The ankh was used as an emblem and appears as one of the most powerful cultural and religious symbols of Pharaonic Egypt. It outlived the fall of Ancient Egyptian culture and occurred even on Christian (Coptic) monuments, probably because its shape is similar to the Christian cross. The ankh was also a sign in monumental hieroglyphic as well as the cursive (hieratic, demotic) writing with the phonetical value *ankh.
The Egyptian word ankh means "life", "to live". This meaning already explains the high symbolic value of the sign. The pictorial sign ankh represents originally some kind of loop, although probably not a sandal-strip as occasionally assumed. One may speculate about the significance of knots as symbols, but this "etymological" origin was probably irrelevant for most Egyptians.
The scene with a god presenting ankh to Pharaoh's nose (i.e. Pharaoh as the representative of mankind) was depicted from the early third millennium onwards. So ankh-life was seen as a gift of the gods for mankind. It was not restricted to one specific god, and some gods were called "lord of life". The concept of ankh was particularly relevant in the sacral sphere (temple-scenes and funerary texts). It was also used in wishes in letters ("might you live ...") or in oaths ("as Pharao NN lives for me ..."). There are thousands of representations of ankh, not only in writing or in pictures, but even in the form of ankh-shaped objects, especially mirrors or mirror-cases, such as those from the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The picture shows two mirror-cases from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Detail of H. Burton photo. 1713. Copyright Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
© Ludwig Morenz 2001
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