The Egyptian Ankh, “Life! Health! Strength!” – Part 2

(Continued from Part 1, which has been updated)

As I mentioned in Part 1, the more interesting aspects of the Egyptian ankh are not necessarily what it means standing alone, but how the Egyptians used it in their texts and illustrations.

There are three principal ways that the Egyptians used the ankh symbol, by itself, in their drawings:

  1. Detail from Papyrus of Ani - a god leads the initiate towards the throne (click for larger view)Probably the most common depiction of the ankh is being clutched in the hand by the gods and goddesses on the upper loop portion of the symbol.  Wikipedia notes:

    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…1

    In other words, the Egyptians believed that their gods “held” eternal life in their hands, and could bestow it upon certain persons at their pleasing.  Chevalier and Gheerbrant note: 

    Gods, kinks and Isis (almost invariably) are depicted holding the ankh to show that they command the powers of life and death and that they are immortal. The dead also carry it at the time their souls are weighed  or when they are aboard the Boat of the Sun God, as a sign that they seek this same immortality from the gods. Furthermore the ankh symbolized the spring from which flowed divine virtues and the elixir of immortality. Therefore to hold the ankh was to drink from that well. It was sometimes held upside down by the loop – especially in funeral rites when it suggested the shape of a key and in reality was the key which opened the  gateway of the tomb into the Fields of Aalu, the realm of eternity. Sometimes the ankh is placed on the forehead, between the eyes, and then it symbolizes the duty of the adept to keep secret the mystery into which he has been initiated – it is the key which locks these secrets away from the uninitiated. Blessed by the supreme vision, endowed with clairvoyance to pierce the veil of the beyond, he cannot attempt to reveal the mystery without losing it for ever.2

  2. Horus and Thoth purify pharaoh with ankh symbols - Temple of Amenhotep II at Amada, Nubia, ca. 1420 B.C. (click for larger view)The act of giving the ankh to the king or pharaoh is also depicted, in two different ways.  First, it is shown in the introductory baptism or purification ritual of the king, where he receives a type of washing and anointing by the gods pouring the life-giving water over him, represented by ankh symbols.  Hugh Nibley explains:

    But water does more than purify—it gives life, literally, to all organisms; the water of life is a worldwide concept. “The ramifications of the subject are enormous,” Gardiner observes.  There is no mistaking the meaning of the little ankh (life) symbols which pour from the sacred vases in Egyptian baptismal scenes such as in the temple of Ramses II at Karnak, which shows the king being baptized with ankh and was (divine power) symbols as he enters the temple and which bears the inscription, “Water for his father, that life might be given to him.”3

    Here is another representation of the same.

  3. Left: Nefertari receives life from Isis; Right: Amenhotep II receives life from Anubis. (click for larger view)The second way the ankh is given to the Egyptian royalty was by the god or goddess holding the symbol to their mouth or nose.  One commenter notes:

    We find Anqet, Ptah,  Satet, Sobek,  Tefnut, Osiris, Ra, Isis,  Hathor,  Anibus and many other gods often holding the ankh sign, along with a scepter, and in various tomb and temple reliefs, placing it in front of the king’s face to symbolize the breath of eternal life.4

    So in this sense, the god or goddess is bestowing or endowing the king, queen, or pharaoh with eternal life, or breath of life, by touching the ankh to their nose or lips.  What is interesting, as we’ve shown in part 1, is that the ankh also represents an “utterance of life” or an oath, symbolized by the binding of the knot, and as such also possibly depicts the god or initiate at the same time uttering words of eternal life, or making an oath or covenant in order to gain eternal life.

The House of Life in Papyrus Salt 825 (click for a larger view)Hugh Nibley noted that the ankh symbol was also used to represent the gods or goddesses.  In describing the Egyptian House of Life he wrote:

The four houses that are the main part of the prehistoric cult-complex of Papyrus Salt 825 stand for Shu, Tefnut, Geb, and Nut—”that is to say, the four oldest gods, proceeding forth from the demiurge, who are here wind, fire, earth, and sky, the four elements of which life is comprised.” The four houses—with Osiris squarely in the middle of them, represented by the ankh-symbol—make up the House of Life, which seems to go back to an old tent or reed hut of purification.5

Those that received the ankh were basically receiving the gods, and the rights, powers, and associations of the same:

There can be no doubt, Morenz insists, that the Osirianized dead receives the full status of godhood—indeed, that “to be divine (Göttlich-Sein) is the characteristic quality of the ba of the deceased.” Hence washing, anointing, censing, clothing, and nourishing are all rituals of deification, whether in the temple or the funerary services. The resurrection process is, in short, a deification process.6

In the next part we will explore how the ankh was used in combination with other hieroglyphics, which gives us a glimpse of the substance of what was perhaps spoken by the god and the initiate as eternal life was bestowed.

(Continued in Part 3)

  1. []
  2. A Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, translated from the French by John Buchan-Brown, Blackwell, 1994 (the French edition was originally published by Éditions Robert Laffront S.A. in 1969, 2nd ed. 1982). []
  3. Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., 142. []
  4. []
  5. Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., 227. []
  6. Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed., 228. []

One Comment

  1. Posted June 22, 2008 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Bryce! There’s that deification process turning up again! The ancients just couldn’t let go of that idea, could they? I don’t know what they saw in it… :) Excellent research!

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *


Olark Livehelp