The mummy’s curse

It came from an Egyptian tomb... Well no, actually, it didn’t. But once a myth lurches into life, there’s no stopping it

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A stairway in Tutankhamun’s tomb, c.1925. Photo Hulton Archive/Getty

A stairway in Tutankhamun’s tomb, c.1925. Photo Hulton Archive/Getty

Jo Marchant is a science journalist, whose work has appeared in New Scientist, Nature and The Observer, among others. Her latest book is The Shadow King (2013). She lives in London.

On 24 March 1923, an ominous warning circulated in the British press. ‘According to a rare book I possess,’ wrote Marie Corelli, an elderly romantic novelist with supernatural leanings, ‘the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb.’ She went on to quote the book’s description of ‘divers secret poisons enclosed in boxes in such wise that they who touch them shall not know how they come to suffer’. Corelli’s fantastical tales of reincarnation and astral projection had been a favourite with Queen Victoria. She had sold more novels than her contemporaries H G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling put together. It didn’t matter that the book she quoted, An Egyptian History of the Pyramids, was seen by scholars as a mundane collection of fairytales. When Corelli spoke, the public listened.

The target of her admonition was George Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon. Along with the British archaeologist Howard Carter, Carnarvon had recently discovered the treasure-filled tomb of Tutankhamun. The spectacular discovery of this 18th-dynasty pharaoh’s intact resting place was a press sensation, and journalists camped out around the tomb’s entrance to glimpse the glittering finds, from delicate jewellery to thrones and chariots, as they were carried out on wooden stretchers. A particular source of excitement was the prospect of revealing the mummy of the king himself, which was still hidden within its huge granite sarcophagus. But with the find of a lifetime had come the ultimate misfortune. Corelli wrote in response to reports that Carnarvon was languishing in a Cairo hotel room suffering the effects of an infected mosquito bite. Less than two weeks later, he was dead.

The idea of the mummy’s curse was already a popular story, but Carnarvon’s demise (and Corelli’s apparent prediction of it) turned it into one of the great legends of the age. Rumours quickly spread that Carter had found warnings in the tomb itself. There were reports of a clay tablet, allegedly found over the tomb’s entrance, that read: ‘Death shall come on swift wings to whoever toucheth the tomb of Pharaoh.’ According to the stories, Carter buried it in the sand in case it scared his labourers into stopping their work. The whole situation was a gift for journalists who, four months after the tomb’s discovery, were desperate for more Tutankhamun-related news. Once the curse story took off, they began running daily updates, roping in scholars to debate whether evil spirits were to blame for Carnarvon’s demise. Ernest Budge, a curator at the British Museum, dismissed the theory as ‘bunkum’. The adventure writer Rider Haggard complained that it served only ‘to swell the rising tide of superstition which at present seems to be overflowing the world’. Carter himself apparently said that his answer to the curse was ‘spherical and in the plural’.

But plenty of respected names supported a paranormal explanation. The Oriental scholar J C Mardrus (known for his translation of the Thousand and One Nights) suggested that ‘dynamic powers’ killed the Earl. Impatient with the argument that, were spirits really guarding the tomb, they would have taken out Carter, too, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle insisted: ‘One might as well say that because bulldogs do not bite everybody, therefore bulldogs do not exist!’

If the scholars were divided, the public was increasingly convinced. In April 1923, Lady Carnarvon left Egypt with her husband’s remains, carrying him home on a steamer. Fearing that the body’s presence might jinx the ship, several fellow passengers cancelled their passage. Back in England, clairvoyants with names such as Velma and Cheiro told of warnings personally received from ancient Egyptian sorcerers, while the British Museum was deluged by mummy-related parcels — shrivelled hands, feet, ears, and heads — posted by souvenir collectors concerned that they, too, would join Carnarvon in his fate.

Today, the curse remains an object of popular fascination, not to mention a convenient scapegoat for adverse world events. A Google search for ‘curse’ and ‘mummy’ returns more than seven million results, while Universal Pictures has announced a reboot of The Mummy film series, due for release next summer. The curse has been blamed in the mainstream Western media for everything from the first Gulf War to the chaos of the Egyptian revolution, supposedly triggered by a blast on a horn found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

After Carnarvon died, the press blamed every tenuously related death on Tutankhamun, including that of Captain Richard Bethell, Carter’s private secretary, found dead in a club in Mayfair in 1929; his father, Lord Westbury, who jumped out of a window in his grief; and a boy who was subsequently knocked over by the Lord’s hearse. When in 1934 journalists started hounding the family of an Egyptologist who was seriously ill, his colleague Herbert Winlock took action against the rumours. He compiled a chart, published in The New York Times, of 40 people present in the tomb when various parts of it were opened. In the intervening 12 years, only six of them had died.

