Egyptian Ushabtis: Servants of the Afterlife

Chapter six of the Book of the Dead contains what is usually referred to as the Shabti Spell: Oh shabti, allotted to me, if I be summoned or if I be detailed to do any work which has to be done in the God's Domain; if indeed obstacles are implanted for you therewith as a man at his duties, you shall detail yourself for me on every occasion of making arable the fields, of flooding the banks, or of conveying sand from east to west; 'Here am I,' you shall say.  The earliest version of this shabti spell is found in the Coffin Texts.

    These unique forms of funerary figurines seem first to appear in the twenty-first century b.c.e. and are meant to represent the tomb owner.  At this time, when men of non royal or common birth rose in power in Egypt, the belief may have emerged that high station in life did not necessarily exempt one from base labor after deathhjk. Undoubtedly as a result of this, beginning in the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1783 b.c.e.), ushabtis are seen inscribed with a formula or spell which contains a summons, the intent of which is that the figure act as substitute for its deceased owner.  If, as was frequently the case, the complete spell was not included on the ushabti, it was usual to at least identify the deceased with Osiris by inscribing the name of the deceased in addition to that of Osiris on each ushabti. When Osiris called for corvee labor to work the fields, as the king frequently demanded for three months every year during life, thi
s magical figurine was detailed to respond in place of the deceased.  The simple inscription 'Illuminate and command the Osiris N' seems to have been deemed all that was necessary in many cases, especially in later times.  The location of this existence with Osiris was the Field of Reeds (Iaru), and the soul dreaded that it would be expected to work forever in the fields to serve the god.  In life, the elite were able to assign these unpleasant tasks to others, and so the ushabtis were designed as an acceptable alternative to deal with this in the Beyond.

    The earliest examples that we possess of these figurines are made of wax, mud or dough.  As these materials have magical connotations, often seen in Egyptian religious beliefs, a magical connection of the ushabti with the deceased, even at this early stage, is suggested.  Later, shabti or ushabti figures would be made of a variety of materials including terra-cotta, stone, wood or faience which is a paste made of ground quartz or of sand with a high percentage of quartz.  Additionally, there is an association with the ushabti regarding the act of coming forward or answering when the deceased's name is called and from this we can deduce a link between these figurines and a persons name. 

    In ancient Egypt a person's name was closely linked with that person's 'being' and thus reflected something of the inner nature of the individual.  It therefore follows that in carrying the individual's name, the ushabti also possessed that individual's essence (ka); therefore, it becomes more than just a mere stand-in for that person. The ushabti, through magical means becomes, de facto, an extension of that individual.  This may be reflected in the name that these figurines come to be called by, namely ushabti, which is derived form the Egyptian verb wsb meaning literally 'to answer' or 'answer for'.

    An earlier name for these objects may again shed some light upon their nature and magical regard in ancient Egyptian thought.  Shawabti or simply shabti may be seen as deriving from the word swb, referring to the persea tree.  This tree has been identified with the tree the Egyptians called the Tree of Life, and can be seen on monumental relief's in Egypt and in papyri where a person is seen siting before it.  Occasionally in these scenes the goddess Seshat, who has writing as one of her attributes, and is the daughter of Thoth, scribe of the gods, is present as she assists the individual in writing his or her name on the leaves of the tree to indicate years of life.  These figurines were occasionally made out of this wood and also from the wood of the tamarisk and zizyphus.  The Egyptian texts seem always to specify the kind of materials to be used for such ritual and magical purposes.   The statues are today called by either name-shabti or ushabti.

     Since the ushabtis raison d'etre was to do work, it became desirable to have a number of them.  During New Kingdom times it was not uncommon to have several hundred placed in the tombs.  Where as in earlier times a figurine may have been carefully wrapped and placed in its own small coffin, now this was usually not the case.  Many were made by simply being pressed into molds and then fired. This was especially true of the ones made of faience.  When baked they would take on that distinctive blue-green glassy surface that we have come to know, quality and color depending on the level of impurities in the paste.

    Ushabtis could vary considerably in size and in the types of material used as has been stated.  In most cases this was directly related to the wealth of the deceased.  In the Middle Kingdom, stone was the most commonly employed material for the manufacture of the ushabti, although some examples made of wood have come down to us.  These were either painted or left plain.  At this period amulets are not regularly seen iconographically with the figurine, but do appear in selected cases.  Some ushabtis show mutilated signs in their texts--an apotropaic measure against a potentially malevolent glyph from causing harm to the deceased through magical means.

    In New Kingdom times the appearance of implements for agricultural purposes are first seen.  The most commonly seen devices are the hoe,( both broad and narrow bladed), seed bags and a yoke-beam used for carrying jars of water.   This yoke-beam is frequently depicted on the ushabti over the shoulder and draped upon the back.  Towards the end of the New Kingdom a painted head band appears on ushabtis seemingly to hold the wig in place and it is usually seen with a tie in the back.  At this time there is a noticeable decline in the workmanship of the pieces, but this seems to be a characteristic of later New Kingdom funerary figures in general (especially when compared with the superb ushabtis of Tutankhamen who had a total of 414 with him). 

    In general, ushabtis come in all sizes but are rather fixed in their form which is usually the characteristic 'mummiform' shape, although there are a few examples, again of early date, seen otherwise.  The poorest quality was small, with little or no inscription and with an economy of features.  At times both the faces and inscriptions were added with black ink.  Cost, we can be sure, was also a major consideration and as the quality of workmanship and fineness of detail increased so too did the price.  It was common from the New Kingdom on to have hundreds placed in a tomb, especially those of the nobility.  In many instances the number found approaches 365, and from this one might conclude that it was necessary to have a different ushabti for each day of the year.  Additionally, in a more perfectly equipped tomb of the period, the number would be 401 ushabtis--here adding one overseer ushabti for every ten workers! Actual evidence for this is lacking, and in fact this exact number is rarely found.  It would not be unusual to find many more than this in the tombs of the kings and indeed, the pharaoh Taharqa, had over one thousand very finely carved ushabtis buried with him.

    The ushabti is a unique and wholly Egyptian development that was intended as a labor saving device for the Nile Valley peoples which lasted, essentially unchanged in purpose and design, for two thousand years.  Today we view these intriguing figurines both as an art form and as a physical manifestation of their culture and its belief in a life eternal, free from the cares and wants of this realm of existence.