This is one of my favourite pieces in the Cairo Museum, it’s a wooden statue of a man carrying containers and it’s a bit over a foot high. It was found at Meir, in the tomb of a man called Niankhpepi who lived during the reign of Pepi I in the 6th Dynasty in the Old Kingdom.
The box in his arms is very highly decorated, and you can just see the handle at the top. And on his back he carries what looks very like a child’s school satchel, except that it has legs sticking down from the base so that when you put it down it will stand up.
The statue is a model servant, placed in the tomb to work for Niankhpepi in the afterlife. These sorts of models developed into the elaborate dioramas of activities like bread baking or brewing which have been found in First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom tombs.
It’s in the Cairo Museum, acc. no. JE30810 or CG241.
One way of looking at this is as an ornate jar for a king to keep some sort of cosmetic cream in, maybe it’s moisturiser to keep his skin supple in this life or the next, or perhaps it has ritual significance.
The other way of looking at it is as a very unsubtle piece of royal propaganda. Tutankhamun’s name is on the lion on top, reminding you of the association of the king with this predator and that he is under the protection of lion associated deities like the fearsome Sekhmet.
The side of the vessel has a hunting scene on it. Not just the sport of kings – desert creatures like the gazelle represented chaos, and the hunting dogs (who would be under the control of a human, you can see collars on two of them) are avatars of order.
The imposition of order over chaos is one of the primary duties of the king so this scene demonstrates his power and his upholding of maat. There’s even a lion (you can see its haunches at the right), the king himself joining in the defeat of chaos.
And finally at the bottom you can see three human heads sticking out from underneath it – there’s another one round the other side for four in total. These are the traditional enemies of Egypt, crushed beneath the weight of the king’s power and might.
So it might be pretty, but it’s also a fairly brutal message – Tutankhamun, lord of all he surveys imposing order on the chaos of the world by violence.
It was found in KV62, Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and in 2016 it was in the Cairo Museum (acc. no.: JE62119).
This golden hippo head with a fine toothy grin is part of one of three funerary beds found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The purpose of these beds isn’t clear, the books I looked at fall back on a standard phrase “ritual purposes”, perhaps to do with mummification or funerary rites.
The creature is either Ammut, the Devourer who eats the hearts of those who fail the Judgement, or Taweret, a protective goddess associated with birth (or in this case rebirth). She has a hippo head (at the head end of the bed), the body and legs of a lion or leopard (the sides and feet of the bed) and the tail of a crocodile (at the foot board).
When I photographed it in 2016 it was in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, acc. no. JE62012. By now it must be in the new Grand Egyptian Museum built at Giza, with a new accession number (I believe).
This man is part of a row of men who each are bringing food for the deceased person who had this relief in their tomb. Most of the servants bring a large bird, or a leg of beef, but this guy is an overachiever – a leg of beef AND 7 (small) birds!
The production of this relief is an odd mix of careful and slapdash work. The carving looks carefully done, to a well composed design. There’s nice detail on the hair and in the hieroglyphs, and I particularly like the way the birds are shown.
But then the painter has come along and slapped red paint on the figure without worrying about the edges. Except that he’s taken more care to not get skin colour on the beef or the kilt. Very odd. Perhaps the commissioner died so they finished it off in a hurry?
This piece is in the Cairo Museum (or was in 2016) but I know nothing else about it – I think it’s probably Old Kingdom in date, based on where it was in the museum (near other Old Kingdom stuff) and my amateur assessment of style!
This is a relief from the tomb of Akhtyhotep which shows the man himself labelled in front of his face reading right to left. Although I can’t read hieroglyphs I can recognise the hotep bit which is the block of three at the left, the bird & initial semicircle are the Akhty bit.
He lived during the early Old Kingdom in either late Dynasty 3 or early Dynasty 4 – about 4600 years ago, and possibly before the Great Pyramid at Giza was built (or maybe he got to see it being built!). He himself was buried in Saqqara, which isn’t that far from Giza.
