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Egypt: The Mummy Curse of Tutankhamun


The Mummy's Curse

by Jimmy Dunn writing as John Warren

Tutankhamun's Funeral Mask


When, in November of 1922, Howard Carter discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Luxor, the world was really very different than it is today. It was not a time of instant, live television coverage by investigative reporters. Rather, the world of media still belonged to newspapers, and information traveled much more slowly, and less reliably. It was a more superstitious time, and the media was fully adjusted to take advantage of the attribute to sell their publications. It was a time when reporters often simply made up facts in order to sensationalize their stories, and in print, people believed them.

The treasures that Howard Carter discovered in Tutankhamun's tomb were factually sensational, and so the media went into a frenzy covering the event, and the world paid attention.

In late March of 1923, a novelist named Mari Corelli (Mary Mackay) published a warning that there would be dire consequences for anyone who had entered the sealed tomb. Perhaps this revelation was inspired by the fact that on the day Howard Carter opened the tomb, his pet canary was swallowed by a cobra. Cobras, as the goddess Wadjet, were the protectors of the Pharaoh.

Lord Carnarvon

Lord Carnarvon financed Howard Carter's explorations. He had been in poor health for over 20 years following a motoring accident. When he died of pneumonia in Cairo on April 5th, 1923, only a few weeks after Mari Corelli's warnings, newspapers and other media throughout the world simply went crazy. As often as not, they made up the facts as they went along. Even Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and himself a believer in the occult and at this time a very popular writer, announced that Lord Carnarvon's death could have been the result of a "Pharaoh's curse".

It was said that at the moment of Lord Carnarvon's death, the lights went out in Cairo (an event that is still not uncommon today), and that back in England his dog, susie, howled and died in the same instant. These reported events are difficult to prove or disprove.

However, other facts were simply invented by the press. One newspaper printed a curse reportedly found in the tomb:

"They who enter this sacred tomb shall swift be visited by wings of death."

There was no such curse, but there was one inscription found on an Anubis shrine that stated: "It is I who hinder the sand from choking the secret chamber. I am for the protection of the deceased". This was correctly reported to the public, but one reporter added his won words to the inscription: "and I will kill all those who cross this threshold into the sacred precincts of the Royal King who lives forever."

In addition, newspapers appear to have arbitrarily killed off many of the people surrounding the tomb's discovery. According to one list, 26 people associated with the find died within a decade of its discovery. In reality, only six people died during this first decade, while many others lived to an old age.

For example, the curse should have laid squarely on the shoulders of Howard Carter himself, but he lived another 17 years, dying just prior to his 65th birthday. Yet he had spent about a decade working in the tomb. Others likewise lived long and fruitful lives. The following table provides the names and information of others involved in the discovery:

Name

Died

Age

Function

Comment

Adamson, Richard

1980+

81+

Guard who slept in tomb

Benedite, Georges

1926

69

Louvre representative

Died of heat stroke

Bethell, Richard

1929

Carter's personal secretary

Died in London

Breasted, James H.

1935

70

Univ. of Chicago archaeologist

Bruyere, Bernard

1965+

80+

Burton, Harry

1939+

Photographer

Highly involved in project

Callender, A. R.

1939

Assistant to Carter

Present at all tomb procedures

Capart, Jean

1947

70

Belgian Archaeologist

Derry, Douglas

1969

87

Cairo University anatomist

Analyzed Tut's mummy

Engelbach, Reginald

1946

58

Cairo Museum

Gardiner, Sir Alan

1963

84

Philologist

Handled all written material in tomb

Hall, Lindsley F.

1939+

Draftsman

Present at all tomb procedures

Hauser, Walter

1939+

Draftsman

Present at all tomb procedures

Herbert, Lady Evelyn

1980

78

Daughter of Lord Carnarvon

Entered tomb when opened

Kuentz, Charles

1939+

Lacau, Pierre

1965

92

Egyptologist

Intimately involved - all operations

Lefebvre, Gustave

1957

78

Cairo Museum

Lucas, Alfred

1950+

79

Chemist for Egypt Government

Lythgoe, A. M.

1934

66

Metropolitan Museum (NYC)

Mace, Arthur C.

