True or False: Pharaohs Took Servants To Grave?


This is a creepy and often asked question about ancient Egyptians.

People truly want to know--did the ancient kings and queens of Egypt really bury living slaves inside their tombs and pyramids? And if so, why? Were they cruel people? Did they think that because they had died, the slaves should die, too?


In the very early days, for a very brief period, this may have been true.

Why would pharaohs even think of doing such a horrible, scary thing? You have to remember that ancient Egyptians believed very strongly in an afterlife. Not only that, they believed that you could bring things with you to your afterlife. If you were the pharaoh, you were the most important person alive. You would need to have slaves in the afterlife to continue on living as you did in this one. With that in mind, the slaves may have believed they were simply going on to the next place--like moving to a new city and a new house.


Things changed quite rapidly. We don't know why, but the practice was given up long before any of the famous pharaohs we're familiar with came into power.

These newer pharaohs still needed servants in the afterlife to perform the myriad of tasks required to maintain a palace, however. So what could they do?


Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs took over 100 miniature carved servants with them to the afterlife. Note the emphasis on carved. Some took one servant for every day of the year. They were buried alongside Pharaohs in their tombs.

Again, these were not human servants. They were tiny carved figurines called ushabti or shabti. These shabti figurines were designed to do the work Pharaoh didn't want to do. You know, like bake bread, till the fields, tend the cattle, and all the stuff a person needed to do to eat, drink and live happily ever after.

Take a good look at the picture above. You'll likely notice something odd. The figurines are shaped like tiny mummies. Why? Well, they were headed to the afterlife. Maybe mummifying them was necessary for them to make the trip. After all, Pharaoh, was a mummy himself at this point. Another possibility is that the mummy design made it absolutely certain that the servant figurines were dead and would go with him.

It's fun to look at shabti because, on occasion, each tiny mummy was carved with special details to show what his or her job was once they arrived in the afterlife. Here's one holding some sort of tools.

ancient Egyptian shabti
Shabti by Rob Koopman


When explorers uncovered ancient tombs, they found these ushabti arranged all around the tombs, and often right around the coffins, like hundred of tiny action figures! Imagine what they must have thought, seeing all those tiny soldiers, bakers, cooks, farmers, beer makers, fishermen, boat handlers!

These little action figures were made out of various materials, depending on the tomb; they could be wood, stone, or clay. Whichever material was chosen, they generally matched like a perfect set.

In Tutankhamen's (King Tut's) tomb, however, the shabti are all different, as if they were taken from other tombs and all mixed up in his. Historians theorize that because the boy king died so young, and his death was unexpected, his shabti were taken from various collections designed for other people.

Picture of Egyptian Shabti
Here's part of the magic spell that was written inside each tomb in order to activate the magic shabti:


"O Shabti, 
If 'the deceased' be summoned 
To do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead 
To make arable the fields, 
To irrigate the land 
Or to convey sand from East to West; 
"Here I Am", you shall say, 
"I Shall Do It"

So there you have it. The truth about Egyptian pharaohs and their servants! 

It's not quite as fascinating as the image of poor human servants being killed and buried alongside their masters. Yet it is important to realize that certain rumors about ancient Egyptians have portrayed them in an unfair and unflattering light. I guess it's up to curious people like us to set the record straight!

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