Movie mummies are known for two things: fabulous riches and a nasty curse that brings treasure hunters to a bad end. But Hollywood didn't invent the curse concept.
Te "mummy's curse" first enjoyed a worldwide vogue after the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt.
When Howard Carter opened a small hole to peer inside the tomb at treasures hidden for 3,000 years, he also unleashed a global passion for ancient Egypt.
Tut's glittering treasures made great headlines—and so did sensationalistic accounts of the subsequent death of expedition sponsor Lord Carnarvon.
In reality, Carnarvon died of blood poisoning and only six of the 26 people present when the tomb was opened died within a decade. Carter, surely any curse's prime target, lived until 1939.
But while the pharaoh's curse may lack bite, it hasn't lost the ability to fascinate audiences—which may be how it originated in the first place.
Birth of the Curse
The late Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat conducted a comprehensive search and concluded that the concept began with a strange "striptease" in 19th-century London.
"My work shows quite clearly that the mummy's curse concept predates Carnarvon's Tutankhamen discovery and his death by a hundred years," Montserrat told the Independent (U.K.) in an interview some years before his own death.
Montserrat believed that a lively stage show in which real Egyptian mummies were unwrapped inspired first one writer, and subsequently several others, to pen tales of mummy revenge.
The thread was even picked up by Little Women author Louisa May Alcott in her nearly unknown volume Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy's Curse.
"My research has not only confirmed that there is, of course, no ancient Egyptian origin of the mummy's curse concept, but, more importantly, it also reveals that it didn't originate in the 1923 press publicity about the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb either," Montserrat stressed to the Independent.
But Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo and a National Geographic Society grantee, believes the curse concept did exist in ancient Egypt as part of a primitive security system.
She notes that some mastaba (early non-pyramid tomb) walls in Giza and Saqqara were actually inscribed with "curses" meant to terrify those who would desecrate or rob the royal resting place.
King Tutankhamun's coffin
Photograph by Kenneth Garrett
"They tend to threaten desecrators with divine retribution by the council of the gods," Ikram said. "Or a death by crocodiles, or lions, or scorpions, or snakes."
Tomb Toxin Threat?
In recent years some have suggested that the pharaoh's curse was biological in nature.
Could sealed tombs house pathogens that can be dangerous or even deadly to those who open them after thousands of years—especially people like Lord Carnarvon with weakened immune systems?
The mausoleums house not only the dead bodies of humans and animals but foods to provision them for the afterlife.
Lab studies have shown some ancient mummies carried mold, including Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus, which can cause congestion or bleeding in the lungs. Lung-assaulting bacteria such as Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus may also grow on tomb walls.
F. DeWolfe Miller, professor of epidemiology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, concurs with Howard Carter's original opinion: Given the local conditions, Lord Carnarvon was probably safer inside Tut's tomb than outside.
"Upper Egypt in the 1920s was hardly what you'd call sanitary," Miller said. "The idea that an underground tomb, after 3,000 years, would have some kind of bizarre microorganism in it that's going to kill somebody six weeks later and make it look exactly like [blood poisoning] is very hard to believe."
In fact, Miller said, he knows of no archaeologist—or a single tourist, for that matter—who has experienced any afflictions caused by tomb toxins.
But like the movie mummies who invoke the malediction, the legend of the mummy's curse seems destined never to die.
Legends about the "Curse of the Pharaoh's" started around the 7th Century when the Arabs arrived in Egypt. They could not read the hieroglyphics so many things seemed mysterious and strange to them. Also the remarkable preservation of Mummies must have been a strange sight. Many stories were told. They believed that if one entered a tomb and uttered a magical formula, they would be able to materialize objects made invisible by the ancient Egyptians. Also, by magic, mummies could become alive again. They also believed that the Egyptians would protect their tombs by magical means (i.e. curses on anyone who entered).
THE CURSE OF KING TUT
One of the magic bricks found in King Tut's tomb. Four of these magic bricks were found and each inscribed with a portion of chapter 151 of the Book of the Dead.
The most famous story about a mummies curse occurred in 1923 when King Tutankhaumum's tomb was discovered by Howard Carter. Today everyone has heard of the young boy King Tut and his treasures have toured the globe. Many books have been published and many movies produced. Carter's patron and sponsor of the excavation, Lord Carnarvon, had entered the tomb with Carter. The tomb was virtually intact and had never been broken into. They were the first to enter since it was sealed in antiquity. What happened several weeks afterwards was the following. Lord Carnarvon got a mosquito bite that became infected and this led to pneumonia which he died from. At the time of his death there was a complete black-out in Cairo and Carnavon's dog in far-off England started howling at that instant. This story was spread all over the world and the interest in the "Curse of the Pharaohs" was rekindled. Today, many people probably think there was a curse on the tomb of King Tutankhaumum and that most of the people who entered the tomb died strange deaths. This is actually not true. What are the facts?
