The Egyptian Ankh: The Symbol of Life and More
Ankh! Wda! Snb! = Life! Strength! Health!
These three words are an ancient Egyptian phrase that beautifully sums up the philosophy of an entire civilization. These three important parts of existence and happiness — life, strength, and health — were the foundation of the ancient Egyptian mindset and are present in almost everything that the Egyptians put forth into the world. They ended correspondences with these words, carved and painted them on stone walls and probably enthusiastically bade them to each other when meeting and parting.
“Live,” the first of these three words were represented by the Egyptian Ankh, one of the most iconic symbols of the ancient world.
This symbol is globally known and is usually translated as “life.” There are other Ankh meanings and it has great depth behind it, something that becomes more obvious after pondering the culture itself and how life was viewed.
Ankh Meanings: The Ankh as a Hieroglyphic Symbol
The Ankh is a triliteral sign. This means that the symbol itself is an abbreviation of three sounds, in this case, a, n and kh. The word, “Ankh,” maybe fully written out using the symbols of all the sounds. It was more convenient to simply use the Ankh symbol alone. This convention is common to Ancient Egyptian and many hieroglyphs are triliteral and bilateral. There are also hieroglyphs that are known as determinatives, symbols designed to express the meaning of a specific word, removing ambiguity. It strikes me that there are similarities between determinatives in hieroglyphics and the use of emojis in modern communication.
An ongoing source of controversy is what the Ankh is actually supposed to be. Many hieroglyphs are easy to trace to their origins in the real world, such as a bull, or a bird. It’s important to note that this does not necessarily mean that they actually represent that thing in meaning. This fact was the source of many mistranslations of Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the days preceding the discovery, and subsequent translation, of the Rosetta Stone, as it was easy to misread a symbol as one thing when it was quite another. For example, a hieroglyph of a horned viper, a seemingly malevolent image, is the ancient Egyptian word for father, and the vulture glyph, a word for mother.
Hieroglyphics often spelled out words by sound. This means that sometimes a symbol is read not as a contextual bit of knowledge, but as part of a word, exactly as our letters are also parts of words. They can be, however, more than that. The letter B can be spelled BEE, BE, B, or BEA. One means to exist, another conjures up an image of an insect, and another is a proper name, or it’s just a sound used to create a bigger word.
Hieroglyphs can be misleading. Sometimes a glyph is exactly what it appears to be, the ear of a cow, for example, implying topics related to hearing. Other times, it might have a deep and philosophical function, or a meaning that would be nearly impossible to understand without knowing the society and having first-hand knowledge of where the image originated.
What Does the Ankh Mean?
There are still many questions regarding what certain hieroglyphs actually represent in the real world. Controversy still exists around the Ankh and probably will for a long time to come. It has been identified as a sandal strap, the bottom part fitting between the toes and the loop around the ankle. I’ve never believed that theory, although it might be correct. Others have considered it to be a bouquet of flowers, or a flower itself. Some consider it to be anatomically based, as a simple drawing of both male and female genitalia. Some have seen a person with their arms outstretched, bestowing a blessing. The word Ankh means life, but how can you draw such a concept?
I have my own idea as to what the Ankh is. I don’t have space here to expand on my theory, but I may have solved it, and then again, I could be completely wrong. That’s the beauty of studying ancient cultures. We all get a chance to weigh in and try to figure out what was what and why. In fact, that’s one of the great joys of metaphysics. We all have an opportunity to put our own theories forth, and as long as we do so with a willingness and understanding of the near-certainty of being contradicted, we’re doing something that’s exciting and always beneficial. When we explore, thinking for ourselves without fear, we broaden the horizon toward a new frontier of thought.
Akhenaten and the Ankh
The Ankh became incredibly important during the reign of Amenhotep IV, also known as Akhenaton. He was a New Kingdom monarch and ruled during the mid-1300s, BCE. His wife, Nefertiti, and son-in-law/son, Tutankhamun (his name meaning “Living Image of Amen”), are amongst the most famous Egyptians of all time. They held the Ankh, or what it represented, in great esteem.
Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten, decided that the other gods of Egypt were but a manifestation of Aten, the disk of the sun. He created a state religion, based upon that hypothesis and belief that life-force energies in all aspects emanated directly from the sun disk. His belief was heretical and unpopular with the priests of Amen, as well as much of the population. The priests, who were powerful and ran Thebes in a tight theocracy, were hostile to Akhenaten’s new religion.
Akhenaton eventually moved his capital away from Thebes, to a spot in the desert, and built a new city named Akhetaten (Horizon of Aten) so he could begin over again, far from the temples of the former state deity, Amen. This subculture is called Amarna, due to its presence in a location now known as Tel El Amarna. In many artworks from the Amarna period, the royal family is shown beneath the sun, being caressed by its rays, each terminating in a hand, some of them holding Ankhs, implying the Sun as the giver of life.