Significant numbers of people in the modern world never seriously worry about where their next meal is coming from. I myself am one of those people – even when getting grocery shopping delivered was difficult at the peak of lockdown in the UK earlier this year I was mostly concerned about whether I would get the food I wanted or not, I was confident I would be able to get something to cook & eat. And that position of privilege can make it hard to get oneself into the mindset of a pre-modern population (or that of the many people less fortunate than me even in my own country) – where if the harvest failed too often (perhaps even just once) then people were going to struggle to find enough to eat. Where the poorer portions of society might well routinely restrict what they ate, not out of fear of “getting fat” but because there was only so much food to last until the crops ripened. But it’s something that’s worth keeping in mind when thinking about the Ancient Egyptians – it helps make sense of some of the differences between their worldview and ours. Like the way that among the various metaphysical elements of their thoughts about life after death there are also solidly pragmatic concerns about ensuring that the deceased has food security in the afterlife (with a definite sub-text that this was one of the ways that the afterlife was going to be better than this life). I’ve talked about some examples of this before in the blog – like shabtis as servants to do the necessary agricultural work, or the Offering Formula to guarantee food offerings would continue to be received for eternity. And the objects I’m talking about today are a part of this mindset.
The early Middle Kingdom sees a flowering of three dimensional representations of activities involved in food production, like the one pictured where cattle are being tended to in a stable. Previously these daily life scenes had been carved or painted on the walls of the tomb, but during the First Intermediate Period there was a shift in focus from decorating the tomb to decorating the coffin. This left less space for showing food production and so models are provided for the deceased instead. These changes accompanied a change in the the overall idea of the afterlife – the rise in prominence of Osiris, and the idea that even commoners would go to some other place after death like the Field of Reeds. And they may also be a reaction to changes in the environment around them, both natural and political – the Old Kingdom had fizzled out amongst many problems, one of which appears to’ve been a series of famines that the central authority didn’t deal with terribly effectively. And then the First Intermediate Period was a time of conflict – taken together food security and a sense of certainty in the afterlife must’ve seemed even more important than it previously had been.
These tomb models don’t just appear suddenly from out of nowhere, of course, they evolve from earlier use of models in tombs. This appears to begin around the same time as the unification of Egypt, so some 1000 years before the Middle Kingdom. During the late Predynastic Period and the Early Dynastic Period there are some cases of replacement of large scale or expensive tomb goods with models. For instance some burials had full scale boats, but others had model ones. And one burial even had a full scale granary but several had model ones. During the Old Kingdom this practice was extended to smaller objects – for instance they might have model storage vessels or model tools. And in the later Old Kingdom limestone statues of servants also begin to show up – at first solely concerned with food production but then later expanding their repertoire of occupations to include other necessities of life.
It’s during the First Intermediate Period and early Middle Kingdom that the tomb models really come into their own. In contrast to the Old Kingdom servant statues these models are made of painted wood – which makes them much more perishable, even in the typically dry climate of Upper Egypt, so we’re lucky as many have survived as have! A typical elite burial of the period includes a set of these models, but the number and choice of scenes varies between tombs – presumably determined by the status of the deceased, the region and the exact time period. The most common are boats and models to do with food production – but other craft activities are depicted as well. The general idea is to provide all the industry required for a comfortable (food secure!) afterlife.
Boats are a little bit of a different category so I’m only going to touch on them briefly here. They have a more explicitly religious character: as the Osiris cult rose in prominence his primary cult centre at Abydos became a place of pilgrimage, and model boats in tombs from the First Intermediate Period onward generally symbolise eternal participation in pilgrimage to Abydos.
Other than boats the most common models are scenes of butchery, granaries, scenes of baking, scenes of brewing, and pairs of female servants carrying food offerings. As you can see this covers the first 3 or 4 of the standard offerings mentioned in the Offering Formula – bread, beer, ox and fowl (only present if that’s what the servants are carrying). So by including these models you are going to be well supplied in the afterlife.
Tomb models of this type (other than boats) have this period where they flourish, but then they rather abruptly die out in the reign of Senwosret III. His reign, as part of the 12th Dynasty, marks an inflection point in the history of Egyptian culture. Although we tend to think (primarily because of the influence of the 3rd Century BCE historian Manetho) of the Middle Kingdom as a single unit, subdivided into 3 dynasties, there’s also an argument to be made that it should be divided into two at the reign of Senwosret III. The early Middle Kingdom is closer to the First Intermediate Period in culture than to the later Middle Kingdom (and things like burial customs don’t seem to change when Montuhotep II reunites the country). Then Senwosret III oversees significant changes to the art style, religious ideas and political organisation of the country and the later Middle Kingdom begins – and the necessity for (or desire for) dioramic models in tombs is one of the things that changes.
