The king of Uruk. He stands at the Tree of Life which
blossoms with eight-pointed rosettes.
Gudea and Ur-Namma, two great kings of Sumerian history
(circa 2100 B.C.). See an enlargement of Gudea, and see Ur-Namma at the
dedication of a new temple.
The crowns of Gudea and Ur-Namma are stylized versions of a
shepherd hat. That’s because a shepherd was considered the ideal role model
for a king (see The Shepherd Kings on this website). Sumerian kings were routinely described as the shepherds of
their people. Their crowns were doubtlessly taller and more grandiose than a
real shepherd hat, which gave the kings greater stature and made them seem more
regal. The shepherd crowns of Gudea and Ur-Namma were particularly extravagant
in this regard, but the crowns of many other Sumerian kings were more modest in
appearance. Their crowns more closely resembled the original hats worn by shepherds in
The reigns of Gudea and Ur-Namma occurred at the end of
Sumerian history, but I would suggest that the Sumerian ideal of shepherd kingship was established in the Uruk Period (circa 4000 – 3000 B.C.) at the very
beginning of Sumerian history.
The shepherd kings of Uruk:
Uruk was the first large city in Sumer (and in the world) so
it was literally the beginning of Sumerian civilization (“civilization”
is derived from the Latin word “civitas” meaning “city”). Uruk and other Sumerian
cities grew up around the first large temples in the region, so the cities were
originally administered by the high priests. Later, as the city-states became
more powerful and competitive, they were ruled by kings who could better deal
with the mundane, more down-to-earth matters of civic administration. Kings
could also command large armies to fight against other Sumerian cities and
to guard against foreign invasions. In the interim, according to the prevailing
theory, after Uruk was ruled solely by priests and before it was later ruled by
kings, it was governed by the “priest-kings”, so-named because they were often shown
performing both kingly and priestly duties.
A statue of the “priest-king” of Uruk, frontal and
three-quarter views. The statue is part of a matched set that is dated in the
Uruk Period. The nude statues are rendered in a very simple and abstract style
(click here to see a picture of both statues).
According to the Louvre, where the statues are kept, “On the
head of the priest-king is what seems to be a cap or headband” and the beard is
“continuous with the hair”. There are no striations on the top of the head to
show that it is hair, but then again, there are no striations on the beard
either. The simple abstract style of the figure makes it difficult to discern the exact nature of his headdress. In many depictions of the priest-kings of Uruk, one could argue that he is wearing a
hat, or a headband, or a hat with a band. I would suggest that it's a hat, and not
a headband, for the following reasons:
1) A headband is generally associated with the crown of an
Akkadian king, as seen on the statutes of Lamgi-Mari and Sargon. Sumer and
Akkad were two distinct countries that were often at war with each other, so it
seems unlikely that both the Sumerian and Akkadian kings would wear the same kind
2) If a headband was the crown of the prototypical Sumerian
king, it seems that the same crown would show up in other Sumerian
cities, in other periods of history. But there aren’t any known examples of later
Sumerian kings wearing a simple headband as a crown, not even in Uruk.
3) A headband wasn’t worn by Sumerian priests. Later portraits
of Sumerian priests were traditionally depicted in the same manner. They were
often nude, they poured libations from the same spouted pitchers, and they didn’t
wear any kind of headdress (as shown on an engraving, a plaque, and the Vulture Stele). On
the other hand, throughout Sumerian history, a simple headband was usually the
headdress of a female priestess (see the priestess of Ninsun and the high
priestess of Ur, to name just a couple) but the headband is never shown on a
male priest. It seems that if the headband was the mark of a male priest, then some
other examples would have shown up in Uruk or elsewhere.
In light of the evidence, I
propose a new theory about this statue of the priest-king of Uruk. I have never heard it mentioned before, but I
would suggest that he wears a shepherd’s hat with a domed top and a thick
brim. It is not as elaborate as the shepherd hats of Gudea and Ur-Namma, but it
probably closely resembled the rustic caps worn by ordinary shepherds. Early versions of the shepherd hat, like this one, had brims that were thick but narrow. Some other examples are shown on the seal impressions pictured below.
