Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Tales of the mummy’s curse

Dismissed as nonsense by Egyptologists, the legend of the mummy’s curse still continues to fascinate, writes David Tresilian

The Mummy
The Mummy
Al-Ahram Weekly

Ancient Egypt, perhaps more than other ancient civilisations, has long attracted its fair share of archaeological wide-boys and chancers. From the writings of the 19th-century pyramidologists, convinced that the Pyramids at Giza were built using long-lost esoteric knowledge, to those of contemporary new age authors for whom they were built by extra-terrestrials and have supernatural powers, there seem to have been few extra-scientific superstitions that have not attached themselves to the heritage of Ancient Egypt. One of the most potent is the legend of the mummy’s curse, the subject of a new book by British author Roger Luckhurst.
While Luckhurst does not say so, perhaps part of the reason for this may have been the air of mystery that has apparently always hung over Ancient Egypt. Writers from the northern shores of the Mediterranean as far back as the ancient Greek historian Herodotus have tended to associate the Ancient Egyptians with magic and esoteric practices, while the Romans seem to have associated them with dangerous and effeminate enchantment. This destroyed even as pragmatic a Roman as Mark Antony as a result of his liaison with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.
However, while the association between Ancient Egypt and magic seems to have a considerable pedigree, Luckhurst is probably right in saying that it was only in the 19th century and during the beginnings of European Egyptology that this became a source of popular fascination. In the latter form it yielded both the archetype of the swashbuckling, Indiana-Jones-style archaeologist – needless to say never close to professional reality – and the story of the curse of the Pharoahs, or the mummy’s curse, which has been given a new lease of life in recent years not only in films like The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, but also in characters like archaeologist-adventuress Lara Croft and videogames like Tomb Raider.
Where many readers of Luckhurst’s book, entitled The Mummy’s Curse, the True History of a Dark Fantasy, may disagree with him is not so much on the dating of this popular fascination as on its significance. While Luckhurst does his best to disarm his critics by writing that “such micro-histories,” by which he means stories of Ancient Egyptian mummies coming to life in the galleries of British Museum, “can also operate as telling symptoms of much greater shifts in culture” – for him, these stories, when unraveled, “reveal themselves as cogent narratives of the intrinsic violence of colonialism” – it is nevertheless difficult to see them as having the importance he attaches to them. It takes a special form of monomania to see the shadow of 19th-century British colonialism behind Lara Croft and Tomb Raider.
Yet, even if Luckhurst’s book is perhaps not convincing in terms of its overall thesis, it does contain a great deal of material of incidental interest. The author has apparently spent an enormous amount of time in what must have been some pretty unforgiving archives researching the lives of figures as various as the medium Helena Blavatsky, an extraordinary charlatan who for a time entangled many in her web, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, originally a circus strongman who later became a kind of impresario for Ancient Egypt, and Ernest Wallis Budge, eventually keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum but initially something of a tomb raider himself.
His book ranges far more widely than just the legend of the mummy’s curse to take in not only the beliefs of people like Blavatsky, apparently convinced that she had tapped the “wisdom of the eastern sages,” but also the presentation of Ancient Egypt in European popular fiction and the use made of Pharoanic motifs in European architecture.
Luckhurst begins with a retelling of the most famous story of the curse of the Pharoahs, which worked itself out in the wake of the discovery of the tomb of Tuntankhamun in the Valley of the Kings by British Egyptologist Howard Carter and his wealthy patron Lord Carnarvon in November 1922. Carter had been working in Thebes since 1914, convinced that the boy-king’s tomb lay buried somewhere in the vicinity and waiting to be discovered. By 1922, and well into the team’s fifth season, some 200,000 tons of rubble had been shifted, Luckhurst writes, but to no effect. Just as Carter was thinking of cutting his losses and abandoning the search, the team struck lucky, discovering a stairway leading down to a sealed door.
Breaching the door, Carter later wrote, “at first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘yes, wonderful things.’”
