Ankh, a Divine Symbol; “The Key of Life.”


The ankh or key of life is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol used in Egyptian art and writing to represent the word for “life” and, by extension, as a symbol of life itself. The ankh has a cross shape but a teardrop-shaped loop in place of a vertical upper bar. Although many hypotheses have been proposed, the symbol’s origins are unknown. It was used in writing as a triliteral sign, representing a sequence of three consonants, Ꜥ-n-ḫ. This sequence was found in several Egyptian words, including the words meaning “mirror”, “floral bouquet”, and “life”.

The god Horus offers life to the king, Ramesses II. By Tangopaso

However, the most agreed-upon, possibly “official” meaning of the Ankh symbol is “life.” It is also translated as “breath of life” and can be referred to as the “key of life.” Like many other civilizations, the Egyptians had a very developed idea of an afterlife.

Ankh-shaped mirror case from the tomb of Tutankhamun. By Nachbarnebenan

Here it is; A brilliant description of the almost tragic discovery by Marie Grillot, with heartfelt thanks.

An Ankh Sign from the Abode of the Eternity of Amenhotep II


Ankh sign – blue enamel – XXVIII Dynasty – Egyptian Museum in Cairo – CG 24348 – JE 32491
and, right, bottom centre, among others from the tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35)
discovered in March 1898 by Victor Loret in the Valley of the Kings

In February 1898, Victor Loret continued his excavations in the Valley of the Kings. While he has just discovered the tomb of Tuthmosis III: “he is interested in the second unexplored zone of the Valley. He practised several soundings in the cliff overhanging the tomb n° 12, but without results. He then put his workers to work at the foot of the rock under the plumb of the terrace. At the beginning of March, he acquired the certainty that he was approaching the goal.” (John Romer, The Valley of the Kings).

His workers then discovered in the rubble an ushabti: “in the name of Amenhotep II, the son of Thutmose III whose tomb he had just opened. As many objects belonging to Amenophis II had invaded the markets of Egypt and Europe, he could not expect to find the monument intact.

Ankh sign – blue enamel – XXVIII Dynasty – Egyptian Museum in Cairo – CG 24348 – JE 32491

and, right, bottom centre, among others from the tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35)

discovered in March 1898 by Victor Loret in the Valley of the Kings

Certainly, the tomb has indeed been looted, but, despite this, the discovery will exceed anything he could imagine! This was not only the pharaoh’s eternal home, with his mummy, but it also contained a “hiding place”. In this KV 35 – which will also be called the “second hiding place” to dissociate it from the “first”, the DB320 – rested 17 royal mummies. They had been sheltered from burial rapists during the turbulent times that shook the city of Thebes around 1100 BC. (21st Dynasty).

Here were gathered an Areopagus of pharaohs, including Tuthmosis IV, Amenhotep III, Merenptah, Seti II, Siptah, Ramses IV, Ramses V, Ramses VI, and probably Setnakht. It also housed female mummies, including that of the “Young Lady (KV35YL), which is undoubtedly that of Nefertiti” (Marc Gabolde) and that of an “elder woman” who “could be the remains of Queen Tiyi”.

Original page of Victor Loret’s excavation notebook – Tomb of Amenophis II part 4

March 28, 1898 – Egyptology Archives of the University of Milan – Loret Fund

The funerary material delivered by this tomb is significant: accessories, clothing, food, jewellery, models, sculptures, statues, written documents, boats, etc. The floor of the burial chamber: “disappeared under a thick layer of broken objects, funerary statuettes in wood and alabaster, pottery, vases, garlands…”. Gaston Maspero’s story is just as uplifting. It confirms what he says: “The ground was hidden by a litter of debris, wooden statuettes of the king and various deities, ushabtis, crawling crosses, and a djed pillar of wood and blue earthenware, and a thousand other objects.”

These are more than: “two thousand pieces which removed from the monument, some were shattered into a thousand fragments; of many of them, only tiny pieces remained”.

In his highly documented study “Development of the burial assemblage of the Eighteenth dynasty Royal Tombs”, Nozomu Kawai lists the amulets that accompanied Pharaoh Amenhotep II: “22 earthenware ankh crosses, an earthenware was-sceptre, 100 earthenware fruit symbols, 19 earthenware serpent heads, 39 ankh crosses and 36 wooden Djed pillars. Ritual objects from the same tomb include 11 staffs earthenware with wedjat eyes, wooden boomerangs, ‘snake sticks’ and wooden axes called ‘nw’.”

Ankh sign – blue enamel – XXVIII Dynasty
Provenance: The tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35) discovered in March 1898 by Victor Loret
Registered in the Diary of Entries of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo JE 32491 and in the General Catalog CG 24348

This ankh cross in deep blue glazed earthenware is one of the most beautiful of those found in the hypogeum. Slender, elegant and fragile, with a very original “cutout” in the “branches”, it is 42 cm high, and its width is 21 cm.

It is referenced CG 24348 (JE 32491) and, in the “General Catalog of Egyptian Antiquities of the Cairo Museum – Excavations of the Valley of the Kings (1898-1899)”, Georges Daressy describes it as follows: “Sign of life in blue enamelled clay, broken in antiquity into nine pieces. The two pieces constituting the handle were in contact with fat which soaked them and made the enamel appear green. The section of the branches is rectangular or square. Both sides are decorated with darker lines because the enamel is thicker on these lines engraved under the glaze. There are two lines on the foot and at the ends of the branches. There is only one on the handle and a series of vertical lines in the middle of the transverse component. The enamel of beautiful colour, but poorly cooked, showing traces of adhesion, bubbles and cracks.”

