(from Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture by Richard H. Wilkinson)
The origin of this most familiar of hieroglyphs is somewhat obscure, and suggestions for its original identity have ranged from expressions of arcane sexual symbolism to representations of the humble sandal strap. Like the so-called "Isis knot" which it closely resembles, however, the ankh probably depicts some kind of elaborate bow. Detailed examples often show that the lower section is actually composed of two parts—the ends of the bow—and these ends are clearly separated in some archaic examples.
While the object originally represented by the ankh may thus have been a knot with some specific religious or mythical significance, its meaning as a symbol for "life" is clear enough, and it is with this basic significance that the sign appears as an emblem carried in the hands of many Egyptian deities.
A floral bouquet, also called ankh in Egyptian, is thus sometimes held by a man or woman in funerary representations to form a visual pun which subtly associates the deceased with the gods.
The ankh may represent the life-giving elements of air and water, and the sign is thus commonly offered to the king as a symbol of the "breath of life", and a personified ankh sign is sometimes shown holding an ostrich-feather fan behind the king in a variant form of this same idea.
In the same way, chains of ankh signs are also shown being poured over the monarch (and in later periods, over deceased commoners) as a symbol of the regenerating power of water. A related aspect of this symbolism is seen in the fact that the libation vessels which held the water used in sacred ceremonies were themselves frequently produced in the shape of the ankh hieroglyph.
The construction of functional objects in the form of the ankh is also seen in examples of the hooped sistrum and certain other items such as unguent spoons of the type where the lower parts of the hieroglyph are formed by the body of the girl and the horizontally tied papyrus stems, mirrors (the Egyptian word for mirror was also ankh), and mirror-cases—such as the ornate example found in the treasures of Tutankhamun.
Probably no other hieroglyphic sign appears so ubiquitously in the shape and decoration of small manufactured objects, as well as in the formal adornment of architectural features such as the walls, pillars and shrines of Egyptian temples. Often the ankh appears in conjunction with the djed and was signs in all of these contexts, and in inscriptions which are sometimes more symbolic or decorative in nature than they are linguistically functional. Nevertheless, the ankh remained a potent amulet throughout all periods of Egyptian history.
The exact origin of the Isis knot is unknown, though initially this sign was perhaps a variant of the ankh which it resembles closely, except that its transverse arms are curved downwards. In written sources the meaning and symbolism of the tiet seem to be similar to those of the ankh, and the sign is often translated as "life" or "welfare." In representational contexts, the tiet is found as a decorative symbol as early as the Third Dynasty when it appears with both the ankh and the djed signs, and later with the was scepter.
Perhaps because of its frequent association with the djed pillar, the tiet came to be connected with Isis, and the two symbols were thus used to allude to Osiris and Isis and to the binary nature of life itself. The association of the sign with Isis leads to it being given the names "the knot of Isis" (as it resembles the knot which secures the garments of the gods in many representations) and "the blood of Isis." Because of the latter name, "blood of Isis," the sign was often used as a funerary amulet made of a red semi-precious stone such as carnelian or jasper or from red glass.
Due to its symbolic significance, the tiet sign is frequently found with the djed in decorative bands carved on the walls and columns of temples, and in the decoration of shrines, and on other objects such as sarcophagi and beds. Sometimes the sign is personified as a goddess, where the knot is used as the form of a dress—with the center part and side-pieces forming the garment's stylized belt. A number of variants of this treatment of the tiet sign are found in works of the Late Period, with the sign being associated with the goddesses Nut, Hathor, and Nephthys as well as with Isis. All of these variants, however, appear in contexts relating to the idea of resurrection and eternal life.
From Old Kingdom times, the tiet knot was also fused with the bovine faces of the goddesses Bat or Hathor as an emblematic motif related to their cults and as a badge of office for the major domo of the palace. Combined with the cow-eared face of the goddess Hathor, the tiet is commonly depicted as an amuletic pendant slung low from the belt in statues dating from the Third Intermediate Period on. Block statues including this detail of the suspended amulet often show it dangling rather conspicuously just over the knees of the seated. In late examples such as this, however, the emblem usually seems to be present as a protective amulet rather than a badge of office.
Originally a fetish imbued with the spirit of a revered animal, or perhaps simply a herdsman's staff, or even the generative member of the bull, the was scepter consisted of a straight shaft forked at the base and surmounted by an angled transverse section often shaped as the head of some (perhaps fabulous) creature. According to one theory, the forked base of the scepter could represent an animal's legs, and the central shaft might then be understood as the creature's body or elongated giraffe-like neck.
