The ancient Egyptian symbol known as the ankh is one with a lengthy history, and one that has enjoyed popularity in so many later cultures, including many contemporary ones. Like so many symbols this popularity has caused its origins to be obscured by the views of those later cultures.
Said to have been everything from an anchor to a stylized sandal strap, in hieroglyphs the ankh represented “life force”. As such there are many classic examples of tomb intaglios and paintings depicting various early Egyptian gods and goddesses reaching out to a mummified corpse with an ankh, sometimes these images have the ankh cupped in the hand or at the fingertips. This often-repeated scene is thought to represent the deity bestowing life once more upon a dead soul. It should also be noted that the ankh appears to have been a symbol of divine authority, as gods were often pictured carrying it by the hoop, and pharaohs have been represented holding it by the shaft.
Later cultures focused on this ability to restore life, viewing the ankh as the symbol of eternal life. It is still used as a religious symbol today representing everything from the Egyptian Mysteries, especially the Isian Traditions; to Coptic Christianity where it has gained heavy associations with the Christian cross.
Other names for this symbol include the crux ansata (cross of the handle), the Coptic Key, and the key of life. Though sometimes called the Coptic Cross, this is actually inaccurate as the Coptic Cross is another symbol entirely. There is however a specific Coptic Ankh.