Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Small and Mighty

        After the question which is the most famous key, visitors most often ask us what is the oldest key in our Key Room. The answer appears unassuming at first: a small ivory ankh.
        The ankh is the ancient Egyptian symbol and hieroglyphic sign for life. They are ubiquitous in ancient Egyptian art and decoration and are commonly displayed with gods and goddesses. Deities such as Isis, Osiris, Ptah, Satet, Ra, Hathor, and Anubis were depicted holding ankhs. I once saw a statue of Sekhmet—the Egyptian goddess of vengeance and retribution, as well as healing—at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The great stone figure, regal with a sun disk poised on her lion head, offered the viewer an ankh and thus offered life. The sign’s connection with immortals and the loop’s lack of beginning or end do not just entail life for the living but also eternal life for the deceased. Ankhs were used in funeral ceremonies, and the dead were called "ankhu." A sarcophagus was also called "neb-ankh," which means "possessor of life."
Statue of Sekhmet
        Originally, the ankh was thought by historians to signify sandals, the loop the part of the shoe intended to be placed around the ankle. It is also believed to have been used as a sign of initiation into sacred mysteries by placing it on a person’s forehead between the eyes; in this way it acted as a key locking the knowledge away from the uninitiated. Additionally, the ankh could be associated to the “Knot of Isis,” which was representative of mirror opposites like life and death, since the word ankh was also used for mirror. Another interpretation is that the loop suggests the path of the Nile delta, while the horizontal bar represents the unification of East and West. This may explain another reason why the ankh is connected with life: water is the ultimate sustainer of life. In the desert there is no life without it.
        Even though the ankh is Egyptian, we in Colorado understand water as a source of life and sustenance. With summer halfway over, we hope our ankh will continue to bring us rain and stave off wildfires. If you’d like to see this little piece of ancient history and decide which interpretation you like most for the “Key of Life,” come visit us at the Key Room!

Key Room Museum Curator