Like Faustus, Frankenstein and Jekyll, the scientists who dug in the sand would be destroyed because they had gone too far

More recently, the epidemiologist Mark Nelson from the University of Tasmania, Australia, designed a formal trial of the curse based on protocols for testing the effects of drugs. He compared people who were in the tomb at key times with people who were in Egypt but not in the tomb. His report, published in the British Medical Journal in 2002, concluded that being in the tomb did not significantly hasten death. The ‘participants’ in the study lived on average for more than 20 years after the tomb was opened, whether they visited it or not.

Yet such efforts have not succeeded in banishing the myth. It’s tempting to say that they miss the point; the curse has always been a social phenomenon, not a medical one, influenced not by rational evidence but by unspoken, instinctive concerns about scientific hubris. Its popularity seems to represent a backlash against scientific progress, including the scientists who ‘play God’, combined with a deep-seated feeling that sacred burial grounds should be left alone.

Shortly after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the following condemnation of the ‘desecration’ of his resting place appeared on the letters page of The New York Times:
Science having abolished the Supreme… is no doubt suitably employed in the ghoulish task of rifling an ancient tomb. It would be more becoming to Christian nations to take the bodies of the priests and kings now lying in the defilement of their public museums and reverently restore them to their sacred resting places.

On the same pages a few weeks after Carnarvon’s death in 1923, a vicar from Yonkers wrote:
We are still very much under the domination of the narrow, materialistic science of the past generation, but we are rapidly discovering occult powers known for ages to Egyptian masterminds, and perfectly exemplified in the life of Christ.

From there, it wasn’t a big leap to the notion that the scientists would face retribution for their audacity. As the cultural historian Christopher Frayling said in his book The Face of Tutankhamun (1992):
The balance of opinion was that the archaeologists were transgressing a deeply felt taboo, and they would surely pay for it. Like Drs Faustus, Frankenstein and Jekyll… the scientists who dug in the sand would be destroyed by the results of their researches, because they had gone too far.

Evidently, Carter and Carnarvon had touched a nerve. The interesting thing is, that nerve appears not to be particularly connected to Egypt — or anywhere else in the ancient world, for that matter. To be sure, stories of vengeful mummies predated the discovery of Tutankhamun, but they are not a particular feature of Egyptian culture, ancient or modern. Only a few written warnings have been found in tombs; they tend to come from the Old Kingdom, around the 24th or 25th centuries BC (more than a millennium before Tutankhamun’s time) and they are found as much in non-royal tombs as in those of the pharaohs.

Such inscriptions warn, for example, against removing stones or bricks, with retribution promised in the afterlife rather than here on earth. An exception is the sixth-dynasty official, Meni, who informed any potential tomb violator that the crocodile would be against him in the water, and the snake on land. Even here, the punishment was to come from the gods, not from a resurrected Meni.

Curses are known from Greek and Roman antiquity, too, where they were inscribed onto lead tablets and placed into graves. But rather than being aimed at tomb robbers, they commonly targeted a specific individual. A representative first-century BC Roman tablet, now held in the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum in Baltimore, called on the gods of the underworld to punish an unfortunate slave called Plotius, asking for him to be consumed by fevers by the end of the month.

Following such a dramatic demonstration of the vast potential of space travel, people looked for answers not to God or the spirit world, but to aliens

No, the mummy’s curse as we know it is a product of 19th-century England. Dominic Montserrat, an Egyptologist from the Open University, traced the first mention to a science-fiction book called The Mummy! (1827) by the little-known novelist Jane Webb Loudon, who was inspired after attending a public unwrapping of a mummy near Piccadilly Circus in London. Loudon set her story in the 22nd century and featured an embalmed corpse who threatened to strangle the book’s hero, a young scholar called Edric.

Other writers ran with her innovation, including Louisa May Alcott, who wrote the short story ‘Lost in a Pyramid’ (1869) in which an explorer inside a pyramid uses a mummified princess as a torch, and by its light steals a gold box containing three strange seeds. Back home in America, he gives the seeds to his fiancée who plants them. She wears the flowers at their wedding, but as she inhales their scent, she transforms into a living mummy.

Other novelists including Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker tried out the curse, but it was only in 1923 that Marie Corelli thought to apply it to the real-life story of Tutankhamun’s tomb. She suggested that the mummy had got its revenge using poison, but this rather prosaic theory was soon eclipsed by speculations about magical powers and evil spirits, which sat more comfortably with the voguish occultism of the time — the Ouija boards and séances — and with religious movements such as Christian spiritualism, of which Conan Doyle was a leading proponent.

