Symbols, just like language, change in significance continuously. Depending on what time period, and which part of the world you’re in, symbols and meaning vary massively. And in modern fashion, symbols are borrowed from around the world: with people wearing religious regalia, or items or symbols of cultural significance, as a key part of modern fashion trends. But symbols go far further than fashion. And we often misunderstand them or their roots.
Take, for example, mistletoe. Seen by many of us as the symbol of a romantic wintertime dalliance, this modern-day meaning diverts hugely from the original meaning of this plant. In Ancient Norse Myth, where the significance of mistletoe originates, it was actually used as a symbol of ritual castration! The process by which a symbol is understood, forgotten, remembered and reimagined is a source of endless fascination for academics. And as we can see, often a symbol loses all of its original significance and begins to symbolize something entirely different. But what is the meaning of theAnkh symbol, and how has it changed?
To reiterate the initial comparison, symbology is just as variable as language. Both vary in interpretation depending on the socialization of the person who is analyzing them. But these concepts aren’t stand alone, they intertwine and shape the meaning of each other. When it comes to the ankh symbol, it is a symbol that originates directly from the language. The ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol, one of about 1000 characters to have been used since c. 3200 BC. Much of this early writing has been discovered on papyrus and wood, sometimes in a ceremonial grave, designed to safely accompany the soul on its journey to the afterlife.
In hieroglyphics, the meaning of ankh is not set in stone. It was used in sentences as what is known as a trilateral sign. This represents a series of three consonant sounds, which aren’t found in English. In its early uses, this sound was used in the Egyptian words “floral bouquet”, “mirror”, and “life”. Similar to modern-day Chinese, the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language was logographic, meaning it has one symbol or character which represents a word or phrase. In the hieroglyphic language, they often used pictorial signs to represent sounds, so that they could write more abstract concepts. They would take that sign and use a sound in the word it portrayed to sound out another word: a word that’s not a thing you can draw. Some Egyptologists believe this is where the ankh originated from, with no inherent meaning except for linguistic.
However, because it was a sound that was used in the word life and live, it became associated with the concept of life. What would have happened if it had turned out to mean “mirror”? Would it be world-famous now? The significance of the ankh symbol representing life began to grow in Ancient Egypt, becoming one of the most popularly used symbols in the whole of this ancient, rich culture. It became commonplace to depict deities, in paintings and sculptures and the like, with ankhs in their hand. This was to represent the power that was meant to be in their hands: the power to sustain human life, deliver human souls safely to, or revive human souls in the afterlife.
In the Ancient Egyptian language, ankh, or the three consonants it represented, were found in the words ‘live’ and ‘life’. It wasn’t just used to depict deities and rulers. It was also commonplace to use the ankh in a polite context, when meeting someone for example, in a phrase which meant something like “may you be healthy and alive”. Where we might say “hope you’re well”, or “how’s it going?” the Ancient Egyptians put the emphasis on encouraging life, showing how central the ankh, as the word and symbol for life, was to even commonplace culture. Ankh shaped amulets also would have been worn, in the same way, that lots of people wear protective stones in the modern-day, to impart the qualities of the symbol on the wearer.
If you know anything about Egyptian spiritual beliefs at this point, this concept won’t come as a surprise. Life, in Egypt, was seen to be a strong energy that controlled the earth and human actions on it.Living things and humans were seen to be manifestations of this energy. The Ancient Egyptians read significance into everyday occurrences and saw life everywhere they looked. The rising and the setting of the sun were seen as reenactments of the creation of the world, that maintained and renews life in the cosmos.
All of these natural cycles, like the rising and setting of the sun, and the creation of the earth, were governed by the deities. The main purpose of these Egyptian gods, like Horus or Ra, Isis Or Osiris, was to sustain life and to thus govern these natural cycles. As we mentioned, deities are thus often depicted in Egyptian art as holding the ankh, as they are literally holding life in their hands. For many years, depictions emerged of the ankh being nearly handed over to the pharaoh, but never quite, as it represented the power to give life. But after a long time, depictions of the ankh being handed to the pharaoh did emerge, when the pharaoh became synonymous with the entire of Egypt, and thus the imagery represented gods bestowing life and blessings on the nation.
Although there’s not much evidence for the reason for the shape of the ankh, some people have dared to guess. Seeing as it was originally a letter, signifying a sound that could be used in any word, it’s unlikely it was designed to represent anything visually. However, many holographic symbols were actually representing something, an object, say, like a house, to then use the sound used in house in another word. So, what could be the meaning of the ankh?
The ankh looks like a teardrop shape, looped onto thetop of a cross. Some think that the loop at the top of the symbol represents the sun. This would make sense considering what we now know about the Ancient Egyptian’s belief in how and why the sun rises and sets. The horizontal bar is meant to represent the horizon, and the vertical bar the path that the light takes. Some people refer to the ankh as the Egyptian Symbol of life. With an interpretation like this, you can see why.
Although used briefly in Christian symbolism, the ankh is far more commonly known for its Ancient Egyptian roots. When Egypt was Christianised in the fourth and fifth century AD, the symbol was close enough to otherdepictions of the cross. So for a while it was meant to represent Jesus, amongst Egyptian Coptic Christians. Early Christians often used a slightly different version of the ankh. There’s had a round circle at the top of the symbol, rather than a teardrop shape.
