Ankh – Origin and meaning of the Egyptian cross over the years

The Egyptian cross, called the ankh, has its origin in thousands of years, but is still present in many cultures today.

Image Source – 123rf

Ankh is the name given to the Egyptian cross that carries a lot of meanings since it was created, the main one being immortality. It is because of this, even, that the drawing is present in a series of Egyptian engravings and hieroglyphs, from the 5th Dynasty.

The symbol was created by African peoples and is considered the first cross in history. In this way, the attribution of the cross to meanings such as life, death and even resurrection would have its origin from the ankh.

Drawings or reproductions of the Egyptian cross were placed in sarcophagi and tombs in order to guarantee the afterlife for noble entities. In Ancient Egypt, it was believed that a person’s life journey was only part of their history and the ankh helped to maintain eternal existence.

Anatomy and shape of the ankh

Image Source – Lucky Charms

Since it may have been the first symbolic cross, the ankh has a shape very similar to that of this figure. The difference, however, is at the top of the vertical rod, where there is a kind of loop.

This loop exists as a symbol of an interlaced cord that aims to represent the opposition and the union of the concepts of male and female. Only from this duality, then, would it be possible to create life. In mythology, the interpretation went even further, representing the union of Isis and Osiris, deities attributed to fertility.

During the period of Ancient Egypt, the Nile flood cycle was also associated with concepts such as life, death and reincarnation. From this notion, the vertical rod that follows below the loop, therefore, would be the fruit of the union between the different sides.


Image Source – Descobrir Egipto

Even in Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian cross was directly associated with the gods Atum and Ra, linked to the sun. This is because the star was also associated with the origin of life.

In addition to Ra, an important association of ankh was made with the god Osiris. That’s because that was the deity associated with life after death. In the same way, the symbol was also connected to the goddess Ma’at, who represented the concept of truth and justice.

As it brings a bond responsible for symbolizing the duality of men and women, the cross was also often associated with fertility. In addition to the encounter of opposites in the loop itself, this symbol was sometimes associated with the female reproductive organ, while the vertical stem was attributed to the male organ.

In these versions, the horizontal rod between the two opposites would be the symbol of children, the fruit of the meeting between the two sides.

Egyptian cross

Image Source – Grove

Established as an original cross and a symbol of fertility and eternal life, the ankh ended up serving as an inspiration and reference for the development of other cross designs throughout history. In the history of the Christian faith, for example, the association of the cross with the death of Christ has become an important symbol for Christians in Egypt.

At first, the early Christians did not yet use the cross as a representation of their faith. Instead, it was common for fish to be more associated with Christianity in Rome, since the cross was associated with death, pain and torture.

From the mid-300’s, the Christian cross gained strength as a religious symbol. It was at that moment, then, that the ankh started to be used less frequently, with the upper loop replaced by the continuity of the vertical rod.

Ankh in other cultures

Despite being an originally Egyptian symbol, the ankh was present in several other cultures. Even though it was officially by the Christian cross in several manifestations, the converted Egyptians – known as Coptic Christians – maintained the worship of the Egyptian cross as a symbol of faith.

Later, occult movements in the late 19th century began to appropriate the symbol. The movement has also been copied by hippy and esoteric groups and sects since the late 1960s. Followers of some witchcraft schools also value the ankh as a symbol of health, fertility and protection. The Order Rosa-Cruz also uses the symbol as a way to represent the union between heaven and earth.

In this way, even if it was introduced by a society of a millenary past, the ankh still carries value for several contemporary groups. Most of the time, in fact, it has not lost the essence of association with the life cycle, even if it is mistakenly associated with negative and demonic stereotypes by groups that are unaware of its symbolism.