What is today an iconic symbol for shepherding has an interesting history when we look back at its origins in ancient history. A shepherd’s crook is a staff or rod with a hook at one end used for directing or separating herd animals such as sheep and cattle. The crook could conceivably be used to also hold an animal in place from stepping into danger or a place it should not go. Hence the crook was used for guiding and protecting a flock. Overall it was and still is a very useful tool for shepherds.
Yet, when we look back through historical relics, depiction of crooks is not always present with shepherds in the ancient world, and many are instead depicted simply with straight staves. Does that mean that the common assumption that shepherds had crooks in the ancient world three or four millenia ago is anachronistic? This article presents evidence that it is, in fact, not anachronistic. Furthermore, while the iconography for crooks in the ancient world is not abundant, it is yet sufficient to get an idea of its varieties across time and cultures. So then, it bears some special attention to trace the imagery of the crook in the Ancient Near East in particular to illustrate what the crooks looked like and how they were depicted. I will only briefly survey such imagery below to serve as a quick orientation. As will be seen, the crook was used not only by shepherds but also by hunters, and was even applied as a symbol of rulership and protection to kings and gods.
This iconography is particularly helpful to illustrate numerous ancient texts which speak generically of shepherds’ “rods”. Some such rods may have actually been crooks, while others were indeed straight. The distinction in iconography also helps us better understand the significance of distinct words which existed in certain languages which specially designated a crook rather than a staff (such as are found in the Egyptian and Hittite languages). Additionally, when reading we might conjure images to our mind of what those crooks looked like based on more modern forms, but while there are indeed some similarities there are also some interesting differences to be observed. What better source to gain clarity on such details than ancient peoples themselves showing us what these useful shepherding implements looked like?
SHEPHERDS WIELDING CROOKS
The Egyptians have provided us some vivid examples from Egypt of curves staves or crooks. Henry Fischer in a survey of numerous kinds of staves depicted in Egyptian reliefs and iconography notes several different illustrations of curved staves.Fischer, Henry G. “Notes on Sticks and Staves in Ancient Egypt.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 13 (1978). https://doi.org/10.2307/1512707. Among the figures he supplies [from plates by J.E. Quibell, Excavations at Saqqara 1907-1908 (Cairo, 1909)], one shows a man using a curved staff with the crook around the neck of one of the fowl. In another figure, two men are pictured with curved staves in hand, one of the men having a dog (likely a “Tesem” hunting dog) on a leash.
In another context in which a crook appears, it perhaps unexpectedly shows their use in an instance which does not show cattle:
“In other scenes at Beni Hasan the herdsmen who carry such staves are tending cranes… Three Theban examples of the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty show herdsmen with …crooks driving long-necked fowl — a crane in one case and, in two other cases, flocks of cranes, ducks, and geese.”Ibid., Pgs. 8-9. https://doi.org/10.2307/1512707.
Fischer reproduces the following plates for those scenes [from Jean-Francois Champollion, Monuments de l’Égypte et de la Nubie, Planches, IV (Paris, 1845)]:
A third example, found among Egyptian paintings found at Beni Hassan of visiting Asiatic peoples.
“His staff might be simply a shepherd’s tool, but might also be a symbol reinforcing his princely status by reiterating his title.”
A portion of the painting shows a man placing a rod of some sort which has a slight curve to it behind the neck of an ibex. While it is not clearly a crook it may yet be related to it in some way by serving a similar function. This man’s name is given as Abishai or Abisharie and he is depicted as the leader of the delegation and a ruler.
Susan Cohen in a discussion of the painting describes the object as simply a “curved implement”. She writes: “Abishai is shown using a curved implement to further control the ibex, while the man behind him grasps the gazelle’s horns with his right hand.”Cohen, Susan. “Interpretative Uses and Abuses of the Beni Hasan Tomb Painting.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 74, no. 1 (2015): 19–38. https://doi.org/10.1086/679590.
