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RETURN OF THE MUMMY: PART TWO - CURSES!

May 1999
By Paula Guran

Last month we explored the literary roots of the mummy as a horror archetype -- and rather off-handedly dismissed the concept of ancient Egyptian curses that doom anyone defiling a tomb as being as entirely fictional. But, unfortunately, the concept still flourishes in almost any popularization of Egyptology. Like UFOs and vampires, the belief that one will meet magical misfortune if one messes with mummies has become part of popular culture that rational argument often can't shake.

Book of the Dead And, like most myths, the reasons behind it are as fascinating as the myth itself...

Mummies themselves are, indeed, a disturbing to the Western mind. Our dread of the dead is amplified when we encounter these remarkably well-preserved corpses. Here are individuals -- with recognizable faces -- who have defied what we feel is a "proper" ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust cycle of living and dying. They appear to be somehow suspended in time, just waiting to come back to life. Combine this with the knowledge that the ancients performed magical funeral rituals that we still do not understand and the potential for apprehension and fear is amplified even further.

As mentioned before, although the ancient Egyptians occasionally carved a warning of sorts to discourage contemporary tomb robbers, the idea of future defilers of tombs being destroyed by curses had no role in ancient Egyptian culture. Tomb robbing was a socio-religious problem throughout Egypt's long history. A curse written on a tomb from around 2500 B.C. to those who might do "evil and wickedness to the coffin and any stone parts of these tomb" asks that a local god "not accept any of the offerings [that the robbers might offer for their own souls] and may his heirs not inherit."

But those preparing for their life in the next world were often more concerned that religious and magical rituals be properly performed. An important official during the reigns of pharaohs Teti (2345-233 B.C.) and Pepi I (2332-2283 B.C.) had the following carved on his tomb:

"As for all men who will enter this my tomb of the necropolis being impure, having eaten those abominations that good spirits who have journeyed to the West abominate...an end for him shall be made for him concerning that evil...I shall seize his neck like a bird...I shall cast fear of myself into him..."
The "curse" here was against priests who were not to eat fish, which was considered impure for priests, before entering the tomb's chapel. The dead actually welcomed the living to their tombs. Their immortality was assured by continued offerings from the living who had to enter the tomb environs to properly make those offerings -- preferably without fish on their breath.

The idea of being magically cursed for disturbing a tomb dates to the seventh century A.D. when Muslim Arabs conquered the land. The ancient writings could no longer be deciphered, but enough of the language and old beliefs still existed among the common people to make it all somewhat mysterious and instill a fearful esteem for the dead.

Ancient Egyptians called their land kemet -- "the black land" of rich, farmable soil on either side of the Nile River -- and the word survived into Arabic times as keme. The Arabs referred to "the Egyptian matter" of mysterious, unknown magic as al keme -- which became the word "alchemy": the belief that speaking the right words, applying the correct mixtures and potions could transmute one substance into another. The Arabs believed that if one entered a tomb and voiced the right magical formula that objects -- funerary equipment of gold and other rich materials -- made otherwise invisible by the magic of the ancients could then be revealed. Obviously, if one believes people had the power to render invisibility, one would also believe that these folks would magically protect their tombs from robbers. Ritual Paintings on tomb walls often showed a ceremony called the Opening of the Mouth that seemed, to the Arabs, to be picturing mummies restored to life. Such beings -- already dead and therefore with nothing to fear --would be terrifying enemies who would surely try to protect their tombs and belongings.

Early Arabic writers, in an effort to protect future generations, often wrote of these beliefs -- and thus laid a supernatural groundwork that eventually filtered into Western thought.

Of course, the most famous mummy "curse" of all is that of King "Tut." After Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon discovered the almost intact tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, the press of the day descended en masse. In hopes of dissuading hoards of journalists and their requests for access to the tomb, Carnarvon made The Times of London his exclusive agent. Everyone -- including the Egyptians -- had to go through London for news.

Marie Corelli Instead of stories of treasure and jewels, the reporters had nothing to report except political squabbling between Egyptian authorities and Carter and Carnarvon, who were treating the tomb as their personal property. In March 1923 popular novelist Marie Corelli -- whose occult fantasies included the novella "Ziska," which Jessica Amanda Salmonson has called "a fine tale of erotic horrors, transmigration of the soul, and reincarnations from ancient Egypt, with a breathtaking climax in a secret underground chamber of a pyramid" -- wrote to The New York Times. She claimed to have a translation of an Arabic text promising "Death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a pharaoh." After some play from the fact-starved press, the curse story would probably have died down almost immediately -- except Lord Carnarvon himself died shortly thereafter

Carnarvon had been in poor health since a motoring accident in 1903. With a weak chest and a predilection to infections, Carnarvon had initially gone to Egypt's dry, warm climate to escape the damp and cold of England's winters. Early in 1923 he had been bitten on the cheek by a mosquito. He accidentally reopened the small wound while shaving and erysipelas rapidly set in followed by pneumonia. Carnarvon died on April 5, 1923.

On the very day word of Carnarvon's death reached England, a Times reporter was interviewing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle, despite creating the logical and supremely rational detective Sherlock Holmes, was a believer in all manner of phantasmagorical things including fairies and talking to the dead. When the reporter mentioned Corelli's letter, Doyle gave credence to it saying that the death might have been the result of "elementals" created by ancient priests to guard the tomb. The story made headlines the world over. The "curse of the pharaohs" was born.

The "news" became further embellished with "details" like the lights of Cairo failing at the moment of Carnarvon's death (electrical failures were common in Cairo). Some newspapers even claimed Corelli's "curse" was inscribed in the tomb itself! In 1924 Egyptologist Arthur Weigall wrote of other events -- including that Carter's canary had been devoured by a cobra (the cobra was a pharonic symbol) -- that gave further weight to the absurd legend.

Tutankhamen In fact, of the twenty-six people present at the opening of the tomb, only six died within ten years. Howard Carter himself, the first to "defile" the tomb, lived to 1939 steadfastly maintaining that "all sane people should dismiss such inventions [of mysterious forces called into malefic power to take vengeance on whomsoever passed the portals of Tutankhamen's tomb] with contempt..."

Hollywood and popular literature added further impetus to the legend over the years. People sometimes associated bad luck with any Egyptian artifact. There was even a mummy curse associated with the sinking of the Titanic. Supposedly the British Museum, knowing of the "curse," sought to get rid of it by selling the mummy to an American museum. Transport was arranged on (dadadadummm!) the Titanic. The story is completely false. The unlucky mummy is not even a mummy at all, but a coffin lid (No. EA 22542) still on public display.

The subject of Tutankhamen's curse was again revived in the 1970s when treasures from Tutankhamen's tomb were allowed to be shown in various museums around the world. But the truth is that there have never been curses associated with any mummy or any tomb; that no dooming threats were carved in Tutankhamen's tomb; that no supernaturally dire consequences are attached to Egyptian artifacts.

It is indeed wondrous that we can learn about and marvel at the art and culture of ancient Egypt through studying the tombs of the dead. It is almost magical that we can still gaze upon the faces of those who lived thousands of years ago -- but dark curses are the realm of horror writers and movie makers, not historical fact.

Read RETURN OF THE MUMMY: Part 1


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Copyright © 1999 by Universal Studios (original). Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran (this version), All Rights Reserved.