(& Revenge) Of The Mummy Invented By Victorian Writers
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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''.
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.
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
lips, if not for ever, then for many, many centuries to come.
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.