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 a very useful tool for shepherds.
Yet, the iconography for this in the ancient world is not abundant, and shepherds also are depicted simply with straight staves. 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 was also applied as a symbol of rulership to kings and gods as well.
This iconography is particularly helpful to illustrate numerous ancient texts which speak generically of shepherds’ rods, some of which may have been crooks while others were straight, as well as distinct words specially designating a crook (such as are found in the Egyptian and Hittite languages). 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 than ancient peoples themselves to show us what these common shepherding implements looked like?
SHEPHERDS WIELDING CROOKS
The Egyptians have provides 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
The Pharaoh Mentuhotep II, of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, is depicted with a curved staff or 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…”
The Egyptians were not the only ones known to use crooks. The Hittites were also known to employ them in imagery, which similarly could also double 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)
Hence we see evidence of ordinary pastoralism in the Hittite Empire but also the heightened use of the common shepherding implement, the crook, 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 original 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 shows a deity being depicted in a shepherding role and using two different implements: as rod and crook. This description is especially interesting given the description of a 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, 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 Yahweh as a shepherd is a common verbally descriptive image in the Old Testament. Nonetheless, other Ancient Near Eastern did depict their gods with a shepherd’s crook hearkening back 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
Let us look now at iconography of gods 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.
Greek deities and creatures
The Greek god Pan as well as satyrs were sometimes depicted with a crook as well:
Thus we can see that the imagery of the shepherd’s crook was wide spread and, in the case of kings and gods, also came to symbolize a ruler with power to guide the people under them.
|↑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.|
|↑7||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).|
|↑8||Mark, Joshua J. The Mesopotamian Pantheon. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/221/the-mesopotamian-pantheon.|
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