Along with the bust of Nefertiti the ankh has to be one of the most common symbols to be worn (or tattooed) by people of African heritage wishing to assert their connection to Kemet. But what exactly does the ankh represent? Like many Kemite symbols, the ankh remains somewhat enigmatic. In Gardiner’s book on Egyptian Grammar the ankh is categorised under the heading of ‘Crowns, dress, staves etc.’ and is described as a tie or strap. It is listed as sign S 34.
In 1925 Hastings suggested that the symbol was in fact a sandal strap. However, not all Egyptologists agree with this interpretation. In 1982 Schwabe, Adams and Hodge wrote a paper where they associated the ankh symbol with the thoracic vertebra of a large mammal. In their paper they argue that the ancient Kemite people believed that sperm was produced in the thoracic spine and thus the the ankh’s association with life, through fertility, was represented in this way.
Irrespective of what the actual symbol represents, it is possible to understand what the ankh meant symbolically to the ancient Kemites by exploring its imagery.
Symbol of Life
Essentially, the ankh symbolised life. This can be seen by its use on temple and tomb reliefs from Kemet. The photograph at the top of this section and directly below (on the left-hand column) show gods pouring sacred, life-giving liquid over the king of Kemet. These two reliefs were carved over 1000 years apart, and show continuity in symbolism and the preservation of Kemite culture.
The ankh was a divine, and by association royal, symbol. On the columns in the Hyperstyle Hall at Karnak temple the ankh appears between a mirror image of the Kemite word for ‘king’ and the cartouche of Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre. Cartouche is in fact a modern French word that we use to describe royal names, which were typically written inside a shenu or shen ring, which protected the name.
Breath of life
There are also numerous examples of another scene, in which a god or goddess touches a member of the royal family with an ankh, representing the giving of life. The scene above is from the tomb of Nefertari, who was the Principal Royal Wife of Rameses (II) Usermaatre-setpenre. Many of the scenes associated with the Afterlife in Kemet allude to life or rebirth because this was the process that the people believed their spirit would undertake. In this way the ankh was linked to fertility.
In the tomb of the artist Pashedu at Deir el Medina, which dates to around 3300 year ago (above) protectors of the gateway between life and the Afterlife hold the ankh symbol. These two jackal-headed figures joined a line of such figures and appear at the top of the decorated walls of the tomb.
On this detail of a relief showing Akhenaten and his family, two of the rays from the Aten (sun disk) hold an ankh and touch the Principle Wife Nefertiti. The same symbolism occurs in one of the, now damaged, tomb reliefs at Akhetaten (below). On some reliefs from this period the sun disk replaces the loop at the top of the ankh. In these instances the Aten and the ankh merge to show the power of the sun disk in giving life.
The ankh also appeared on oil lamps and textiles that date to the post-Roman period, and are linked to the form of Christianity that was developed in East Africa- the Coptic Church. There are many links between ancient Kemite religion and early African Christianity, and we know that many people in Egypt still made reference to the traditional animistic religion after converting to Christianity.
For many people of African heritage, especially amongst the Diaspora, the ankh remains an important symbol and is worn with pride. It connects people with their past and also shows a level of consciousness of claiming back an African cultural heritage.