Thoth baptizes a pharaoh with ankhs
Thoth baptizes a pharaoh with a stream of ankhs in a relief from Philae, Egypt. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Museum label: Cornice block, A.D. 41-68, Sandstone, From Philae This block originally formed part of a screen wall that connected the four front columns and sidewalls of the Temple of Harendotes ("Horus the Avenger") on the island of Philae. The relief represents the "baptism of Pharaoh," a purification ritual that was part of Egyptian coronation ceremonies. The gods Horus (not preserved) and the ibis-headed Thoth poured water -- here represented by streams of ankh (life) and was (dominion) hieroglyphs -- over the head of the king. The pharaoh whose head is partially preserved is a Claudian emperor most probably either Claudius or Nero.
Definition: ankh
(Egyptian `nh, "life" or "breath of life"; Latin crux ansata, "handle-shaped cross"). Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph and symbol of life, immortality, fertility, and the sun.

The ankh (Egyptian 'nh, "life" or "breath of life"; also Nem Ank, "key of life") is an Egyptian hieroglyph and symbol consisting of a cross with a loop in place of an upper vertical. It is also known as the crux ansata (Latin, "handle-shaped cross") and the "cross of life."

The ankh is an ancient and central symbol in Egyptian art, representing life, immortality, fertility, the sun, light, and the key to the afterlife or mystic secrets. Because of its close association with the sun it is traditionally painted or crafted in gold, never silver (which represents the moon).

In Egyptian art, gods and pharaohs are shown holding an ankh to symbolize immortality and their power over life and death. The goddess Isis is especially associated with the symbol. The dead are also shown carrying an ankh when their souls are about to be weighed or are boarding the boat into the afterlife, indicating that they seek immortality from the gods.

The ankh symbol resembles a key, especially when held upside down, and was thus called Nem Ank ("key of life"). It was held upside down by its loop in funeral rites, symbolizing the gate from the tomb into immortality. When placed on the forehead, between the eyes, the ankh symbolizes the key to mysteries that the initiate must not reveal.

The precise origin of the ankh hieroglyph is unknown, but its shape may derive from:

  • the sun coming over the horizon
  • the union of Heaven and Earth
  • the sun (macrocosm) combined with a human figure (microcosm)
  • the Tree of Life
  • the union of male and female sexual attributes
  • the tjet ("knot of Isis", a ceremonial girdle symbolizing fertility) .

The Ankh as Christian Symbol

In the 4th century, Coptic Christians adopted the Egyptian ankh as a symbol of their faith. (Until then, the fish was the primary symbol of Christianity.) The ankh connects a cross, recalling Christ's sacrifice, with the ankh and its loop, representing eternal life, making it an apt symbol of Christianity. This repurposing of the ankh may be the origin of the cross as a Christian symbol.

Sources & Further Reading

  1. Joshua J. Mark. "The Ankh." Ancient History Encyclopedia. 19 Sep 2016. Accessed 5 Feb 2021.