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How the Ankh symbol of ancient Egypt has survived in modern languages

Updated on August 26, 2013
Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Kariuki is a Museum Exhibits Designer and author of several children's and young adults story books. He is also a gifted sculptor & painter

The Ankh - symbol of Life and Good Health in Ancient Egypt
The Ankh - symbol of Life and Good Health in Ancient Egypt | Source

Impossible as it may first sound, the Ankh in the name Tutankhamen has survived in languages spoken today. One of these languages is English. The other languages are in Africa. Maybe by probing further, we may find more languages with vestiges of the ‘Ankh.’

Who was Tutankhamen?

Tut-ankh-amen was the boy king who took over the reins of power from his father Akhen-aten around 1362 BC. Before he ascended the throne, his name had been Tut-Ankh-Aton, an indication that he had worshipped Aton, just like his father.

Young Tut’s handlers changed his name to Tut-Ankh-Amun to stress the fact that Aton had been overthrown as the principle God and Amun now had been restored as the chief God of Upper and Lower Egypt. Clearly a boy of 9 years could not have understood the significance of changing his name when his priorities, like all boys his age then and now was to play with his age mates. Neither would he have had the skills or inclination to lead a super power of the day. The finger points at Horemhab the Army General as the man behind a palace coup as detailed in the lens at –

The name Tut-Ankh-Amun is hyphenated in this hub to emphasise that it had been compounded with three words – Tut, Ankh and Amun. Each of these morphemes had a meaning. The prefix Tut may require conjecture, but certainly not Ankh.

Ankh was in reference to the symbol of life and good health often shown on images of the Aekhenaten in prayer. In these depictions, the sun’s rays hold a cross like object with a round top. This was the Ankh. Amun was of course the God whose name has been inherited by modern religions to mean “let it be – Amen.”

In the same way that Amun has survived into modern religions, Tut and Ankh too have survived as we shall soon see.

In my hub, Akhenaten and the Kikuyu, I have shown that the name Mwangi (Kikuyu) and Ntangi (Meru) are in commemoration of the coming to Power of Tut-Ankh-Amen. The prefix Mwa and Nto in Kikuyu and Meru respectively mean OF.

Mwa – Ankh (Mwangi?)

Nto – Ankh (Ntangi?)

Tut – Ankh (of the Ankh?)

It is safe to conclude that the Tut in Tut-Akh-Amen meant OF.

Vestiges of Ankh in Kikuyu, Meru and Luo

How has the Ankh survived in languages spoken today including English? We have already seen that it has survived in the names Mwangi and Ntangi but we need more proof especially with the original semantic field that included ‘health.’

The words Ugima and Mangima mean health in Kikuyu and Luo respectively. The ‘gi’ in the first word and the ‘ngi’ in the second are vestiges of Ankh, in my humble opinion.

The Ankh in English

This symbol which is really an outline of a human being with outstretched hands was very important to the ancient Egyptians. I would expect that most people would have it as a pendant or object to carry around for good luck – a sort of talisman. In the same vein sailors going out to rough seas and probably uncharted waters would need its supposed luck, health and life giving properties to ensure that they come back alive. Compare the Ankh symbol with the ‘anchor’ that sailors used to ensure that safety of docked ships. To me it seems like an anchor is an upside down Ankh. The upside down design of the anchor was likely to have been dictated by functionality.

I would like to suggest that the word Ankh and Anchor have the same root – in ancient Egyptian mythology.

The Swahili word for Anchor is Nanga. The Swahili were known to be able sailors for centuries. Lamu is an island on the Swahili coast of Kenya. The Lamu cat is the only cat species in the world that resembles the Bubastis cat of ancient Egypt, an indication of frequent contact between the Swahili and ancient Egyptians. Indeed, when Vasco da Gama arrived at the East African Coast, he had to hire the services of a Swahili sailor to navigate him to India. Swahili sailors frequently went to India on trading missions, using the seasonal monsoon winds. One wind blew them to India and at the right time and the other monsoon wind blew them back to the East African Coast. When the Swahili docked their sailing dhows, they called that action “tia nanga” – put the anchor.

I suggest too that the word Nanga, Anchor and Ankh have the same root in ancient Egypt.

The Anchor - used to ensure that ships do not go adrift
The Anchor - used to ensure that ships do not go adrift | Source

The Ankh and coastal towns

When Akhenaten was overthrown by the army general Horemhab, you can expect a flood of refugees out of Egypt in all directions. This happens even today in modern states. Some walked across borders, others sailed over the oceans and seas. Those who frequently sailed on trading missions to the East African coast along the red sea would naturally have ran away with their relatives on the same known routes. When they arrived at a place where they had to dock in search of a place to settle, they would ‘tia Nanga’ – put the Anchor. You can imagine that the hoards of escaping refugees Anchored at several spots along the East Africa coast. Eventually these docking places, the Tianangas would develop into vibrant settlements. Words change over time and hence the reason why we have several places called Tanga along the East African Coast.

Clearly the word Tanga, Nanga, Anchor and Ankh have the same root in ancient Egypt.

