The ankh (Egyptian hieroglyph 'nh, "life" or "breath of life"; also Nem Ank, "key of life") is 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, the key to the afterlife or mystic secrets, fertility, the sun, and light. Because of its close association with the sun it is traditionally drawn 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 also resembles a key, especially when held upside down; thus 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.