.

In modern times, the Ankh symbol is still used a lot in jewelry and as a decorative theme. As a piece of ancient Egyptian culture that is still around today, the symbol is still linked to life, vitality, and rebirth.

Egyptian Cross Ankh
Egyptian Cross Ankh. Image from Depositphotos

Controversies Surrounding the Ankh

Despite its broad appeal, the Ankh has sparked debate and criticism throughout the years. Here are a few cases in point:

Cultural Appropriation: According to some critics, the usage of the Ankh by those who are neither Egyptians nor from the African diaspora constitutes cultural appropriation. They say that the Ankh is a key symbol in African spirituality and mythology and that using it by foreigners is disrespectful or appropriative.

Misrepresentation: The Ankh has occasionally been employed in ways that depart from or distort its original significance and meaning. For instance, without knowing its cultural background or historical meaning, some New Age practitioners (as we mentioned earlier) have exploited the Ankh as a generalized symbol of spiritual energy or healing.

Commercialization: The Ankh has been used on clothing, jewelry, and home decor, among other things. Some critics say that the commercialization of Ankh, which makes it little more than a trendy decoration or marketing gimmick, is ignoring its cultural and spiritual value.

Religion: The Ankh has sometimes been seen by some religious groups as a symbol of disagreement or even blasphemy. For instance, some Christian conservatives have condemned the usage of the Ankh on the grounds that it represents Satanism or paganism.

The arguments about the Ankh show how important it is to understand the cultural and historical value of symbols and objects and use them in the right way.


The Ankh has evolved through several stages of its lengthy and intricate history. It has remained a potent and evocative symbol that continues to amaze and enchant us today, from its roots in ancient Egypt to its adoption by contemporary occult and esoteric organizations.

Its capacity to transcend time and culture and its connections to fundamental ideas of life, vitality, and spirituality are what make it so fascinating. There is no doubt that the Ankh is a powerful symbol, whether we see it as a representation of life and rebirth, a tool for spiritual development, or just a source of mystery and fascination.

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Featured image from Depositphotos