Whatever its origins, the meaning of the was hieroglyph is nevertheless clear, and the sign is used with the connotation of "power" and "dominion." This conceptual content is clearly present in the iconographic use of the sign as an attribute and an emblem. From early times the was scepter is shown carried by deities as a sign of their power, and this use was eventually co-opted in representations of the king and, in later periods, in the mortuary representations of private persons.
Like other hieroglyphs with important amuletic and ritual significance, the was sign was used as a decorative element in the borders of reliefs and in the design of small decorated items. Most commonly, the sign occurs as a support for the sky hieroglyph in the traditional framing device used around temple reliefs in all periods.
Frequently the was is grouped with other hieroglyphic signs, especially the ankh and djed glyphs. A decorative frieze at Dendera characteristically groups these signs with the symbolic meaning of "all life, stability, and power." Like the ankh sign in this particular example, the was is often granted some degree of personification and arms are frequently added to the sign in representational contexts where it holds fans or standards, or even performs the gesture of adoration.
Several variants of the was exist. The gods Osiris and Ptah are often depicted holding a was scepter which combines the ankh and djed signs in its design; and decorated with a tall feather and a streaming ribbon, the was scepter became the emblem of Thebes (the Egyptian name for which was waset) and its Upper Egyptian province of Harmonthis. This emblem is usually worn as an identifying sign on the head of the goddess who personified the city. A further variant of the staff is found in the djed scepter which is identical to the was except for its sinuously curving shaft.
While the origin of this hieroglyph is uncertain, the sign may be a stylized representation of a pole around which sheaves of grain were tied or perhaps a rendering of the human backbone—and hence the use of the sign to connote "stability." It is known, however, that the djed was associated from Old Kingdom times with the chief Memphite god of creation, Ptah, who was himself termed the "Noble Djed." Thus in the tomb of Nefertari at Deir el-Medina, Ptah is shown standing in a shrine-like kiosk with a large djed column behind him. The capital of the forward support of the kiosk takes the shape of a djed pillar in this composition, and the characteristic staff held by the god also combines the djed with the ankh and was signs. Finally, it may be noted that the written djed sign also appears in the hieroglyphic inscription "All protection, life, stability, dominion and health...are behind him" at the rear of the god's shrine.
Through a process of assimilation and syncretism, the god Ptah was eventually equated with the underworld deities Sokar and Osiris, and by the beginning of the New Kingdom, the djed was widely used as a symbol of Osiris and seems to have been regarded as representative of that deity's backbone. New Kingdom coffins, therefore, frequently have a djed pillar painted on the bottom where the backbone of the deceased would rest, in this way identifying the person with Osiris and acting as a symbolic source of "stability."
The Djed was commonly produced as an amulet of stability and regenerative power and is also given a degree of personification in some representational contexts as an emblem of Osiris. The sign is thus frequently depicted with eyes and with arms grasping a crook and flail or other attributes of the god of the underworld.
In relief scenes, and in decorated objects, the djed was one of the most frequently used hieroglyphic signs, either alone or in conjunction with the ankh and was signs, or with the tiet—the so-called "Isis knot." The djed also had particular associations with Egyptian concepts of royalty. In the temple of Seti I at Abydos, personified djed signs are shown in the kind of heavy pleated clothing worn by royal figures, possibly as representative of the king himself. The royal ritual of "Raising the djed pillar" was also performed as a culminating act in the rituals for the deceased king and at the new king's jubilee festival. By means of ropes and with the assistance of priests, the king erected a large djed pillar in a symbolic act which may have represented both the rebirth of the deceased monarch and the establishment of stability for his own reign and for the cosmos itself. A painted wall relief from the temple of Seti I at Abydos shows the king erecting the pillar in this ritual with the assistance of Isis—for the raising of the djed pillar also symbolized the ultimate victory of Osiris over his enemy Seth.
Richard H. Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1992), pp. 177 [ankh], 201 [tiet], 181 [was], 165 [djed]. (Text is quoted, but with some silent omissions.)
According to The Egyptologists, Wilkinson is Director of the University of Arizona Egyptian Expeditions, a living Egyptologist who has been engaged in excavation and research in Egypt for many years.