Why Did the Humble Crook and Flail Symbolism Appeal to the Pharaohs?
Kings and queens, monarchs, emperors and rulers all over the world, through time immemorial, have had the responsibility of leading their people and defending their kingdoms. Monarchs are viewed as fathers or mothers of the nations, overpowering its enemies and protecting the state - a herdsman to the national flock. Rulers have also been, and still are in some countries, considered bringers of rain, masters with supernatural powers, and in some cases descendants of divine deities. Kings stand above and apart from everyone, even their relatives. And this brings us to explaining the symbolism ubiquitous in ancient Egyptian rulers of the crook and flail.
Rituals, magic, and beliefs have played a significant part in maintaining and expanding kingly powers. Special powers were believed to come to kings when they ascended to the throne.
As the onset of a new ruler often threw kingdoms into turmoil, confidence in the continuation of life as they knew it was crucial to the people. Continuity, therefore, was symbolized by royal items such a flag, clothing, jewelry, or other adornments worn by the new leader during ceremonies or public appearances. Of course, these items also displayed the wealth, power, and often the divine right of the ruler. Such items might be simple objects such as spears, bead necklaces, or headgear.
The Polish crown jewels (Jaroslav Moravcik / Adobe Stock)
Special head adornments exist in many civilizations around the world and while they differ widely, they are almost always made from rare and symbolic materials. Western and oriental crowns were usually made from gold and precious stones, while crowns from the Pre-Columbian era in the Americas were embellished with feathers of rare and beautiful birds.
The monarch’s treasure might consist of sacred objects, such as the golden stool of the Asante which is believed to house the soul of the nation, or the orbs and scepters used by European royalty. These objects have served as earthly icons of the monarch’s glory and often symbolized their embodiment of the gods. They also served to make the ruler more recognizable and attest to his status.
The early Egyptian kings came to power in approximately 3000 BC and the system of royal rule lasted for nearly 3,000 years. Among the many other items used to symbolize their rule were the crook and flail.
What are the Crook and Flail
The humble crook (known as the heka in Egyptian) used by shepherds, is a long, multipurpose stick with a hook at one end, to herd and sometimes catch sheep. It made a useful weapon against predators and helped with balance when negotiating rough terrain.
Stained glass of shepherd with crook (searagen/ Adobe Stock)
In Egypt, the crook was carried by gods and high officials, and represented the pharaoh's role as a shepherd caring for the people of Egypt. The crook was also adopted as a Christian symbol of care, as in the ‘crosier’. Metaphorically, church leaders care for their "flock", with Christ portrayed as the Good Shepherd.
The flail (known as the nekhakha in Egyptian) was made up of three strands of beads attached to a rod. Although historians cannot agree exactly what this was used for, there are two primary interpretations of its origin.
When used as a weapon to defend livestock, the flail represented the pharaoh's responsibility to establish the order, through punishment if necessary. Toby Wilkinson, an English Egyptologist and academic, theorized that the flail was a symbol of the ruler's coercive power. As shepherd of his flock, the ruler cared for his subjects while restraining them.
Secondly, a flail is an agricultural tool used for threshing - the process of separating grains from their husks. English Egyptologist and author, E. A. Wallis Budge, who worked for the British Museum, interpreted the flail as representing the pharaoh's role in providing for the people of Egypt and protecting his kingdom and farmlands.
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The farmer’s flail (Image: Hunta / Adobe Stock)
The flail is made from two or more large sticks attached by a short chain. When one stick is firmly held and swung, the other stick hits the pile of grain and loosens the husks. The dimensions and shape of flails changed to suit the particular grain they were harvesting.
The flail is thought to be an origin of the baton known as the nunchaku and was first recorded as a weapon during the 5th crusade, at the siege of Damietta in 1218.
Because the crook and flail were such important symbols, they were often illustrated and added to sculptures with the pharaoh holding them crossed over his chest. Some of these images date back over 5,000 years. Both items were typically embellished by gold or ivory with blue bands.
Ancient Egyptian carving of Pharaoh with crook and flail (Image: BasPhoto / Adobe Stock)
The Origins of the Crook and Flail
The earliest known example of a royal crook is from the Gerzeh culture, and comes from tomb U547 in Abydos, one of the oldest cities of ancient Egypt. The culture dates back to between circa 3500 BC through to circa 3200 BC.
By late Predynastic times, the shepherd's crook was used as a royal symbol of rule. The flail was initially depicted alone on early representations of royal ceremonies, but by the Second Dynasty (c. 2890 – c. 2686) the crook and flail were paired.
The only surviving examples of both the crook and flail come from the tomb of Tutankhamun. The staffs are made of bronze decorated with stripes of blue glass, obsidian, and gold, while the flail's beads are made of gilded wood.
A flail, a crook, and a sekhem scepter from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Eighteenth Dynasty, 14th century BC. (Image: A. Parrot / CC0)
The Divine Significance of the Crook and Flail
The crook and flail, which were carried by the pharaoh to all public appearances and among the most famous symbols from ancient Egypt, symbolized the power and majesty of the king. Both these items were associated with Osiris, and later Horus, and signified their early rule of the land.
Osiris, mythical first king of Egypt, was the god of fertility, agriculture, life, the afterlife, the dead, resurrection, and vegetation. He was portrayed as either green (the color of rebirth) or black (alluding to the fertility of the Nile floodplain) with a pharaoh's beard, wearing a feathered white atef crown, and holding a symbolic crook and flail. The crook represents Osiris as a shepherd god while the flail dates back to the god Andjety, a precursor of Osiris, who was one of the earliest Egyptian gods with roots in prehistoric Egypt.