1928

Metropolitan Museum (NYC)

Winlock, Herbert E.

1950

66

Metropolitan Museum (NYC)

Sheikh Hussein

1997

87

Origins of the Mummy's Curse

As many might believe, the mummy's curse did not originate with the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. One researcher (Dominic Montserrat) believes that the tale of the mummy's curse actually originates during the 1820s with an English author and a bizarre theatrical striptease act where state mummies were unwrapped. The show, which took place near London's Piccadilly Circus in 1821, seems to have inspired a little known novelist named Jane Loudon Webb to write a fantasy book called, "The Mummy".

This book was set in the 22nd century and featured an angry, vengeful mummy who came back to life and threatened to strangle the books hero. Then in 1828, a children's book called "The Fruits of Enterprise" was published that had mummies set afire by explorers who used them as torches to explore a mysterious Egyptian pyramid. Of course, the mummies were portrayed as looking particularly vengeful. In 1869, the concept of the mummy's curse became clearer when, Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, wrote a short story called "Lost in a Pyramid: The Mummy's Curse".

In this tale, an explorer again uses a mummy as a torch to brighten the interior of a pyramid. He discovers some seeds in the pyramid, and carries them back to America. His fiancee decides to plant the seeds, which then grow into grotesque flowers. Upon their wedding, she wares one of the flowers and inhales their scent, sending her into a coma as she becomes a living mummy. Other novelists also developed stories along the lines of the mummies curse, both in England and America over the next 30 years.

Even as late as the 1970's the curse seems to have remained active. While the exhibits were on tour and in San Francisco, one policeman guarding Tutankhamun's gold funerary mask claimed he had a mild stroke because of the curse. A judge dismissed this claim, but visits around today's internet still provide some wildly inventive information. Some web sites allude to the fact that, by 1969, only two members of the original excavation team had avoided the curse. Of course, being some 46 years after the tomb's discovery, even the youngest professional members of the team would have probably been in their seventies or beyond!

But then again....

We are well aware that dead bodies have the capacity to spawn infections that can be very dangerous for the living. It is very possible that ancient grave robbers, entering tombs shortly after the pharaoh's death, may have been exposed to diseases, and thus died from their crimes. This indeed could very likely have lead to an ancient belief in the "mummy's curse". In fact, the ancient pharaohs went to great lengths to protect their tombs, and would have probably been happily inclined to help spread such beliefs.

Today, archaeologists wear protective gear when unwrapping mummies. In 1999, Gotthard Kramer, a German microbiologist from the University of Leipzip, suggested that there might be some truth to the mummies curse. Studying 40 different mummies, he identified several potentially dangerous mold spores. He believes that when tombs were first opened, fresh air could have disturbed these spores, blowing them into the air, and perhaps, creating health problems.

The Curse as a Blessing

In reality, the curse of the mummy probably did more good then harm. Many early movies were made about the curse, in addition to the widespread media coverage. Even today, movies continue to be made with at least an underlying sense of the curse. All of this has bought several revivals of interest in Egyptology to the world, and there is no doubt about the blessings that the curse has bestowed on Egypt's tourism industry.

Even Tutankhamun himself might have been pleased with the discovery of his tomb. The ancient Egyptians believed that their souls were kept alive when their name was remembered, and this has been ensured.

Resources:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Complete Tutankhamun, The

Nicholas Reeves

1990

Thames & Hudson, LTD

ISBN 0-500-27810-5

Masterpieces of Tutankhamun

Silverman, David P.

1978

Abbeville Press, Inc.

ISBN 0-89659-022-4

Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen, The

Howard Carter

1927

Cassell & Company, Ltd

ISBN 0 7156 3075 X

Treasures of Tutankhamun

Metropolitan Museum of Art

1976

Metropolitan Museum of Art

ISBN 0-87099-156-6

Treasures of Tutankhamun

British Museum

1972

Thames & Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0 7230 0070 0

Tutankhamun (His Tomb and Its Treasures)

Edwards, I. E. S.

1977

Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

ISBN 0-394-41170-6

Tutankhamun's Jewelry

Edwards, I.E.S

1976

Metropolitan Museum of Art

ISBN 0-87099-155-8

Last Updated: June 22nd, 2011

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