What is the meaning of the Egyptian ankh?

Egyptian Ankh

Yes, the Egyptian ankh cross is the ancient hieroglyph that stood for the concept “life.”  It was originally, some think, an iconic sign of the thong of the sandal (an iconic sign being one that stands for its object on the basis of some resemblance; the ankh looks like a sandal-thong). Consider, of course, how essential an intact sandal-thong is to securing your foot to the sandal and thus to protecting your foot from damage and disease.  Sandal-thong = life (the ankh) is thus a symbolic equation based on an actual cause-and-effect relationship, and so the ankh is an indexical sign as well (one that stands for its object in some real, causal manner). Of course, it is general in cultural evolution, as semioticians tell us, that icon indices become over time symbols, signs that stand for their objects in conventional ways–and so the underlying sandal-thong iconic index has been lost (it is a dead metaphor), but while the visual connection may be “dead,” the feeling of security and of linked (looped) connectedness that that original iconic and indexical sign produced is still alive.  The loop of the ankh, the key element of the sandal thong, of course, represents in its closed-circuit form, like a wedding ring, wholeness and endlessness (and thus faithfulness and eternity). These of godly traits.

Not surprisingly, the ankh in ancient Egypt was symbolically linked to the gods, indeed, to all of the gods of the Egyptian pantheon, and so it became an inclusive symbol of religious ecumenicalism.  Perhaps for this reason, scholars tell us, the ankh has been picked up by the (inclusive) “New Age” religious movement.  Clearly, the ankh today also derives symbolic force from its resonance with (1) the Christian cross (while avoiding the allusion to violence that that symbol of torture, and love, of course, necessarily carries with it) and with (2) the symbol for Venus, for goddess worship and the divine feminine: more inclusivity!


Wm John Coletta, PhD, CEO

Wm. John Coletta, Ph.D.  is a proefessor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and is a member of the Editorial Board of the American Journal of Semiotics. He has served as President and Vice President of the Semiotic Society of America and was a system fellow at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.