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ODE TO THE PAST (with the occasional nod to the present)

Ancient symbols: The ankh

As readers of my work have probably surmised, I am fascinated by ancient symbols. They represented (and many still do) meaningful entities or concepts--the sun, life, death, fertility, nature and so forth--and were often the manifestation of the sacred and the mystical. These symbols tell us much about ancient societies and their ways of worship and ceremonies, whether religious or pagan.

One of the most enduring ancient symbols is the ankh. Its familiar shape--a cross with an oval loop on top, or "cross with a handle"--first appeared in hieroglyphs and has since infiltrated the collective consciousness. (Apparently, it's one of the most popular motifs at tattoo parlors!)

The origins of the ankh are fairly mysterious, and no one has been able to decipher its meaning conclusively. There are many theories, the most popular of which being it symbolizes life. The shapes of the cross--the T-shaped lower half and the looped upper half--are thought to represent male and female forces coming together. In Egyptian hieroglyphs, the ankh is often held close to the heart, seemingly a symbol of protection. On tomb paintings, priests and kings are depicted holding ankhs, and the motif also appears on several sarcophagi, clearly denoting protection in the afterlife. The gods are sometimes depicted holding an ankh up to the mouth of a pharaoh, granting eternal life.

Another theory is that the loop represents the rising sun and the crossbars its path as it traverses the sky.

The ankh has evolved through the years and now has other meanings. It has become a Christian symbol (though the oval loop is depicted as a perfect circle), named the crux ansata (handled cross) or Coptic cross. Sometimes the circle has a perfect cross through it.

Turn it upside down and it is the symbol of the female/feminine force.

Regardless of the interpretation, the ankh remains a powerful symbol some 4,000 years (maybe more) after it was introduced.
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