For more on the esoteric meaning of Egyptian symbols watch this episode of Ancient Civilizations
Other Meanings of Ankh
One of the most beautiful depictions of an Ankh was found in the burial artifacts of King Tutankhamen. It happens to be a mirror designed in the form of the Ankh, a wonderful play on words, as the word for mirror is actually Ankh. The Qabalistic work of Gematria numerology shows how similarities between words imply that they all share something, a bond that can reveal the essential meaning behind each of them. With this in mind, what do the following have in common: to swear, a mirror, life and to live? They’re all the word Ankh. Let’s include in this a remarkable candle holder found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, an Ankh with two arms outstretched from it to hold a candle, and meaning begins to develop.
What is the common thread? For me, it’s the understanding of the beauty and blessing of life, itself. Those of us who seek more than the usual, swear to live their lives consciously, looking in the mirror of truth to always keep an eye on who, what and where they are on the journey, being ruthlessly honest with themselves and hopefully, bringing the light of life to the world. Life is an immense gift, and like flowers on a spring day, it will eventually lose its color and return to nature. Life is for living and embracing the light that it bestows. Sadly, so many miss the message of life or discover it too late. We are alive now! Look in your mirror every day and see your truth. You’re alive and you matter every moment.
The Ankh and the Summer of Love
The Ankh made a huge resurgence of popularity during The Summer of Love. I’m not sure how the Ankh became so popular in the 60s, but I do have a thought as to why. It became a symbol of the counterculture, an ancient amulet worn around the neck in the place of a more traditional symbol of membership. During that unsettled time, it became a link to a simpler age and to a culture that loved beauty, poetry, music, life, and nature.
The ancient Egyptians created beautiful and awe-inspiring monuments, embraced humanity and had a pantheon of deities that genuinely seemed to love humans.
Drawings of dancing girls and musicians on tomb walls, flowers around their necks with scented wax in their hair, excited the senses and spoke to the imaginations of Hippies and other adventurous souls. Tables laden with food, intoxicating wines, beer and lotus flowers, all staples of the ancient Egyptian culture, connected with a generation seeking enlightenment and ecstasy. The mysteries of the ages have long been attributed to the Egyptians, and the seekers of light were intent on finding their share of those wonders. The Ankh was all of this and more.
The Ankh and Energy
Most who wore an Ankh didn’t know its depth of philosophy, or it’s true essence, but they felt it to be peaceful and an entrance to another way of thinking. Some called it The Key of Life. Some called it The Crux Ansata (cross with handle).
Most noticed that the Egyptian gods and goddesses held them and bestowed blessings with the Ankh.
A few even noticed that an Ankh has its own intrinsic energy, one that may never be measured by science, but is constantly measured by the soul. The Ankh is everywhere. It can be seen in necklaces, rings, pendants, bracelets, tattoos, paintings, statues and in many other forms. All you have to do is look.
It’s interesting to note who is drawn to the Ankh. Over the years, It’s seemed to me that more women are drawn to it than men. There’s definitely a feminine energy about the Ankh, a peacefulness and protective quality. Of course, life is bestowed on an individual through birth, a gift from our mothers. Some have associated the Ankh with the buckle of Isis, a symbol that although similar, isn’t the same. There’s a gentle energy to the Ankh, one that needs to be investigated personally, individually and calmly.
Decades ago, I taught a class, during which a couple each held two large brass Ankhs in their hands the entire time they were in the classroom. They had been beautifully homemade and the couple believed them to channel the divine energy of learning and teaching, helping me to teach and the students to receive. Who knows?
The Ankh and an Appreciation of Life
The Egyptians loved life. Some have thought that this creative civilization was obsessed with death, but I beg to differ. The Egyptians were totally obsessed with life and did everything in their power to permit it to continue uninterrupted, to last for eternity. To me, this is the true meaning of the Ankh. It is a recognition of the powerful beauty of the gift of life, like blooming flowers, temporary but vibrant in colors and aromas, alive and glorious in the moment and meant to be appreciated in the now.
You are meant to be appreciated. Your life is meant to to be embraced. Look into your mirror, your Ankh, and see your life, vigorous, vital and filled with dynamic energy.
Feel your thoughts as they heat your mind with excitement. Pledge to live every day as fully and dynamically as possible. Embody the exhilaration of being here now, being unique, being you.
Life! Strength! Health! Until next time, I wish you all peace and love.
Of Egyptian heritage, Mo has been a student of the mysteries for over fifty years and has been a professional consultant for over thirty. His intensive studies have encompassed Tarot, Vedic Astrology,
I-Ching, Hermetic Qabalism, Runes and numerous other spiritual systems. Mo’s lifelong quest into all things metaphysical has provided him with a powerful intuition and accurate tools with which he has guided thousands of clients worldwide. Mo specializes in providing clarity and helping the seeker in making solid decisions or forging new paths in life. He’s well known for his sound relationship counseling and has a reputation for providing gentle guidance without sugar coating the hard issues. A Master of his art, he believes in empowering his clients, not encouraging codependency. Mo believes in finding solutions to problems and is dedicated to helping each and every client maximize their relationships, enjoy their work in life and discover their path. As a teacher, Mo has taught thousands in the proper use of Tarot, astrology and other divination methods. His guided meditations provide a proven approach for attaining a sense of inner peace in our hectic times.