Pharoah’s Little Helpers: The Shabti Funerary Statuettes of the Ancient Egyptians

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A shabti [also known as ‘ushabti’ (statuettes made from the 21 st Dynasty onwards) or ‘shawabti’ (those from Thebes during the New Kingdom)] is a funerary figurine used by the ancient Egyptians. There are different hypotheses as to the origin of this word. For example, some have proposed that this name comes from the verb ‘sha’, which means ‘to command’, whilst others have suggested the word ‘swb’, meaning ‘stick’ as the origin of this name. These figurines were placed in tombs as grave goods, and were believed to function as servants for the deceased in the afterlife. Shabtis are human / mummy in form, and may be made using a variety of materials, including faience, clay, as well as wax. Shabtis were used during different periods of ancient Egyptian history, perhaps starting from the end of the First Intermediate Period / beginning of the Middle Kingdom. Today, shabtis are found in the collections of many museums around the world.

Antique Egyptan Shabtis in the Louvre Museum, Paris. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

A Human Substitute

During the Pre-dynastic and the Early Dynastic periods of Egypt, there is some evidence of human sacrifice for funerary purposes. It seems that servants would be sacrificed so that they may accompany their masters to the afterlife. This practice did not last for long, however, as it became apparent that this was both unnecessary and wasteful. Instead of having their servants sacrificed, rulers chose to have them symbolically represented, for instance, on tomb paintings and reliefs, in order to bring them to the afterlife.

The practice of symbolically representing servants as paintings later developed into the use of figurines, i.e. shabtis. Some of the earliest known shabtis were found in the funerary complex of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II (a ruler of the Eleventh Dynasty considered to be the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom) at Deir el-Bahri in Thebes. These figurines were in the shape of humans, and were made either of mud or wax. They were then wrapped in linen, and deposited in coffins, as though they were real mummies. Whilst these shabtis are not inscribed with magical spells, like later ones, it is likely that they serve the same or a similar function.

Shabtis in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Shabtis in the Louvre Museum, Paris. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Additionally, early shabtis were often equipped with tiny tools which were supposed to help them accomplish the work they were to do in the afterlife. Examples of such tools include baskets, mattocks and hoes. From these miniature tools, we are able to infer that the shabtis were to carry out agricultural work for their masters in the afterlife. Apart from that, other jobs carried out by the shabtis include baking, brewing, building and so forth. Later on, the shabtis were inscribed with a magic spell, which was supposed to bring them to life.

Traditional Materials

The materials used for making shabtis also changed over time. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the early figurines were made of mud or wax. Over the centuries, more durable materials were used. During the Middle Kingdom, for example, shabtis were often made from stone, whilst faience became a common material during the New Kingdom. Other materials used to make shabtis include wood and terracotta, the former being used as early as the Middle Kingdom, whilst the latter becoming common during the New Kingdom.

Seti I Shabti in the Louvre

Seti I Shabti in the Louvre ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )

Moreover, the number of shabtis that accompanied the dead varied according to the period. During the 18 th Dynasty, for example, the dead were typically accompanied by one shabti each. This number grew to several in the following Dynasty. By the time of the Third Intermediate Period, the dead were buried with as many as 360 shabtis, one for each day of the year. Furthermore, during the early part of this period, there was also a special type of shabti, which are known as ‘overseer’ shabtis. These statuettes are depicted with one hand to the side, and the other holding a whip. As they are each in charge of ten shabtis, a burial with 360 ordinary shabtis would have 36 overseers. Later on, during the Late Period, the dead continued to be buried with a large number of shabtis, though the ‘overseer’ shabtis fell out of fashion, and disappeared.



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