Fashions have changed since then, but Tutankhamun’s curse has persisted and evolved. By the 1970s, it provided inspiration not only for novels and horror films but also for a stream of supposedly factual books and documentaries. Instead of vengeful ghosts and the waking dead, the focus shifted to the physical mechanisms by which the Egyptians might have booby-trapped a tomb — perhaps with the help of aliens. The chief theorist here was Erich von Däniken, a Swiss writer (and convicted fraudster) who sold more than 60 million books, starting with Chariots of the Gods? (1968). He argued that extra-terrestrials visited the Earth thousands of years ago, building monuments including the Great Pyramids at Giza and furnishing ancient people with technologies such as the electric lightbulb (which he claimed to see represented in ancient Egyptian reliefs), as well as with the inspiration for their pantheon.

This new field of astro-Egyptology soon fed into the mythology surrounding Tutankhamun’s revenge. In The Curse of the Pharaohs (1975), the German author Philipp Vandenberg suggested a range of explanations for the curse, many of them alien in origin, including uranium-lined tomb floors, cyanide extracted from peach pits, and chambers that magnified the Earth’s magnetic field in such a way as to ensure that unlucky visitors were driven to madness. Like Däniken and Corelli before him, Vandenberg artfully blended facts with exaggeration and imagination, for example citing the deaths of Carter’s colleagues Alfred Lucas and Douglas Derry as evidence for the curse — despite the fact that they survived for two and four decades respectively after Tutankhamun’s mummy was unwrapped.

Just as it was in the 1920s, the popularity of the curse in the 1970s was fuelled by a troubled relationship with science. If there were previously anxieties that science was venturing beyond its proper bounds, this time, just a few years after the glamour and promise of the moon landings, there was a sense that it had somehow stalled. Following such a dramatic demonstration of the vast potential of space travel, people looked for answers not to God or the spirit world, but to aliens. In 1976, the US anthropologist John T Omohundro analysed the popularity of Däniken’s ideas in the journal Skeptical Inquirer, and concluded that the ‘we are not alone’ attitude was a rebellion triggered by ‘[a] frustration with science’s not having delivered all that it promised, a distaste for the specialisation of scientific research, and a continuing need to believe in an intelligence beyond our own’.

Omohundro continued:
It does not take much imagination to see that science has been for many in our culture the New Religion, with its white-frocked priests talking in strange tongues about a universe we couldn’t even understand… But as a religion science didn’t stand the test of time. The contrast between what we could do in space with what we could do for ourselves on earth was like watching a priest celebrate mass with his zipper down.

From the smartphone-saturated perspective of 2013, science and technology do seem to be standing the test of time (even if they haven’t quite taken us back to the moon). But the mummy’s curse has endured surprisingly well, too. Ninety years on, it is still ingrained in our collective consciousness, ready for the next time we feel particularly anxious about or disappointed in science. Yet, for now, it seems we don’t have too much to fear. This summer, the previously deadly curse was blamed for rotating a statue in the Manchester Museum. British curators were baffled to find that the 10-inch figurine of an Egyptian nobleman kept mysteriously revolving in its case overnight, seemingly without human intervention. Spooky stuff, no doubt, but not quite enough to inspire that old holy terror.

This article is adapted from The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut's Mummy, published by Da Capo Press.

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Comments

  • Jasmine Day

    This is an interesting article that deserves a proper response. Marchant's article is a fair summary of the "mummy's curse" legend, save for one major, glaring omission that I fear will also make her book somewhat redundant like so many others on the subject. In short, the "mystery" of the curse was solved by myself and a number of other academics over the course of the last few years and the media have failed to report this to the public. (Why? It makes sensational news!)

    It is anybody’s guess how many tens of thousands of human mummies, themselves representing but a portion of those originally preserved in ancient times, were destroyed not so very long ago by being turned into paint, fertiliser, fuel, spectacles for public unwrapping and their linen converted into paper (yes, research proves all these events really did happen). Leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century – among them novelist Henry Rider Haggard and Amelia Edwards, founder of the Egypt Exploration Society – railed against the inhumane treatment of mummies. Small wonder, then, that by the 1860s some American female writers of dubious “shock fiction” created the first stories in which female mummies took revenge upon their male violators. This proto-feminist origin of the curse, which drew an horrific and effective analogy with rape, alluded to the injustice of the colonialism and patriarchy that had given rise to what Brian Fagan calls The Rape of the Nile. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, more famous male writers of fiction including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker altered mummy fiction to portray a male archaeologist symbolically seducing a female mummy, or otherwise a living mummy whose attacks upon people are unjust and monstrous. I can only suggest that growing popular fascination with archaeology caused some revision of former Christian scruples about desecrating the dead, so that by the time Hollywood created its mummy classics, the mummy had become a shambling monster and lost most of its former poignancy.

