Shabti, Shawabti and Ushabti

During the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Period there is some evidence of the sacrificial burial of servants with the deceased. However, this practice was quickly seen as unnecessary and wasteful, and instead symbolic images of servants were painted inside tombs to aid the deceased in the afterworld. This practice developed into the use of small statuettes known as Shabti (Shabtiu, Shabty, Shawabti, or Ushabti).

A Shabti is a small human figure representing a person who would perform a given task for the deceased in the afterlife. The Amduat (underworld) included tracts of land granted to the deceased by the sun god Ra from which the blessed dead could receive their nourishment. Unsurprisingly, wealthy nobles and royalty did not plan on doing any work themselves and so they would take their (symbolic) servants with them.

shawabti, Lisht, dyn13, MK
shawabti, Dyn 13, MK
Shabti Akhenaten
Shabti of Akhenaten, NK
Shabti Khonsu Dyn 19
Khonsu Dyn 19, NK

Early versions (Shabti or Shabtiu) were modelled to represent the task that they would perform and given tiny tools with which to complete their tasks. Later on, Shawabti (and Ushabti) were inscribed with a magical formula which would activate them (see below). Shabti were made from various materials including; faience, wax, clay, wood, stone, terracotta and, occasionally, glass and bronze.

Although they can all be accurately described as “funerary figurines”, there are in fact three separate terms for these models which indicated a slightly different use and were current at different times. The term “Shabti” may have originally derived from the word “Swb” (“stick”) or “Shab” (the Persea Tree from which the first wooden Shabti may have been carved). However, it is also proposed that the terms derive from the verbs “Sha” (“to command”) or “Shadj” (“to dig”). The term “Ushabti” is generally thought to be derived from the word “wSb” (“answer”).

Shabti – Early models interred in burials outside Thebes and the West Bank at the end of the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom.

Shawabti – Examples from the Seventeenth Dynasty and the Eighteenth Dynasty from Deir el Medina, the West Bank and Thebes.

Ushabti – Models from the Twenty-first Dynasty and later.

First Intermediate Period

During the First Intermediate Period it was common to find a small statue of the tomb owner placed near or in the coffin along with a number of wooden models depicting craftsmen and women (such as bakers, brewers, and masons) labourers and agricultural workers. These models performed the same function as later “Shabtis” but were not inscribed with the formula.

Typezero, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Model granary, FIP, Typezero, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Uninscribed mummiform representations of the deceased also became a popular addition to funerary provisions. These actually represented the deceased, and so they are not strictly “Shabtis”. The earliest examples were found in Saqqara during the Herakleopolitan period.

Middle Kingdom

At the beginning of the Middle Kingdom statuettes of the deceased made of wood, stone, wax, or clay were wrapped in linen bandages and placed in miniature coffins. They represented the deceased and so there was generally only one in each tomb (to substitute for the deceased). They would perform tasks on his behalf and thus they are not always described as Shabtis.

shawabti of Bener, dyn 13, MK, MET
shawabti of Bener, dyn 13, MK, MET

Examples of these mummiform figures were also placed in sacred places and similar statuettes representing the deceased remained in use until the end of the New Kingdom alongside more typical Shabtis.

The earliest known royal example of a funerary figurine representing the deceased is that of the Pharaoh Ahmose (whose tomb remains undiscovered). He wears the royal Nemes head-dress with a uraeus. The first mummiform figures with the Shabti spell appear at the end of the Middle Kingdom.

Second Intermediate period

There was a marked decline in the quality of workmanship in the Shabti of the Second Intermediate Period. The majority from this period are “stick shabtis” dating to the Seventeenth Dynasty. They are given the name because they were crudely formed wooden Shabtis that very much resembled sticks. They were often inscribed with hieratic rather than hieroglyphs.

New Kingdom

The Shabti of the New Kingdom were of significantly better quality due to the improvements in the economy and stability of society. The numbers of Shabti interred with the deceased increased dramatically and it was not uncommon for a noble burial to include around forty Shabti, while a royal burial could contain many more.

