ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egypt: The ushabti - an existence of eternal servitude
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The ushabti:
An existence of eternal servitude

Royal ushabti     The ancient Egyptians lived lives of obligations: the king, responsible for the world order and minor concerns like proper Nile floods and the welfare of his people, had to perform the ceremonies necessary before the respective gods; his servants, the noblemen, scribes and priests, served the king by shouldering most of his responsibilities, at times even impersonating him before the gods; while the common people were duty-bound to do the bidding of the royal administrators.

Ushabti of King Taharka
Petrie Museum website

    These duties did not cease with death. The after-life was not a place which ran itself. The fields still had to be ploughed, the wheat reaped, the bread baked and the beer brewed: the deceased were going to be kept very busy. Fortunately for the rich and powerful not used to manual labour, stand-ins could be bought for as little as two hundredths of a deben, though one surmises that those who could afford the best the country could produce would not be satisfied with personal substitutes as cheaply made as these. The answer to their prayers for release from eternal drudgery was a little statuette called an ushabti [6], variously also referred to as shawabti (in the Thebaid) and shabti [2].
    Nor did the less well-off fancy an eternity of toil. During the New Kingdom there were still few of these, such as the workman Setau from Deir el Medina who expected his ushabti to answer "Here I am!" just as the ushabtis of his deceased superiors did when these were called to labour in the fields of the underworld and build irrigation ditches there.
    Some think that the name of the ushabti stems from the Egyptian word for answer, as the ushabti was expected to answer the call to duty since the early days of the Coffin Texts:
O ushabti, if I am called upon, if I am appointed to do any work which is done on the necropolis .... even as the man is bounden, namely to cultivate the fields, to flood the river-banks or to carry the sand of the East to the West, then speak thou 'Here am I!'
Coffin Text 472
A. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction, p.32
others doubt that this is the source of the name.
    These first 'answerers' may have been virtual, as the oldest ushabti figurines, crude, uninscribed, often nude representations of the deceased, that were found, date to the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, [8] some time after their mention in the Coffin Texts, spells which were during the New Kingdom incorporated into the so-called Books of the Dead[3] When they became part of the tomb equipment they had the shape of mummies with their arms folded across their chest, and they were inscribed with the titles and names of their owners. Spells were written on ushabtis from the late Middle Kingdom onwards.
    Strictly speaking, only those figurines intended to perform the duties of the deceased are considered to be ushabtis. They need not have the form of mummies, as some New Kingdom ushabtis wearing everyday clothes prove.
    If at the beginning the ushabti represented the deceased, later it came to be perceived more and more as a servant and during the late New Kingdom was referred to as Hm, i.e. servant or slave.
    Placed in coffins since the 19th dynasty a text, from which the following passage is an excerpt, calls on the gods to protect the deceased who had died miserably, killed by his brother and who had nobody to protect him. According to this spell the ushabtis were seen as slaves offered to Osiris by the deceased and not as his alter egos, but separate from him, and his right to receive service from them stemmed from the fact that he had bought them:
Behold the ushabtis, the slaves, men and women, they belong to your majesty, Osiris, they were all his slaves when they were on earth, it is he who acquired them. Make him direct them at the right moment, make them work in his (i.e. the deceased's) stead, at any time one remembers him.
J. Cerny, Le caractère des Oushebtis d'après les idées du Nouvel Empire, BIFAO 41 (1942), p.119
    This development of demotion was accompanied by an ever-increasing number of ushabtis being placed in tombs. In the tomb of Seti I Belzoni found more than 700 ushabtis. At the height of this proliferation during the Third Intermediate Period many tombs contained one worker ushabti for every day of the year and 36 overseer ushabtis, each 'responsible' for ten labourers. These overseers, recognizable by the way they kept one arm pressed against the side of the body while there was a flail in the other hand, became rare during the Late Period, though the number of ordinary ushabtis remained high until it declined under the Ptolemies.
    The simple act of buying ushabtis and placing them in the tomb was not always deemed to be sufficient to ensure their obedience. Neskhons, wife of the High Priest Pinodjem II under the 21st dynasty, acquired an unspecified number of faience ushabtis, and offered her purchase to the oracle of Amen for approval:
The contents of the writing placed before Amen-nesti-tawi of the temple of the solar obelisk in the year 5, 4th month of summer, day 2: Amen-nesti-tawi of the temple of the solar obelisk, the great god, says in two copies of the writing which attest: Concerning all which they have paid to the makers of faience for the ushabtis made for Neskhons, daughter of Tahenthoth, in copper, clothing, loaves of bread, cakes, fish likewise as all that has been Lid of ushabti box paid to them (i.e. the makers) for them (i.e. the ushabtis) and will also be paid to them for them, the makers of faience are paid by this (this) being the payment for their value.
The Roger and McCullum tablets
J. Cerny, Le caractère des Oushebtis d'après les idées du Nouvel Empire, BIFAO 41 (1942), p.110

