AskDefine | Define ankh

User Contributed Dictionary



Egyptian ‘nkh "life"



  1. A cross shaped like a T with a loop at the top, the Egyptian hieroglyph representing the word "life" and often used as an amulet or charm for this concept. Also known as an ansate cross.

Extensive Definition

The ankh (symbol ) was the Egyptian hieroglyphic character that read "life". Egyptian gods are often portrayed carrying it by its loop, or bearing one in each hand, arms crossed over their chest. It is also known as the Egyptian Cross, the key of life, the key of the Nile, or as crux ansata, Latin for "cross with a handle".


The precise origin of the symbol remains a mystery to Egyptologists, and no single hypothesis has been widely accepted. E. A. Wallis Budge thought it might have 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 as ties on ceremonial girdles. Sir Alan Gardiner speculated that it represented a sandal strap, with the loop going around the ankle. The word for sandal strap was also spelled , although it may have been pronounced differently.
Still other theories include the notion that the ankh represents the sun crowning over the horizon, the path of the sun from east to west (with the loop representing the Nile), a stylized person, or that it is a combination of the male and female symbols of Osiris (the cross) and Isis (the oval) respectively, and therefore signifies the union of heaven and earth.
In their 2004 book "The Quick and the Dead", Andrew H. 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"
Over time, the ankh has come to symbolize life and immortality, the universe, power and life-giving air and water. Its keylike shape has also encouraged the belief it could unlock the gates of death, and it is viewed this way by the modern Rosicrucians and other hermetic orders. The Coptic Christians have used it as a symbol of life after death.The design for the pin symbolizing membership in Wolf's Head Society, Yale University, sets a wolf's head on an inverted ankh.


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" (see explication of Djed and Was, above). 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.
The ankh was almost never drawn in silver; as a sun-symbol, the Egyptians almost invariably crafted important examples of it (for tombs or other purposes) from the metal they most associated with the sun, gold. A similar metal such as copper, burnished to a high sheen, was also sometimes used.
The ankh was popularized in modern times as "the cross of life" in the film The Egyptian, where Akhenaten's cult of Atenism is portrayed as a religion containing proto-Christian ideas. Since the 1960s it has been a popular symbol within various cultural movements: (Hippie, Goth), cinema (Logan's Run, The Hunger), comic books (Sandman, Doctor Fate), musical groups (Kiss, Elvis Presley, The 69 Eyes,Nile (band), Iced Earth, Earth, Wind and Fire), television shows (Yu-Gi-Oh!) and video games (Tomb Raider, Ultima, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, Ankh).
Vinnie Vincent, the former lead guitarist of KISS used to wear a face paint on stage picturing a Ankh symbol. The idea of wearing a Ankh came from the singer/rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley.
A stylized or modified ankh is a popular tattoo motif among many celebrities such as professional wrestlers Christopher Daniels and Edge, neo-soul/hip-hop artist Erykah Badu, pop music artist Anastacia and NBA stars such as Shaquille O'Neal and Dennis Rodman. A variety of consumer product lines have also come to be identified with the symbol; an example is professional skateboarder Mark Rogowski's "Ankh model" of skateboard.
The ankh also retains popularity among Neopagan religious and spiritual movements as a symbol for a variety of concepts relating to life, immortality and the occult.
The anorankh (an ankh wearing an anorak) was a semi-official Discworld fan symbol, made by Clarecraft, after the accidental misuse by one user of fan group alt.pratchett of 'anorak' to refer to an ankh.



  • Collier, Mark and Manley, Bill. How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: Revised Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  • The Way of Hermes: New Translations of The Corpus Heremticum and The Definitions of Hermes Trismegistus to Asclepius
  • The Kybalion
The Ankh is also considered to have meaning in Ritual magick and in Wiccan/Neopagan traditions, as a symbol of immortality and completion.

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ankh in Ukrainian: Анкх
ankh in Chinese: 生命之符

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Calvary cross, Christogram, Greek cross, Jerusalem cross, Latin cross, Maltese cross, Russian cross, T, X, avellan cross, chi, chi-rho, christcross, crisscross, cross, cross ancre, cross botonee, cross bourdonee, cross fitche, cross fleury, cross formee, cross fourchee, cross grignolee, cross moline, cross of Cleves, cross of Lorraine, cross patee, cross recercelee, cross-crosslet, crossbones, crosslet, crucifix, cruciform, crux, crux ansata, crux capitata, crux decussata, crux gammata, crux immissa, crux ordinaria, dagger, ex, exing, fork cross, gammadion, inverted cross, long cross, papal cross, pectoral cross, potent cross, rood, saltire, swastika, tau, trefled cross, voided cross
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