Shabti of Khabekhnet and Iineferty, NK, MET
Shabti of Khabekhnet and Iineferty, NK, MET 

Shabtis no longer represented the deceased person, but rather their servants and labourers who gained a measure of immortality by having their form included in the tomb of their master. By the end of the New Kingdom, the quality of workmanship had again declined as Shabti were mass produced allowing more Egyptians to have the luxury of servants in the afterworld.

During this period Shabti were formed from a huge variety of materials including stone, wood, alabaster, faience, terracotta, ebony, bronze, and glass. Shabti from the Eighteenth Dynasty were initially mummiform with crossed hands, wore heavy wigs and carried agricultural tools or funerary symbols. However, during the reign of Tuthmosis IV the design of Shabti changed and they were modeled as servants carrying out a variety of tasks. They were dressed in everyday clothes and carried any tools that would be required for their tasks. There were also a greater variety of forms including “double shabtis” (and by the Nineteenth Dynasty) “overseer shabtis”. Osiriform (resembling Osiris) Shabtis bearing agricultural tools have also been recovered.

Shawabti Khaemwaset and Messy, NK, dyn19, Amarna, MET
Shawabti Khaemwaset and Messy, NK, dyn19, Amarna, MET
Shabti of Sennedjem, Dear el Medina, NK, Dyn 19, MET
Shabti of Sennedjem, Dear el Medina, NK, Dyn 19, MET

Some Shabtis only have the name and the title of the person that they represent inscribed upon them. However, many were inscribed with text from Spell 472 of the Coffin Yexts, which evolved into Chapter Six of the Book of the Dead;

Hail, Shabti. If the Osiris (name of the deceased) be decreed to do any of the work which is to be done in the Khert-Neter (i.e. the cemetery), let everything which stands 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). “Here am I”, you shall say, “I shall do it”.

During the reign of Akhenaten (Eighteenth Dynasty) Shabtis were inscribed with a text addressed to the sun disk, the Aten instead of the text from Chapter Six of the Book of the Dead.

Third Intermediate Period

From the beginning of the Twenty-first Dynasty the figurines are known as Ushabti (which was the standard for used in Chaper 6 of the Book of the Dead from this point onward).

They continued to be mass produced in moulds with a resultant reduction in quality despite the fact that the blue faience with black detail typical of the period was particularly beautiful. The mummiform shape became fashionable again during the Third Intermediate Period although overseer shabtis still wore normal apparel.

Shawabti, TIP, Painedjem I
shawabti, Psusennes I, Tanis, TIP
Shabti Nesitanebetisheru TIP
Shabti Nesitanebetisheru TIP

The Ushabti were divided into two distinct groups; the overseers (36; one for each group of ten workers) and workers (365; one for each day of the Egyptian year) who were now considered to be slaves rather than servants. Thus, most burials included a total of 401 Ushabti!

Shabti Senkamenisken 26th dynasty (copyright Keith Schengili-Roberts)

The workers were mummiform and wore black headbands. They were very simply made often with minimal detail or merely a hint that they held tools in their hands. Ushabti were often organised into decorated boxes due to their large number.

Chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead was expanded (although many Ushabti were not inscribed or only had their name and title inscribed upon them).

After the Twenty-first Dynasty there was a further downturn in the quality of Ushabti, but this was reversed during the Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Dynasties and some beautiful examples were created.

Late Period

In the Late Period, burials generally included hundreds of crude mass produced Ushabti, but the practice of including overseers was abandoned. Ushabti were still generally made from faience, but were more often tinged with soft greens and blues.

Troop of funerary servant figures ushabtis in the name of Neferibreheb 500 BC (copyright Serge Ottaviani)
Shabti of Neferibreheb, 500 BC, Serge Ottaviani, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Ptolemaic period

By the Ptolemaic Period, there was a wide variation in the quality of Ushabti. While some were well made, others were very crude and hieroglyphic inscriptions were often faked (as fewer people understood the complex language and the cult of Osiris began to lose popularity). Ushabtis were almost exclusively mummiform and overseer Ushabti were very rare. By the end of the Ptolemaic Period, the Ushabti were no longer in use.

Ushabtis of Meretites, Dynasty 30
Ushabtis of Meretites, Dynasty 30
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Copyright J Hill 2010