Life in Ancient Egypt

Funerary Customs: Shabtis

Shabtis During Dynasty XI (ca. 2025-1979 B.C.), a new type of funerary object appeared in tombs: small statues in the form of nude humans, often wrapped in linen and placed in model coffins. They were inscribed with a prayer for food offerings, although they probably also functioned as an alternative abode for the ka (a person's vital force). By the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2025-1627/1606 B.C.), the figures had become mummiform in shape, and their inscriptions clearly join the deceased with Osiris, the god of the underworld, who rose to prominence during this period.

By late Dynasty XII (ca. l850 B.C.), the statuettes' original function as a residence for the ka had expanded greatly. Although the original identification with the tomb owner was never lost, the figures were seen primarily as workers who performed a service for the deceased, and they became known by the ancient Egyptians as shabtis. Rapidly shabti-figures came to represent the deceased's servants in the afterlife and were so popular that they replaced the model servant statues previously deposited in upper-class graves of the Old and Middle Kingdoms (ca.2750-1627/1606 B.C.). As their purpose changed so did their name, first to shawabti, then to ushabti. The latter may be translated as "Answerer," a reference to the statues' status as servants.

From the New Kingdom through the Ptolemaic Period (from ca. 1539-30 B.C.), shabtis toiled as farmers in the afterlife. Shabtis often carry hoes, seed bags, picks, and water pots, reflecting their farming activities. Since most Egyptians were subjected to corvée (forced labor as a form of taxation), they purchased shabtis to be their substitutes when Osiris called upon them to farm the eternal fields. For the ancient Egyptians, the exchange of one individual for another to perform required work was an acceptable practice. Interestingly, there are shabtis that are inscribed for royalty and nobility, men and women who were not involved in the corvée, implying that these people were not excused from labor in the afterlife. It has been suggested that as of the Third Intermediate Period, shabtis no longer were substitutes for the deceased but similar to personal slaves.

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