Monday, October 5, 2015



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In the August issue of the “Biblical World", for 1905, I attempted to show that the origin and significance of the Ring and Rod which appear in the hand of the Babylonian Sun God, Shamash, is to be found in the idea of world sovereignty as symbolized to-day in the orb and scepter as held in the hands of modern royalty. In this article I propose to explain an even more interesting symbol held by the hand in most representations of the gods and goddesses of Egypt. I refer to the Egyptian Ankh or looped handle cross.

Renouf, in a note in his published lectures on the Religion of the Egyptians delivered as one of the Hibbert Lecture Courses (1879), has an indignant protest against identifying the Ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life, with phallic emblems, although he fails to explain the significance of the form of this symbol. Wilkinson in his “Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians”, acknowledges that he could not determine its origin; while Baring-Gould in his “Curious Myths of the Middle Ages”, says that “No one knows, and probably never will know what originated the use of this sign, and gave it such significance ”, i. e., as a symbol of life. I believe it has been my good fortune to discover the origin of this emblem both as to its form and significance.

In its later shape, the Ankh is a conventionalized form of the early Egyptian loin girdle so frequently represented as worn by men otherwise nude. Very early this symbol is found in the form of a knotted girdle with bow and divided hanging ends, exactly similar in design to the girdles depicted on male figures. The Egyptologists, Sayce and Petrie, see in the Ankh a fisherman’s girdle, and Griffith thinks that it probably represented a knot or a tie of some kind. None of these Egyptian scholars tells us why this emblem of a loin girdle came to indicate life. As an article of dress the girdle was originally used by the Egyptians, as in fact by all primitive people, for a covering merely for the organs of generation. It was here that the Deity was supposed to more immediately exhibit his power as the Creator of Life. We know absolutely from the translation of the Rosetta stone that the Ankh as a hieroglyph indicated life, not as indicating the organs of life themselves, but rather their special covering which soon came to be used as an emblem to signify the life or generating power of the organs covered. Formerly Antiquarians thought that the Ankh was a united emblem of the phallus and kteis. Early forms of this symbol, however, show us definitely that the shape of the later Ankh is a mere conventionalized outline of a more detailed pattern whose design is as I have said exactly similar to a loin girdle. The majority even of later Ankhs bear traces of their original design in that the ends of their cross pieces are wider than where they meet to form a cross. Again, Ankhs are found at the foot of coffins together with sandals, which strengthens the idea that they represent an article of dress. We must not neglect to add that it was the custom of many early peoples to bury the girdle with other articles of attire in the grave of the deceased. As for the conception of the transmission of the power of the organs covered to their coverings, we see this in the power ascribed to the girdle of Venus. Further, the design of the buckle of the girdle of Isis, shows clearly that its form was taken from the girdle itself, and this buckle is exactly similar in shape to many of the early Ankhs. All these points show clearly that the shape of the Ankh was derived from the loin girdle.

That the Ankh signifies life in its generative force as well as its immortal and eternal attributes, is seen in its frequent association with the Sun as the great generative power. The Sun generates, consequently it is not surprising that its rays are frequently pictured as terminating in Ankhs. Thus again we see the Ankh signiiying generative life, which further tends to prove that it derived its shape from the loin girdle an article of dress specially covering the generative organs.

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In May, 1906, I wrote to the Rev. S. Baring-Gould touching his statement that no one probably would ever know what originated the use of this sign and gave it its significance. I sent him the explanation which I have here given, accompanied by several drawings showing the early loin girdle in position as the only article of dress; two Ankhs, one made of knotted rope, and both showing marks as of divisions between the arms and upright body of the cross, and a copy of an early Ankh sent to me by Prof. Petrie in Nov., 1905, showing the two hanging ends, which would otherwise have formed the upright solid body, wide apart. I contended that from a comparison of these drawings we could see that the conventionalized subsequent Ankh had originally derived its shape from the early Egyptian loin girdle, and that as originally a loin girdle we could easily understand how from the first it had been used to signify generative or life force and, consequently, life. In reply Mr. Gould wrote, “I was much interested in your letter, and I believe you are right relative to the Ankh”.

Any reader desiring to see the original of these drawings which I sent to Mr. Gould can do so by examining Petrie’s “History of Egypt"; his “Medium”; Griffith’s “Hieroglyphics”; and Perrot and Chipiez's “Art in Egypt”. I cannot but think that I have correctly interpreted the origin and significance of the Ankh, and that such interpretation will be of interest and value to all students of religious symbolism. In his exceedingly interesting and clever work, “The Threshold Covenant", Dr. H. Clay Trumbull wrote, “Among the early Babylonians and Egyptians, as among other primitive peoples, the twofold symbols of sex are counted the sacred emblem of life, and as such are borne by the gods of life, and by those who have the power of life and death from those gods. The circle and rod, or ring and bolt conjoined, are in the right hand of the Babylonian sun god Shamash, as in the Ankh, or crux ansata, they are in the right hand of every principal deity of ancient Egypt” (p. 200).

Westropp, in his “Primitive Symbolism”, tells us that “numerous writers have maintained that the Ankh or T (tau), as the sign of life was the phallus " (p. 12).

Inman in his “Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism ”, claims that the Egyptian symbol of life “represents the male triad and the female unit, under a decent form” (p. 44).

Prof. Hommel, in a letter to Dr. Trumbull, published in “The Threshold Covenant” endorses the latter’s view of the Egyptian Ankh.

If I am correct in my explanation of the origin of the Ankh, all these writers are shown to be in error in their explanation of this symbol, and Renouf’s protest against the identification of the Ankh with phallic emblems is partially confirmed. I say partially for although not an emblem of phallic members, nor carrying always a phallic significance, as for instance when it is used to signify immortality, it nevertheless as I have shown, originated in a phallic conception, and is frequently used to convey a phallic meaning, as for instance when represented as bestowed upon royal pairs, kings and queens, not merely indicating long life, but also fruitfulness.

In my former article on the Ring and Rod, I did not refer to Dr. Trumbull's mistaken identification of this symbol with the kteis and phallus. From the evidence there submitted, however, it will be seen that he is as much mistaken in that identification as in the identification we are here considering. It seems to me that he should have seen his mistake in both instances in the fact that both symbols, the Ring and Rod, and the Ankh, are carried by goddesses as well as gods, and it is scarcely likely that female deities would have been represented as conferring phallic powers, and so as carrying male phallic emblems. The power to bring forth was certainly ascribed by both Egyptians and Babylonians to goddesses, but the power to generate was by both ascribed to male deities. The Ankh in.the hand of a goddess has never a phallic signification, that is, of generation, it implies merely immortality, eternity. It seems to me that this fact of itself should have been suflicient to show that the Ankh was not a symbol of phallic members but of phallicism under given circumstances, and then associated with male deity. As signifying life merely, it was carried by both gods and goddesses.

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