The ushabti (also called shabti or shawabti, with a number of variant spellings) funerary figurines were placed in tombs among the grave goods and were intended to act as substitutes for the deceased, should he be called upon to do manual labor in the afterlife. They were used from the Middle Kingdom (around 1900 BC) until the end of the Ptolemaic Period nearly 2000 years later.

Etymology and usage of the terms

The term "shabti" applies to these figures prior to the Twenty-first dynasty of Egypt but after the end of the First Intermediate Period, and really only to figurines inscribed with Chapter Six of the Book of the Dead. Otherwise, they might better be defined by the generic term, funerary figurines.

The "shawabti" were a distinct class of funerary figurines within the area of Thebes during the New Kingdom.

The term "ushabti" became prevalent after the 21st Dynasty and remained in use until Ptolemaic times.

It is thought by some that the term "ushabti" meant "follower" or "answerer" in Ancient Egyptian, because the figurine "answered" for the deceased person and performed all the routine chores of daily life for its master [Brier, "op. cit.", p.186] , though it would be difficult to reconcile this derivation with the form of "shawabti". [Wendy Doniger, "Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions", Merriam-Webster 1999, p.1121]


Shabti inscriptions often contain the 6th chapter of the Book of the Dead, translated as:

“Illumine the Osiris NN, whose word is truth. Hail, Shabti Figure! If the Osiris Ani be decreed to do any of the work which is to be done in Khert-Neter, let everything which standeth in the way be removed from him- whether it be to plough the fields, or to fill the channels with water, or to carry sand from the East to the West. The Shabti Figure replieth: I will do it, verily I am here when thou callest”. [ [ Papyrus of Ani; Egyptian Book of the Dead] ]

(Example, for NN, Akhenaten, "Osiris Akhenaten").

In rare cases different chapters of the Book of the Dead are written. Furthermore, shabtis often mention the name and the titles of the owner, without the spells of the Book of the Dead.

Before being inscribed on funerary figurines, the spell was written on some mid-Twelfth Dynasty coffins from Bersheh (about 1850 BC) and is known today as spell 472 of the Coffin Texts. [Coffin Text 472 in A. Gardiner, "Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction", p.32]

History of usage

Mentioned first in spell 472 of the Coffin Texts they were included in the grave goods of the dead as small figurines since the reign of Mentuhotep II of the 11th Dynasty. [Ian Shaw, "The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt", Oxford University Press 2003, p.170] Some think that originally they may have symbolically replaced genuine sacrificial burials, a somewhat improbable theory as centuries had passed between the last known sacrificial burials and the appearance of the "ushabtis". They were generally distinguished from other statuettes by being inscribed with the name of the deceased, his titles, and often with spell 472 of the Coffin Texts [Bob Brier, "op.cit.", p.186] or the speech of the Shabti figure found in Chapter Six of the Book of the Dead In the 18th Dynasty during the reign of Amenhotep IV the figurines were inscribed with an offering addressed to the sun disk, Aten, rather than the traditional speech of the Shabti figure.

The "ushabti" was believed to magically animate after the dead had been judged, and work for the dead person as a substitute labourer in the fields of Osiris. From the New Kingdom on it was often referred to as "servant".

From the 21st Dynasty on ushabtis became common and numerous in graves. In some tombs the floor was covered with a great many ushabti figurines, in others the ushabtis were neatly packed into ushabti boxes. At times 365 ushabti were placed in a deceased Ancient Egyptian's tomb, one for each day of the year, but pharaohs had considerably more of these servants than commoners, and king Taharqa had more than a thousand. [R. N. Longenecker, "Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message of the New Testament", Wm. B. EerdmansPublishing 1998, p.28] Some tombs contained overseer "ushabtis" holding a flail, which were responsible for groups of ten ushabti each. These overseers became rare during the Late Period.

hape and material

Ushabtis were mostly mummyform, but in the 18th Dynasty during the reign of Tuthmosis IV they began to be fashioned as servants with baskets, sacks, and other agricultural tools. They were made of clay, wood or stone [Brier, "op. cit.", p.186] , early ones were sometimes also made from wax. Later figurines were often made of less perishable materials: stone, terracotta, metal, glass and, most frequently, glazed earthenware (faience). While ushabtis manufactured for the rich were often little works of art, the great mass of cheaply made ushabtis became standardised—made from single molds with little detail. Produced in huge numbers, ushabtis are with scarabs the most numerous of all ancient Egyptian antiquities to survive.



*Bob Brier, "The Encyclopedia of Mummies", Checkmark Books, 1998
*Harry M. Stewart: "Egyptian Shabtis", Princes Risborough 1995
*Paul Whelan: "Mere Scraps of Rough Wood?: 17th - 18th Dynasty Stick Shabtis in the Petrie Museum and Other Collections", London 2007 ISBN 978-1906137007

External links

* [ Funerary Statuettes]
* [ The ushabti: An existence of eternal servitude]
* [ Shabtis in private collections]

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