The Egyptian Key of Life is one of the most recognized ancient Egyptian talismans that remain in use to this day. More commonly known in modern society as an ankh, this distinctive Egyptian symbol is most often portrayed by a tear shape loop sitting atop a cross. The body of the cross itself is often believed to represent a person situated with their arms out; a submissive stance that can be seen as portraying acceptance and readiness to receive a higher knowledge of both life and death based on blind faith in the gods. The symbolic shape of the key can also be viewed as an image evocative of a mirror. With the two halves of the mirror representing both life and death, it can serve as a metaphor for the relevance and similarities between the two means of existence. Much like a mirror, there is always one side that you can clearly look into and a second side that although you cannot see it, you know that it is there.
This unique representation of a cross is actually an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic meaning “eternal life”. Signifying the Egyptian belief that they continue to exist in the afterlife, the Key of Life symbol is regularly present on the walls of Egyptian tombs. It is common for the images found in these paintings to be found within close reach of a god or goddess, or with a deity clutching the key by the loop; hence the reason it is often referred to as a ‘handled cross’.
The Key of Life was most aptly named for the ancient Egyptian belief that it possessed the necessary power needed to unlock the secrets hidden behind the doors of both life and death; allowing them to live forever. Paintings of the Key of Life secure its prevalent connection to the Egyptian belief in the afterlife and the role it played in giving gods and goddesses the ability to offer eternal life to the dead.
The Breath of Life
Many paintings include the Key of Life symbol illustrated not only as a singular adornment but often near the hand of a deity. The reason for its assumed connection to the gods is due to the vital role the gods played in helping the deceased to find eternal life. Egyptian gods and pharaohs were the only entities that held the power necessary for the spirit’s transition between life and death. In order for the deceased to carry on through the afterlife, a deity was required to present them with the “breath of life” upon death – which served to ensure that the deceased maintained the ability to breath in the afterlife. A god bestowing the “breath of life” is represented by renderings of an Egyptian god holding the cross up to the mouth or nose of another upon their death. Thus giving them the final breath that they believed would allow the spirit the blessing of continued life in the after-world.
As with many of Egypt’s mysterious practices and traditions, there are numerous theories surrounding the origins of the Key of Life symbol. But whatever the shape of the key is meant to represent, the one constant that remains is that each interpretation still revolves around the concept of eternal life and augmenting the spirit’s safety and arrival as it made its way into the afterlife.