This refers to its ankh-like shape.
1. The original shape.
In most representations, the ankh looks like a kind of cross, the upper end being replaced by a tear-shaped loop. But happily archaic representations allow us to get a good idea about the structure of the ankh.
One is the remarkable 1st dynasty stone vase of Ankh-ka (anx-kA), where the ends of the horizontal branches are rounded, instead of flaring. The ankh also appears to be made of a kind of ribbon, which because of the presence of a knot at the center appears concave.
The other representation is the way the ankh sign is written on a comb bearing the name of the Horus Djet : the vertical shaft of the ankh appears doubled there.
Since the Egyptians represented things as they knew they were, not as they appeared (aspective representation), the two 1st dynasty examples allow us to reconstruct the ankh.
-the horizontal part appears to be two loops, as in a tied shoelace, except that the ribbon is flattened as in a bow tie. Usually these flattened parts are seen head on, and they become narrower where they near the knot, again as in a bow tie.
-the vertical part is formed by the two ends of the ribbon hanging down, one usually hidden behind the other, as in a tie. Again the ribbon narrows towards the knot.
-the loop is tear-shaped because the ribbon comes out of the knot vertically. The same can be observed when a bound tie is taken off without undoing the knot.
2. The material.
So the ankh is made of a ribbon. What could the material be ? Usually one can use very detailed 4th dynasty representations to find out. One of these, a painted inscription from the mastaba chapel of Nefermaat and Itet in Meidum (early Snefru), shows the ankh to be black (the color is variable in later representations : brown, green, blue...). If it had been made of cloth, it would no doubt have been represented as white. If it had been rope, it would have been yellow, with the design of the rope marked. If it had been made of reed or leaves, it would have been green. If it had been an obstetrical tampon (? or just a cloth to soak up blood during embalming ?) such as the tjt-knot, it would have been red. But black can hardly mean anything but leather. The feminine of anx, anx.t, can mean “goat” (FAULKNER, p. 44), so maybe the ankh was made of goat skin. There is also a word anx, “garland”, with fillet or plant determinative (ibidem), which is in keeping with the origin of the sign as postulated here.
3. The original use.
There is no obvious link that I can see between a leather garland and the notion of “life”. One could think of a strangling cord, which could have been euphemistically named “life-cord”, in the same way as the goddess Serqet-hut, “She who Opens the Throat (for easy breathing)” is a scorpion, whose venom provokes a pulmonary oedema and choking. But when strangling cords are represented, they do not look like an ankh, nor do the loops of this sign appear logical in such a device. The ankh could also be an umbilical chord, but I wouldn’t like to be the baby born which such a knotted chord !
So the ankh-object, whatever its use, was apparently used purely phonetically, because its name, anx, sounded like anx, “life”.
There are few clues as to the original use of the ankh-tie proper.
One is the presence of the ankh near vases typical of the Purification Place (early stage of funerary ritual) in object friezes inside Middle Kingdom coffins, at the foot end (LACAU I, 91 ; I, 103; II, 186). Sandals are often shown nearby. The ankh-sign has therefore been interpreted as a sandal strap (GARDINER, sign S 34, p. 508, quoting HASTINGS, and H. SCHÄFER’s contrary opinion). But the bow and loop look strange if this is true.
This is the way ankh-signs are actually represented in Purification Tent scenes in the tomb of User and the coffin of Heqa-ib the Great : the corpse is sitting on a large snw.t vase, its feet resting on the ankh signs. From other scenes, e.g. in the tomb of Rekhmire, where water is poured through a grid in a wickerwork circle behind the head of the deceased sitting on the vase, the true situation is as follows : the corpse is inside the snw.t jar and the wickerwork circle is the jar’s lid. The deceased is indeed said to have spent the night inside a dnj.t jar in PT § 437 (SETTGAST, p. 15 note 2). Where does that leave the ankh-signs ? Could they represent straps attached to the feet ? One does not see what function they could have fulfilled in that case. Two coffins have an inscription near the ankh signs in the objects frieze :
anx.wj (or : anx.w) r tA, Xr rd.wj=k (or : =f), “the (two) ankh on the ground, beneath your feet” (LACAU I, 186 ; SETTGAST, p. 12). This makes one think of a frequent characterization of the king : “all countries and all foreign peoples under your feet / sandals”. Could the original ankh objects used in the Purification Tent have represented the deceased’s dominion over “enemies”, i.e. generally speaking Chaos ? There is indeed a word anx meaning “captive”, the determinative of which shows an enemy with a prominent tie holding his arms behind his back (FAULKNER, p. 44).
The first station of the funerary ritual was the Purification and Embalming Tents, the domain of Anubis. Now early dynastic labels allude to the various episodes of the funeral, and one of these, dating from the Horus Aha, the domain of Anubis is represented by the jmj-wt object (“that which is in the embalming place”) : a vertical shaft (usually standing in a large bowl), and from which hangs a bag-like contraption made from the complete skin of an animal (dog, goat ?), with just the head and the legs cut off. On the large conical bases and stelae that probably served during the foundation ceremony of Djoser’s complex, and found reused inside the masonry, the imi-ut is represented, and an ankh-sign is attached to it. Could this be a goat, representing enemies, suspended head down, beheaded, dismembered, and “bound” with an ankh tie ?
FAULKNER, Raymond, « A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian », Oxford, 1981 ed.
GARDINER, Alan, “Egyptian Grammar”, 3d ed., Oxford, 1982.
LACAU, Pierre, “Sarcophages antérieurs au Nouvel Empire”, Catalogue Général du Musée du Caire, 2 vols., Cairo, 1904.
SETTGAST, Jürgen, « Untersuchungen zur altägyptischen Bestattungsdarstellungen“, Glückstadt, 1963.
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Graham Oaten (18.104.22.168)