Present from the earliest antiquity, the ankh is undoubtedly the most famous Sign of pharaonic Egypt. It is, in fact, the hieroglyphic Sign which signifies life, which makes it a “must-have” of the iconography of Egyptian antiquity.

Ankh sign – blue enamel – XXVIII Dynasty
Provenance: The tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35) discovered in March 1898 by Victor Loret
Registered in the Diary of Entries of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo JE 32491 and in the General Catalog CG 24348

The ankh is often called the cross of life or the ansate cross. It is found as an amulet, but it is just as present on the walls of tombs, temples, on the walls of sarcophagi, or even in statuary. Gods and Goddesses hold it in their hands or hold it out to the deceased to bring him back to life. In an article published in the BIFAO 11 of 1911, Gustave Jéquier specifies: “It is a divine attribute, an insignia that the Gods and Goddesses always hold in hand by the loop. Although direct descendant and successor of the gods, the king is not yet equal as long as he reigns over the earth. Thus, he is not entitled to wear the ankh and only wears this insignia in certain religious ceremonies. where he officiates as a God.”

A goddess hands the ankh (surrounded by two “ouas” sceptres) to Pharaoh Seti I in his temple of Abydos.

Isabelle Franco indicates that: “the Texts of the Sarcophagi recall that life can be assimilated to Shou, the vital breath coming from the sun. By extension, all the gods, as instruments of creation, can give life-like Re”.

As for Jean-Pierre Corteggiani, in his dictionary “Ancient Egypt and its Gods”, he sheds light on this Sign: “The exact nature of the sign-ankh improperly called cross ansée key or cross of life. Because its shape of T surmounted by a loop allowed the Copts to reinterpret it as a form Egyptian cross of Christ in the first centuries of the Christian era, it has given rise to many hypotheses. Some refused to see a real object in it; others wanted to recognize the sandal’s straps, the buckle surrounding the ankle; others still understood it as a penis sheath. The essential element of the Sign seems to be the central knot that cannot be ignored in the oldest representations. And this brings it closer to the knot of Isis: it is probably the neckline and the frontal opening of ‘a garment closed by two ties tied on the chest.

The Ankh sign – blue enamel – XXVIII Dynasty – Egyptian Museum in Cairo – CG 24348 – JE32491

bottom centre among others from the tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35)

discovered in March 1898 by Victor Loret in the Valley of the Kings

Various interpretations have been issued: “The mystical tau representing the diffusion of the divine spirit, and others a key serving to regulate the floods of the Nile, a vase placed on an altar, a degeneration of the winged globe, a phallus” ( Gustave Jéquier), or, for still others, a mirror, a belt buckle, etc.

The ankh was part of the funerary material: it accompanied the deceased, providing him with protection in the afterlife; it also had to help him reborn.

Frieze of ankh, djed, and was signs atop the hieroglyph for “all”
The signs ‘ankh’, ‘ouas’ and ‘djed’, resting on the basket ‘neb.’,
Temple of Queen Hatshepsut – Deir el-Bahari

She also often appears accompanied by the “was” sceptre and the “djed” pillar. Thus Christiane Desroches Noblecourt tells us: “The ankh and ouas signs are often associated. The dead pharaoh, but who is a candidate for rebirth, goes towards a deity, most of the time female, who makes him breathe, in his nose, the ankh and ouas signs which give him life, thus representing divine milk.

While being well known and recognized, the “ankh” sign, as we see, still raises many questions…

We leave the concluding words to Gustave Jéquier: “What could be the primitive meaning of this kind of talisman? We have seen that, held in hand by gods and deified kings, it symbolizes the divine life, and that on the other hand, if simple individuals do not have the right to wear it, they have it represented in the middle of their funerary furniture. In the sarcophagi, it is painted, in principle, at the feet of the dead. With the unambiguous indication ‘on the ground, under the feet’. Elsewhere, we find the expression (…) “the ankh of the two lands” as if it were an object related to the cult of the chthonic (or funerary?) deities, or instead to the protection of Earth. The purpose of the object would therefore have been, initially, to protect things, then people, and finally would have become the emblem of those who enjoy perfect protection, the gods and, to a certain extent, the dead. : The single idea must have evolved at a particular time in two different directions, and depending on whether it was a question of the super-terrestrial life of the gods or the survival of souls, the use of the object itself became absolutely different, the gods alone having the right to hold it in their hands. In religious language, these two meanings always remained very distinct. In contrast, in ordinary language, the meaning of the word ankh was considerably simplified and applied to life in general, life on Earth, and life after death. And this meaning is perhaps still the one that comes closest to the primordial idea of the talisman (ankh), which was to guarantee life to whoever had it in his possession.

Marie Grillot


Dictionary of Egyptian Mythology, Isabelle Franco, Pygmalion 1999
Ancient Egypt and its gods – Illustrated dictionary, Jean-Pierre Corteggiani, Fayard 2007
Ruins and Landscapes of Egypt, Gaston Maspero, 1910
The complete Valley of the kings, Nicholas Reeves, Richard H. Wilkinson, The American University in Cairo Press, 2002
History of the Valley of the Kings, John Romer, Vernal – Philippe Lebaud, 1991 “General Catalog of Egyptian Antiquities in the Cairo Museum N° 24001-24990 – Excavations of the Valley of the Kings (1898-1899)“, Fasc. 1”, Georges Daressy, 1902

The ânkh and shen talismans ”, Gustave Jéquier, BIFAO 11 (1911), p. 121-143

Development of the burial assemblage of the Eighteenth dynasty Royal Tombs” , Nozomu Kawai

Treasures of Ancient Egypt at Cairo Museum, National Geographic

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