Could the Egyptian Ankh Symbol Be Spawned of the Viscera of Bulls?
The ankh symbol has for centuries been a symbol of eternal life, the universe, the divine, and other religious and metaphysical ideas. It was originally used as a symbol in ancient Egypt to represent fertility and life after death. Later, it was adopted by the Coptic Orthodox Christian Church as a symbol of eternal life gained through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of its connections to the occult and to ancient Egypt, it is also associated with Hermeticism. A continuing mystery is the origin of the ankh symbol. Many theories have been proposed, but one recent hypothesis which is compelling is that it was meant to represent the thoracic vertebrae of a bull which the ancient Egyptians associated with the Bull’s ability to reproduce and thus to produce new life.
Ankh-shaped mirror from the tomb of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings, Egypt (Public Domain)
The Egyptian Ankh
The ankh symbol was first used in the Old Kingdom of Egypt where gods and pharaohs were depicted as wearing the symbol. They were also depicted carrying the symbol by the upper loop. It was important both religiously and politically in ancient Egypt since the pharaohs were believed to be the incarnation of the sun god Ra. Even through multiple religious reforms where certain gods declined in importance compared to others, the ankh symbol remained important in Egyptian religion.
During the Hellenistic period, it became associated with the cult of Isis as a fertility symbol. As Isis became identified with one who would give her followers an escape from death, it also became associated with eternal life. This allowed the religious symbol to be easily incorporated into Christianity as a symbol of the everlasting life promised in the Gospels.
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Ankh on ceiling stone at the Temple of Amun, Karnak (Luxor), Egypt (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)
Despite all the meaning that has been read into it, the original meaning and origin of the symbol has been lost. Egyptologists are uncertain as to its original meaning, but they have proposed several theories to explain the origin of this mysterious and enduring religious symbol.
A Sandal Strap?
To make sure all angles are covered, we need mention that one early theory regarding the origin of the Ankh symbol was that it represented part of a sandal strap. In ancient Egypt, sandals consisted of a cord made into a loop through which the foot went. Another strap tied down the loop to the sandal making a shape that did somewhat resemble the ankh symbol.
Sandals were a part of everyday life, so it has been suggested that the sandal, particularly the sandal strap, became symbolic of life itself. This theory makes sense in practical terms, but there is not much evidence to support it. It is not a widely held view among scholars today.
This relief from the Temple of Kom Ombo shows Sobek. The ankh in his hand represents his role as an Osirian healer and his crown is a solar crown associated with one of the many forms of Ra. (CC BY SA 3.0)
A Sign of Masculine and Feminine Joined
Another hypothesis that has more support among scholars is that it represents the girdle of Isis thus explaining the association with fertility and life. Isis and her husband the god Osiris were associated with life, death and fertility. This came from the story where Osiris was killed by his jealous brother Set and then dismembered. Afterwards, he was reconstructed by Isis.
Proponents of this connection say that the ankh is a physical representation of the masculine and the feminine coming together. The loop is the feminine part and the cross is the masculine part. In this view, they specifically represent female and male reproductive organs respectively. The Hermetic religion explains the ankh symbol by saying that it represents the male and female aspects of the divine coming together and thus it represents God.
Although Egyptologists consider this view to be more likely, it is not entirely clear based on the history of the ankh symbol that this is the case.
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Facsimile of a vignette from the Book of the Dead of Ani. The sun disk of the god Ra is raised into the sky by an ankh-sign (signifying life) (Public Domain)
The Sun and Horizon
Yet another hypothesis which is not entirely disconnected from the previous hypothesis is that the ankh symbol represents the sun meeting the horizon meaning that it is associated with the sun god. The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun would cross the sky each day, go into the underworld, and be reborn the next day. To do this, the goddess mother of the sun had to give birth to the sun again each morning. As a result, the sun was also associated with fertility.
Symbol of Bullish Vigor
A hypothesis which has become popular in recent decades is that the ankh symbol represents part of a bull, particularly the thoracic vertebrae. The thoracic vertebrae are located near the base of the bull’s spine and is where muscles are located which attach to the bull’s penis. The ancient Egyptians believed that semen came from the bones and marrow and they believed that the main supply came from the thoracic vertebrae. As a result, the thoracic vertebrae were associated with the fertility and virility of the bull.
A human thoratic vertabra inferior surface (CC BY SA 2.1)
An emerging view among anthropologists is that the ancient Egyptians, before they became a state level society, were very similar culturally to the Nilotic “cattle culture” pastoralists of the upper Nile such as the Nuer and the Dinka. In the traditional religion of these cultures, the bull is revered as a sacred animal, mainly due to the importance of the bull to their lifestyle and livelihood.
The ancient Egyptians appear to have had many religious rituals and sacrifices associated with the bull. Additionally, several of their deities were bovine, a famous example being the cow-goddess Hathor. In light of this, it makes sense that the religious symbols of the ancient Egyptians would have featured parts of the bull.
Osiris and Re merged into a single body, from the Litany of Re in the tomb of Nofretari (Public Domain)
From Bull to Eternity
The ankh symbol today represents life after death and eternity. If it originally depicted the thoracic vertebrae, it probably came to represent life because of its mistaken association with semen and thus male fertility and a source of new life. The ancient Egyptians believed that semen was the source of all life and even rain was associated with it as it came down from the heavens to allow for plant life. It thus makes sense that a symbol representing life would be associated with it.
Over time as people began to associate the ankh symbol more with life and less with literal parts of the bull, it gained an increasingly esoteric meaning until it became associated with religion rather than anatomy. As Egyptian culture evolved and succeeding cultures far removed from the original context of the symbol adopted it, the original meaning of the ankh symbol faded into history and was lost.
Top image: Egyptian goddess Isis, with ankh sign. Tomb painting, ca. 1360 BC (Public Domain)
By Caleb Strom
Schwabe, Calvin W. "Comparative Medicine in Ancient Egypt: Origins of Early Biomedical Theories."
Gordon, Andrew Hunt. The quick and the dead: Biomedical theory in ancient Egypt. Vol. 4. Brill, 2004.