There is no curse, and there is.
⁓The Voice before the Void
“Curse of the pharaohs”
The curse of the pharaohs refers to an alleged curse believed by some to be cast upon any person who disturbs the mummy of an Ancient Egyptian person, especially a pharaoh. This curse, which does not differentiate between thieves and archaeologists, allegedly can cause bad luck, illness, or death. Since the mid-20th century, many authors and documentaries have argued that the curse is “real” in the sense of being caused by scientifically explicable causes such as bacteria or radiation. However, the modern origins of Egyptian mummy curse tales, their development primarily in European cultures, the shift from magic to science to explain curses, and their changing uses—from condemning disturbance of the dead to entertaining horror film audiences—suggest that Egyptian curses are primarily a cultural, not exclusively scientific, phenomenon.
There are occasional instances of genuine ancient curses appearing inside or on the façade of a tomb, as in the case of the mastaba of Khentika Ikhekhi at Saqqara. These appear to be directed towards the ka priests to protect the tomb carefully and preserve its ritual purity rather than as a warning for potential robbers. There had been stories of curses going back to the 19th century, but they multiplied after Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Despite popular misconceptions, no curse was actually found inscribed in the pharaoh’s tomb. The evidence for curses relating to King Tutankhamun is considered to be so meager that Donald B. Redford viewed it as “unadulterated clap trap.”
1. Tomb curses
Curses relating to tombs are extremely rare, possibly because the idea of such desecration was unthinkable and even dangerous to record in writing. They most frequently occur in private tombs of the Old Kingdom era. The tomb of Ankhtifi contains the warning: “any ruler who… shall do evil or wickedness to this coffin… may Hemen [a local deity] not accept any goods he offers, and may his heir not inherit.” The tomb of Khentika Ikhekhi contains an inscription: “As for all men who shall enter this my tomb… impure… there will be judgment… an end shall be made for him… I shall seize his neck like a bird… I shall cast the fear of myself into him.”
Curses after the Old Kingdom era are less common though more severe, sometimes invoking the ire of Thoth or the destruction of Sekhemet. Zahi Hawass quotes an example of a curse: “Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose.”
2. Modern accounts
Hieroglyphs were not deciphered until the beginning of the 19th century by Jean-François Champollion, so reports of curses prior to this are simply perceived bad luck associated with the handling of mummies and other artifacts from tombs. In 1699, Louis Penicher wrote an account in which he recorded how a Polish traveler bought two mummies in Alexandria and embarked on a sea journey with the mummies in the cargo hold. The traveler was alarmed by recurring visions of two specters, and the stormy seas did not abate until the mummies were thrown overboard.
Zahi Hawass recalled that as a young archaeologist excavating at Kom Abu-Bellou he had to transport a number of artifacts from the Greco-Roman site. His cousin died on that day, on its anniversary, his uncle died and on the third anniversary his aunt died. Years later, when he excavated the tombs of the builders of the pyramids at Giza, he encountered the curse: “All people who enter this tomb who will make evil against this tomb and destroy it may the crocodile be against them in water, and snakes against them on land. May the hippopotamus be against them in water, the scorpion against them on land.”
Though not superstitious, he decided not to disturb the mummies. However, he later was involved in the removal of two child mummies from Bahariya Oasis to a museum and reported he was haunted by the children in his dreams. The phenomena did not stop until the mummy of the father was re-united with the children in the museum. He came to the conclusion that mummies should not be displayed, though it was a lesser evil than allowing the general public into the tombs. Hawass also recorded an incident of a sick young boy who loved Ancient Egypt and was subject to a “miracle” cure in the Egyptian Museum when he looked into the eyes of the mummy of King Ahmose I. Thereafter, the boy read everything he could find on Ancient Egypt, especially the Hyksos period.
The idea of a mummy reviving from the dead, an essential element of many mummy curse tales, was developed in The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, an early work combining science fiction and horror, written by Jane C. Loudon and published anonymously in 1827. Louisa May Alcott was thought by Dominic Montserrat to have been the first to use a fully formed “mummy curse” plot in her 1869 story “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse”, a hitherto forgotten piece of mummy fiction that he rediscovered in the late 1990s. However, two stories subsequently discovered by S.J. Wolfe, Robert Singerman, and Jasmine Day – “The Mummy’s Soul” (anonymous, 1862) and “After Three Thousand Years” (Jane G. Austin, 1868) – have similar plots, in which a female mummy takes magical revenge upon her male desecrator. Jasmine Day therefore argues that the modern European concept of curses is based upon an analogy between desecration of tombs and rape, interpreting early curse fiction as proto-feminist narratives authored by women. The anonymous and Austin stories predate Alcott’s piece, raising the possibility that even earlier “lost” mummy curse prototype fiction awaits rediscovery.
3. Opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb
3.1 Anubis Shrine
The Anubis Shrine was found behind the unwalled entrance that leads from the Burial Chamber into the Treasury. A statue of the Anubis, depicted completely in animal form as a jackal, was attached to the roof of the shrine.
A small brick of unfired clay, known as a magic brick, was found at the entrance to the Treasury, in front of the shrine. This was the fifth magic brick found in Tutankhamun’s tomb (usually there are only four, orientated to the cardinal points).
According to Carter, the brick was not placed at the entrance to the Treasury without reason, since the brick had a magic formula upon it, intended to protect the deceased:
It is I who hinder the sand from choking the secret chamber, and who repel that one who would repel him with the desert flame. I have set aflame the desert, I have caused the path to be mistaken. I am for the protection of the deceased.
The inscription on this brick contributed to the origin of the curse of the pharaohs, which was propagated in the international press of the time.
3.2 Tutankhamun’s “curse”
The belief in a curse was brought to many people’s attention due to the sometimes mysterious deaths of a few members of Howard Carter’s team and other prominent visitors to the tomb shortly thereafter. Carter’s team opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, launching the modern era of Egyptology.
The famous Egyptologist James Henry Breasted worked with Carter soon after the first opening of the tomb. He reported how Carter sent a messenger on an errand to his house. On approaching his home, the messenger thought he heard a “faint, almost human cry.” Upon reaching the entrance, he saw the bird cage occupied by a cobra, the symbol of Egyptian monarchy. Carter’s canary had died in its mouth and this fueled local rumors of a curse. Arthur Weigall, a previous Inspector-General of Antiquities to the Egyptian Government, reported that this was interpreted as Carter’s house being broken into by the royal cobra, the same as that worn on the king’s head to strike enemies, on the very day the king’s tomb was being broken into. An account of the incident was reported by the New York Times on 22 December 1922.
The first of the “mysterious” deaths was that of Lord Carnarvon. He had been bitten by a mosquito, and later slashed the bite accidentally while shaving. It became infected and blood poisoning resulted. Two weeks before Carnarvon died, Marie Corelli wrote an imaginative letter that was published in the New York World magazine, in which she quoted an obscure book that confidently asserted that “dire punishment” would follow any intrusion into a sealed tomb. A media frenzy followed, with reports that a curse had been found in the king’s tomb, though this was untrue. The superstitious Benito Mussolini, who had once accepted an Egyptian mummy as a gift, ordered its immediate removal from the Palazzo Chigi.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, suggested that Lord Carnarvon’s death had been caused by “elementals” created by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the royal tomb, and this further fueled the media interest. Arthur Weigall reported that six weeks before Carnarvon’s death, he had watched the Earl laughing and joking as he entered the king’s tomb and said to a nearby reporter (H.V. Morton), “I give him six weeks to live.” The first autopsy carried out on the body of Tutankhamun by Dr. Derry found a healed lesion on the left cheek, but as Carnarvon had been buried six months previously, it was not possible to determine if the location of the wound on the king corresponded with the fatal mosquito bite on Carnarvon.
In 1925, the anthropologist Henry Field, accompanied by Breasted, visited the tomb and recalled the kindness and friendliness of Carter. He also reported how a paperweight given to Carter’s friend Sir Bruce Ingram was composed of a mummified hand with its wrist adorned with a scarab bracelet marked with: “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence.” Soon after receiving the gift, Ingram’s house burned down, followed by a flood when it was rebuilt.
Howard Carter was entirely skeptical of such curses. He did report in his diary a “strange” account in May 1926, when he saw jackals of the same type as Anubis, the guardian of the dead, for the first time in over 35 years of working in the desert.
Skeptics have pointed out that many others who visited the tomb or helped to discover it lived long and healthy lives. A study showed that of the 58 people who were present when the tomb and sarcophagus were opened, only eight died within a dozen years. All the others were still alive, including Howard Carter, who died of lymphoma in 1939 at the age of 64. The last survivor, American archaeologist J.O. Kinnaman, died in 1961, a full 39 years after the event.