This ancient Egyptian hieroglyph is an example of a symbol that has completely transcended its culture and yet is uniquely associated with it. It may have been in use as early as the 27th century B. C. E., a symbol associated with Imhotep, chief minister to the pharaoh Djoser and likely the chief physician for the pharaoh’s family, who later became a god of medicine and healing.
Also known as the staff sign, the key of life, the key of the Nile, the symbol for sexual union and for life, the ankh was also associated with the Egyptian goddesses Hathor and Isis. In reality, though, all manner of gods and pharaohs are depicted holding the ankh, showing that they command the power of life (and conversely, death) and that they also garner immortality for themselves. The recently dead of ancient Egypt are shown grasping it by the loop, or sometimes upside down, appearing to use it as a key.
Part of its enormous appeal in art and tattoos is the expression of opposites in its symmetric composition, as well as the active and passive qualities of the loop over the cross. It carries connotations that are ever popular in tattoo design choices: reflecting religious beliefs, appealing to our appreciation of ancient aesthetics, and using glyphs that communicate on more than one level. The ankh is a connection to the distant past and the fascinating culture of Pharaonic Egypt and, in all its basic uses, it is fundamentally a sign of life that is unending.