Egyptian mortuary figurines are common, but their meaning is unclear: were they workers of the late rich man or copies of him that were magically activated to escape the king’s accusations?
One of the most popular artifacts in the grave goods of ancient Egypt is a statuette called shabti or ushabti by Egyptologists.
Usually mummy-shaped and made of faience (a bluish-green glassy paste), shabtis begin to appear in the tombs of the empires from the end of the Middle Kingdom (c. 1700 BCE) and become widespread from the Second Period. -1550 BC). In time, there will be a shabti for every day of the year or even more: 414 appeared in Tutankhamun’s tomb. If there are many, they are usually kept in wooden boxes.
Their blue-green color and mummy-like shape make them resemble Osiris, the god of the dead, the late king who triumphed over death and whose son, Horus, inherits the throne over the land of the living.
The earliest written reference we have to these figurines points the other way. It is Formula 472 of the Coffin Texts, which is preserved in two chests of Dayr el-Barsha, the necropolis of ancient Jemenu (Hermopolis), a fundamental center for the creation of new mortuary texts during the Middle Kingdom (2050 -1650 BCE). The title of the formula explains the purpose of the shabti, but not their identity: “Formula to make the shabti do the work of their lord in the necropolis.”
The officiant (usually the firstborn of the deceased) is then shown to speak to the gods:
Look closely, nobles, gods, spirits and the dead that are in heaven and on earth! He has regained his power, he has taken over his thrones and has governed the herds (people) created for this N (= the deceased) according to the order of the gods.
Then he addresses each shabti:
If this N is recruited to repair canals, level esplanades, patrol the banks, or cultivate new fields for the reigning king, “Here I am in his place!” – Tell every noble messenger who comes against this N–.
Finally, to all Shabtis:
So grab your picks, hoes, drawbars and baskets, as everyone does for their master! O shabtis! Help this N! If this N is summoned to your service and finds it painful, like everyone else, “Here we are!” -you’re going to say-. If this N is recruited to watch over a worker who tills new fields, repopulates the banks, or rows sand from the west to the east of the river and vice versa, “Here we are!” You will tell him about it.
The formula ends with some instructions in the colophon: «Recite on a drawing of the living lord made in tamarisk and jujube, placed in the chapel of the noble spirit (ie the deceased)».
The first thing that is surprising is that the text is slightly earlier than the appearance of the shabtis. Since it is an ancient text, it is common for it to use the term shabti, the oldest, meaning “piece of wood”, and not ushabti, meaning “the one who answers” and who will appear a thousand years later ( dynasty XXI).
It is also notable that the text represents the shabtis responding to recruitment orders from royal emissaries.
Finally, the text appears to be an incantation recited over a drawing of the deceased so that the Shabtis would respond when their time came, as the colophon indicates. This means that the shabtis had to be in part of the tomb already at that time (dynasty XII). But we don’t find them until the end of that dynasty.
The reference to the piece of wood fits well with the first shabtis, these are poorly carved wooden sticks, with or without inscription.
Sometimes placed in their own coffins, they were interpreted as stand-ins for the lord’s workers, a reminder of those who may have had to be buried next to the king early in Egyptian history (Dynasty I).
However, the fact that these wooden sticks give way to mumiform figures in blue-green faience and the like might suggest that the shabtis are actually the elements of a funeral trousseau that have the function of replacing the deceased in the real thing. They would perform a role similar to sandals, for example a common item in funerals that serves the deceased to walk through the other world and must be magically activated.
The shabtis are converted into transcripts of the deceased, their avatars. They are figures imitating the deceased, identified with Osiris, with the form of this and the name of that, as indicated by the treatment form of the ubiquitous deceased in the Coffin Texts: “This osiris N” (N is the name of the deceased in question and “Osiris”, a form of address, as if we say “dead lord”).
It seems that through repetition (one shabti for each day) and imitation (all shabtis are like the deceased) these royal emissaries were meant to be misled into thinking that the deceased was fulfilling his duties to the king himself.
As in life, who had released his own workers from his obligations and a tomb could also be built with, among other things, numerous shabtis.
This article was published in ‘The conversation‘.
Source: La Verdad