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From all the many symbols and motifs that have survived since Ancient Egyptian times, the crook and flail are one of the most popular. Symbolic of the power and authority of the ruler, the crook and flail can often be seen held by pharaohs crossed across their chests.
In this article, we aim to explore why the crook and flail became a traditional symbol for Ancient Egypt and its significance today.
Crook and Flail – What Is It and How Was It Used?
The crook or heka is a tool utilized by shepherds to keep their sheep from danger. It’s a long staff with a hooked end. In Egypt, it usually bears the colors gold and blue in alternating stripes. The crook is the shepherd’s staff that scares any predator lurking in any direction. This tool is also responsible for making sure that the herd is grouped together in one place, guaranteeing that not one sheep will go astray.
Meanwhile, the flail or nekhakha is a rod with three strings of beads attached to it. Just like the crook, it is adorned with gold and blue stripes on the rod itself, while the beads vary in shape and color. Historians have varying beliefs when it comes to the actual use of the flail during Ancient Egypt. One of the most common beliefs about the use of the flail would be as a weapon to protect the sheep from predators, much like the crook. It could also have been used to goad the sheep and serves as the shepherd’s whip or a tool for punishment.
Another interpretation would be that the flail is a tool used in agriculture to thresh seeds from the husk of the plant itself and not a shepherd’s tool.
Crook and Flail as a Combined Symbol
Because it happened so long ago, at this point nobody really knows how the meaning of the crook and flail changed from a mundane tool to its symbolic. However, over time the combination of the crook and flail became symbols of power and dominion in Ancient Egypt.
In fact, these symbols were not automatically used together. The use of the flail or the flabellum for high ranking officials in Ancient Egypt was first recorded before the use of the crook or the two symbols combined were noted.
- Flail – The earliest record of using the flail for powerful men in Egypt was in the First Dynasty, during the reign of King Den.
- Crook – The crook was used as early as the Second Dynasty as seen in depictions of King Nynetjer.
Perhaps, the most popular image of a crook and flail in Egyptian history is that of the tomb of King Tutankhamun. His actual crook and flail have survived the changing of seasons, time, and reigns. King Tut’s staffs are made out of bronze with blue glass stripes, obsidian, and gold. The flail beads meanwhile are made out of gilded wood.
Religious Connections of the Crook and Flail
Aside from being a symbol of state power, the crook and flail also became associated with several Egyptian gods.
- Geb: It was first linked to the god Geb, who was believed to be the first ruler of Egypt. It was then passed on to his son Osiris, who inherited the kingdom of Egypt.
- Osiris: As the king of Egypt, Osiris was given the epithet The Good Shepherd probably because of always being depicted with the crook and flail.
- Anubis: Anubis, the Egyptian god of lost souls who had murdered his brother Osiris, is also sometimes portrayed holding a flail while in his jackal form.
- Min: The flail is also sometimes seen held in the hand of Min, the Egyptian god of sexuality, fertility, and of travelers.
- Khonsu: The icons of Khonsu, the moon god, also show him bearing these symbolic tools.
- Horus: And of course, as the successor of Osiris, Horus, the Egyptian sky god, can also be seen holding both the crook and flail.
However, some experts point out that the crook and flail could have originated from the iconography of the local god of Djedu town named Andjety. This local god is depicted in human form with two feathers on top of his head and holding both the crook and flail. As the Egyptian culture melded into one, it’s likely that Andjety was absorbed into Osiris.
Symbolism of the Crook and Flail
Apart from being a generic symbol of royalty or regalia in Ancient Egypt, the crook and flail meant several things to the Ancient Egyptian civilization. Here are just some of the meanings linked to the famous tools:
- Spirituality – The popular connection between Osiris and other Egyptian deities and the crook and flail allow Egyptians to represent spirituality through these two tools.
- Journey to the Afterlife – As the symbols of Osiris who is also the Egyptian god of the dead, early Egyptians believe that the crook and flail also represented the journey to the afterlife, where they would be judged by Osiris using the Feather of Truth, a scale, and their own heart.
- Power and Restraint – Some historians believe that the crook and flail are symbols of opposing forces: power and restraint, man and woman, and even mind and will. The crook refers to the merciful side. On the other hand, the flail represents punishment.
- Balance – The crook and flail have a famous position when it comes to pharaohs. When they die, the crook and flail are crossed upon their chests as a means to show the balance between power and restraint or of mercy and severity as rulers of the kingdom. This balance achieved after death is believed to be the cause of enlightenment that may lead to rebirth or to passing the trial of Osiris himself.
The symbolic meaning behind the crook and flail ultimately reminds people, not just Egyptians, that we should always practice good judgment and discipline to lead a healthy and balanced life. It remains one of the most powerful symbols of the Ancient Egyptian civilization, representative of the power and might of the Pharaohs.