Servants, musicians and court craftsmen were once placed in the mounds around royal tombs and mastabas in Egypt (Żylińska 1972-1986:56). Dying with kings and queens was a privilege and a passage to eternity (Ibid.:56). Later, human sacrifices were abandoned and the old rite was replaced with others: deceased royal members were accompanied to the Afterlife by faience figurines placed in the tombs (Ibid.:56). They represented the servants and handmaids (Ibid.:56), the ushabti, originally known as shabti or shawabti (“Ushabti“ 2020).
No more work in the Afterlife
When in the times of the Old Kingdom (circa 2686-2181 BC.), the king and his relatives reached Sehet Jaru in the Afterlife, they had to do physical work themselves, sowing and harvesting, to ensure their livelihood, yet the king could have ordered the subjects who accompanied him to the Afterlife to do these works for himself (Rachet 1994:359). In the times of the Middle Kingdom (circa 2055-1795 BC.), the land of eternal happiness was opened to all subjects, but they did not intend to work in the Afterlife like ordinary peasants (Rachet 1994:359; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179).
The Life After Death was supposed to be a more perfect version of earthly existence, so the Egyptians believed that it would be full of free time and would not have to do manual labour (Ikram 2003:110). Therefore, in their tombs there have been found peculiar magical objects and images to improve the quality of the Afterlife (Ibid.:110). These also include the ushabti, although the name of such objects itself appeared only in the Late Period (circa 664-332 BC.) (Ikram 2003:111; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Primarily, such statuettes were referred to as shabti or shawabti (Ibid.:110).
Fetch and carry
Statuettes of servants had already been common during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (the Old Kingdom), depicting Egyptians devoting themselves to their daily activities (Ikram 2003:110). Among them there are thus imagery of people milling grain, baking bread, making pots, brewing beer, and many other scenes that have been seen by the Nile (Ibid.:110). It was believed that, just like the images painted and carved on the walls of tombs, the ushabti magically came to life in the Afterlife to perform the listed activities for the deceased (Ibid.:110).
In the Old Kingdom, statuettes did not always represent offering services; sometimes they were members of the deceased’s family, carrying out everyday activities for those they loved (Ikram 2003:110). In the Middle Kingdom, statuettes of servants were replaced by wooden grave models, beautifully illustrating people performing their daily activities (Ibid.:110). They too came alive thanks to magic and satisfied the needs of the dead (Ibid.:110). While, all these painted and carved crowds did work for the deceased as much as their real-world counterparts, the ushabti were to take on the tasks assigned to their master in the Afterlife as a part of the service for gods, or the work that they had to do to ensure their existence after Death (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:359). I wish I would not have to wait till the death to have such servants …
Mummies offering services
The ushabti, were originally called shabti by the Egyptians and appeared at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:359). They disappeared in the Ptolemaic Period (circa 332 – 32 BC.) (Ikram 2003:110; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Shabti usually took the form of mummy-shaped figures and, depending on the wealth of the deceased, they were made of various materials: wood, glass, clay, wax, stone, and bronze (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360).
For the richest, the most often they were made of the famous Egyptian faience, blue in the New Kingdom (circa 1550 – 1069 BC.), and green in later eras till the fourth century BC. (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Statuettes also differed in size and quality; some were only a few centimetres high, others were half a meter high (Ikram 2003:110). Some were carefully carved statuettes, others were roughly shaped lumps of clay or even just wooden pegs of wood (Ibid.:110). Until the time of Amenhotep the Second, the deceased had only one or two figures deposited in their tombs, and initially each had its own sarcophagus (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360). Later, also during the New Kingdom, the ushabti began to be placed in tall, chapel-shaped boxes, which by the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty (New Kingdom) already contained several hundred figurines (Ikram 2003:110). The ushabti were an extremely important element of tomb equipment, as proved by their prevalence in the graves of people of all social classes and in all periods (Ibid.:110). They served not only humans but also sacred animals; some mummies of the holy Apis also were accompanied in tombs by typical mummy-shaped figures with bull’s heads (Ibid.:110).