Another source notes two things about the depiction. First, it mentions the heiroglyphic symbol showing a crook that is written above the ibex:
“The title HqA xAswt (ruler of the hill-lands) is familiar in its Hellenized form, Hyksos, most often associated with the Levantine princes who conquered Egypt at the end of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1650 B.C.)… HqA, written with a crook, is commonly translated as ‘ruler’…”Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). Cultures in Contact : From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C., Edited by Joan Aruz, Sarah B Graff, and Yelena Rakic. … Continue reading
Secondly, it endeavors to describe the object in the man’s hand and its purpose (describing the latter as a staff that may have been used by shepherds):
“Abisharie extends his right hand with the palm flat and facing down, in a gesture of respect or submission, toward a large standing figure of Khnumhotep II. With the other, he uses a short staff to restrain a Nubian ibex. His staff might be simply a shepherd’s tool, but might also be a symbol reinforcing his princely status by reiterating his title (although it is significantly less curved than the hieroglyph for HqA).”Ibid., Pg. 159.
These observations of the crook being used as royal symbol leads into the next iconographic category.
KINGS WIELDING CROOKS
One of the earliest examples we have in Egyptian iconography of the royal use of a crook is shown in the following relief of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II (ca. 2100 BCE–ca. 2000 BCE), of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom.
The quintessential and most bedazzling example though found among Egyptian artifacts is, of course, the instance of the innermost coffin and burial mask of Tutankhamun which was found inside his sarcophagus.
Egyptian royalty were not the only ones known to use crooks in their iconography though. The Hittites were also known to employ them as a royal symbol. Citing examples of pastoralism in Hittite culture, Arbuckle and Hammer write:
“The shepherd’s crook, or litus, served as a Hittite royal symbol, and livestock were frequently listed as booty in military campaigns (Beckman 1988). Sheep, goat, and cattle pastoralism were highly integrated into local economies, with both settlement-based herding and transhumance attested in texts.”Arbuckle, B. and E. Hammer. 2019. The Rise of Pastoralism in the Ancient Near East. Journal of Archaeological Research 27: 391–449. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10814-018-9124-8. Pg 34. (italics original)
One relief found at Hattusa depicts “the God Sharruma (son of the Thunder God Teshub) embracing King Tudhaliya IV, Yazılıkaya, the Hittite sanctuary of Hattusa, Turkey”Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hattusa,_capital_of_the_Hittite_Empire_38.jpg, showing Tudhaliya grasping an inverted crook in hand.
“The shepherd’s crook, or litus, served as a Hittite royal symbol, and livestock were frequently listed as booty in military campaigns…”
Hence we see evidence of the crook in ordinary pastoralism in the Hittite Empire, but also the heightened use of the common shepherding implement as a symbol of kings as well.
DEITIES WIELDING CROOKS
The Hittite Dictionary published by the University of Chicago mentions a Hittite text which it translates (with the publisher’s editorial and parenthetical notes): “But who will cull them (the calves mentioned two lines before) out (of the herd)? The Stormgod [will cull] them [with] a rod, both with a rod and a crook.”The Hittite Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Pg. 176. https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/CHDP.pdf. The text source it cites is … Continue reading
This characterizes a deity in a shepherding role who notably is using two different shepherding implements: a rod and a crook. This description is especially interesting given the description of a divine shepherd with two implements in Psalm 23:4 (“your rod and your staff“) applied to the true God of Israel, Yahweh, and may help us visualize and distinguish the two. A rod was simply straight, and may have been short to be used as a club or smite dangerous animals or other attackers, whereas the crook had the curved end for the purposes mentioned before (directing herd animals). It is not unlikely that the crook was also occasionally used as a weapon (refer to the hunting example below), but that was not its primary purpose.
The Israelite religion was aniconic, meaning they were forbidden to depict Yahweh as it clearly stated in the opening lines of the Ten Commandments. Hence there is no iconography to be found of Yahweh shepherding, even though speaking of Yahweh as a shepherd is a common description used in the Old Testament to signify his authority, care, and protection over Israel. However, other Ancient Near Eastern peoples did create imagery depicting their gods with a shepherd’s crook to symbolize to their role as guiding and protecting deities.