Following the clearance of the antechamber, the tomb was closed up again the following March in preparation for the next digging season. Days later, Lord Carnarvon, resting in Aswan, was apparently bitten on the cheek by a mosquito and went on to develop blood poisoning and eventually pneumonia, before dying on 5 April. It was now, Luckhurst writes, that the popular press had its story, with the London Daily Express claiming that the “Pharoah [was] guarded by poisons,” and wheeling in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories and now a gullible spiritualist, who opined that “an elemental evil may have caused Lord Carnarvon’s fatal illness.”
The casualties started coming in thick and fast, with apparently anyone associated with the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb at risk of suffering premature death. “In May 1923, the American railroad magnate George Jay Gould died in the south of France of pneumonia said to have been contracted on a visit to the tomb of Tutankhamun. In September 1923, Carnarvon’s half-brother Aubrey Herbert, a Tory MP and expert on Turkish and Middle Eastern affairs, died after a long illness. Arthur Mace, Carter’s co-worker and co-writer of the first volume of the book of the tomb’s discovery, suffered a complete breakdown of health in 1924 and had to retire from Egypt. The eminent radiologist Sir Archibald Douglas Reid also died in January 1924. He was said to have aided the X-ray study of the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun.”
The story migrated to Hollywood, and in 1932 the first of a series of films built on Ancient Egyptian curse stories appeared in the shape of director Karl Freund’s The Mummy. In this film, a British Museum expedition in Egypt excavates a casket inscribed with a curse promising death to anyone opening it, along with the mummy of the Ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep. Having opened the casket and intoned what is written on the “scroll of Thoth” that it contains, an expedition assistant is driven mad with terror at the sight of the reanimated mummy, which then proceeds to wreak its revenge on living creatures in a storyline that, Luckhurst suggests, was based on Irish author Bram Stoker’s popular novel Dracula.
Luckhurst adds detail to the familiar story of Tutankhamun’s tomb by tracing such curse stories back into the 19th century and the works of novelists like Henry Rider Haggard, the writer of She and King Solomon’s Mines, “dismissed for decades as childish vehicles for the transmission of the ideology of British imperialism,” and other now-forgotten authors. He also points out that, amusing as they are, tales of the mummy’s curse have even less basis in fact than is usual for such stories, for “as weary Egyptologists often explain, Ancient Egyptian culture had very little concept of the curse.” While films like The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, have undoubtedly been popular, the first grossing US$413 million worldwide after its release in 1999, they show a “frustrating lack of consistency regarding Egyptological issues.”
Luckhurst has written an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of book, and later chapters have illuminating things to say about the use of Ancient Egyptian architectural motifs in 19th-century European cemeteries, department stores and, later, cinemas. Unlike the classical or (in the British case) Gothic styles used for public buildings and serious cultural institutions like museums, the “brash allure” of Pharoanic architecture formed a “link between consumerism and the oriental and exotic” such as existed at the Bon Marché department store in Paris. However, it was not only Pharoanic architecture that was used in such spaces, Luckhurst notes, since Islamic styles could also be pressed into service, with the spaces of the department store using “the eastern other to entice rather than horrify, promise intimacy and allure rather than asserting hierarchy and difference.”
He writes that John Ruskin, the author of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice and Victorian England’s most important writer on aesthetics, disliked Islamic architecture, which he described as “barbaric magnificence superadded to fantastic and inconsistent forms,” making it suitable only for “undisciplined enchantment” and “cruelty, cowardice, idolatry [and] bestiality.” Such orientalist thinking on Ruskin’s part may in part explain why the Victorians seem to have thought such architecture suitable for the shopping experience available at department stores, but not for public buildings, and why later generations of Europeans built cinemas that looked like Ancient Egyptian temples.
Though Luckhurst does not mention it, there is still an Ancient Egyptian gallery at the London department store Harrods, though this was installed by the shop’s former Egyptian owner Mohamed al-Fayed.

Roger Luckhurst, The Mummy’s Curse, the True History of a Dark Fantasy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp320 

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