Enjoying the freedom of the Afterlife
Tasks of the ushabti were not always the same. Initially, the figurines took the place of the tomb models, taking over the role of their owner’s servants (Ikram 2003:110). However, they could also represent the deceased himself, which it is supported by the fact they were provided with their own sarcophagi, just like a mummy (Ibid.:110-111).
In this role, the ushabti replaced the statues of ka (Ikram 2003:111). However, their most important task was to do whatever work on behalf of the dead that gods ordered them to perform in the Afterlife (Ibid.:111). Mostly, the dead was demanded to cultivate the land and perform other farm labours, which were the backbone of the Egyptian economy (Ibid.:111). As the physical work expected of the dead was performed by their assistants or ushabti, they would not have to bother and enjoy the freedom of the Afterlife (Ibid.:111).
Spell for making an ushebti work
The ushabti came to life owing to a magical text that appeared during the Twelfth Dynasty (Middle Kingdom) as the Chapter 472 of the Sarcophagus Texts, after which it evolved in the New Kingdom into the Chapter Sixth of the Book of the Dead, also referred to as the Book of Coming Forth by Day or Book of Emerging Forth into the Light (Ikram 2003:111; “Book of the Dead” 2020). It is commonly referred to as the ‘Spell for making an ushebti work (for a man) in the God’s Land’ or simply, the ‘Shabti Spell’ The (Shabti Collections 2020). Its words were “inscribed on the shabtis with certain variations depending at which time they were made. Sometimes the complete spell was used, or certain clauses were omitted” (Ibid.).
As it is seen in the Third Intermediate Period (circa 1069 – 664 BC.) and Late Period (circa 664 – 332 BC.), the figurines were usually inscribed with the title of the owner and his name along with the name of ‘Osiris’, referring to the changed status of the deceased in the Afterlife (Ikram 2003:111; Shabti Collections 2020; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). It was either the ultimate inscription, or written in addition to the Spell (Ikram 2003:111; Shabti Collections 2020). “[The] earliest version of the ‘Shabti Spell’ appeared in the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom” (Shabti Collections 2020).
O, this/these shabti(s)
If one counts, if one reckons the Osiris (…)
To do all the works which are wont be done there in the god’s land
Now indeed obstacles are implanted therewith –
As a man as his duties
‘Here I am,’ you shall say when
You are counted off
At any time to serve there
To cultivate the fields, to irrigate the riparian lands, to transport by boat the sand of the east to the west
Here I am’ you shall say.Shabti Collections 2020
A servant for each day of the year
At the beginning of the New Kingdom, the ushabti were given agricultural tools, usually hoe and back basket models, but these quickly turned into images painted or carved on the figurines themselves (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:359). The number of the ushabti also increased (Ibid.:111). In some of the tombs, as many as a total of 401 figurines were discovered, including 365 servants, one for each day of the year, along with 36 overseers, each in charge of ten ‘workers’ of the ushabti (Ibid.:111). Seti the First, as the Pharaoh he was, (the New Kingdom) had seven hundred ushabti, and some dead in the Late Period had even more than a thousand, although, of course, the number of figurines varied according to the wealth of their master (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:360).
Shawabti and shabti
Some figurines of the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Dynasties (New Kingdom) were also called by the term shawabti (Ikram 2003:111). The difference between it and the more common name shabti is not clear (Ibid.:111). Generally, the etymology of the words referring to the figurines is still not clear and under debate (Rachet 1994:359). The shawabt or shabti terms may have derived from words meaning ‘stick’ or ‘food’, both of which would be appropriate for the statuettes often carved from wood and destined to work to provide their master with food (Ikram 2003:111).
Slaves in Amenti
In the New Kingdom, figurines were often considered as slaves in Amenti (Kingdom of the Dead), as shown in the preserved bills for their manufacture (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:359).
During the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period, the ushabti were made in mass-production; they were thus rather crude and carelessly made (Ikram 2003:111). The views on their role had also somewhat changed (Ibid.:111). Since then, they had been defined by the term ushabti (Ibid.:111). Its entry into the common language defines the figurines in a slightly different way; ushabti means to respond and clearly refers to the situation when the gods called the deceased to work, and the figurines replied: ‘Here I am’ (Ibid.:111).
Featured image: Ushabti in the Museum of Louvre. Photo by Néfermaât (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Uszebti” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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