Wooden lid of ushabti box, inscribed Khaemwaset
New Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website, UC16398

    Ushabtis were between about 10 and 30 cm tall. They were made of various materials: wax, wood, clay, hard stone like granite, but most often of faience. [7] When numbers of ushabtis were big they were frequently kept in decorated wooden ushabti-boxes or in painted pottery jars [4][5].
1: Uninscribed Middle Kingdom figurine made of alabaster (Petrie Museum UC18822)
2: Wooden 19th dynasty mummy figurine in coffin, with an inscription on the front (UC10724)
3: Faience overseer ushabti, 22nd dynasty (UC29961)
4: Pottery ushabti, 21st dynasty (UC39988)
5: 18th dynasty ushabti made of black granite (UC40327)
6: Glazed ushabti carrying tools, beautifully worked and inscribed, 26th dynasty (UC28053)
7: Overseer ushabti holding flail, 4th century CE (UC28669)

    During the first millennium BCE embalmment became ever more popular, albeit in a debased form which people who were not wealthy could afford. Together with this sprang up an industry supplying grave goods at reasonable prices. Low quality ushabtis were mass-produced and buried. They are among the most numerous artefacts to survive from ancient times.


[2] In the same passage from the 6th chapter of the so-called Book of the Dead the papyrus BM EA 10477 (pNu), dating to the 18th dynasty, and the papyrus London BM 10793, written during the 21st dynasty, both composed in traditional Middle Egyptian, have different forms of the word, the former prefers ushabti ( and the latter - found at Deir el Bahri - shawabti (
O ushabtis (, when Osiris NN, justified, is made to perform any work which is being done there in the realm of the dead (Xr.t nTr), as the onus (sDb) is apportioned to a man according to his share, you shall say "Behold him!" being detailed off at any time in order to plant the fields, water the river banks (or) to ship sand (Saj) to the West or to the East.
pLondon BM 10793
The onus apportioned are the duties all men have to perform, at least in theory. sDb has the meaning of obstacle, impediment, evil, harm etc.
Concerning the sand (Saj) shipped East and West it has been suggested that this refers to fertilizer.
[5] Peet 1912, pl.XX
[6] Images of people (and of gods for that matter) were not just depictions of those people, but, essentially, they were these people themselves. This magical thinking led to the destruction of images of people one wanted to hurt (cf. Heka, the Magic of ancient Egypt). It may also have played a part in bringing about the demotion of the ushabti from representation of the deceased to servant separate from his master who thus did not have to perform his duties even through his image.
[7] Shaw 2003, p.170
[8] Shaw & Nicholson 2002, p.266

Carol Andrews, Amulets of Ancient Egypt, University of Texas Press, 2001
E. A. Wallis Budge, Amulets and Superstitions, , Oxford University Press, 1930
J. Cerny, Le caractère des Oushebtis d'après les idées du Nouvel Empire, BIFAO 41 (1942)
Sergio Donadoni ed., The Egyptians, University of Chicago Press, 1997
A. H. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction
Amanda-Alice Maravelia, Two Faience Shabtis from the Egyptian Collection at the Benaki Museum, in Mouseio Benaki, 2, 2002 [2003], pp. 19-24
A. G. McDowell, Village Life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs, Oxford University Press, 2002
Thomas Eric Peet, The Cemeteries of Abydos. Part 2. 1911-1912
Geraldine Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt, University of Texas Press, 1995
Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The British Museum Press 2002
Ian Shaw, The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press 2003

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Offsite links   (Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content of these sites
Ushabti of Horuza[1] Petrie Museum website: Ushabti of Horuza, 26th dynasty
Book of the Dead Chapter 6[3] Book of the Dead Chapter 6
Shabti boxes[4] Shabti boxes


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© December 2006