Egyptian shabti figure


Materials: blue glazed faience earthenware
Dimensions: 11 centimeters high
Place acquired: junk shop, north London
Place of manufacture: Egypt

Belief in an afterlife can be a double-edged sword. There is the solace in the knowledge that death is not the end. But then there is the anxiety of what exactly awaits you in the existence beyond. The big monotheisms are pretty vague about this. It will be nice, or not so nice, heaven or hell, but beyond that there’s not much detail.

But the ancient Egyptians seem to have been good on detail. The afterlife was very central to their belief system, it was well understood, highly organised, and very carefully prepared for. This little figure is proof of that. It’s a shabti, a funerary figure that would have been entombed with the mummified body. This one is, I think, a modern copy, probably sold to tourists on a Nile cruise, but it is made of the same rough earthenware and faience glaze as the originals. In the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC) they were mass-produced on a large scale.

Basically a shabti was a servant and its purpose was to serve you in the afterlife. Should you be required to do work in the afterlife, harvesting crops for example, you could get the shabti to do it in your place. This one even has a threshing tool painted on in readiness.

This afterlife get-out would only work if everything was done correctly. The shabti must have the right quotation written on it for it to be effective. The quotation would be from the Book of the Dead, an elaborate collection of prayers and protocols used to prepare the deceased to pass successfully into the afterlife. If you had been bad in life, then the right magic spells could cause this to be overlooked. Few of the elaborate judgement rituals of the gods could not be got around with equally elaborate spells. It was an enormous bureaucracy of specialist knowledge invented and managed by a priestly elite, a bit like the legal profession, and you would get the level of service you could pay for.

For me there are two interesting things that the shabti shows. Firstly the prosaic, everyday-ness of the afterlife as envisaged by this society. It seems to be pretty much the same as the life they are living; the same class system, the same needs and requirements in terms of labour, production and consumption. But secondly, and perhaps most tellingly, shabtis reveal the levels of anxiety that existed about the end of life. Not about death itself, but about what levels of status and comfort you could expect in the life beyond.