Now these new settlers in East Africa did not stay still. While some were content to stay along the coast, others preferred to move into the interior and back to the coast on trading missions. The people in the interior may have called these newcomers the Tanga people. With time their impatient movement all over the coast and parts of the interior expanded the meaning of Tanga to mean ‘roam.’ Below are words that have been derived from Tanga and by inference, Ankh:

Tanga – walk about

Tangatanga – roam all over the place

Tanganyika – roam in the grasslands (former name for the Republic of Tanzania)

But there are inland place names with a Tanga stem, and yet there was no inland sea route. Examples are Katanga province in Congo and Gathanga in Central Kenya. It should be noted that The originator of the Kikuyu whom I have theorized as having come from Egypt was called Mukuru wa Nyagathanga. That suffix thanga has the Ankh embedded in it. We can only guess that the word has either something to do with Tutankhamen, or that anchoring had taken on the meaning of settling anywhere even inland.

In conclusion, the Ankh symbol of ancient Egyptina mythology obviously spawned the words Tut-ankh-amen, Anchor and Nanga. From the above argument, the word Ankh ismost probably responsible for the coining of the words Tanga, Tangatanga, Tanganyika, Katanga and Gathanga among others in Africa.


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  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

    Emmanuel Kariuki 3 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    butterflywings1 , thanks for your contribution.

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    butterflywings1 3 years ago

    Tau cross-T bar cross seen in anch and anchor.

    Symbol of immortality, life everlasting.

    Anchors are associated with Jesus and churches.

    Egyptians were crucified on a cross before Christianity was invented.

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

    Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    @BlackTechnocrat - your comment makes very interesting reading (and could be a hub on its own merit). A healer is "mganga" in Swahili. You have done a good de-construction job and I have learned something new from another part of Africa - you need an accolade. It is true Tutankhamen reinstated the Amun religion though as a 9 year old there were some handlers in the background. I suspect that was Horemhab who killed the boy in the end and became the last king of the 18th Dynasty. I wonder what you you would say about the name "Horemhab." I have often wondered if it shares a root with arabic word "Haram" which appears in Swahili as "Haramu."

    Thanks for your detailed comment.

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    BlackTechnocrat 4 years ago

    I think we can get a good grasp of the meaning on the prefix TUT- from the scarab associated with the name of Tutankhamun. The scarab is known to gather dung, which it molds into a ball and then push it to its nest hole.

    In Shona, we call the scarab MUTUTANGORE contracted to MUTUTA. That word is singular as denoted by the class noun, MU- affixed to the stem -TUTA. NGORE means stored food.

    To me, TUT is but a rendition of the verb TUTA (to gather/collect), which becomes a noun once the class noun MU- is added to it.

    ANK can possibly be a rendition of NGORE since ANKH and NG have the same phonetics.

    If we consider ANKHA as a rendition of ANGA or 'ANGA as NGANGA or N'ANGA, we can make some phonological sense out of ANK. NGANGA or N'ANGA means traditional healer-priest in all the Bantu languages that I am familiar with.

    Thus TUTANKH can be seen as MUTUTAN'ANGA / MUTUTANGANGA, which means the gatherer of healer priests, once we add the class noun MU to TUTANKH so that we have MUTUTANKH.

    I said this makes phological sense (the verbal sound conveying the meaning of the word) because the pharaoh was considered the chief priest. This means TUTANKHAMUN gathered or reassembled the priests.

    Furthermore, we need to bear in mind that the AMUN priesthood was persecuted and therefore scattered all over the place during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Once Semankare and Akhenaten were gone, the persecution of the AMUN cult was no only stopped but reconstituted. That being the case, we can see the phonological sense of TUTANKHAMUN being MUTUTA+(N'A)NGA+(A)MUN, which means he who that gathered the priests of Amun.

    Keep me in the loop. I'm on Facebook as Black_Technocrat.

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

    Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks for reading Cyndi10. It appears like Ancient Egypt aided in trafficking words that we still use, albeit unknowingly. I will seed to find more.

  • Cyndi10 profile image

    Cynthia B Turner 5 years ago from Georgia

    This was an interesting hypothesis. I enjoy reading about the possible origins of words when I stumble across them, especially words that may have ties to ancient religions or to mythology.

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

    Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    These are not excerpts from a Thesis mimi2222. You too can open your own hubpages and set the record straight. I will be your ardent follower.

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    mimi2222 5 years ago

    This is fantasy!! Not scholarly at all.

  • Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

    Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya

    Thanks Radical Rog for giving me another interesting angle to the Ankh. I will definitely explore further.

  • Radical Rog profile image

    Peter Rogers 5 years ago from Plymouth

    Very interesting and a lot of good points.

    Prior to being called the Ankh, this same symbol was called the Tau, with the same meaning, the symbol of life, but symbolising the god Tammuz, the deified Nimrod of Genesis, the re-gathering of civilisation after Noah's Flood. Flood survivors - Life, the defeat of the 'One God' who tried to destroy mankind, corresponding with the overthrow of Aten. Consider comparisons of Akhenaten, Aten's high priest to Moses.