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Shabtis

Abstract

A shabti is a funerary figure that is usually mummiform in shape and originally represented the deceased in his dignified status. Some New Kingdom shabtis, however, are clad in the dress of daily life. Background of the shabti-concept was the need for food that had to be produced in the realm of the dead as well as on earth. There was an ambiguity in function: a shabti represented the deceased and a shabti substituted the  deceased. On the one hand it was a means for the deceased tobenefit from the food production, on the other hand it created a possibility to escape from the burdensome labor required for the food production. Whenever the deceased was summoned to cultivate the fields in the hereafter, a shabti was supposed to present itself on his/her behalf saying, “I shall do it, here I am.” The substitution was secured by an incantation that—after the Middle Kingdom—used to be written on the shabtis themselves. The spell is also known from the Coffin Texts and the Book of the Dead. Towards the end of the New Kingdom, the number of shabtis per burial grew considerably. A total of c. 400 was not uncommon in the Late Period. By then shabtis had become mere slaves.

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