Ushabti: to the deceased service


The Egyptians believed that the afterlife was a restatement of the earthly life and as such the dead were both obliged to carry out daily tasks that had accompanied them during the course of life is to provide for themselves. Resulting of corvées considered boring, such as irrigation and working the fields that the deceased tried to avoid the manufacture of ushabti, funerary statuettes that had the task of replacing them in the afterlife and therefore provided with agricultural tools work. The term ushabti, in fact, means “responsive”, that is the one who answers the call (Chapter VI of the Book of the Dead) of its owner to replace it in the works.

The ushabti, along with all the components of the funeral, were manufactured within hwt-nwb ( “Golden House”), workshops that were part of the major temples, royal residences and the State Treasury. We know of the existence of an atelier at Memphis, under the guidance of the local god Ptah protector of artisans. This atelierè present at Saqqara in the paintings of Apuia tomb, head goldsmith times the reign of Amenhotep III.

The oldest statues were modeled in wax and clay, typical materials of magical figurines and amulets, while in the Middle Kingdom in addition to wood, used mainly in the Second Intermediate Period and the New Kingdom, appeared stone specimens that met the need for more eternity that the statue required. The favorite stones for this type of manufacturing were the alabaster, the serpentina, granite and shale. At the end of the New Kingdom, stone and wood were replaced by ceramic and faïance. In fact some specimens in faïance is dated to the Middle Kingdom, with a preference for the blue color, while the Third Intermediate Period until the Late Age ushabti were created mainly in green faïance with better quality enamels.

The ceramic ushabti date back to the eighteenth dynasty, an increase during the nineteenth dynasty because of a different conception of ushabti, now collected in real teams; It is therefore needed to reduce the times and costs of production by using a cheaper material such as the red clay of the Nile. We must mention the rare bronze specimens that appear at the XVIII dynasty fine for individuals, as well as statuettes found in real kits of Ramesses II, Ramesses III and Psusennes.

Closely connected with the dell’ushabti figurine is its magic formula. During the Twelfth Dynasty sarcophagus lost its rectangular shape to take on a anthropomorphic, thereby reducing the space you can devote to the inscriptions that were written on the statues so that made up the funeral. In an agricultural society like that of Ancient Egypt, the family was the primary social unit and all components were to take part in the daily farm work. That’s why the deceased asking for his family in the afterlife through a group of formulas that are part of the Coffin Texts, calls “formulas to gather the family.” They were wd-nsw, or royal decrees that constituted legal documents, for example:

“Seal of a decree concerning the family. Give the fam ily of a man in the land of God. He has decreed that there be given me my family, my children, my brothers and my sisters, my father and my mother , all my servants and all my villagers, as well as free myself from the work of Seth, from Isis census the Magnificent followed Osiris Lord of the West. Geb, the prince of the gods, said to be released to me my family, being freed from the gods or the goddesses. “

In Ancient Kingdom the afterlife was a prerogative of the sovereign, while individuals could aspire to obtain the concession to build his mastaba (pr dt) near the grave of his master. The century and a half that separates the Old Kingdom from the Middle Kingdom is called the First Intermediate Period and is characterized by a crisis of central power in favor of local authorities which became stronger and stronger, so much so that now the Hereafter is guaranteed now. It grows as a result, the importance of the god Osiris, lord of the Underworld evident in the early Middle Kingdom funerary statuettes which recall the appearance of the god: they were made of stone or wood with the body and only the mummy liberadall’involucro head. The statuettes of the Middle Kingdom can be divided into two categories: statuettes without visible hands entirely anepigrafi or decorated with text and figurines with raised hands crossed on his chest, recalling the great contemporary statuary, like ushabti dated to XIII dynasty belonging to a woman, Akhemnechmet, “Shining in the boat Nechmet”, ie the sacred boat of the Abydos temple on which sails the god Osiris.

The period from 1785 to 1560 BC It is called the Second Intermediate Period and is characterized by the arrival of so-called Hyksos, who completely took over the style of government of the Egyptians, while maintaining their cultural identity visible in the architecture and ceramics. In this period ushabti seem to have disappeared. Simultaneously with this dynasty was born in Thebes the seventeenth dynasty founded by Rahotep to whom we owe the revival in Upper Egypt of a certain artistic activities. The most interesting ushabti related to the seventeenth dynasty are the wooden statues crudely carved and covered with inscriptions that were called “wooden heads”, of which only the hands and feet are carved in relief. Most of these specimens rests inside a small sarcophagus in wood or terracotta. The tradition of “blockheads” was perpetuated until the XVIII dynasty.

