The Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III died more than 3,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until December that researchers figured out how: A CT scan of his mummified corpse revealed a slashed throat. Ancient papyrus documents had spoken of an assassination plot led by one of his wives in what scholars call “the Harem Conspiracy.” Yet the historical record neglected an important question: Did her scheme succeed? Nobody knew. Even now it’s still a mystery, though the big gash in the pharaoh’s neck may be a clue.
The fate of Ramses III brings to mind a line from The Mummy, the 1932 film starring Boris Karloff. In an early scene, an archaeologist gazes upon the remains of Imhotep, a long-dead Egyptian priest: “Looks as though he died in some sensationally unpleasant manner.” He didn’t die in the conventional sense, of course. Imhotep revives and begins to make life sensationally unpleasant for those around him.
That’s the thing about mummies: They wake up cranky. As surely as Halloween mummies wrap themselves in toilet paper, every mummy tale comes with a curse — the enduring cliché that disturbing the eternal slumber of embalmed Egyptians is a rotten idea. They terrorize the mortals, taking their sinister place as familiar horrors alongside vampires, werewolves, and witches. The difference is that, unlike their monstrous brethren, revitalized mummies don’t emerge from traditional folklore: They’re a modern invention. In The Mummy’s Curse, Roger Luckhurst examines their origin and evolution with impressive thoroughness.
Just as Mesoamerican scholars spent much of last year explaining that the Maya didn’t really believe that the world would end on the winter solstice of 2012, Egyptologists have pointed out for decades that Ramses III and his contemporaries didn’t really scrawl threats on the doors and walls of their tombs. These warnings are a fiction — “a later cultural imposition,” as Luckhurst puts it. Yet it would be wrong to condemn the whole phenomenon as artificial, because it grows organically from the 19th-century British encounter with Egypt, the rise of science, and the power of supernatural thinking. Although mummies and their curses may not be folklore, they have becometradition.
The British Museum took in its first mummy in 1756, but it wasn’t until after the French surrender of Egypt in 1801 that the relics of the Nile began to pour into London. They included the Rosetta stone, which the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion deciphered in 1822, as well as countless other items that wound up in private collections and the semi-public museums known as cabinets of curiosities. By the 1830s, mummy unwrappings had become spectacles of infotainment — a bit like the recent research into Ramses III, which was partly funded by the Discovery Channel. As “mummymania” spread, it encouraged peculiar behavior. The tenth duke of Hamilton, who died in 1852, ordered his body to be mummified, placed in an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, and buried on his Scottish estate. An obituary in the Times commented that he wasn’t known for much else.
“Egyptology” became a word in 1859, as scholarship into ankhs, hieroglyphics, and cat goddesses matured. Yet the field also acquired its permanent doppelgänger: occultism. Forerunners of New Age nonsense prattled on about forbidden knowledge and psychic investigation. Before long, the writers took up their pens. In 1869, the American Louisa May Alcott, best known as the author of Little Women, wrote “Lost in a Pyramid,” a short story that is one of the world’s first mummy-curse shockers. Soon everyone was doing it. Arthur Conan Doyle set aside Sherlock Holmes to write “Lot No. 249” and “The Ring of Thoth.” The most popular writer of the era, H. Rider Haggard, filled his books with Egyptian mystique. For a while, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire faced stiff competition from the Egyptian undead: Richard Marsh’s 1897 novel The Beetle initially outsold Dracula, which came out the same year. In 1903, Stoker issued The Jewel of the Seven Stars, his own mummy novel. Luckhurst explains the appeal: “Supernatural fictions achieve their best shivery effects when they rely on a penumbra of uncertainty between fact and fiction, Gothic fantasy and archaeological knowledge.”
The literature may have been sensational, but so were the supposed cases of real-life hauntings. Luckhurst recounts episodes involving socialite Thomas Douglas Murray, journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson, and adventurer Walter Herbert Ingram. They meddled with mummies and misfortune befell them, according to the Victorian and Edwardian rumor mill. The granddaddy of all mummy-curse legends was born after Howard Carter opened King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Carter’s patron, Lord Carnarvon, soon died. So did railroad magnate George Jay Gould, who succumbed to a fever he purportedly contracted on a tour of Tut’s burial chamber. Death also paid visits to Carnarvon’s brother, a radiologist who X-rayed Tut’s sarcophagus, and the governor general of Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. People debated whether it was a curse or just a series of coincidences.
In 2002, the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) surveyed Westerners who entered Tut’s resting place in the three years following its discovery. It turns out that they lived to an average age of 70, and that there was no evidence of a “significant association between exposure to the mummy’s curse and survival.” Perhaps Edgar Allan Poe was on to something when he came up with a satiric name for the only mummy he ever put into one of his stories: Allamistakeo.
The urban mythology was just a case of confirmation bias: Whenever something unusual happened that could be tied to Tut, it provided more proof for those determined to believe the fantasy. The fact that a leading academic publication looked into the matter at such a late date, of course, is a tribute to the power of the mummy’s curse in the popular imagination.
The debunkers perform a service, but they’re also killjoys. An antiseptic faith in the ability of science and rationalism to solve every riddle robs us of one of life’s great pleasures: mystery. In a 1921 poem, W. B. Yeats announced, “I have mummy truths to tell / Whereat the living mock.” If nothing else, taking a close look at the mummies can teach us important truths about ourselves.