The Meaning of Ankh: What It Is and How To Use It

Do you know the definition of ankh? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word ankh, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

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What is an ankh?

According to Cleopatra Egypt Tours, NPS, Merriam-Webster, and World History Encyclopedia, an ankh is a cross that has a loop for its upper vertical arm. The pronunciation of ankh is äŋk.

The ankh is also known as the Egyptian cross, and was originally an Egyptian hieroglyph that was used to represent the word life. The ankh soon became an Egyptian symbol of Life. The ankh was placed on the lips of dead pharaohs by ancient Egyptians when they were buried, which signifies the mentality of ancient Egypt in which death was not the end, but a transition to eternal life in the afterlife. In the ancient Egyptian religion, they put a lot of work into their tombs and had strong connections with many an Egyptian god and goddess, from Osiris and Isis to the God of the underworld. They believed in resurrection and physical life after death in the underworld. The ankh is also known as “the Key of the Nile” of the key of life, and represents the union of heaven and earth. The gods were often depicted in tombs giving ankh signs to humans.

While there is no singular meaning for this symbol, it and its variations have been used by different religions and cultures throughout history that have given it different meanings. For the Egyptians, it was a symbol of immortality as well as life. It has also been interpreted as a system of balance between opposing forces, such as femininity and masculinity, and can represent joy, stability, fertility and energy. People think that the vertical cross bar represents the path of the sun, the horizontal bar represents the horizon, and the hoop represents the sun.

Regarding fertility and life, some scholars believe that it is a symbol of sexual union. They think that the T in the lower part represents the male sexual attributes and that the handle of the cross represents a woman’s uterus or pubis, or ceremonial girdles. This combination of male and female is one other possible interpretation. 

Early Christians and Coptic Christians adapted the ankh into the “crux ansata,” which is a shape with a circular rather than oval loop. They used it as a variant of the Christian cross to represent what Jesus dies on. This began in the 4th century CE. They began using the symbol as a symbol of Christ’s promise of everlasting life. The early Christians of Rome also used fertility symbols in their faith. You might see this today in the form of a fish. Most other people in the Christian faith would not use a different cross as a symbol, and would consider it blasphemous.

Nowadays, you might see the ancient Egyptian symbol used in jewelry in daily life, such as necklaces, an amulet, or on ankh pendants. This popular symbol might even be seen formed by sandal straps. This recognizable symbol from ancient Egypt has existed since the early dynastic period. 

Many different languages also contain their own words for ankk. You may notice that a lot of these translations look similar to the Egyptian word. These are called cognates, which are words and phrases that look and sound similar between or across languages. These are often formed when words have the same root or language of origin. List of translations of ankh is provided by Word Sense.

  •  Afrikaans: anch‎, ankh‎
  •  German: Anch‎
  •  Korean: 앙크‎ (angkeu)
  •  Turkish: ankh‎, nil’in anahtarı‎
  •  Japanese: アンク‎ (anku)
  •  Polish: anch‎ (masc.) ankh‎ (masc.)
  •  Spanish: anj‎ (masc.)
  •  Danish: hankekors‎ (neut.), ankh‎
  •  Czech: anch‎ (masc.), nilský kříž‎ (masc.)
  •  Russian: анх‎ (masc.), анкх‎ (masc.)
  •  French: ankh‎ (masc.), ânkh‎ (masc.)
  •  Esperanto: anĥo‎
  •  Hawaiian: ʻānaka‎
  •  Swedish: ankh‎
  •  Georgian: ანკხი‎
  •  Arabic: عَنْخ‎ (masc.)
  •  Finnish: ankh‎
  •  Mandarin: T形十字章‎ (T xíng shízì zhāng), 生命之符‎ (shēng mìng zhī fú)
  •  Portuguese: ankh‎ (masc.)
  •  Hungarian: ankh‎
  •  Azeri: anx‎ 

According to Discovering Egypt, the Gardiner list contains over 1100 hieroglyphic illustrations, with over 450 Egyptian words and 650 hieroglyphs. There are four different categories of hieroglyphic symbols. First, they are alphabetic signs that represent a single sound. Next, syllabic signs represent a combination of two or three different consonants. Third, there are word signs which are pictures of objects that are used as the words for those objects. These symbols are followed by an upright stroke to indicate that it is a complete word. Finally, there are signs called determinate is. These are pictures of an object that help the reader to understand an abstract idea. 

When Byzantine emperor Theodosius I closed the pagan temples in AD 391, the message of the ancient Egyptian language was lost for over a thousand years. With the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, we were able to discover more about ancient Egyptian society and language. The ancient Egyptian language system was developed almost 4,000 years BCE and they also had a complex decimal system of numeration. The Egyptians called hieroglyphs the words of God and these were used mainly by the priests. These complex systems were written in rows or columns and can either be read from left to right or right to left. You can determine which direction it is supposed to be red because of the direction that the symbols are facing. They always face towards the beginning of the line. 

Overall, the word ankh refers to an Ancient Egyptian symbol of life. This symbol has been used for many centuries to represent life, fertility, and many other things in ancient Egyptian religion. It has even been co-opted by some Christian groups to be a secondary representation of the cross that Christ died on.

Sources:

  1. The Ankh Symbol – The facts & meaning of the Egyptian Cross | Cleopatra Egypt Tours 
  2. ANKH – Egyptian Symbol of Life – African Burial Ground National Monument | US National Park Service
  3. Ankh | Definition of Ankh | Merriam-Webster 
  4. The Ankh | World History Encyclopedia 
  5. ankh: meaning, origin, translation | Word Sense 
  6. Egyptian Hieroglyphic Alphabet | discoveringegypt.com