1920s-era cigarette trading card art and text:
THE ANKH, OR CRUX ANSATA
Throughout Egyptian civilization, which lasted some
6,000 years, charms and talismans played a conspicuous
part, both in their religious and civil life. The Ankh,
the symbol of life, one of Egypt's most popular and
ancient amulets, was supposed to bestow upon the
wearer, intelligence, power, and abundance. It was
formed by the hieroglyphic RU, O, set on a cross, the
loop RU representing a fish's mouth (supposed to give
birth to water), and in this form represents the key of
the Nile, which inundates the country, fertilizing the
land and bringing prosperity. Most of the Egyptian gods
are shown holding an Ankh, and their kings always
carried one at their coronations.
The particular ankh illustrated here is a solid gold pendant suspended from a necklace bearing small gold dangling beads of ornate workmanship. There are many variants in the design of ankhs; this one has a rather heavy bottom, thin arms, and slender ring at the top. It is evidently of ancient Egyptian manufacture.
The ankh and the wadjet eye are probably the best-known symbols of Egyptian magical-religious belief still in use to this day. Both of them enjoyed an enormous revival of popularity during the late 19th century "western esoteric" or "ceremonial magic" craze and again during the late 1960s hippie revival of occultism. The ankh continues in use as a talisman among the new age mystics of the 1990s and can even be found for sale as a good luck charm in novelty catalogues like the Johnson Smith Company mail order catalogue.
Given that i was not raised a Christian, it is my outsider's opinion that the continuing popularity of the ankh among American and European occultists and mystics from Christian backgrounds is based in part upon its being seen as a "crux ansata" or "looped cross." This ascription of "cross-hood" to the ankh seems to render it familiar and reassuring to former Christians as they set off for otherwise uncharted realms of metaphysics and spirit. It allows the wearer or viewer to relate the ankh, with its vague meaning of "life," to the Christian cross of their youth, which symbolizes "eternal life" through the death of their god. In support of this theory, i recall hearing the ankh referred to as "the hippie cross" by non-hippies during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
If the Wills's Cigarettes card author quoted above is correct and the loop if the hieroglyph RU, which represents an open fish mouth, an enterprising Christian symbologist could read even more into the crux ansata, for the fish is an old glyph for Jesus. I have yet to see any modern author make that connection, however.
Pete Rhode adds the following commentary:
I offer a definition of the ankh from "The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt" by Manfred Lurker (1974), page 27:
"Ankh: The original meaning of the ankh is still debatable. Gardiner suggests it was a sandal-strap, or it may be a magic knot. The hieroglyphic sign means 'life' ('nh) and as a symbol it points to divine, i.e. eternal, existence. Therefore it is a recurrent attribute of the gods who hand it to the king. Air and water are vital elements, for which reason they circumscribed by the use of the ankh, as when a god holds the ankh before the king's nose, giving him the 'breath of life', or when streams of water in the forms of ankhs run over the king during ritual purification. As a symbol of an imperishable vital force the ankh was used on temple walls, stelae, and elsewhere; it is particularly evident in friezes of objects usually in the region of the feet, hence the fact that people saw in it the image of the sandal-strap. The sign, also called crux ansata, entered the symbolism of the Coptic Church because of the cruciform shape."
W.V. Davies (1987:20) in "Reading the Past -- Egyptian Hieroglyphics" notes that ankhs were used as amulets to "confer good luck" against the powers of evil and that
"the ankh and the djed signs offered the benefits of 'life' and 'endurance' respectively, while the hand, leg, face, and other [amulets] like them, helped to restore the functions of the bodily parts after death."
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