The ushabti (also called shabti or shawabti, with a number of variant spellings, Ancient Egyptian plural: ushabtiu) was a funerary figurine used in Ancient Egypt. Ushabtis were placed in tombs among the grave goods and were intended to act as substitutes for the deceased, should he/she be called upon to do manual labor in the afterlife. The figurines typically carried a hoe on their shoulder and a basket on their backs. They were usually written on by the use of hieroglyphs typically found on the legs.[1][2] Called “answerers,” they carried inscriptions asserting their readiness to answer the gods' summons to work.[3] The practice of using shabtis originated in the Old Kingdom (c. 2600 to 2100 B.C.E) with the use of life-sized reserve heads made from limestone, which were buried with the mummy.[4] Most ushabtis were of minor size, and many produced in multiples – they sometimes covered the floor around a sarcophagus. Exceptional ushabtis are of larger size, or produced as a one of-a-kind master work.

Due to the shabti's commonness through all Egyptian timeperiods, and world museums' desire to represent ancient Egyptian art objects, the shabti is one of the most commonly represented objects in Egyptology displays. Produced in huge numbers, ushabtis, along with scarabs, are the most numerous of all ancient Egyptian antiquities to survive.

Etymology and usage of the terms

The term shabti applies to these figures prior to the Twenty-first dynasty of Egypt but after the end of the First Intermediate Period, and really only to those figurines inscribed with Chapter Six of the Book of the Dead. Otherwise, they might better be defined by the generic term, funerary figurines.

The shabtis were servant figures that carried out the tasks required of the deceased in the underworld. The ushabtis were not effective because of their artistry, they were effective because of the inscriptions they had on them. Writing was thought to change wishes and thoughts into actions. Therefore it was necessary for the shabtis to have their owners name on them, and they also bore in hieratic script a phrase sending them to action.[5] The scribe Nebseni, the draughtsman in the Temple of Ptah, says, "Oh you shabti figure of the scribe Nebseni, son of the scribe Thena, and of the lady of the house Muthrestha, if I be called, or if I be judged to do any work whatever of the labours which are to be done in the underworld - behold, for your opposition will there be set aside - by a man in his turn, let the judgment fall upon you instead of upon me always, in the matter of sowing the fields, of filling the water-courses with water, and of bringing the sands of the east to the west."

The shabti figure answers, "I am here and will come wherever you bid me."

The shawabti were a distinct class of funerary figurines within the area of Thebes during the New Kingdom.

The term ushabti became prevalent after the 21st Dynasty and remained in use until Ptolemaic times..

It is thought by some that the term ushabti meant "follower" or "answerer" in Ancient Egyptian, because the figurine "answered" for the deceased person and performed all the routine chores of daily life for its master in the afterlife that the gods had planned for them.,[6] though it would be difficult to reconcile this derivation with the form of shawabti.[7]


Shabti inscriptions often contain the 6th chapter of the Book of the Dead, translated as:

“Illumine the Osiris [name of the deceased], whose word is truth. Hail, Shabti Figure! If the Osiris [name of the deceased] be decreed to do any of the work which is to be done in Khert-Neter, let everything which standeth in the way be removed from him- whether it be to plough the fields, or to fill the channels with water, or to carry sand from the East to the West. The Shabti Figure replieth: "I will do it, verily I am here when thou callest”. "[8]

(Example: the deceased Akhenaten would have been described as "Osiris Akhenaten")

In rare cases different chapters of the Book of the Dead are written. Furthermore, shabtis often mention the name and the titles of the owner, without the spells of the Book of the Dead.

Before being inscribed on funerary figurines, the spell was written on some mid-Twelfth Dynasty coffins from Bersheh (about 1850 BC) and is known today as spell 472 of the Coffin Texts.[9]

History of usage

Mentioned first in spell 472 of the Coffin Texts, they were included in the grave goods of the dead as small figurines since the reign of Mentuhotep II of the 11th Dynasty.[10] Some think that originally they may have symbolically replaced genuine sacrificial burials, a somewhat improbable theory as centuries had passed between the last known sacrificial burials and the appearance of the ushabtis. They were generally distinguished from other statuettes by being inscribed with the name of the deceased, his titles, and often with spell 472 of the Coffin Texts[11] or the speech of the Shabti figure found in Chapter Six of the Book of the Dead. In the 18th Dynasty during the reign of Amenhotep IV, the figurines were inscribed with an offering addressed to the sun disk, Aten, rather than the traditional speech of the Shabti figure. The ushabti was believed to magically animate after the dead had been judged, and work for the dead person as a substitute labourer in the fields of Osiris. From the New Kingdom onwards, it was often referred to as servant.

From the 21st Dynasty on, ushabtis became common and numerous in graves. In some tombs the floor was covered with a great many ushabti figurines; in others the ushabtis were neatly packed into ushabti boxes. At times, several hundred ushabti were placed in a deceased Ancient Egyptian's tomb, but pharaohs had considerably more of these servants than commoners, and king Taharqa had more than a thousand.[12] Some tombs contained overseer or 'reis' ushabtis holding a whip, which were responsible for groups of ten ushabti each - (ten being a common administrative division, for example in the armies). These overseers became rare during the Late Period.

The tomb of Tutankhamun had a large number of shabtis. However, the shabtis were of varying sizes, and most were ornate, with hieroglyph statements.[13] The Tutankhamun shabtis were in sub-groups; some honored Osiriform gods, gold-foiled; some were more simple of wood, or faience.

Shape and material

Ushabtis were mostly mummiform, but in the 18th Dynasty during the reign of Tuthmosis IV, they began to be fashioned as servants with baskets, sacks, and other agricultural tools. Some Ushabtis were very beautiful in form, and in colour, when of enamel.[14] They were made of clay, wood or stone;[15] early ones were sometimes made from wax also. Later figurines were often made of less perishable materials: stone, terracotta, metal, glass and, most frequently, glazed earthenware (faience). While ushabtis manufactured for the rich were often miniature works of art, the great mass of cheaply made ushabtis became standardised—made from single molds with little detail.

See also


Further reading

  • Bob Brier, The Encyclopedia of Mummies, Checkmark Books, 1998
  • Harry M. Stewart: Egyptian Shabtis, Princes Risborough 1995
  • James, 2000, Tutankhamun, T.G.H. James, Photographs, Araldo de Luca, c 2000, Friedman/Fairfax Publishers. Picture-book, (over-sized), 319 pp. List of Objects, p 316-319, (about 350+). {hardcover, ISBN 1-58663-032-6}
  • Paul Whelan: Mere Scraps of Rough Wood?: 17th - 18th Dynasty Stick Shabtis in the Petrie Museum and Other Collections, London 2007 ISBN 978-1-906137-00-7
  • Taylor, Richard. "SHABTI (USHABTI, SHAWABTI)." Death and the Afterlife: a cultural encyclopedia. California: p. 320-321. 2000. ISBN 0874369398 9780874369397

External links

  • Funerary Statuettes
  • The Ushabti: An existence of eternal servitude
  • Egyptian Ushabti
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