I also suggest that this "priest-king" is not a king at all, but just a priest, because he is nude. The Louvre states, "This nakedness is probably connected with the figure's participation in a
particular ritual - most likely a form of fertility cult." Although the priests are sometimes nude, it's not fitting that a king be shown naked. It would be injurious to his gravitas. In my opinion, the Uruk priest is not a priest-king until he put his clothes on.
For the sake of reference, the ruler of Uruk is a priest when he is shown naked, he is a priest-king when he wears the ceremonial netted skirt of Inanna, and he is a king when he wears a regular skirt.
I would further suggest that the shepherd,
which is clearly the model for Sumerian kings, was originally the model for a
priest. Like a true shepherd, the priest gathers his flock (the people) at the
temple and he administers to their needs, which is why a priest is often
referred to as a shepherd in many religions of the world. The shepherd priest of Uruk would later
become a shepherd priest-king, who then became the shepherd king − the ideal Sumerian king and the prototype for all other Sumerian kings.
A priest-king of Uruk. The dome of his hat is very high,
taller than where the top of his head should be. The thick brim is pulled down
low on his forehead. There is a hatband incised above the brim. From this angle
it is obvious that he is wearing a hat…
…from this angle, it is not so obvious. Now his hair looks
like a headband, or he is wearing a stylized chignon, and the hat and
the chignon are not differentiated.
Drawing of a head (Uruk). The notch in the back is either a ribbon used
to tie his chignon − or the hat is lower in the back (like the one shown above)
and his chignon is below it. The artists of Uruk were not always precise about
delineating the beard from the hair, or the hair from the hat, or the hat from
the band. That is why there has been some debate about the nature of his
headdress. Fortunately, not many images of the priest-king are quite so
ambiguous as this drawing and the statue shown above. The shepherd hat is more obvious in a
on the surviving fragments, as shown below.
Early versions of the shepherd hat looked like this. It was essentially a wool cap with a rolled brim. From this angle, it is easy to see why the hat has been mistaken for a headband.
The Blau Monument from Uruk. The proto-writing on the
Blau Monument is not translatable and the purpose of the artifact isn’t known.
According to the British Museum, “The two stone tablets seem to form a pair, though it is
not fully understood what they were used for, and what they mean. However, it's widely accepted that they record a transaction in which land was exchanged
for various goods…“ The Blau Monument may “thus represent an early form of
Mesopotamian kudurru or boundary stone”.
It is said that the two parts of the Blau Monument belong together, but I don't think this is true because the king is dressed differently on the separate parts. Neither do I believe that the pieces are by the same artist, or that the separate parts even belong in the same time period. Anyway, I'll save that discussion for another webpage. In the meantime...
There are two views of the priest-king on the Blau Monument,
as shown above. On the left, he holds an unidentified object and he is clearly wearing a shepherd hat. On the right, he
presents a lamb or a goat, perhaps as a sacrificial offering. The outline of the shepherd hat isn't very obvious, but the notch
on the back of his head that delineates the hat's lower brim shows up better in an
enlargement. Judging by the writing, this part of the Blau Monument is much older than the part on the left, and the above two pictures show how the brim of the hat became wider over time until it resembled the later versions of the shepherd hat. The narrowness of the brim in the early depictions of the Uruk king is probably why his headdress is often mistaken for a headband rather than a hat.
It's not just the hat that identifies the Uruk king as a shepherd. He is also involved in the care and feeding of animals.
Uruk cylinder seal impressions of the shepherd king:
The shepherd king and a priest feed the sacred flock of Inanna. He wears the ceremonial netted skirt of Inanna. She was the goddess of war and the patron deity of Uruk.
Another image of the shepherd king feeding the sacred flock
of Inanna. Her looped standard with streamers is clearly visible in the middle
of this seal impression.
And yet another image of the shepherd king feeding the
sacred flock of Inanna.
Here the king is carrying an animal, and another animal is in the background. The priest carries a ceremonial spouted pitcher. The
baskets of food represent abundance.
Again with the animals. It seems animals are always in
the presence of the shepherd king.