With the New Kingdom Egypt was at the peak of its splendor, mainly in the achievements of Tuthmosis III through which the kingdom stretched from the Euphrates to Napata, in Sudan, in addition to peace pursued by Amenhotep III. This well-being is clearly visible in ushabti, manufactured in different materials, heterogeneity prelude that will mainly present in the following decades, especially with Tutankhamun which we ski cone numerous ushabti, one different from the other, with fine materials which betray the wealth of ‘ era.

Even the inscriptions undergo a change, in fact the offering formula to Osiris, so that the Ka is equipped with all foods, gives way to the Chapter VI of the Book of the Dead, and you add a new step:

“Well (ushabti)! The work will be inflicted over there like a man with his task. Here I am! you will say”.

Thus we understand that the ushabti is no longer a deputy, but works on behalf of the deceased, made clearer idea with the addition of agricultural tools; They are now considered to be part of a team employed by the owner. The oldest known royal ushabti belongs to Ahmosis. This piece of limestone wears a beard and nemes adorned with a uraeus, but not holding any emblem.

In the nineteenth century in the Valley of the Kings, they were discovered several ushabti, whole or fragmented, inevitably ricollegabili to King Amenhotep III (1408-1372 BC). The 33 ushabti relating to the sovereign are recognizable by the four columns in which it appears the last combined prayer to Chapter VI of the Book of the Dead:

“Far to the ushabti for happy Osiris Nebmaa three justified in the world of the dead. O gods who are close to the Lord of the Universe (Osiris), sitting next to his mouth, remember me, the King, when you pronounce his name, when you will be giving him his offerings of the evening and the morning, so that you grant all his prayers in the Pek region, when he celebrates the Ouag party. It can be in the place of Osiris King Amenophi, true of voice, to cultivate the fields, to irrigate the banks, to carry the sand of the East to the West. That memories of Osiris King Nebmaatre, true of voice, near the Immortal (Osiris), for which receives the offerings of food in his presence. “

At the same time the name of the god Aton was written within the cartouche taking so even a royal connotation unlike the king, who took on divine characteristics. The changes also affect the artistic field: the sovereign is represented in attitudes affectionate with the family, breaking the rigor with past eras and figures of the characters are now clumsy, with elongated skulls, shoulders
curved and immeasurable proportions, perhaps to detach the royal family from the rest of the population. Strangely it continues in this era the production of ushabti linked to the god Osiris where is clearly visible the change mentioned above.

 During the Third Intermediate Period the depersonalization process that led the ushabti to become servants of their master continues to exist so that the number of figurines is now set at 401, including reis-ushabti. Now he statuettes working for and in place of the owner, as is visible in the decree of Nesy-Khonsu, wife of Pinudjem II:

“Amon-Ra king of the gods, the great God, which is the oldest in existence, says: I will give the ushabti that were created for Nesy-Khonsu so they can perform all sorts of things for which the ushabti are It was created, so that is exempt Nesy-Khonsu. I’ll see that she is exempt every year, every month, every decade, every day and all epagomenal days. “

The change is also visible in the representation of the figurines: no more references to lots of seed usually carried on the shoulders, while the living statues with clothes feature whip, as Henouttaouy and a belt tied behind his head, appeared for the first time with Masaharté.


The Epoch Late analysis is more complex because of the lack of information derived from the fact that the royal tombs of the period still remain unknown and found ushabti are dedicated to the same name of the sovereign. We are witnessing a return to the archaic model: the appearance is again mummy, but with longer legs resting on a pedestal and supported by a dorsal pillar that arises from hair. Hands crossed on his chest seem to emerge from the shroud that wraps around the body and holding up a hoe and the rope of the bag that hangs on the left shoulder .. The testosi extends on the bottom of the statue also occupying the area of the pillar, while the XXVII Dynasty title and the name of the deceased will be enrolled in “T”. The number is 365 because the reis-ushabti are now disappeared.

The next conquest by Alexander the Great did not result in substantial changes in funerary matters, as opposed to what happened with his successors, the Ptolemies. During the Ptolemaic Period is spreading a general pessimism about life after death. In the traditional view with the deceased’s death is identified with the god Osiris, thus receiving the magical powers that will serve to overcome the dangers of the subterranean world and get the revival.

The new ideology requires, however, a total identification with God and this change leads to a rapid decline of ushabti, because the work of the land is no longer a coherent justification. We know that during this period the ushabti were still used and an example is dall’esemplare of Djedher, mummy, and has an extensive membership that extends below the elbow to the foot, leaving the dorsal pillar free. During the reign of Cleopatra VII we are witnessing the sunset of ushabti.

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