The Crook and Flail in Ancient Egypt

The Crook and Flail in Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn


The crook (heka) and the flail or flabellum (nekhakha), are two of the most prominent items in the royal regalia of ancient Egypt. Actual, very fine examples of both survive from ancient Egypt, as do statues and various wall reliefs, paintings and papyrus with representations of these objects.

The crook and flail, though different scepters, could every so often be depicted separately, though usually paired with some other type of scepter, but they were most commonly represented together, held across the chest of the kings, Osiris, or other gods identified with them. They were insignias of kingship, and while other deities could proffer them, they never kept them.

Note the flail held by King Narmer on his famous Palette, a very early example, but also note the lack of a crook.

Both insignias derived from the iconography of Andjety, who was the local god of the Delta town named Djedu. He was represented in human form with two feathers on his head and holding the crook and flail in his hands At a very early date in Egyptian history, Andjety, who had a close relationship with kingship from the earliest of times, was absorbed into Osiris of Busiris, who became a national god known simply as Osiris. Osiris, of course, was regarded not only as a god but also as a deified deceased king and consequently his insignia, and particularly that of the crook and flail, were treated as symbols of royalty.

Sacred models of them were kept in Heliopolis. The crook was a cane with a hooked handle, sometimes gold-plated and reinforced with blue copper bands. It probably derived from the shepherd's crosier. Its hieroglyphic value was "rule". The earliest example of a crook or heqa scepter comes from Abydos and the tomb

listed as U-547, dated to the late Naqada II period. This scepter, made of limestone, was found fragmented, but a complete scepter made of ivory was found in another Abydos grave, the one listed as tomb U-j. This is the largest tomb of Abydos found to date. The earliest representation of a king carrying the crook is a small statue of Ninetjer from the 2nd Dynasty.

There were many crooks and flails in the Tomb of Tutankhamun, including even adorning the small coffin that held his internal organs

The flail was a rod with three attached beaded, strands. The strands could very considerably, using different types of beads and the lengths between the beads could be broken up into several segments. The flail appears alone on some of the earliest representations of royal ceremonies, as shown in the example from a label of King Den in the 1st Dynasty, sitting under a canopy or in some ritual structure, waiting to run the Sed-festival. It possibly derived from a shepherd's whip or a fly whisk. However, some scholars prefer to regard it as a ladanisterion, a flail-like instrument used until the present day by shepherds in the Mediterranean region and elsewhere

for collecting ladanum, a gummy substance excreted from the leaves of the Cistus plant. According to classical writers, it was used in the preparation of incense and unguents. This suggestion, proposed by the late Professor P.E. Newberry who helped in the clearance of Tutankhamun's tomb, is plausible, but, as yet, there is no clear evidence that the Cistus plant grew in Egypt during pharaonic times, but perhaps it could have been used to harvest other gums.

A very rare depiction of Osiris as Res-udja (he who awakens intact) from the tomb of Seti I. Looking more like Ptah than Osiris, he holds the typical crook and flail.

Mysteriously, a flail is sometimes depicted floating above the upraised hand of Min and other ithyphallic deities. Certain sacred animals carried the flail on their backs.

Here, the Four Sons of Horus hold flails only, in both hands, above the canopic chamber door in the tomb of Aye

Although the crook and flail were most often represented as emblems of the god Osiris, they were also carried on some ceremonial occasions, besides the coronation, by the reigning pharaoh. Very occasionally, the crook was held by viceroys of Nubia and also by viziers. A painted scene of tribute from Asia in the tomb of Tutankhamun's viceroy of Nubia, Huy, depicts the king holding both the crook and flail in his left hand and the sign for "life" in his right, while the viceroy holds a crook, but no flail, in his left hand and a single ostrich plume in his right. Only very rarely is the flail shown in the hands of priests or officials and such instances are limited to scenes of royal jubilee festivals.

The crook and flail did not die out altogether with the end of the Pharaonic Period of Egyptian history. At least visually, these objects wee carried over into Roman times.

In silhouette, the flail resembles the fly-whisk, a stick with three pendant animal pelts, but despite their similar appearance, they are not interchangeable.


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
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Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2003 Thames & Hudson, LTD ISBN 0-500-05120-8
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Tiradritti, Francesco, Editor 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 0-8109-3276-8
Masterpieces of Tutankhamun Silverman, David P. 1978 Abbeville Press, Inc. ISBN 0-89659-022-4
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Treasures of Tutankhamun British Museum 1972 Thames & Hudson Ltd ISBN 0 7230 0070 0