Jackie C Grosvenor

“O shabti, allotted to me, if I be summoned or if I be detailed to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead;  if indeed obstacles are implanted for you therewith as a man at his duties, you shall detail yourself for me on every occasion of making arable the fields, of flooding the banks or of conveying sand from east to west;  ‘Here am I,’ you shall say.”
Spell 6 ‘Book of the Dead’(3)



.................Shabti: .......................Tutankhamun ..............................................................Ahmose ........................................................Hoy - shabti with coffin

In order to understand the reasoning behind the creation of the small wooden mummified ‘servant’ figures, we need to go back to the First Dynasty (c.3000 BCE). The earliest ‘upmarket’ tombs for nobles and the high-born were in the form of mastabas (an Arabic word meaning ‘bench’) which were a series of brick-built small mounds. The kings were interred in what were known as ‘funerary palaces’ which were large compounds surrounded by brick walls. The Egyptians believed that these tombs had to be replicas of the great palaces in which the kings lived and thus they should be decorated in the same fashion.   Their unshakeable belief was in the continuance of the deceased and that death was merely a mirror image of life.  Life in the realms of the dead would be identical to life in its earthly form.  All was to be copied exactly so that the deceased would be given everything that he would need for his rebirth - food, liquid refreshment, offerings to the gods, furniture, weapons, games, etc.  The Per-aa “The Great House” would be copied faithfully to house its master in eternity.

As rulers with absolute power, the Pharaohs had countless servants to take care of their every need and, especially, to cultivate the land, for it was the regular inundation of the Nile and the land which were of paramount importance to the lives of the Egyptians. Indeed, if anything was to go amiss in the inundation period, it was the Pharaoh who was blamed.  When the Pharaoh was ‘reborn’, his new life was to be a continuation of his earthly existence and, thus, he would require servants to fulfil every duty for him.  There had to be ‘workers’ in the Otherworld who would see to these tasks, as it would be unthinkable for the divine deceased to perform any type of manual labour.

In the 1st dynasty , servants, mostly female, were sacrificed in the belief that they would accompany their master to the Netherworld and work for him there.  It would be considered an honour for them to die with the divine king and to be ‘named’ on a stelae in order to achieve some small degree of ‘immortality’. The deaths of so many (338 rough graves were found at Abydos) (2) would, after any lengthy period of time have been wasteful.  Surely this would go against the belief of prolonging life beyond death, not curtailing unnaturally the lives of the living?  Thus the practice of sacrifice was replaced with tomb paintings which portrayed in symbolic form the work which the servants would have performed. 

But wall paintings could be defaced and engravings could be chiselled out.  The message could be lost.  A lack of strong government led to an increase in tomb robbery and mummies were frequently destroyed.  The intact mummy was considered essential for rebirth and a custom arose of burying small mummy-shaped figurines with the body which would, as it were, replace the mummy if destroyed.  In the Middle Kingdom these figures developed into shabtis.   Thus, the shabti figures were a form of ‘insurance’ or a ‘deputy’ and they were always marked with the name of the deceased.  

As was their nature, the ancient Egyptians left nothing to chance and early texts prescribed the type of wood which was to be used in the making of a shabti -the persea or shawab tree (from which the shabti was named) (5) and the tamarisk (iser) or zizypus (nebes) (9). All these woods were considered to have magical qualities.   Also, many shabtis found at Deir el Bahri were produced from the distinctive blue faience. (1)  

In some cases the shabti figures were kept in miniature shrines which resembled the Per-nu, the shrine of Lower Egypt, one of which was found in the tomb of  Yuya and Tuya in the Valley of the Kings, Luxor (shown below). The box was made of wood that has been lightly plastered and then painted in green, blue, red and white. The knobs on the lid and the front enabled the box to be tied shut with a small cord, which was stamped with a mud seal. This is one of 15 boxes found in the tomb. Thirteen of these are housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and two are located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York


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...........................Shabti box from the tomb of Yuya ..................................................................Pharaoh with Hoe ..........................................................Amenhotep II

The majority of shabti figures are shown with their arms crossed in Osiris form bearing a hoe in each hand and sometimes with two baskets on the front or back.   The hoe was a vital implement in caring for the land.  This simple, but hugely symbolic, agricultural tool is depicted in Dynasty ‘O’ (3150 - 3500 BCE) on the so-called ‘Scorpion’ Macehead (c) 

