Symbol of Life
And no, it is not a handled cross, although this is sometimes what the Ankh is called. The Ankh is a sacred symbol used in Egyptian symbology and in the Egyptian pantheon. It is on the inside of the pyramids, worked into the hieroglyphs on the walls, it is in their art it is in the manuscripts and literature of these ancient people. The Ankh can be seen being held by pharaohs worshiped by priests and of course in the hands of the gods and goddess that the Egyptians worshiped. Why does the Ankh look the way it looks though?
One belief by Egyptologist is that the Ankh is representative of the male and female of the race. The round portion at the top is the symbol for the female whil the vertical portion at the bottom is the male symbol. The ankh is th joining of the two symbols. The Egyptians celebrated males and females in their culture and in the worship of their gods. It would be very easy then to see them using a symbol, a symbol that was a combination of the two sexes as their focus for their worship, as their symbol for their religion.
Another explanation for the shape of the Ankh is that it is a representation of the Nile River. The Oval shape at the top is the Nile delta, the fertile section that flooded every year and made Egypt the breadbasket and the world power that it was. The vertical portion at the bottom is the nile as it travels from the Mountains in Africa to the Delta. The cross section is the two halves of the unified Egyptian kingdom.
Personally, I will buy either one of the explanations or both. They both make sense for the people that you are dealing with. They were an agrarian society, they were a people that understood the importance of the male and the female, that worshiped the male and the female. Maybe the Ankh was an off shoot of both, a bit of the biological and a bit of the natural in one.
In Modern Times
The Ankh is still heavily used today as a symbol of life and of spiritual beliefs. Some modern day pagans use the Ankh as a symbol of life. In video games, in movies and on TV the Ankh becomes a way to convey a characters connection to the otherworldly, the spirit something ELSE. Many pop-culture icons use the Ankh to show their connection to something more then themselves, you will see the Ankh shamelessly tattooed on their bodies as a symbol of their spiritualism.
At Ren Faire, you will see the Ankh on peoples garb to show that they are a druid, they are a sorcerer the character that they are portraying for the day has a bit of something different going on. Look for Ankhs on leather goods, in calligraphy and of course, you can probably have it Henne’d on any portion of your body that you would like – as long as it is not to outrageous.