The ankh (also known as key of life, the key of the Nile or crux ansata; Latin meaning "cross with a handle") was the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic character that read "eternal life", a triliteral sign for the consonants. Egyptian gods are often portrayed carrying it by its loop, or bearing one in each hand, arms crossed over their chest.
The origin of the symbol remains a mystery to archaeologists, and no single hypothesis has been widely accepted. One of the earliest suggestions is that of Thomas Inman, first published in 1869: It is by Egyptologists called the symbol of life. It is also called the "handled cross", or crux ansata. It represents the male triad and the female unit, under a decent form. There are few symbols more commonly met with in Egyptian art. In some remarkable sculptures, where the sun's rays are represented as terminating in hands, the offerings which these bring are many a crux ansata, emblematic of the truth that a fruitful union is a gift from the deity. Merenptah offering an ankh, djed, and was to Ptah. The ankh, during the reign of Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BC), from the Royal Ontario Museum. E. A. Wallis Budge postulated that the symbol originated as the belt-buckle of the mother goddess Isis, an idea joined by Wolfhart Westendorf with the notion that both the ankh and the knot of Isis were used in many ceremonies. Sir Alan Gardiner speculated that it depicts a sandal strap, with the loop going around the ankle. The word for sandal strap was also spelled ꜥnḫ, although it may have been pronounced differently.
In their 2004 book The Quick and the Dead, Andrew Hunt Gordon and Calvin W. Schwabe speculated that the ankh, djed, and was symbols have a biological basis derived from ancient cattle culture (linked to the Egyptian belief that semen was created in the spine), thus:
- the ankh, symbol of life, thoracic vertebra of a bull (seen in cross section)
- the djed, symbol of stability, base on sacrum of a bull's spine
- the was, symbol of power and dominion, a staff featuring the head and tail of the god Set, "great of strength"
Egyptian academics, in particular those at the University of Cairo, aver that the ankh has been over-interpreted and that it is representative of the pivotal role of the Nile in the country. The oval head is said to represent the Nile delta, with the vertical mark representing the path of the river and the East and West arms representing the two sides of the country and their unification.