“But who will cull them (the calves …) out (of the herd)? The Stormgod [will cull] them [with] a rod, both with a rod and a crook.”HITTITE CUNEIFORM TEXT
Following are a few instances of such iconography of deities using the shepherd’s crook.
Mesopotamian gods: Amurru / Martu
The deity Amurru (also known as Martu) was commonly depicted with a crook in iconography. The name Amurru is Akkadian while Martu is the deity’s Sumerian counterpart name. Joshua J. Mark writes on Amurru:
“The Akkadian and Sumerian name for the storm/sky god of the Amorite people (also known as the Amurru) who migrated to the Mesopotamian region c. 2100 BCE. The god Amurru is associated with Adad but is a gentler version always depicted with a gazelle and a shepherd’s crook or staff and watched over nomads. He was also known as Martu. His consort is Beletseri, scribe of the dead.”Mark, Joshua J. The Mesopotamian Pantheon. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/221/the-mesopotamian-pantheon.
It is no surprise to see Egyptian deities shown bearing a crook as well, as its Pharaohs did.
Greek deities and creatures
The Greek god Pan as well as satyrs were sometimes depicted with a crook as well, as shown in the following images.
The Crook Used in Hunting
The last example, however, is perhaps the most lively and vivid illustration of them all, provided to us from ancient Thrace. In the year 2000, a Thracian burial mound dating to the 4th century BC was accidentally discovered in Aleksandrovo, Bulgaria. Inside the burial chamber was found a domed ceiling along which a circular fresco was painted. It depicts an elaborate hunting scene. In one portion of the painting, a man is depicted wielding a curved wooden stick in one hand and a spear in the other. He is standing behind another hunter on horseback who is attacking an antlered animal (possibly a deer or moose). Thrace was for a long time independent of Greece and Macedonia until Phillip of Macedon conquered it in the mid-4th century BC, so this painting was made shortly before or concurrent with the Macedonian occupation of Thrace and thus likely shows native Thracian use of the crook.
The iconography more closely parallels the example we find in Psalm 23 of “dual wielding” a shepherd’s crook along with another implement, although in this case it is a spear rather than an unpointed staff.
Overall, we can see that the imagery of the shepherd’s crook was widespread across cultures and time periods. The instrument was popular with shepherds for tending their animals. If one came into a violent confrontation with a wild animal, the crook could even be utilized to restrain, strike, or catch an animal. In the case of kings and gods, it also came to symbolize a ruler with power to guide the people under them. Thus, the crook found a versatile and enduring use in the Ancient Near East; illustration of which has been preserved for us in ancient iconography beyond the references found in ancient texts, thereby bringing alive before our eyes how they were utilized.
|↑1||Fischer, Henry G. “Notes on Sticks and Staves in Ancient Egypt.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 13 (1978). https://doi.org/10.2307/1512707.|
|↑2||Ibid., Pgs. 8-9. https://doi.org/10.2307/1512707.|
|↑3||Cohen, Susan. “Interpretative Uses and Abuses of the Beni Hasan Tomb Painting.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 74, no. 1 (2015): 19–38. https://doi.org/10.1086/679590.|
|↑4||Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). Cultures in Contact : From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C., Edited by Joan Aruz, Sarah B Graff, and Yelena Rakic. Metropolitan Museum of Art Symposia. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013. Pg. 159.|
|↑5||Ibid., Pg. 159.|
|↑6||Arbuckle, B. and E. Hammer. 2019. The Rise of Pastoralism in the Ancient Near East. Journal of Archaeological Research 27: 391–449. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10814-018-9124-8. Pg 34.|
|↑8||The Hittite Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Pg. 176. https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/CHDP.pdf. The text source it cites is from a 60 volume collection of cuneiform tablets from Boghazköi titled Keilschrifturkunden aus Boghazköi (28.9).|
|↑9||Mark, Joshua J. The Mesopotamian Pantheon. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/221/the-mesopotamian-pantheon.|