Resembling a cross but with a loop instead of the top arm, the ankh was a powerful symbol throughout ancient Egypt. It remains popular in pop culture, fashion and jewelry, and has been sported by celebrities including Rihanna, Beyonce and Katy Perry.
So, what is it about the ankh symbol that continues to resonate across thousands of years? Is it just a version of a Christian cross, or is there more to it? Let’s find out why this ancient symbol is so popular, what it symbolizes and how it’s used in jewelry.
The Ankh Symbol and Ancient Egypt
The ankh represented life and is one of the oldest Egyptian symbols. The symbol can be found in the Egyptian word for live, life and other variations such as nourish and cause to live. This indicates that the meaning of the symbol was life. However, the ankh symbol was also found in the words for mirror and flower bouquet.
The ankh can be traced back to the Early Dynastic Period around 3150 to 2613 BCE. The ankh is depicted in the hands of many Egyptian deities, often ‘feeding’ it to the pharaoh.
- The myth has it that Isis saved her husband Osiris from death, which implied that she could also save the souls of many who put their faith in her. The frequent depiction of ankh in her hands associated the symbol with life and even the afterlife. The symbol was eventually incorporated into the everyday lives of Egyptians, who believed that the earthly journey was just a part of an eternal life of many stages.
- By the time of the Old Kingdom, also referred to as the Age of the Pyramids, the symbol was found on sarcophagi, caskets, tomb paintings and inscriptions. In fact, the dead were even referred to as ankhu, which suggested that they were living and having life. There were also amulets carved in the shape of an ankh and carried to the grave.
- During the Middle Kingdom, also known as the Period of Reunification, hand-mirrors were designed in the shape of the ankh symbol and used for divination. It’s said that ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a mirror image of the earthly life. The symbol was also seen on sandal straps—not to mention that the Egyptian term for sandal was nkh, which came from the same root word of the symbol.
- Eventually, the ankh symbol was used to represent a long life for their rulers, which can be found in paintings of pharaohs. During the New Kingdom around 1279 to 1213 BCE, Ramesses II even incorporated it in his inscriptions. The symbol remained popular throughout the remainder of Egypt’s history and has survived up to our modern times.
Different Types of Ankh Jewelry
The ankh was worn by ancient Egyptians as an amulet. Nowadays, it comes in a variety of designs, from earrings to necklaces, bracelets and rings. If you find the symbol fascinating and meaningful, we have rounded up a few ankh jewelry pieces that you’ll find trendy and fashionable.
Ankh Diamond Studs by Rafis Jewelry. Check price here.
Ankh Hoop Earrings by SVJ Jewels. Check price here.
When it comes to ankh earrings, designs come in a range of styles, from large, bold styles to dainty, elegant and minimal. Stud earrings decorated with diamonds and precious gemstones are popular, but there are also hoops and drop earrings. Chandelier style earrings in ankh aren’t common, but you can find designs crafted in beads, wood, resin, glass and enamel.
Cross Pendant Necklace by Jewel Chic Designs. Check price here.
Ankh necklace designs can go from minimal to statement making. Some ankh necklaces are crafted in diamonds and gold, reminding us of the traditional pendant necklaces. Others have elaborate decorations on the loop and sometimes engraved with mystical symbols. There are also designs that blend various Egyptian symbols with the ankh, such as the wings of Isis and the scarab.
Ankh Cuff by From Egypt with Love. Check price here.
Ankh Gold Bracelet by La Bizarre Susu. Check price here.
The ankh symbol is commonly used in bracelets and cuffs, as a decorative pattern, engraved motif—and sometimes even a chain design. Some styles feature ankh as a charm, particularly in chain bracelets, beaded bracelets, and even in woven leather and string varieties.
Ankh Cross by DeLizza & Elster. Check price here.
Ankh brooches aren’t common, but you can still find designs that double as a brooch and a pendant. Most of these are heavily decorated with beads, gemstones and crystals, and are colorful and statement making.
Ankh Signet Ring by Golden Leaf Jewels. Check price here.
Ankh Minimalist Ring by Gwen Shop Art. Check price here.
When it comes to ankh rings, the options are endless. Some jewelers design them to be heirloom pieces, especially designs studded with diamonds and crafted in solid gold. There are elegant and dainty styles for minimalists, as well as tarnished and tribal-inspired varieties for bohemians. Some have decorative filigree details and gemstones, while others look more rustic and antiquated.
Meaning and Symbolism of Ankh Jewelry
The exact meaning of the ankh has been debated and scholars have found various interpretations for the symbol, ranging from life to mirrors. Here are some of the meanings associated with the ankh:
The ankh symbol retains its meaning as the key of life, the breath of life, as well as the cross of life, but the interpretation varies in different cultures and regions. Due to this association with life, some believe that the symbol has a sexual origin, featuring a woman’s vagina (the loop) and a male penis (the line), and their children (the two horizontal arms). However, there’s not much evidence to confirm this theory. Some wear ankh jewelry as a symbol of life in general, without associating it with the Egyptian culture and religion.
In ancient Egyptian, people wore ankh amulets for protection and to worship, as well as to express their desire for the life after death. Later on, it was incorporated into the symbolism of the Coptic Orthodox Church—not as an ankh, but as a Christian cross.
It’s also said that the ankh symbol was associated with the sun, as the loop was seen as the sun coming over the horizon. Considering how important the sun was to the Egyptians (so much so that they worshipped it in the guise of their god Ra), this interpretation makes sense. The symbol was commonly crafted in yellow gold and never in silver (which relates to the moon).
Because of the symbol’s connection to mirrors, which were thought to have magical properties, many believed that the ankh also held spiritual and magical properties. There are still some who wear ankh jewelry and believe in its magical properties and symbolism, as a sort of good luck charm.
The Ankh Symbol in Modern Fashion and Jewelry
The ankh became popular in fashion during the 1960s, starting with the hippie movement. From there, it continued to be present through to the grunge style of the 1990s and eventually became a fashion symbol that also holds spiritual meanings for most people.
The motif has been adopted for everyday jewelry wear, while others showcase them on the red carpet. The ankh symbol is also popular in nail art and tattoos, as it gives off a mysterious and slightly rebellious vibe. With its positive meaning and mysterious appeal, the ankh symbol will likely inspire more designers to create fashion and jewelry pieces that are works of art.
The Ankh vs. Christian Cross
The ankh symbol is no longer viewed as just an ancient Egyptian symbol. It has gone beyond that into being a universal image that’s present in various cultures.
Some Christians worry whether the ankh is a pagan symbol and if they should avoid it altogether. Interestingly enough, when Christianity came to Egypt, the early Coptic Christians adopted the ankh symbol as a representation of the cross. As the symbol had represented the concept of ‘life to come’ to the ancient Egyptians, the Coptic Christians were able to incorporate the symbol into Christianity as an image representing Jesus, his birth and resurrection.
While the ankh, known in Coptic Christianity as the ‘crux ansata’ didn’t readily migrate to the West, it continued to be popular among Coptic Christians. Today, the ankh is viewed as either a variation of the Christian cross or just a symbol of life.
However, if the ankh is upside down, it can represent anti-life or death, and has never been used in this form in Egyptian culture or Christianity.
There are thousands of jewelry designs featuring the ankh, which has become a mainstream symbol. To find some stunning pieces, we recommend searching on Etsy, which has hand-crafted, artisan styles as well as vintage and antique pieces. Alternatively, take your search to Amazon for a range of ankh jewelry.