But why use models? It seems perhaps a little childish to the modern eye – there’s something of the doll’s house to them, a toy for a child to play with. And it’s true that it can be hard to identify which objects from Ancient Egypt are toys and which are models with religious or magical significance (and sometimes the answer may be “both”!). The context of the find can give clues (if it’s known), for instance models such as these ones I’m talking about are found in the graves of adults so we probably need to put aside assumptions about childishness and look for other explanations. The key to understanding this are the Ancient Egyptian beliefs about the reality of symbols in a magical sense – the written or spoken name of thing, a painting or carving of a thing, or a model of a thing are magically the same as the thing itself. So if you have written on your tomb walls your request for bread and beer, then in the afterlife you will magically have bread and beer. If you have carved scenes with loaves of bread and jars of beer, then you will magically have bread and beer in your afterlife. And if you have a model granary, a model bakery and a model brewery, then in the afterlife they will magically exist and produce an endless supply of bread and beer.
So these models are in a magical sense the real things they represent. And this then answers the question of “why models?” – models are more practical than the object they represent. In much earlier times kings were buried with the actual objects – including servants in some cases – but this is expensive in terms of resources (even leaving aside the ethics of killing your bread bakers!!), and in terms of the space required inside the tomb complex. Models are a cheaper and more efficient way of taking it with you when you went. They’re also much less attractive to tomb robbers – yes, magically this stable in the photo is real and has real cows in it, but in this world you can’t eat the beef they magically produce!
The models are, of course, fascinating to anyone who’s interested in learning about Ancient Egyptian culture. They give us the obvious information about how bread was made, beer was brewed and so on. And also things like how Egyptian buildings were laid out, even the very fact they kept their cattle in stables! As well as these insights into material culture they also reinforce other evidence about what the Egyptians saw as the key necessities of life (like their emphasis on food security in the afterlife), and even give us information as to how their art style worked by letting us compare two dimensional and three dimensional representations of the same activities. A proper treasure trove despite not having the glitter of gold!
Ardagh, Philip. 1999. The Hieroglyphs Handbook: Teach Yourself Ancient Egyptian. Faber and Faber. Assmann, Jan. 2003. The Mind of Egypt: History and Meaning in the Time of the Pharaohs. Translated by Andrew Jenkins. Harvard Univ. Press. David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. Grajetzki, Wolfram. 2003. Burial Customs in Ancient Egypt: Life in Death for Rich and Poor. Duckworth Egyptology. Mertz, Barbara. 2008. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt. William Morrow. Oppenheim, Adela, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto, eds. 2015. Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Quirke, Stephen. 2015. “Understantding Death: A Journey Between Worlds.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. 2008. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum. Wilkinson, Toby A. H. 2010. The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt: The History of a Civilisation from 3000 BC to Cleopatra. Bloomsbury. Yamamoto, Kei. 2015. “Comprehending Life: Community, Environment, and the Supernatural.” In Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, edited by Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Some 50 miles south of Luxor are the remains of two of the earliest urban centres from the Early Dynastic period of Egyptian history. On the west bank lies Nekhen (also called Hierakonpolis) – perhaps most well known as the site where the Narmer palette was found. And on the east bank lies Nekheb (modern name is el Kab), whose local goddess (Nekhbet) is one of the Two Ladies who represent Upper & Lower Egypt. Before I visited el Kab in 2014 I’d probably heard more about about Nekhen – not just the Narmer palette but I’d also seen the famous ivories and other objects from the Main Deposit in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and been to a talk by Renee Friedmann about her work on the Predynastic settlement and cemeteries there. But Nekheb is also a fascinating (and important) site with evidence of ancient Egyptians from very early indeed through to late antiquity.
In fact el Kab gives its name to one of the cultures of Prehistoric Egypt – the stone tools and camp remains of the Elkabian culture were first found here in the late 1960s. Three layers of camps were found one on top of the other dating between c. 6400 BCE and c. 5980 BCE on the riverbank of the ancient channel of the Nile. As well as the stone tools and waste from making stone tools there were ostrich shell beads, and lots of fish bones. The latter gives us a good idea of why the people were here! The position of the camps relative to the Nile means that they wouldn’t’ve been inhabitable during the inundation, so we can conjure up a vision of a semi-nomadic group of people who each year came to live by the banks of the Nile for a while to eat the abundant fish and (presumably) the plants that grew on the well watered & fertilised soil.