Egyptian religion was thus able to adapt to a totally new practice, Christianity, while still keeping in use some of its ancient symbols. It was probably being used by the early Christians even before the Christianisation of Egypt, way back in the second century AD. And this is another place where the ankh came into fashion. Coptic Christians often used the ankh symbol to decorate textiles with, similarly to how it was worn as a pendant then and now.
It’s resurgence and entrance back into the mainstream of popular culture began with the late Victorian fascination with ancient cultures, religions, and scripts. Bored with the lack of ceremony, which came about with the fall out of the Catholic church, people were looking for some more mystery in their life. They started researching ancient religions and spiritual codes, either anthropologically, or to combine some of these ancient rites, languages, and mysticism into modern-day rituals. This is where a great deal of neo-paganism and modern mystical movements come from. The ankh was most definitely represented, and venerated, for its ancient significance.
This became an underground fashion. But it wasn’t until the hippy revival and the counterculture movements of the 60s that the ankh saw its second rebirth in ‘western’ culture. With the hippy revival, and the counterculture movements of the 60s and 70s, Ancient Egypt made a comeback. Similar to the last mystical wave, they were making a statement. Against the sterilization of modernism, both of these movements were looking for something new, something ancient, with spiritual significance.
And just like the Beatles found Hinduism, and brought many symbols and instruments from there to the UK, the world started to uncover and popularise Ancient Egyptian symbols. At this point, people wanted to be adorned with items and symbols of spiritual significance from all around the world, and especially ancient religions. These two time periods, late Victorian and the 60s, gave birth to a youth movement that looked to be counter-cultural, and the strange thing is that in doing so, they looked way, way far back in time.
Now the ankh has become a recognizable symbol in popular culture, and is used all over, but especially in fashion and jewelry. Although many people now wear the symbol with no knowledge of what it signified to the Ancient Egyptians, there’s some strange symmetry to the fact that they wear it in the same way: on apendant around their neck, which the Egyptians used to believe instilled in you some of the properties of the sign. Many of us just wear the sign now because we think it’s beautiful. So perhaps, in a way, it does still give us life.
As we mentioned before, symbols are often changing in meanings, and the ankh is a great example. It’s represented a phonic sound; a symbol of life, held by the gods; the crucifix; a countercultural expression of free love and multiculturalism; and, a fashion statement. Fashion and jewelry have always incorporated decoration and symbols, to bring a deeper meaning and thus beauty to the things we wear. And the ankh is no exception. There are symbols we see repeated constantly, like the Nazar (evil eye), and Hamsa, and often the cross. Although their symbolic meaning has changed, there’s still something about them and their ancient spiritual significance which draws designers to them.
The ankh, in modern uses, now has even more significance than just being anedgy fashion statement. It’s the most widely recognized symbol of African origin in the ‘west’, so it’s led to some people in the United States and Europe viewing it with a sense of pride. As the most commonly understood symbol from Africa, in these multicultural countries, people of African descent have become to use it as a symbol of African cultural identity. Although the meanings are both rooted in African cultural identity, this symbolism of the ankh has come a long way from the ancient Egyptian religious connotations.
Another significance of the ankh in modern times is with the continuation of the neo-pagan and mystical movements that we mentioned. It’s the symbol used to represent a group of religious movements based on the religion of ancient Egypt, called Kemetism. So, in this way, the use of the ankh hasn’t changed so much. But it’s also used as a sign in lots of modern mystical rituals, for example in Wicca. It’s come into the aesthetics of the mystical subculture too. Its use also moves into goth subculture, because of its association with vampires, due to an ankh pendant appearing often in a popular 80’s vampire film.
And could the point of ever-changing symbols be proved any more? A symbol that originally meant life, eternal life, breath of life, the key of life, the life force which sustains and maintains the earth, now reminds some of the creatures who are meant to suck the life out of others. From Ancient Egyptian religion to modern goth subculture. This ancient symbol really has made a splash.
Fashion has always been a powerful symbol of who we are and what we represent. It can reveal or celebrate the country we live in, our political views, our hobbies and interests, our religious practices, our culture, our spiritual beliefs, our success, the way we’re feeling or the way we see the world. Symbols and language adapt and change insignificance, to represent something that is meaningful to a person at a point of time and geography. It’s possible that the ankh began its life as just some lines, which were meant to provoke a phonic sound, forming part of a word. But because that phonic sound was used in the word life, the symbol of the ankh took on a whole life of its own. It represented the breath of life, which was controlled by the gods, and could be used to protect a nation like Egypt.
And in other uses, it was used in an anti-establishment act of rebellion. Angry with unnecessary bloodshed, and all the problems of the time, young people started a movement of free love, bringing ankh and many other global symbols in their anti-establishment message. It was a look, maybe, to globalization, at least visually, to unite the fractured world. And now, in modern times, it’s used as a symbol of pride in African culture and history, by people of African descent in the diaspora.
Many, especially in fashion, have aimed to shock with the use of symbols. For example, Vivienne Westwood’suse of crosses on her t-shirts in the 70’s. These items of clothing were used to shock and upset the status quo. The ankh, however, has caused far less angst. It has instead, for many, entered into the realms of the undiscovered. It’s such a common sign and symbol now, used throughout designers, that perhaps for many of us, it has lost its meaning. It has just become a pretty shape, something easy to make out ofgold or attach diamonds to, a way to celebrate the beautiful curves of the symbol. And, considering how much the meaning of the symbol has changed anyway, what’s wrong with that?
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