The ankh, also known as key of life, the key of the Nile or crux ansata (Latin meaning "cross with a handle"), was the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic character that read "life", a triliteral sign for the consonants ꜥ-n-ḫ.
It represents the concept of eternal life, which is the general meaning of the symbol. The Egyptian gods are often portrayed carrying it by its loop, or bearing one in each hand, arms crossed over their chest.
The origin of ankh is highly debated and it is represented by an oval or point-down teardrop set atop a T shape.
The origin of the symbol remains a mystery to Egyptologists, and no single hypothesis has been widely accepted. One of the earliest suggestions is that of Thomas Inman, first published in 1869:
It is by Egyptologists called the symbol of life. It is also called the "handled cross", or crux ansata. It represents the male triad and the female unit, under a decent form. There are few symbols more commonly met with in Egyptian art. In some sculptures, where the sun's rays are represented as terminating in hands, the offerings which these bring are many a crux ansata, emblematic of the truth that a fruitful union is a gift from the deity.
E. A. Wallis Budge postulated that the symbol originated as the belt buckle of the mother goddess Isis, an idea joined by Wolfhart Westendorf with the notion that both the ankh and the knot of Isis were used in many ceremonies. Sir Alan Gardiner speculated that it depicts a sandal strap, with the loop going around the ankle. The word for sandal strap was also spelled ꜥnḫ, although it may have been pronounced differently.
In their 2004 book The Quick and the Dead, Andrew Hunt Gordon and Calvin W. Schwabe speculated that the ankh, djed, and was symbols have a biological basis derived from ancient cattle culture (linked to the Egyptian belief that semen was created in the spine), thus:
- the ankh, symbol of life, thoracic vertebra of a bull (seen in cross section)
- the djed, symbol of stability, base on sacrum of a bull's spine
- the was, symbol of power and dominion, a staff featuring the head and tail of the god Set, "great of strength"
The ankh appears frequently in Egyptian tomb paintings and other art, often at the fingertips of a god or goddess in images that represent the deities of the afterlife conferring the gift of life on the dead person's mummy; this is thought to symbolize the act of conception. Additionally, an ankh was often carried by Egyptians as an amulet, either alone, or in connection with two other hieroglyphs that mean "strength" and "health". Mirrors of beaten metal were also often made in the shape of an ankh, either for decorative reasons or to symbolize a perceived view into another world.
A symbol similar to the ankh appears frequently in Minoan and Mycenaean sites. This is a combination of the sacral knot (symbol of holiness) with the double-edged axe (symbol of matriarchy) but it can be better compared with the Egyptian tyet which is similar. This symbol can be recognized on the two famous figurines of the chthonian Snake Goddess discovered in the palace of Knossos. Both snake goddesses have a knot with a projecting loop cord between their breasts. In the Linear B (Mycenean Greek) script, ankh is the phonetic sign za.
Crux ansata in Codex Glazier
The ankh also appeared frequently in coins from ancient Cyprus and Asia Minor (particularly the city of Mallus in Cilicia). In some cases, especially with the early coinage of King Euelthon of Salamis, the letter ku, from the Cypriot syllabary, appeared within the circle ankh, representing Ku(prion) (Cypriots). To this day, the ankh is also used to represent the planet Venus (the namesake of which, the goddess Venus or Aphrodite, was chiefly worshipped on the island) and the metal copper (the heavy mining of which gave Cyprus its name).
David P. Silverman notes how the depiction of the ancient Egyptian ankh was preserved by the Copts in their representation of the Christian cross, the coptic cross.