There’s not much obvious continuity between these Elkabian people and the later Predynastic communities either culturally or temporally – a gap of perhaps a thousand years or more. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t any continuity – what gets preserved and what gets later found at any site are only tiny fractions of the material that was once there. But there definitely is evidence of occupation from the late Predynastic, around the time when the Egyptian state was forming, which ranges from extensive cemeteries to domestic remains. And from there on the site is continuously occupied through until late antiquity – after which it ceases to be a town, which is pretty great for archaeologists as it means there aren’t modern people living on top of the archaeology.
The town itself was built on the banks of the Nile, and if you visit now you will see it surrounded by the remains of a large mudbrick wall measuring around 550×550 metres (with one of the corners washed away by the shifting path of the Nile). Actually as a tourist you don’t get to go into that bit – you visit the tombs built into the cliff near the town, the temples in the Wadi Hilal and Vulture Rock. This last feature was actually my favourite part of the site when I visited. It’s a large rocky outcrop in the middle of the wadi that from some angles looks a bit like the body of a vulture as the Egyptians would draw it for a hieroglyph. And it is completely covered from top to bottom in inscriptions and graffiti (as are the walls of the wadi nearby) – encompassing nearly the whole of the time of occupation of the site, from prehistoric petroglyphs through to Ptolemaic inscriptions.
The walls that are visible around the town are from the Late Period, but inside there are some remains of a much much earlier wall. This one probably dates to the Early Dynastic Period and is circular. Inside there are some domestic remains from the late Predynastic Period and a little Early Dynastic stuff. However, rather frustratingly for finding out about the early settlement it seems that at some point in the late Early Dynastic Period or the early Old Kingdom this part of the site was levelled off and swept clear of remains in order to build a temple. In general there’s not much securely datable evidence of the Early Dynastic Period occupation of the site – some remains of stone buildings including a block found (and now lost) with Khasekhemwy’s name on it, and some high status graves. It was clearly an important place, however, as the local goddesses of backwater villages don’t tend to end up the representative of a whole region! But nonetheless it was still overshadowed by Nekhen across the river during this period. However by the end of the Second Intermediate Period Nekheb had risen sufficiently in prominence to take over from Nekhen as capital of the Nome (administrative district), and it was to keep this position through the New Kingdom. Subsequently it becomes less important again – but is clearly still a thriving town throughout the Ptolemaic Period.
Outside the town and cut into the hillside are the tombs of the town’s inhabitants. Even if you’re only thinking of the high-status people with their tombs cut into the rock of the cliff there were still a lot of these over the millennia, and at a talk I went to by Luigi Prada he described the rock as being like a “block of Gruyère” because so much has been cut into it. The most interesting tombs for a modern scholar are a clutch of late Second Intermediate Period and early New Kingdom tombs (which include the ones that you get into as a tourist). Egyptian officials often include an autobiographical text in the decoration of their tomb – the edited highlights of their life, focusing on everything they did that was great and good. And some of these officials detail their service in (and command of) the armies involved in the reunification of Egypt that started the New Kingdom period – and it’s these inscriptions that give us most of our information about that period. One of the inscriptions also provides evidence of a previously unknown incursion by a Kushite force – and explains the presence of Second Intermediate Period Egyptian artifacts at the Kushite site of Kerma (in modern Sudan) as the loot carried off by this expedition.
As you move away from the town and necropolis in a north-easterly direction up the Wadi Hilal you come to two temples (as well as Vulture Rock which I already talked about). The first of these is called the Hemispeos, because it is half cut into the rock. It was begun by Ramesses II, but later extensively re-worked by the Ptolemies – and later still turned into a Coptic hermitage, at which point they destroyed the decoration up to about 2m so that there wasn’t pagan imagery at eye-height in a Christian place. The other temple is quite far into the wadi, and is actually a barque shrine. When deities were taken on procession they were carried by priests in model boats (called barques), and on processional routes there were often small temples where the barque (and the deity within) rested before moving on to the next place. This example was initially begun by Amenhotep III (or his father Thutmose IV), and was dedicated to Amun-Ra, Nekhbet and Horus of Nekhen – and would’ve been where Nekhbet rested when she visited this part of her domain. Later in Graeco-Roman times the religious focus had shifted a bit – this was now a place where a form of the goddess Hathor rested while on a procession commemorating a winter solstice myth. In this myth Hathor fled south to Nubia after an argument with Re (and as his Eye she took the light of the sun with her), and then Thoth was sent to persuade her to return (and so to bring the sun back to Egypt). And you can see how the temple decoration was updated by the people of the time – adding ibises and baboons as red ink graffiti.
