Ushabti, the Answerer
March 5, 2003 5:40 AM   Subscribe

Ushabtis are small mummiform dolls that the ancient Egyptians buried with the dead. 'Ushabti' means 'Answerer'. [more inside]
posted by Slithy_Tove (16 comments total)
The ushabti was to answer any command the dead man received from the gods in the afterlife, and perform any duties expected of him. For this reason, ushabtis are commonly portrayed with farming tools and a seed pouch. ushabtis were a part of Egyptian funerary custom from around 2000 to 300 B.C.E., and were made in a variety of styles and materials.

Ushabtis are not especially rare; many were cheaply made in large numbers for the middle-class as well as the wealthy, and some individuals had as many as 400 ushabti in their tombs. Because they are relatively plentiful for very ancient artifacts, they are highly collectible, and have been collected by well known people. While some are rather expensive, others are not. eBay, of course, has tons, and while I've spotted at one obvious fake, I'd guess that most are genuine.

Besides antiquarian collectors, ushabtis have attracted the interest of rpg'ers (although they seem to have gotten wrong almost every detail about them), and a guy who builds robots. I'm not the only one who thinks it would be very convenient to have an ushabti of my own! (Without having to be dead first, of course.)
posted by Slithy_Tove at 5:44 AM on March 5, 2003

[this am good]
posted by Pretty_Generic at 5:55 AM on March 5, 2003

Great post, thanks! I love these things.
posted by agregoli at 6:59 AM on March 5, 2003

...ushabtis have attracted the interest of rpg'ers (although they seem to have gotten wrong almost every detail about them)...

Warhammer isn't a RPG, it's miniature wargaming. No roles played, just a lot of miniatures on a plywood table fighting it out. And they're always taking things that have mythological meaning and tweaking it.

I might be a bit quick on the defense -- being that I made that page...
posted by Katemonkey at 7:08 AM on March 5, 2003

Katemonkey, thanks for the correction.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 7:25 AM on March 5, 2003

I have one of these, inherited from a family member, on a (restrung) string of faience beads. It's an amazing little thing, not only for its antiquity. Thanks for this post about them.
posted by sir walsingham at 7:32 AM on March 5, 2003

(applause for well done post.)

The concept of the afterlife in later Egyptian periods (roughly, the Middle Kingdom afterwards) was that, provided you were "True of Heart, True of Voice", you'd be resurrected into a paradise, where you would do whatever it was you did in your life, but under perfect conditions, forever. So, if you were a farmer, you'd work on a perfect farm, with perfect weather, bringing in perfect harvests.

(I've always wondered what the tomb carvers and decorators would do. Nevermind.)

Well, some decided that a perfect job was still a job, thus the "shwbt" amulet. (Ushabti is as good a transliteration as any.) These would "answer" the call to for work for the departed soul, so they could get on with whatever else one does in the afterlife - check out the carved tombs, I guess. Maybe canasta.

Later, these grew into sets, and naturally, the better off you were, the better your Ushabti's were. Tutankhamun's tomb had 413 Ushabti's, one for each day of the year, plus foreman, scribes, and a Ushabti to lead them all, so that Tut wouldn't even have to order his Ushabti to work for him.

It's good to be the /k/i/n/g pharaoh.
posted by eriko at 7:36 AM on March 5, 2003

Favorite sites to purchase a Ushabti, or other antiquities:

Artemission, based in London, updates it's site frequently each day with new material. They specialize in Ancient Near Eastern Art.

It is advisable to research a dealer (particularly on eBay) before purchasing antiquities. Just because an antiquities dealer has mostly positive feedback, doesn't mean that they are selling real ancient art.

Look for dealer-to-dealer verification in feedback history, to be safe, and stay away from sellers who make their feedback private.
posted by mcgraw at 7:50 AM on March 5, 2003

(I've always wondered what the tomb carvers and decorators would do. Nevermind.)

To say nothing of the executioners. And jailers and judges. Maybe they'd jail, judge and execute all the perfect criminals committing perfect crimes?

But if the crime is perfect, how is the criminal caught? Of course, the police work is perfect, too...
posted by Slithy_Tove at 7:52 AM on March 5, 2003

I'm sorry, slithy_tove, I have deep issues with my workplace and will therefore jump at any mention of it.

Onto the topic, these are freakin' cool. Although eBay apparently has none for sale. Boo.
posted by Katemonkey at 8:48 AM on March 5, 2003

Katemonkey: ushabti, or the Warhammer miniatures? There's something funky with the link to eBay: if you get '0 items found', try hitting Refresh a couple of times, or surf to 'Antiquities' on the page, or just go the main page Antiques > Antiquities, and do a search on 'ushabti'. You should come up with about 33 currently up for auction.

mcgraw: thanks a bunch for those links! Artemission has lots of very interesting looking ones, at all price ranges.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:56 AM on March 5, 2003


Lisa: Have you ever seen such exquisite ushabtis?
Homer: Not... this... exquisite...
posted by condour75 at 11:12 AM on March 5, 2003

A lovely post, Slithy_Tove; at this moment my Ushabti is working on a gorgeous hand-lettered thank-you note and baking you some cookies.
posted by taz at 12:45 PM on March 5, 2003


Stacker two! Check eleventy-leven! Twenty five, nine, check!

Mack-a-roni five, niner.
posted by dfowler at 3:13 PM on March 5, 2003

Truly excellent post, Slithy_Tove - thank you much!
posted by madamjujujive at 8:47 PM on March 5, 2003

Do you really want to own something that was buried with somebody for thousands of years?

I'd rather have a fresh-made "fake" myself. Especially if it can clean cat vomit.
posted by Foosnark at 8:22 AM on March 6, 2003

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