The ankh has a cross shape but with an oval loop in place of an upper bar. The origins of the symbol are not known, although many hypotheses have been proposed. 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". In art the symbol often appeared as a physical object representing either life or substances such as air or water that are related to it. It was especially commonly held in the hands of ancient Egyptian deities, or being given by them to the pharaoh, to represent their power to sustain life and to revive human souls in the afterlife.
The ankh was one of the most common decorative motifs in ancient Egypt and was also used decoratively by neighbouring cultures. Coptic Christians adapted it into the crux ansata, a shape with a circular rather than oval loop, and used it as a variant of the Christian cross. Since the late 20th century, in the Western world, the ankh has again come to be used decoratively, as a symbol of African cultural identity, Neopagan belief systems, and the goth subculture.
In ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, the ankh was a triliteral sign: one that represented a sequence of three consonant sounds. The ankh stood for the sequence Ꜥ-n-ḫ, where n is pronounced like the English letter n, Ꜥ is a voiced pharyngeal fricative, and ḫ is a voiceless or voiced velar fricative (sounds not found in English). In the Egyptian language, these consonants were found in the verb meaning "live", the noun meaning "life", and words derived from them, such as sꜤnḫ, which means "cause to live" or "nourish". One of the common uses of the term was to express a wish that a particular person live. For example, a phrase meaning something like "may you be healthy and alive" was used in polite contexts, similar to the English phrase "if you please", and the phrase Ꜥnḫ wḏꜣ snb, meaning "alive, sound, and healthy", was used as an honorific for the pharaoh when he was mentioned in writing.
The same consonants were found in the word for "mirror" and the word for a floral bouquet, so the sign was also used in writing these words. The three consonants also compose the word for a looped rope-like object found in illustrations on many coffins from the Middle Kingdom (c. 2050–1650 BC). The Egyptologists Battiscombe Gunn and Alan Gardiner, in the early 20th century, believed these objects to be sandal straps, given that they appear in pairs at the foot of the coffin and the accompanying texts say the objects are "on the ground under his feet".
Many scholars believe the sign is a knot formed of a flexible material such as cloth or reeds, as early versions of the sign show the lower bar of the ankh as two separate lengths of flexible material that seem to correspond to the two ends of the knot. These early versions bear a resemblance to the tyet symbol, a sign that represented the concept of "protection". For these reasons, the Egyptologists Heinrich Schäfer and Henry Fischer thought the two signs had a common origin, and they regarded the ankh as a knot that was used as an amulet rather than for any practical purpose.
Hieroglyphic writing used pictorial signs to represent sounds, so that, for example, the hieroglyph for a house could represent the sounds p-r, which were found in the Egyptian word for "house". This practice, known as the rebus principle, allowed the Egyptians to represent things, such as abstract concepts, that could not be pictured. Gardiner believed the ankh originated in this way. He pointed out that the sandal-strap illustrations on Middle Kingdom coffins resemble the hieroglyph and argued that the sign originally represented knots like these and came to be used in writing all other words that contained the consonants Ꜥ-n-ḫ. Gardiner's list of hieroglyphic signs labels the ankh as S34, placing it within the category for items of clothing and just after S33, the hieroglyph for a sandal. Gardiner's hypothesis is still current; James P. Allen, in an introductory book on the Egyptian language published in 2014, assumes that the sign originally meant "sandal strap" and uses it as one of the major examples of the rebus principle in hieroglyphic writing.
Various authors have argued that the sign originally represented something other than a knot. Some have suggested that it had a sexual meaning. For instance, Thomas Inman, an amateur mythologist in the nineteenth century, thought the sign represented the male and female reproductive organs, joined into a single sign. Victor Loret, a nineteenth-century Egyptologist, argued that "mirror" was the sign's original meaning. A problem with this argument, which Loret acknowledged, is that deities are frequently shown holding the ankh by its loop, and their hands pass through it where the solid reflecting surface of an ankh-shaped mirror would be. Andrew Gordon, an Egyptologist, and Calvin Schwabe, a veterinarian, argue that the origin of the ankh is related to two other signs of uncertain origin that often appear alongside it: the was-sceptre, representing "power" or "dominion", and the djed pillar, representing "stability". According to this hypothesis, the form of each sign is drawn from a part of the anatomy of a bull, like some other hieroglyphic signs that are known to be based on body parts of animals. In Egyptian belief semen was connected with life and, to some extent, with "power" or "dominion", and some texts indicate the Egyptians believed semen originated in the bones. Therefore, Calvin and Schwabe suggest the signs are based on parts of the bull's anatomy through which semen was thought to pass: the ankh is a thoracic vertebra, the djed is the sacrum and lumbar vertebrae, and the was is the dried penis of the bull.
In Egyptian belief, life was a force that circulated throughout the world. Individual living things, including humans, were manifestations of this force and fundamentally tied to it. Life came into existence at the creation of the world, and cyclical events like the rising and setting of the sun were thought of as reenactments of the original events of creation that maintained and renewed life in the cosmos. Sustaining life was thus the central function of the deities who governed these natural cycles. Therefore, the ankh was frequently depicted being held in gods' hands, representing their life-giving power. The Egyptians also believed that when they died, their individual lives could be renewed in the same manner as life in general. For this reason, the gods were often depicted in tombs giving ankh signs to humans, usually the pharaoh. As the sign represented the power to bestow life, humans other than the pharaoh were rarely shown receiving or holding the ankh before the end of the Middle Kingdom, although this convention weakened thereafter. The pharaoh to some extent represented Egypt as a whole, so by giving the sign to him, the gods granted life to the entire nation.