A cylinder seal impression showing the shepherd king with pigs/wild
boars (sipa, the Sumerian word for shepherd, means a herder of any type of
animals, even pigs). The shepherd carries a staff. With him are a couple of
dogs (hunting dogs, shepherd dogs?). Shepherd dogs are mentioned in Dumuzid’s
Dream on the ETCSL, lines 95 - 97.
A similar seal impression showing two swine and four dogs. Two of the dogs are on a leash. Sipa also refers to a herder or keeper of dogs.
The shepherd king holds the branches of the Tree of Life
while rams feed on its eight-pointed rosettes. A lamb is shown in the
background. The rosettes were a sacred symbol for the Sumerians and the image of
rams feeding on the high branches became a common motif in ancient Sumer.
The shepherd king on a ceremonial barge. He has a
sacred statue of a bull, or a bull altar, or maybe it’s just a bull, and the
structure represents a pavilion in the background on the shore. Even when he’s on a boat, the shepherd king has an animal with him.
So what’s with all the animals? Surely it’s not to show that
the king is a goodhearted person because he is kind to animals. Of course some
of the animal images could relate to his functions as a priest – feeding the
sacred flock, offering sacrifices, etc.; but other Sumerian kings, like all
kings in the ancient world, also had priestly duties. They are shown performing
religious rites, meeting with the gods, and dedicating new temples, but they’re
not constantly surrounded by animals the same way as the Uruk king. The continuous presence
of animals in the iconography of the Uruk king is meant to establish his
identity as a shepherd, as the guardian and protector of his flock, the people.
Later kings didn’t need the animal iconography to identify themselves as shepherds. By then, the shepherd hat alone was enough to symbolize their role as shepherd kings
because this concept had already been established long ago by the king of
The Uruk king is the original shepherd king, so of course he
wears a shepherd hat. With so many animals around him, it would be surprising if he didn't wear a shepherd hat.
As to be expected, shepherd kings are mentioned in the Sumerian
historical records. The first reference to a shepherd king listed on the CDLI is Urukagina,
the king of Lagash, the same city as Gudea. This isn't very surprising because
Urukagina best exemplifies the concept of Sumerian shepherd kingship (see
Urukagina on this website). It is written on a tag that once adorned a statue
that is now missing. The tag states that the goddess Baba bore Urukagina for
the shepherdship of the nation. What’s interesting is that the kings of Umma in
this same period are also called shepherds. Umma and Lagash were archenemies
that had been at war for generations (see War: Umma and Lagash) and yet both their kings referred to themselves as shepherds. This means the concept
of shepherd kingship was already firmly established in all of Sumer.
A tag for a statue, stating "[The goddess] Baba, the grebe(?) of the Holy City, URU-KA-gina
/ she bore for the shepherdship (of the nation) / is its name." CDLI P222653.
Urukagina was a king in the Early Dynastic IIIb period,
circa 2360 B.C., which is about 650 years after the end of the Uruk period, and
yet there aren’t any references to shepherd kings during the interim years. It
seems that if the concept of shepherd kingship originated in the Uruk period,
then it would be mentioned somewhere in Sumerian writing during the following
ED I and ED II periods. In other words, if shepherd kings were invented in the
Uruk period, then why aren't they mentioned until 650 years later?
There are a couple of very good reasons for this. First of
all, very few Sumerian artifacts have survived the erosion of time during the
past 5,000 years. For instance, a quick check of the CDLI’s Mesopotamian Royal
Inscriptions (where written references to kings are shown) reveals zero
artifacts from the Uruk period and only one artifact from the following ED I and
ED II periods (2900 – 2700 B.C.). The ED IIIa period has just 23 entries, and
then there is a big jump in the ED IIIb period (2500 – 2340 B.C.) with 1,135
A grand total of 1 written record (for the combined periods of Uruk,
ED I and ED II) highlights the second and most important reason why
shepherd kings do not appear in the earliest Sumerian writing. That’s because
Sumerian writing was still in the process of being invented. Proto-writing
began in the Uruk period and it slowly developed during the ED I and ED II
periods. Needless to say, at first it was very crude and primitive. It was
almost indecipherable even to the Sumerians themselves, much less to a modern
Sumerologist. Early written Sumerian wasn’t well suited for narrative writing
(history, literature, mythology, etc.) which uses complex language to
express complicated ideas. It was mainly used for accounting, which
contains mostly nouns and numbers. Even so, many of the simplest accounting
tablets from this period remain untranslatable. That is why the Blau Monument
is still not translated 5,000 years after it was written.