The shape of the hoe can be clearly seen in the hands of the king and, according to Peter Clayton (Chronicles of the Pharaohs) (1) this tool could have been used either to open the dykes in order to begin flooding the fields or to cut the first furrow in the construction of a temple. (see also Wilkinson: Reading Egyptian Art).(8).  In myth the hoe can also be a reference to Osiris who, as the living king, introduced agriculture to Egypt and who was the first god of fertility, long before myths portrayed him as ‘king of the dead’. (8)

When shabtis were first introduced they were strictly for use by the Pharaoh, the nobles and hierarchy of Egyptian society.  They were the substitute servants of the powerful and the rich.   The ordinary people who were ‘at the base of the pyramid’ which was the governmental and ruling structure could not afford to decorate their tombs with such things.  It was only in the late Middle Kingdom that those at the lower end of the Egyptian social scale could afford to have ‘answerers’ buried with them and, in most cases, these shabti figures were made simply out of clay or wax and bore sparse decoration which was usually the name of the deceased and the shabti spell etched in black ink.  It would have been the duty of the eldest son when burying a parent to ensure that the shabti was included in the burial.   Indeed the shabti became so commonplace that it has been likened to the modern day equivalent of sending a wreath to a western funeral (10).  


.........................Shabti: ....................Taharqa..................................Khabekhnett............................Sennedjem ............................Amenthotep II..................Ptahmose

In Cairo Museum, housed in glass cases round the walls of one the rooms in the Tutankhamun section, stand hundreds of shabti figures - each one a servant of the deceased Pharaoh.  According to scholars, 401 shabtis were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb - one for each day of the year plus an overseer for each group of ten (7).  During the Ramesside period, the shabti numbers increased until eventually there was a veritable army of ‘answerers’ to work on behalf of the dead king.   In the tomb of Seti I over 700 shabtis were discovered.  Now, that is some insurance policy.  Indeed, one scholar has stated that much later in Egyptian pharaonic history, in the 25th Dynasty (747 - 656 BCE), Pharaoh Taharqa (who re-erected the wonderful column in the First Court of the Temple of Amun at Karnak) was buried along with over a thousand shabtis, each one beautifully carved from stone (6). It is worth noting that even the later Nubian pharaohs continued the ancient burial beliefs of their Egyptian forebears.


‘Here am I’ I will answer.   For I am ..... you.   I bear your name.  For is not your name a precious thing? Once uttered, it comes into existence and thus you will continue to exist throughout eternity.  When your name is called by the gods you can command me, your shabti, to work tirelessly on your behalf.  My loyalty will never falter.  I am your servant, created in your image.  I am here to serve you when you become an akh, a glorified being of light, when you traverse into the netherworld.  I shall be with you always to perform the tasks bidden of the gods. When the gods call, I shall answer for you.  That is my purpose - I am your ‘answerer’.   I shall till the soil for you, repair the canals for you.  For it is the land which must be cultivated and cared for.  In your lifetime on earth, the land was tended.  The seeds were sown and the crops harvested. So shall it be in the afterlife.  Nothing will change.  This is the belief of those whose hands and minds fashioned me. But let the words of this modern scribe explain how I came into being

It is done.   You have learned of our beginnings and why we were created.  And so we are bound together for eternity. Many  of us may have been taken from your presence and we may be scattered throughout this modern world.  Whether we are fashioned in gold, magical wood or humble clay;  whether you be eternal Pharaoh, beloved Queen, high ranking noble or humble commoner, when the gods call, we shall be there to do their bidding for you.  Wherever we are we shall always be your answerers. ‘Here am I.’



1.Clayton P (1994) Chronicles of the Pharaohs. p 17 London: Thames and Hudson.

2.Emery, WB (1984)  Archaic Egypt. p 62. Middlesex:  Penguin Books.

 3. Faulkner R O  1996 (5th Rev) The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. p. 36 London:  British Museum Press

4. Foreman, Werner and Quirk Stephen (1996)  p. 98 Hieroglyphics and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.

5. Hutchinson Encyclopaedia, Helicon Publishing 1999.http://www.hutchinson/encyclopaedia

6. Remler P, (1999) Ushabti and Magical Powers (New York) http://www.ipgroup.com/sadigh/ushabti.html

7. Strudwick Nigel and Helen (1999) Thebes in Egypt. p 218  London:  British Museum Press

8. Wilkinson Richard (1992) Reading Egyptian Art. p 190  London:  Thames and Hudson

9. Wilkinson Richard (1994) Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art. p 91  London:   Thames and Hudson

10 Wilson, Hilary (1996) Understanding Hieroglyphics. p 23  London:  Michael O’Mara Books Ltd

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