||Life in Ancient Egypt
Funerary Customs: Shabtis
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.