It’s the sense of the whole sweep of history and the way you can see (even as an amateur) how there was both continuity and evolution of culture across the millennia that makes el Kab so fascinating to visit. Vulture Rock was the place to leave one’s mark, even if the rationale behind it must’ve been different for the first person to carve as compared to the carvers of the Ptolemaic Period inscriptions with all that weight of history around them. The temples weren’t static (or rebuilt as a single event by kingly decree), they evolved in meaning and were altered in less formal ways to suit. Even the tombs underwent some evolution: parts would always have been open to visitors so that they could leave offerings for the deceased, and these have graffiti from centuries after the initial burial, sometimes reinterpreting this ancient tomb as a shrine to a minor deity. This happened everywhere, of course, I just found that I could feel it at el Kab.
“The Tomb in Ancient Egypt” Aidan Dodson, Salima Ikram “Egypt Before the Pharaohs” Michael A. Hoffman “The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt” The Keeper and Staff of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan “Travellers and Pilgrims Under the Last Pharaohs: Recent Investigations by the Oxford Expedition to Elkab” Luigi Prada (talk given at the October 2019 meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group and written up on my other blog) “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson “The Complete Cities of Ancient Egypt” Steven Snape “The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson “Early Dynastic Egypt” Toby A. H. Wilkinson “Tombs and Temples of El Kab: Current Fieldwork and Research”; Bloomsbury Summer School Study Day 2 June 2018
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
What makes a person a person? What is it that makes a person alive and conscious? What are the necessary constituent parts and what happens to them when the person dies? In Western Christian thought there’s the body and the soul, and the soul lives on once the body is dead. In a more secular framing you might wonder if there’s any such thing as a soul, but would then replace it with the idea of the mind. And is that a separate thing – there’s the body and then there’s also a separate mind that somehow animates the body – or is it rooted deeply in the physical body? It’s a slippery subject even when talking about one’s own cultural concepts, which makes it even more difficult to get a proper handle on a different long dead culture’s ideas. There’s also all the usual problems of ancient Egyptian history – many fewer texts have survived than were written, and those that survive are biased towards particular types. In this case at least the bias is towards texts that deal with making sure the right things happen to the parts of a person after death, but then again these texts don’t start by defining their terms. And anyway, there’s several millennia of Egyptian history and their culture did not stand still any more than ours did. I mean, even if I could give a coherent theologically correct definition of the modern Christian conception of the soul it wouldn’t be the same as the same definition from 500 years ago, let alone 3 millennia (when there wasn’t even any Christianity). So this already slippery and esoteric subject gets a bit more slippery.
So having established that this is complicated, what did the Ancient Egyptians think were the constituent elements of a person? There were at least 5 parts – the body, the ba, the ka, the name and the shadow. The body is the easiest to get a handle on as it’s pretty much the same as our own concept of a body. Of course the Egyptians didn’t realise that the brain is the organ we think with, so the heart was the most important part of the body in their eyes – the seat of reason and emotion. For a person to survive into the afterlife they needed all their parts and so it was important for the body to be preserved after death as a mummy. In a case where the mummy was destroyed statues labelled with the person’s name could function as a substitute. Which means that the many statues of a king were an aid to his long term survival after death rather than simply a matter of propaganda during his lifetime.
The next easiest to think about is the name. For us a name is a label – a convenient way of identifying someone in particular. But for the Egyptians one’s name was an integral part of one’s self, and a person didn’t come properly into being until they were named. Thus it should be no surprise that a person could not survive in the afterlife if their name was erased. People would have their names written as often as possible in their tomb decoration to make it more likely that one instance would eternally survive. Erasing someone’s name – as happened with Hatshepsut or with Akhenaten – wasn’t just eliding someone from the history books it was also an attack on that person’s existence in the afterlife.
The shadow was the least discussed part of the person in the books I looked at while writing this article, and the least consistently described. The general idea seems to be that as the shadow is an image of the body that emanates from the body it is therefore integral to and contains some part of the person, and is thus necessary for existence. It is associated with the ba and some of the spells in the Book of the Dead are to do with its survival in conjunction with the ba. The books variously discuss it as being important for free movement after death and being protective.
