Egyptian Shabti: Companions in the Afterlife

Shabtis in Ancient Egypt

Shabtis or Ushabtis are the inseparable companions of the ancient Egyptians buried with grave goods. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a mirror image of the word they knew. When the deceased successfully passed the ceremony of the weighing of the heart, he or she was therefore directed to the heavenly paradise of eternal life, the Field of Reeds, also known as the Sekhet-Aaru. Here the deceased were meant to find their home, just as they’d left it, along with loved and dear ones.The practice of using shabtis began during the Old Kingdom, 2686-2181 BC. They are, along with scarabs, the most numerous Egyptian artefacts that survive to this day and therefore represent one of the major cornerstones of ancient Egyptian culture.

Egyptian Faience Shabti for the Overseer of the Royal Fleet under the Reign of Pharaoh Amasis

Shabtis and the Sekhet-Aaru

In the Sekhet-Aaru all earthly occupations were present, including work. Shabtis were intended to act as servants for the deceased, and perform any manual labour for their master in the afterlife. For this to be possible, it was necessary that each shabti present in the grave had the name of their master inscribed on it and also a summoning spell to which they replied. In fact, shabti or ushabti translates as “the answerer”.

One Shabti for Each Day of the Year

As the afterlife was considered to be a reflection of life on Earth, so the condition of the dead was reflected: the more shabtis one could afford to bring with them to the afterlife the less work he was going to be doing. Tradition dictated to put several hundred shabtis in the grave, at least one for each day of the Egyptian year, so 365, with an overseeing shabti for every ten working shabtis, so an additional 36 statues, with an astonishing total of 401 shabtis for a single grave!

beaded mummy masks
beaded mummy masks

Working Shabtis

Working shabtis are usually in mummified form and feature one or more work or agricultural tools, such as the hoe and the basket, to enable them to perform the specified work in the afterlife. The overseeing shabti would monitor the work of the other shabtis and was modelled differently; it was dressed as the deceased and had a whip of office wrapped over its shoulder. These statuettes were usually placed in groups around the area where the sarcophagus lay, sometimes placed in beautifully decorated boxes painted with scenes of the daily life of the deceased.

Shabtis’ Inscription

Such figurines in mummified form were also inscribed with passages from Chapter Six of Book of the Dead, the intention of which was to secure safety for the deceased in the afterlife. This inscription would have begun, ‘Sḥḏ WsỈr ḥm-nṯr prt-ḫrw….’ (‘The illuminated one, the Osiris, the god, an offering…’).

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