Lord Carnavon was in poor health for many years before he arrived in Egypt and entered the tomb. A mosquito bite that he received had become infected and because of his ill health led to pneumonia and he died from this. The occurrence of the lights going out in Cairo was also reported but this was a common occurrence, even today, in Cairo. The newspapers published the text of the alleged curse: "Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of a pharaoh". Actually, Tutankhamum's curse was a mistranslation of a protective spell inscribed on a magic brick from the tomb (see photo above). Four magic bricks were found in the tomb in niches at the cardinal directions to form a defensive perimeter and support. There was never a curse that was found written in the tomb of Tutankhaumum. The curse story was spread by uninformed news reporters and others who wanted to make a sensational story regarding Carnavon's death.
What about the others that entered the tomb? What happened to them if there was a curse?
At the opening of the tomb, 26 people were present. Only 6 died within 10 years. At the opening of the sarcophagus, there were 22 people present. Only 2 died within 10 years. At the unwrapping of the mummy, 10 people were present. None died within 10 years. In fact the Doctor who performed the autopsy on King Tut's mummy lived for another 20 years. What about Howard Carter who was the first to enter the tomb in 1923. He died 16 years later in 1939.
BUT it should be noted that genuine curses have been found in other tombs.
Lord Carnarvon (George Herbert, Earl of Carnarvon )
THE MUMMY ON THE TITANIC
There is an interesting story regarding the prestigious British Museum. They had been reputed to own a mummy which had a curse on it. They decided to get rid of it so they arranged to sell it to an American Institution. They arranged for it to be shipped to America on the Titanic. We know what happened and today many people think the Titanic sank because of the presence of the mummy on board.
Actually, this story was completely made up and the only truth in it is that the alleged mummy is actually a coffin lid, which is still present to this day in the British Museum.
THE FLIGHT OF THE BRITANNIA
In 1972 in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of King Tut's tomb, some of the treasures from the tomb we sent to select museums in other countries for display. Some of the treasures were sent to England in crates aboard a Royal Air Force Britannia aircraft. A technical officer thought it would be funny to kick the crate which contained King Tut's Royal Mask. Two years latter, he broke that same leg. Another crew member got a divorce some time afterwards and blamed the curse. Two other members had heart attacks and they believed it was caused by the curse. This story was reported in September, 1978 in the "News of the World" newspaper.
CURSES FROM PRIVATE TOMBS
As mentioned above, there were no curses found in the tomb of Tutankhaumum, but genuine curses have been found in other tombs. Most royal tombs did not have curses but curses have been found at private tombs. They usually appear in tombs of the Old Kingdom. They basically consist of the owner of the tomb invoking judgment in the underworld on any tomb violators. Here are some examples of tomb curses found on private tombs in the Old Kingdom period.
"As for any man who will make a disturbance, I shall be judged with him"
"A crocodile be against him in the water; a snake be against him on land, he who would do anything against this tomb. Never did I do a thing against him. It is the god who will judge."
Here is an interesting curse from the tomb of Ankhmahor from Saqqara (Old Kingdom period).
"As for anything that you might do against this tomb of mine of the West, the like shall be done against your property. I am an excellent lector priest, exceeding knowledgeable in secret spells and all magic. As for any person who will enter into this tomb of mine in their impurity, having eaten the abominations that excellent akh-spirits abominate, or who do not purify themselves as they should purify themselves for an excellent akh who does what his lord praises, I shall seize him like a goose (wring his neck), placing fear in him at seeing ghosts upon earth, that they might be fearful of an excellent akh... But as for anyone who will enter into this tomb of mine being pure and peaceful regarding it, I shall be his protective backer in the West in the court of the great god."
Some more unusual curses are the "Donkey Curse" which threaten the violator of the tomb with rape by a donkey, the animal of Seth.
A most complete curse comes from the administrator of the 18th dynasty, Amenhotep, son of Hapu. He threatens anyone who would damage his tomb with a lengthy list of punishments. They would "lose their earthly positions and honors, be incinerated in a furnace in execration rites, capsize and drown at sea, have no successors, receive no tomb or funerary offerings of their own, and their bodies would decay because they will stave without sustenance and their bones will perish". This curse does not leave much out.
There are cases that at the opening of a sealed tomb, some people have been affected by illness and infection. This may be the result of poisonous moulds and bacteria in the tomb. Poisonous gases have also been known to cause illness to archeologists.
In the 1940's, when an archeologist, Sami Gabra, was working in tombs in the ibis-necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel, both he and his workers were seized by violent headaches and shortness of breath. The workers thought it was a curse of the ibis-headed god, Thoth. In reality, it was discovered that the cause was noxious gas, and after it was removed, they returned to work.
An Interesting Note: The curses were directed at tomb robbers and those who sought to despoil the tomb. It may be that since Egyptologists make the name of the dead live by their discoveries and publications, (and therefore the soul), they would not be punished but actually be blessed by the ancients.
Ancient Egypt, David Silverman, 1997
The Encyclopedia of Mummies, Bob Brier, 1998
Mummies, Myth and Magic, Christine El Mahdy, 1989
The Mummy in Ancient Egypt, Salima Ikram, 1998