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Curse (& Revenge) Of The Mummy Invented By Victorian Writers

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 called “The 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 DC.

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 mummy.




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 humani

ty'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.


By David Keys - Archaeology Correspondent

(This news update is courtesy of News Service,  which has a complete daily news service from around the world)

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