Ancient Egyptian afterlife beliefs throughout their history are a wide-ranging mix of the esoteric and the pragmatic. The king might travel to the stars, or eat the gods to gain their powers, or accompany the sun on its night journey through the underworld. A normal person might be judged by the gods before he or she can enter the eternal afterlife, with a variety of demons to overcome and gates to pass through on his or her journey to the judgement hall. But kings and commoners also took care to provide themselves with a source of food and the other necessities of life for eternity – whether in the form of preserved items, model manufacturing facilities, or servants to do work on their behalf. Shabtis are one of these provisions – they are small mummiform figurines which have been found in their thousands in Egypt. They are so ubiquitous that every museum that has even a hint of an Egyptian collection will have a shabti, and so numerous (and sometimes so poor quality) that the treasure hunters of the 19th Century & earlier didn’t bother to collect them all up.
Shabti is the Egyptian name for the figurines, other variants are shawabti and ushabti (the latter is used later in Egyptian history). The etymology is unclear – shabti may be derived from the word for stick and may refer to the modelling of the first known shabtis which is rather crude. The later term (ushabti) means “answerer” and that ties into the function of these figurines. Part of the Egyptian conception of the afterlife was that the deceased (once judged and found worthy) would spend eternity in the Field of Reeds – life would be the same there as in the living world, except one would be eternally young & healthy and conditions would always be perfect & harvests would never fail. And Ancient Egyptians of all social classes knew how agriculture worked – fields must be tilled, irrigation channels dug and repaired etc. And this is where the shabtis came into the picture. Some of them are inscribed with a text explaining their purpose:
“O shabti allotted to me [owner’s name]! If I be summoned or if I be detailed to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead, … 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.”
So instead of going off to work in the fields in person the deceased sent off the shabti to do the work in his or her place. Almost every book I looked at presents this as an avoidance mechanism. For instance Barry Kemp uses shabtis to get insight into how the Ancient Egyptians felt about the corvée labour system that built their grand monuments and kept their agriculture functioning. And he points out that there’s evidence of people sending substitutes (usually relatives) when summoned for labour, so shabtis are a magical post-death version of something that happened in life. But Jan Assmann has a different take on them – he sees them as a way for the deceased to participate in the work. That instead of magically replacing a servant sent off to work on his master’s behalf they magically replace the deceased so that he or she can be in two places at once, one of which is being a part of the community doing the necessary work to ensure survival. For corroborating evidence he says that there are no spells in the various funerary texts (like the Book of the Dead) for actually avoiding the summons, and surely there would be if that was what the deceased was trying to do. I’m not sure I buy this idea, though – I think it more likely that the Ancient Egyptians saw the work as necessary (i.e. you couldn’t have everyone just avoid it) but not something that they wanted to spend eternity doing personally.
Shabtis first start to show up in tombs in the Middle Kingdom, which is the same time period that ideas about people other than the King having an afterlife were being developed (before that there was more of a feeling that a non-royal deceased would be effectively living in their own tomb for eternity). They develop from model bodies that were intended as a backup in case something happened to the mummy – so that the ka and ba of the deceased person would still have somewhere to go. Over time they become these servants, and I don’t think it’s quite clear where the dividing line is. Wolfram Grajetzki draws a distinction between shabtis (that have the inscription on them) and shabti-like mummiform figures (that do not) and in later periods of Egyptian history it seems clear that the uninscribed ones are the equivalent of the inscribed ones, but it’s not so clear early on. During the Middle Kingdom shabtis are just for the commoners – there are none found in tombs of kings until Ahmose I in the 18th Dynasty (the re-unifier of Egypt at the start of the New Kingdom).
Over time the shabtis become more elaborate. They start as simple mummiform figures (in some cases quite rudimentary indeed), which are sometimes put into a model coffin before being buried with the deceased. In the early New Kingdom they might be provided with model agricultural tools – hoes or baskets for instance. And later on these are carved or moulded directly on the figures. Shabtis can be made out of a variety of materials, blue faience is most common but they are also made of wood, stones of various types, clay, wax, or even glass. They vary in quality too, from the peg-like or clumsily shaped through to exquisitely detailed statuettes.
Initially a burial would just be equipped with one shabti, but they become much more numerous over time – eventually a “full set” could number in the hundreds for those who could afford a lavishly appointed tomb. For instance Tutankhamun was buried with 401: 365 workers (one for each day of the year) and 36 overseers (one for each 10 day week). The overseers were given flails instead of agricultural implements, so they could do their jobs properly. Which gives an interesting insight into how the Egyptians thought a workforce was ideally organised and controlled in the real world.
Because shabtis are so intimately bound into a particular vision of the afterlife I would’ve expected that they would vanish during the Amarna period when Akhenaten did his best to make sweeping changes to the Egyptian religious landscape. But not only do shabtis still show up in non-royal burials of this time but also Akhenaten had some of his own. The inscriptions on the shabtis are different, however, and Grajetzki sees this as representative of the general trend of the period: the physical objects in tombs were much the same but the inscriptions (and thus ideas?) were not. After the New Kingdom and towards the end of the Third Intermediate Period shabtis do fall out of style but both the 25th & 26th Dynasties look back to older periods of Egyptian history to bolster their own legitimacy and shabtis make a return as part of this. The final death knell for these servant figurines is during the Ptolemaic Period and is part of a general moving away from the traditional Egyptian burial goods – by the end of the period they are no longer in use.
There’s something about both the form and function of shabtis that makes them still fascinating even into the modern world. And I can’t leave this subject without mentioning the modern artist Zahed Taj-Eddin. I saw his Nu-Shabtis at an exhibition in 2016 and as well as the Egyptian artifacts and the egyptological exhibition there were also Nu-Shabtis scattered throughout (see my photos on flickr). He has extrapolated the concept of a shabti into the modern day, but not in the obvious way of “wouldn’t it be neat to have a replacement to send to do work for us?”. Instead they were an answer to or exploration of the question of what would shabtis do in the modern world? What if when the tombs were opened and the shabtis discovered that there was no Egyptian afterlife of eternal toil on behalf of their masters they came to life anyway, and took part in our modern world?
“Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton)
“Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt” Rosalie David
“The Story of Egypt” Joann Fletcher
“Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor” Wolfram Grajetzki
“Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation” Barry J. Kemp
“Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt” Barbara Mertz
“Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” ed. Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto
“The Complete Tutankhamun” Nicholas Reeves
“The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson
“The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt” ed. Ian Shaw
“The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000BC to Cleopatra” Toby Wilkinson