The ankh (pronounced 'ahnk') was the
Egyptian hieroglyphic character that stood
for the word ,
which means life. Gods may carry it by
the loop, or bear one in each hand crossed
over their breast. Latinists interpreted
the symbol as a crux ansata, "cross
with a handle".
What it was intended to represent remains
a mystery to Egyptologists. Some have
speculated that it was a stylized womb.
Sir Alan Gardiner speculated that it represented a sandal
strap, with the loop going around the
ankle. The word for sandal strap was also
although it may have been pronounced differently.
No single hypothesis has yet been widely
The ankh appears frequently in Egyptian tomb paintings and
other art; it often appears 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. The
ankh symbol was often carried by Egyptians as an amulet, either
alone, or in connection with two other hieroglyphs that mean
"strength" and "health." Mirrors were
often made in the shape of an ankh. Sometimes, in art, the
Ankh was shown being touched by a god onto a person, which
usually symbolised conception.
A similar symbol
was used to represent the Roman goddess Venus. This symbol,
known benignly as Venus' hand-mirror, is much more associated
with a representation of the female womb. In astrology the
same symbol is used to represent the planet Venus, in alchemy
to represent the element copper, and in biology to identify
the female sex.
The importance of the Ankh, and its symbolism
to the Egyptians, lead to it being adopted
by the early Christian church in Egypt
(which eventually became the Coptic Church).
Elsewhere, the main christian symbol at
the time was a stylised alpha, resembling
a fish, and therefore known as Ichthys,
the Greek word for fish. However, the
symbol of a cross eventually spread throughout
Christianity, and the distinct circular
part of the Ankh was kept well into mediaeval
times, the Ankh symbol often being used
as a Christian talisman.
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