There is much more known (and said) about the ba and the ka, which are the two parts of a person that come closest to the concept of the soul as we know it in Western culture. In fact the word ba is often translated as “soul” but I think that’s misleading as it carries all sorts of connotations that don’t really sit right. The ba is more closely akin to our idea of personality – it’s all the things that make someone uniquely themselves other than the physical body. After death the ba is the part of the person that can move freely between the tomb and the living world, and many of the spells in the Book of the Dead are to do with this – in fact the Egyptian name for this text, “The Book of Coming Forth By Day” references this ability of the ba. Many of the spells in this text give the ba the ability to change into another form so that it can go where it wishes. Many of these forms are those of birds, and the normal representation of the ba has a bird’s body and a human head (and sometimes human arms as well as wings). But the ba does not just get to flit about, changing form and enjoying its time in the living world. Each night the ba must return to the tomb and reunite with the body and this rejuvenates the body and is part of what ensures survival in the afterlife.
Human beings are not the only possessors of a ba – gods have them, and so can inanimate objects (like doors, apparently). The bas of gods may be rather more substantial than the human ones, and can be thought of as the earthly manifestation of the god. So the Apis Bull was the ba of Ptah, and the wind was the ba of Shu.
And the fifth part of a person, the last of those I began by listing, is the ka. This is sometimes translated as “spirit” or as “life force” and the latter made the most sense to me in the context of what I read. The ka is made by the creator at the same time as the physical body – shaped by the god Khnum on his potters wheel. Each person has their own, and it is what makes the difference between a living being and a piece of flesh. Once the person dies and the parts of the person separate the ka continues its existence and remains in the tomb (although separate from the body). The ka must be nourished (in life as well as in death) by the energy in food and drink – it is the ka to whom the offerings in a tomb are made. As the physical food and drink is not consumed, just the energy, it makes sense that depictions on the wall might also magically contain the energy required to sustain the ka. The ka was often shown as a double of the body, standing behind the person.
Where the concept of the ka gets really slippery is that it is both this spirit uniquely associated with one individual, and also a life force that is passed from father to son, down the generations from the creator god Atum through his divine offspring to the king and thence to all humanity. This may be the origin of the symbol of the ka as two outstretched arms – it is the embrace that passes on the ka. Kings have two kas – the one that everyone is born with, and also a divine royal ka that they receive during the coronation ceremony. Gods also have kas and these are the part of the god that can temporarily reside in the cult statues that are kept in temples.
I started out this discussion talking about five parts to a person. But even that confident assertion gets a bit slippery once you look a little closer. It’s clear that the Egyptians thought a person was composed of multiple elements, but there isn’t a definitive list of exactly what they all are or how many of them. So these five are the most commonly mentioned in ancient texts, but there may be more – Jan Assmann refers to a text that has 14 different parts, including things like “birthplace”. The mummy is also sometimes elevated to be a part of a person as something distinct from the body (which has ceased to exist with the ending of life in this way of thinking about it). And of course with this being such a long lived civilisation ideas evolved over time. The one that modern scholars seem not quite sure whether to include in the standard list or not is the akh – which doesn’t exist in life, but is absolutely critical to generate in the afterlife. This non-physical form is the result of a union between the ba and ka of the individual that will only occur once they have passed the Weighing of the Heart and been judged as having been virtuous and followed ma’at in their life. If you fail to make it to the Hall of Judgement you are just dead; if you get there and are deemed unworthy you die the second permanent death; and if you pass you are transfigured into a glorified being of light. The word akh can be translated as “effective” and it’s thought it refers to the ability of the deceased now to function effectively in both life and death. The akh has the most freedom of all the parts of the deceased – it can move anywhere in the created world whether that be in the sky, in the Duat (underworld) or the living world.
So that’s my understanding of the modern understanding of the answers ancient Egyptians would give to my opening questions. But I must confess I’m left wondering what the ordinary man on the Nile boat would really think. This is all the stuff of priests and theologians – complex and nuanced and really rather slippery. Would a normal person have had these ideas in mind when they were taking their food offerings to Granddad’s tomb?
“Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs” James P. Allen “Death and Salvation” Jan Assmann (trans. David Lorton) “Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization” Barry J. Kemp “The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends” Garry J. Shaw “The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt” Ian Shaw & Paul Nicholson “Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead” ed. John H. Taylor “Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” Joyce Tyldesley “The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt” Richard H. Wilkinson “The Egyptian World” ed. Toby Wilkinson