So a king of Uruk could not issue a "press release", using the written word to announce his policy of being a good shepherd to his people, and then expect
everyone to know about it. First of all, the written language wasn’t suited for this
purpose, and second, not many people could read it. So if he wanted to get the
idea across, he had to do it pictorially. That is why there are so many images
of him involved in the care and feeding of animals, and that is why he wears a
Pictorially, it's the hat and the presence of animals that clearly identifies him as a shepherd. In lieu of writing, the best way for the king of Uruk to portray himself as a shepherd king is to put on a shepherd's hat and surround himself with animals.
A shepherd king of Ur, from the Early Dynastic I period. On
the left, a naked priest holds a ceremonial spouted pitcher. The king
stands beneath the arch of a temple or palace. Unlike the Uruk king, he doesn’t have a beard or a chignon, but in two other important ways he is just like the shepherd
king of Uruk −
he is surrounded by animals and he wears a shepherd hat. This ED I artifact
shows that the concept of shepherd kings had already spread from Uruk to the
rest of Sumer.
The Sumerian ideal of shepherd kingship spread throughout
Mesopotamia and it would last for many centuries after the Sumerians had passed into history.
The ideal of shepherd kingship wasn't just a propaganda ploy
used by the Sumerian kings to cast themselves in a favorable light. It was a
deeply ingrained aspect of the Sumerian culture. In 2350 B.C. the
Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians under Sargon the Great. The Akkadian Empire
would rule Sumer for the next two centuries. Properly considered, this was the Sumerian Dark Ages. They were no longer in charge of their own destiny
and their own cultural identity. Two hundred years is a long time to be a
subject nation, but the Sumerians eventually regained their independence and reconquered the Akkadians. They emerged from the Dark Ages with their civilization still intact. After the dark ages comes the renaissance. Now began the Neo-Sumerian Revival, the final flowering of Sumerian civilization, led by Gudea and Ur-Namma, the shepherd kings.
The fact that the shepherd kings were around since the very beginning of Sumerian civilization is of vital importance. The following explanation is from The Shepherd Kings:
The Sumerian civilization developed early, when the rest of the world
was still living in the Stone Age. The Sumerians prospered even though
they didn't have many natural resources. They didn't have much mineral
wealth and they didn't have an abundant supply of wood. They didn't even
have a lot of stone (imagine the civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and
Rome without their endless supply of stone). The Sumerians lasted
for thousands of years, even though they were surrounded by enemies.
I suggest there is one reason, and one reason
alone, why the Sumerians were the first to invent civilization, why they
prospered even without natural resources, and why they lasted for as long as they did. It's because of the shepherd kings.
And it all began with the shepherd king of Uruk.
The shepherd king of Uruk, detail from the Warka Stele. He
protects his flock by hunting the predatory lions, as any good shepherd would
In light of the evidence, I would like to propose a new theory about the name of Sumer:
Proof that the shepherd kings had been around since
the beginning of Sumerian civilization can be found in the name of Sumer itself,
ki-en-gi. Ki means “land”, en means
“lord”, and gi means “civilized”.
Therefore, ki-en-gi means “Land of
the Civilized Lords". En also means “priest”,
so ki-en-gi could just as easily be read as "Land of
the Civilized Priests". Therefore, the name of Sumer may have arisen in the earliest stage of its development,
when it was ruled by the shepherd priests of the temples, even before it was ruled
by kings. Then again, the name may have originated when the distinction between
priest and king was still blurred, i.e., when Sumer was ruled by the
priest-kings. In either case, Sumer was named for its form of government.
Today, it is not usual for a country to be named for its
type of government. The United States of America indicates it is a nation of
semi-independent states. Other examples include the Republic of Ireland, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and so on. In ancient times, however, a country
was usually named for a people (France was named for the Franks) or a region
(China was named for the Chin (Qin) province). Sumer is the only ancient country that was named
for its government.
It was named for the shepherd priest/king of Uruk.