By extension of the concept of "life", the ankh could signify air or water. In artwork, gods hold the ankh up to the nose of the king: offering him the breath of life. Hand fans were another symbol of air in Egyptian iconography, and the human servants who normally carried fans behind the king were sometimes replaced in artwork by personified ankh signs with arms. In scenes of ritual purification, in which water was poured over the king or a deceased commoner, the zigzag lines that normally represented water could be replaced by chains of ankh signs.
The ankh may have been used decoratively more than any other hieroglyphic sign. Mirrors, mirror cases, and floral bouquets were made in its shape, given that the sign was used in writing the name of each of these objects. Some other objects, such as libation vessels and sistra, were also shaped like the sign. The sign appeared very commonly in the decoration of architectural forms such as the walls and shrines within temples. In contexts such as these, the sign often appeared together with the was and djed signs, which together signified "life, dominion, and stability". In some decorative friezes in temples, all three signs, or the ankh and was alone, were positioned above the hieroglyph for a basket that represented the word "all": "all life and power" or "all life, power, and stability". Some deities, such as Ptah and Osiris, could be depicted holding a was scepter that incorporated elements of the ankh and djed.
Amulets made in the shape of hieroglyphic signs were meant to impart to the wearer the qualities represented by the sign. The Egyptians wore amulets in daily life as well as placing them in tombs to ensure the well-being of the deceased in the afterlife. Ankh-shaped amulets first appeared late in the Old Kingdom (c. 2700 to 2200 BC) and continued to be used into the late first millennium BC, yet they were rare, despite the importance of the symbol. Amulets shaped like a composite sign that incorporated the ankh, was, and djed were more widespread.
Ankh signs in two-dimensional art were typically painted blue or black. The earliest ankh amulets were often made of gold or electrum, a gold and silver alloy. Egyptian faience, a ceramic that was usually blue or green, was the most common material for ankh amulets in later times, perhaps because its color represented life and regeneration.
The people of Syria and Canaan adopted many Egyptian artistic motifs during the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1950–1500 BC), including hieroglyphs, of which the ankh was by far the most common. It was often placed next to various figures in artwork or shown being held by Egyptian deities who had come to be worshipped in the Near East. It was sometimes used to represent water or fertility. Elsewhere in the Near East, the sign was incorporated into Anatolian hieroglyphs to represent the word for "life", and the sign was used in the artwork of the Minoan civilization centered on Crete. Minoan artwork sometimes combined the ankh, or the related tyet sign, with the Minoan double axe emblem.
Artwork in the Meroitic Kingdom, which lay south of Egypt and was heavily influenced by its religion, features the ankh prominently. It appears in temples and funerary art in many of the same contexts as in Egypt, and it is also one of the most common motifs in the decoration of Meroitic pottery.
The ankh was one of the few ancient Egyptian artistic motifs that continued to be used after the Christianization of Egypt during the 4th and 5th centuries AD. The sign resembles the staurogram, a sign that resembles a Christian cross with a loop to the right of the upper bar and was used by early Christians as a monogram for Jesus, as well as the crux ansata, or "handled cross", which is shaped like an ankh with a circular rather than oval or teardrop-shaped loop. The staurogram has been suggested to be influenced by the ankh, but the earliest Christian uses of the sign date to around AD 200, well before the earliest Christian adoption of the ankh. The earliest known example of a crux ansata comes from a copy of the Gospel of Judas from the 3rd or early 4th century AD. The adoption of this sign may have been influenced by the staurogram, the ankh, or both.
According to Socrates of Constantinople, when Christians were dismantling Alexandria's greatest temple, the Serapeum, in 391 AD, they noticed cross-like signs inscribed on the stone blocks. Pagans who were present said the sign meant "life to come", an indication that the sign Socrates referred to was the ankh; Christians claimed the sign was their own, indicating that they could easily regard the ankh as a crux ansata.
There is little evidence for the use of the crux ansata in the western half of the Roman Empire, but Egyptian Coptic Christians used it in many media, particularly in the decoration of textiles.
Much more recently, the ankh has become a popular symbol in modern Western culture, particularly as a design for jewelry and tattoos. Its resurgence began when the counterculture of the 1960s stirred a greater interest in ancient religions. In the 21st century it is the most widely recognized symbol of African origin in the Western world, and it is sometimes used by people of African descent in the United States and Europe as a symbol of African cultural identity. The ankh also symbolizes Kemetism, a group of religious movements based on the religion of ancient Egypt. The sign is also popular in the goth subculture, being particularly associated with vampires, because an ankh pendant appears prominently in the 1983 vampire film The Hunger.
The sign is incorporated twice in the Unicode standard for encoding text and symbols in computing. It appears as U+2625 (☥) in the Miscellaneous Symbols block, and as U+132F9 (𓋹) in the Egyptian Hieroglyphs block.