On this episode of Magic & Ritual, we’re looking at the Ushabti, or sometimes called Shawabti or Shabti – one of ancient Egypt’s tricks for the afterlife. Not a trick to cheat death, but more like a trick to cheat the duties of death.
The ancient Egyptians believed that in the afterlife, if you make it there, you carry on as you did in life. The ancient Egyptian heaven Aaru, a field of reeds, had land that needed to be worked. The dead also needed to eat and drink, and so the bread and beer had to be made.
So basically if you were a farmer when alive, you stayed a farmer after death and had to carry out your farming duties for all eternity…
…Not a very pleasant idea for most people. Not even the royalty were too excited about carrying the burden of their roles forever. Everyone wanted to have a chance to relax, mingle with old friends and family, eat, drink and enjoy themselves.
So, what could a society that deeply believed in the power of magic do in order to fulfill this desire? How about carving figurines, inscribing with spells, the names and titles of their owners, and giving them the ability to be called on for service?
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That’s where these Ushabti come in, a practice that started in the Middle Kingdom and continued up until the end of the Ptolemaic period.
These little statues were made with all different kinds of materials, including clay, stone, glass, metal, and wood. They were small in size and would be placed in the tomb with the deceased who could afford. Many of them were made for the same person, and some tomb floors were covered in them all around the coffin.
But this seemingly harmless intention didn’t start off so innocently. In the earlier periods, kings would have some of their own servants buried with them in order to serve them in the afterlife.
Thankfully, this practice was eventually deemed wasteful and the funerary figurines took their place in stead.
At first, the Shabti were shaped like mummies, but then people started getting creative with them. Some were made to look like they’re working, with baskets and tools. Some were carved with chapter 6 of the Book of the Dead.
Their sizes, roles and functions differed as well. Some were made like an alias of their owner, and some were made to resemble proper servants.
Some kings had hundreds of Ushabti, so that they’d have new workers each day of the year and a few supervisors to make sure the other workers performed their duties correctly.
And that’s why thousands of these figurines survive until now and fill up museum displays all over the world. They are one of the most commonly found ancient Egyptian artifacts.
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