Why wonder is the most human of all emotions
It came from an Egyptian tomb... Well no, actually, it didn’t. But once a myth lurches into life, there’s no stopping it
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’.
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.
Published on 25 October 2013