    Some recent popular books and websites on the subject of mummymania and the curse have, to my surprise, overlooked my findings gathered over ten years’ study and continue to claim that famous male writers of the late nineteenth century created the curse legend. In truth, its origins date back to European maritime superstitions about the bad luck of bringing mummies aboard ships during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Somehow this lore seems to have evolved into the sentiments of the 1860s literature, something I would like to investigate further.

    I must admit to feeling frustrated by recent statements by journalists and writers that the curse continues to remain a mystery. They ask why the legend persists – the answer, of course, is that they are perpetuating it! Also, they have clearly not read either my book (the first extensive study of mummymania in English) or the excellent 2012 The Mummy’s Curse: the True History of a Dark Fantasy by Roger Luckhurst, not to mention the massive number of papers about fictional mummies published over the past 20 years in the fields of literary, film and media studies, many of which are available online. The failure of journalists and popular writers to do their homework has deprived the public of the news that the mummy’s curse is a mystery long solved: it’s not magic, nor some unknown scientific phenomenon, but what is called a discourse – a widely‑held belief that is taken as fact, but is actually highly political, sometimes prejudiced, and can advantage some people at the cost of others. (The ideas that “thin is beautiful” or that Nazis were “the master race” are good examples of discourses.) If I could teach everybody one very useful idea that unfortunately only those who study humanities at university usually hear about, it would be discourse, a concept developed by the French scholar Michel Foucault.

    When we look at what has been discovered about mummies in popular culture, we come to realise that mummies have been used as tools to prick the conscience of Western society. Everywhere, they are Puck‑like figures who stir up trouble. They have been used in satire and horror genres to criticise patriarchy (Johnson 1991), colonialism (Johnson 1991; Luckhurst 2012; Shohat 1997), class inequality (Luckhurst 2012), racism (Lhamon Jr 2003:46–53), capitalism that treats mummies as mere objects (Daly 1994) and untrammelled technological development (Strickrodt 1999). Mummy characters mock or attack characters or institutions that represent various forces of social oppression (just look at the way that the mummy Allamistakeo in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 short comic story Some Words With a Mummy challenges the arrogance of his unwrappers). Even “evil” mummies in movies undermine the expertise of scientists and archaeologists, who in the past were agents of colonialism. The curse, while not the only type of mummy discourse, has been the most powerful and as Roger Luckhurst has convincingly shown, legends about curses upon aristocratic British families who acquired mummies were a covert way for lower class people to express resentment against their overprivileged overlords. “I hope that Lord So‑and‑So catches the curse!”

    For further information see my new post on the Collecting Egypt blog at , my interview with Theofantastique at or my papers listed at . From each of these you can also find references to the works by other authors whom I mention.

    It really is a scandal that self-styled "experts" on Egyptian curses dominate the popular book market, when they have no theoretical background at all that would give them real insight, and their understanding of the subject is 20 years behind the real experts who are struggling to be heard. It's time for the mainstream media to start interviewing US!

    Happy Halloween,

    Dr Jasmine Day, Egyptologist & Anthropologist, Perth, Western Australia

  • Jasmine Day

    Those who died shortly after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb all succumbed to explicable causes, such as Lord Carnarvon's blood poisoning (exacerbated by his refusal to rest at his doctor's orders). The idea that the curse might be scientifically explicable is a discourse that arose around the 1960s/70s and was therefore not contemporaneous with the 1922 tomb discovery - nobody in the 1920s thought that spores or fungi killed Carnarvon; back then, they said it was magic. Along with a number of other scholars I have shown that the curse is not a scientifically explicable (or inexplicable) phenomenon but a social and political discourse - please see my main post above. The "scientifically explicable" interpretation of the curse - given that it isn't even physically real - is a furphy promoted by Phillip Vandenburg, a notorious pseudoscientific writer back in the 70s/80s; really, the idea that you can use science to explain something that isn't really there is obviously just another part of the curse myth itself, not a true scientific view that stands outside of the curse. Or to put it another way: this ain't a job for laboratory scientists, it's a job for social scientists. That's me!

    And by the way, what spores were found in tombs weren't ever enough to kill anybody - they were far more toxic to the poor old paintings in Tut's tomb. Funny how deaths from "curse germs" only seem to have "harmed" European archaeologists and not the thousands of ancient and modern Egyptian tomb robbers and international tourists who came before and after them, as if only European lives and deaths counted! Even in movies, the Egyptian excavators survive as incidental characters when their European/American archaeologist bosses die, because the stories are for US not for the EGYPTIANS. A bias like this is a bit of a giveaway that we're dealing not with spores or science but with myth and old prejudices. Of course you aren't meaning to be prejudiced in referring to the germs myth but sadly, it is bound up with the old value system that only Europeans' lives count. Arguably this is how media reportage still works - an event that kills hundreds of people in China gets less airtime than the death of a single white person. Time for us to rethink the media's "objectivity", whether in the news or in reportage of so-called "curse science".

    Cheers :)