Egyptian Shabti: Companions in the Afterlife

Shabtis in Ancient Egypt

Shabtis, or Ushabtis, are the inseparable companions of the ancient Egyptians, buried with the deceased among other grave goods. The Ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a mirror image of the world they knew.When the deceased successfully passed the ceremony of the weighing of the heart, they were 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 remembered it, along with friends and family.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 underpin many museum collections of Egyptian artefacts, representing an important facet of Egyptian funerary culture and ritual.

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 represented, from the pharaoh to his menials. Shabtis were intended to act as servants for the deceased, and perform any manual labour for their masters 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 a reflection of life on Earth, so too was the social position of the dead; the more shabtis one could afford to bring with them to the afterlife the less work they personally had to undertake. Tradition dictated to put several hundred shabtis in the grave, at least one for each day of the Egyptian year. This totals 365 regular shabtis, with an overseeing shabti for each 10 day Egyptian week, resulting in a sum of at least 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 hoes and baskets, which enable them to perform their duty 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 sarcophagus, sometimes in beautifully decorated boxes painted with scenes of daily life.

Shabtis’ Inscription

Shabtis 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. The inscription often reads; “O shabti, if Seti is counted upon to do all the works that are to be done there in the realm of the dead as a man at his duties, ‘here I am!’ you shall say when you are counted upon at any time to serve there, to cultivate the fields, to irrigate the river banks, to ferry the sand of the west to the east and vice-versa, ‘here I am!’ you shall say.”

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