- A British academic has traced the origins of the mysterious
curse of Tutankhamun, the Egyptian pharaoh who died 3,380 years ago. And
the London-based scholar's investigation has revealed that King Tut's curse
had its genesis not in ancient Egypt but in early 19th-century England.
- After years of detective work by the Open University
Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat, the trail of the mummy's curse has finally
led back to the imagination of a young English author in the 1820s and
a bizarre theatrical "striptease'' show in which Egyptian mummies
were unwrapped in public.
- The show took place near London's Piccadilly Circus in
1821 and seems to have inspired a little-known 25-year-old novelist called
Jane Loudon Webb to write an early science-fiction book calledThe Mummy.
- Set in the 22nd century, the novel featured an angry,
vengeful mummy who came back to life and threatened to strangle the book's
hero, a young scholar called Edric. This was followed in 1828 by an anonymous
English children's book The Fruits of Enterprize in which mummies were
set alight and used by intrepid explorers as torches to illuminate the
interior of a mysterious Egyptian pyramid. Not surprisingly, the mummies
were portrayed as looking particularly vengeful.
- Then in the late 1860s the idea of the vengeful mummy
evolved into a clearer concept of the mummy's curse. For in 1869, the author
of Little Women, the American novelist Louisa May Alcott, wrote a short
story called "Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy's Curse.'' This work
was itself lost and was only recently rediscovered by Dr Montserrat buried
deep in the periodicals collection of the Library of Congress in Washington
- Like the anonymous English children's book of 1828, and
probably based partly on it, the story featured an explorer who used a
mummy in this case a mummified priestess -- as a torch to illuminate the
interior of a pyramid. By the light of the burning mummy he saw and then
stole a gold box containing three strange-looking seeds from the mummy's
tomb and then found his way out of the pyramid and returned home to America
where he presented the seeds to his fiancée who decided to plant
them. These seeds grew into grotesque flowers which she wore at their wedding
and, as she inhaled their scent, she went into a coma and became a living
- This literary motif of the mummy's curse was then copied
by several other novelists in Britain and America for some 30 years from
the 1880s. So in 1923, when Tutankhamun's burial chamber was opened, it
was another novelist, the successful author Mary Mackay (better known by
her nom de plume, Marie Corelli) who applied the literary motif of the
mummy's curse to the real-life discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. Corelli
issued a dramatic warning that "the most dire punishment follows any
rash intruder into a sealed tomb''.
- The unexpected death, just two weeks later, of Lord Carnarvon,
the chief intruder into King Tut's tomb, propelled the curse concept on
to the world's newspapers' front pages. A so-called "ancient Egyptian''
inscription "Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth
the tomb of Pharaoh'' was invented; and any death associated with the
expedition, however remotely, was put down to the curse.
- The truth is that only six of the 26 people present at
the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb died in the decade following the discovery.
What's more, there are no known genuinely ancient Egyptian curses relating
to opening tombs or removing objects from them. Indeed, in ancient Egyptian
times tomb robbers faced the wrath of the civil courts rather than that
of the mummy's eternal spirit. If caught, most tomb raiders were executed
not for disturbing the dead, but for theft.
- In ancient Egyptian religious terms, Tutankhamun would,
theoretically, be quite pleased by one key aspect of the discovery of his
tomb. According to ancient Egyptian belief, the king's eternal soul would
be kept alive if his name were periodically recited for eternity. Carnarvon's
discovery ensured that, after thousands of years of onomastic silence,
King Tut's name would be on humanity's lips, if not for ever, then for
many, many centuries to come.
- "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 Tutankhamun's tomb either. My work
shows quite clearly that the mummy's curse concept predates Carnarvon's
Tutankhamun discovery and his death by 100 years,'' says Dr Montserrat,
author of a much-praised recent book on modern perceptions of pharaonic
civilisation, History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt.
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