Osiris, seated on his shrine with Isis and Nephthys, Book of the Dead, c 1275 BC (Public Domain)
According to the myth, Osiris was murdered by Set, who then usurped his kingdom. Osiris was resurrected by his sister-wife Isis, who bore him a son, Horus. Set was defeated by Horus, and order was restored to the land. The pharaohs were almost always associated with Horus during life and with Osiris in death. Once Horus avenged his father and defeated Set, he took the crook and flail of his father to represent the legitimacy of his reign, and so it was for the kings of Egypt who identified with these gods.
After he was murdered by Set, Osiris' soul, or rather his Ba which was the personality part of the multi-faceted soul, was occasionally worshipped in its own right, almost as a distinct god.
Since the Ba was associated with power, as well as meaning “ram” in Egyptian, he was depicted as such, or as Ram-headed. With Osiris as the ram, the god's crook and flail represent him herding the tribes of the upper Nile. As with the gods, when crossed over the chest, the crook and flail presented the ruler as a shepherd whose might was tempered by benevolence.
In Egyptian society, as pharaohs were the representation of the gods on Earth, the crook and flail connected the sacred with the secular. The symbols appeared regularly in the Early Dynastic Period during the reign of the first physical king, Narmer.
Narmer and the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt
Narmer is considered the unifier of Egypt and as the founder of the First Dynasty, the first king of a unified Egypt.
Before 3600 BC and before the unification of Egypt, the land consisted of autonomous villages. The earliest Egyptian hieroglyphs appear just before this period, though little is known of the spoken language at the time. Egyptian societies along the Nile based their culture on raising crops and domesticating animals. Shortly thereafter, they began to advance toward a more developed civilization. They experimented with pottery, used copper more frequently, and large constructions made from sun-dried bricks became popular during this time.
Narmer Pallete, depicting the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under Narmer, c 3200 – 3000 BC (Public Domain)
Egypt almost certainly unified both culturally and economically long before Narmer ascended to the throne in Memphis where the dynastic period originated. Political unification proceeded gradually, perhaps over a century. As trading networks were established and agriculture labor increased, divine kingship may also have gained spiritual momentum as the cults of gods like Osiris, Horus, and Set associated with living representatives became widespread in the country.
Narmer ( circa 3150) first appears on the necropolis seal impressions of Den (a pharaoh of the Early Dynastic Period who ruled for 42 years, starting c. 2970 BC) and Qa'a, the last king of the First Dynasty of Egypt. This confirms that Narmer was recognized by the first dynasty kings as an important founding figure.
While the crook and flail were used by the pharaohs to demonstrate their lineage to the gods as well display their supreme status, these were not the only items treasured by the ancient Egyptian rulers.
Egyptian Pharaohs’ Symbols of Power
According to legend, the uraeus was created by the goddess Isis and used to acquire the throne of Egypt for her husband Osiris . A representation of uraeus, a rearing Egyptian cobra, was added to the pharaoh’s crown to convey legitimacy to his rule as a symbol of royalty and divine authority. The uraeus was the protector of the pharaoh and was believed to spit fire at enemies from its place on the forehead. It was the personification of the goddess Wadjet, the protective goddess of Lower Egypt and one of the earliest Egyptian deities.
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The Wilbour Plaque, with the pharaoh and his queen both wearing the headdress featuring the uraeus. Brooklyn Museum (Roan, P / CC BY-NC 2.0)
The ankh is an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol that was most commonly used in writing and in Egyptian art to represent the word for "life" and, by extension, as a symbol of life itself. Early examples of the ankh date to the First Dynasty (c. 3100 BC). It was depicted in the hands of ancient Egyptian deities or being given to the pharaoh by the gods representing their power to sustain life and to revive human souls in the afterlife. The ankh symbolized spiritual life of the soul.
Sandals were another important symbol with which the pharaoh was buried as they were literally his contact with the land over which he ruled and symbolized his ability to crush his enemies underfoot. Enemies were depicted on the royal footstools and on the pavements at the palace, ensuring they were symbolically conquered.
Ankh in the hand of the god on the temple wall Luxor, Egypt (Vladimir Melnik / Adobe Stock)
Was scepters were depicted as being carried by gods, pharaohs, and priests. They were depicted in paintings, drawings, and carvings of gods, and often with emblems such as the ankh. The was scepter is a staff topped with the head of a canine, possibly Anubis, and usually forked at the bottom although this changed according to which god or mortal was holding it. The staff evolved from the earliest scepters, seen in representations of the first king, Narmer. By the time of the king Djet (c. 3000-2990 BC) of the First Dynasty, the was scepter was fully developed and symbolized the pharaoh’s authority and power. In a funerary context the was scepter was responsible for the well-being of the deceased and was therefore included in the tomb or in the decoration thereof. Remnants of real was scepters have been found with the earliest examples dat to the First Dynasty.
Head of the was scepter in the British Museum Collection (Public Domain)
While this is a small glimpse into some of the sacred items, these symbols contributed to the rich culture of ancient Egypt and many of them, such as the ankh, are still loved today. The priests and priestesses of the Egyptian deities, pharaohs, scribes, and nobility made use of these symbols regularly and they were known to every class of Egyptian society from ruler to the most modest members of the nation.
Top image: Sarcophagus of Tutankhamun with close up on the crook and flail. Source: Public Domain
David, R. 2003. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books
Available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0140262520?tag=anciehistoenc-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1
Gibson, C. 2009. The Hidden Life of Ancient Egypt. Saraband.
Available at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1887354670?tag=anciehistoenc-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1
Wilkinson, T.A.H. 2002. Early Dynastic Egypt. Routledge
Available at: https://play.google.com/store/books/author?id=Toby+A.H.+Wilkinson