The Ankh Egyptian cross has certain special meanings among Egyptians and while you may have seen the symbol before you may not know what it really means. Even people who do not know its name are familiar with the ankh or “crux ansata” (literally, cross with a handle) but what is the meaning of this Egyptian Ankh cross symbol?
This is an ancient symbol that originated in Egypt where it was used in portraits of gods, usually seen carried on each hand, on their chest or carried by the cross’s loop. The ankh is seen in the Egyptian pantheon either in close proximity or in the hand of most Pharaohs and deities.
But this symbol is also found among other ancient cultures outside Europe, most notably in Persia (present-day Iran), and Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). It is also found on the seal of King Hezekiah in the bible.
Most people in contemporary culture know it as a symbol of New Age mysticism, which was revived in the 1960s and continues to be popular in that particular subculture.
What Are the Origins of the Ankh?
There are many speculations about the origins of this symbol. Although we do not know for sure what it was originally meant to symbolize, what we do know about it is that it has no relationship with the cross as it is understood in Christianity.
There are three main theories about the origins of this symbol and none of them has anything to do with the Christian cross.
One of the oldest explanations has the ankh being the hieroglyphic representation of a sandal strap. Nothing more complicated than that.
Another, even older, explanation of this symbol suggests that it represents the belt buckle of the ancient goddess Isis.
Yet another explanation links the ankh with cattle culture and semen (= life).
Ancient Egyptians went to great legths to avoid change; they couldn’t entirely do so, of course, but did preserve a cultural continuity for almost four thousand years. – Pamela Sargent
Whatever the real explanation, it is clear that the “cross” shape of the symbol is just a coincidence and it has nothing to do with Christian crosses.
The main usages of the ankh in ancient Egypt were related to death. As such, this symbol can often be found in Egyptian funeral art (such as tomb paintings). In such works of art, the ankh is usually placed at the fingertips of different deities to represent the giving of the gift of life. Indeed, this could be the symbol for life after death or, in other words, the afterlife.
But that was not the only ancient use of the Ankh. This symbol was also often used as an amulet by Egyptians. Although sometimes worn alone, sometimes this amulet was carried with other the hieroglyphic symbols for “health” and “strength”. Sometimes the ankh was made out of mirrors and displayed decoratively.
The Ankh and Other Symbols Like It
Interestingly, there are other symbols that look a lot like the Ankh both in ancient Egypt and in other cultures.
There is a symbol that mixes the double-edged ax, which was a symbol of matriarchy and the sacral knot, which is a symbol of holiness. This symbol is similar to the Ankh but it is not Egyptian. It has been found in Mycenean and Minoan sites. But this symbol is probably closer to another ancient Egyptian symbol known as the tyet.
The ankh also appears in ancient sites in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). In those sites, it has been found displayed on coins. We know that this symbol was incorporated into ancient Greek culture. This symbol has become to symbolize the planet Venus and, by extension, the goddess of love (Aphrodite is the Greek tradition, and Venus in the Roman tradition). In the ancient world, this goddess was mostly worshipped in Cyprus.
Another more recent use of the Ankh is that given to it by Coptic Christians. The Coptic Christians or Copts are Christians indigenous to North Africa, primarily present-day Egypt. These Northern African Christians have preserved the ankh by giving in a Christian meaning. They use this symbol as their “version” of the Christian cross. In a Coptic context, this symbol is known as the crux ansata (Latin for “cross with a handle”) or, even, the Coptic ankh.
Contemporary Uses and Meanings of the Ankh
It would be a mistake to assume that only Copts use this symbol now. The Ankh was recovered by New Age proponents in the 1960s and continues to be used to this day by non-religious people.
People who know very little about ancient Egypt are most likely, if they know anything at all, to have at least a vague idea about the Pharaoh Akhenaten and be able to recognize the face of his beautiful wife, Nefertiti. – Pamela Sargent
The New Age uses of the Ankh are inspired by Ancient Egypt. So, its meaning connecting it with fertility and life-giving continue to be believed in.
Some people believe that the main meaning of this symbol is fertility. They seem this symbol to stand for the union between the penis and the vagina. As such, the loop at the top of the Ankh represents the vagina and the long line on the symbol is meant to represent the penis.
The union of the vagina and the penis is also supposed to stand for the perfect harmony necessary to create new human life.
Finally, the “arms” that stretch out from either side of the symbol are meant to represent the children that are created from this “perfect harmony” between man and woman.
But, there is also a more spiritual meaning that some people ascribe to this symbol. Because of this symbol’s appearance resembles that of a key, some people think that the ankh represents the key to all hidden knowledge. Following on that, the loop part of the ankh is meant to represent the eternal soul. The loop shape means that the soul has no end and no beginning and, thus, it is eternal.
Another important contemporary meaning of this ancient symbol is death. As a key, this symbol is believed to be the key to all the mysteries of death and life.