The Mummy (1999) constructs its plot
from a curse inscribed on the fictional Canopic chest of Anck-su-Namun. This curse, read aloud by one of the ill-fated plunderers,
is actually based on "a curse" associated with King Tut's tomb. Here's the true story of that
curse, as told by James M. Deem in his book How to Make a Mummy Talk.
Although people are often frightened of
mummies, it is untrue that finding a mummy can lead to a curse on the discoverer. Author
Christine El Mahdy believes that those who first expressed fear of mummies were the Arabs,
who conquered Egypt in A.D. 641. Arab writers warned people not
to tamper with mummies or their tombs; they knew that Egyptians practiced magic during
funerals. And the paintings on the walls of Egyptian tombs seemed to suggest that mummies
could return to life and seek revenge.
The idea that mummies
had magic power eventually appealed to the imaginations of authors. After the first ghost
story about a mummy's curse was published in 1699, many more followed. But the longest
lasting episode involving a mummy's curse was the discovery and opening of King
Tutankhamen's tomb in 1923.
This story has been
told many times, but fact and fiction are usually blended. Two recent authors who have
separated the facts from the myths are Christopher Frayling and Nicholas Reeves.
First, the facts: Lord
Carnarvon, who had funded the search for King Tut's tomb, and archaeologist Howard Carter
entered the king's burial chamber on February 17, 1923. On or about March 6, Lord
Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito on his cheek and became ill. Reported in the media,
this event caused many people to jump to the conclusion that King Tut's tomb was
Many famous people
volunteered their theories to the press. For example, Marie Corelli, a popular novelist at
the time, expressed her thoughts in a letter published in New York and
London newspapers. In part, her letter read:
I cannot but think some risks are run by breaking into the last rest of a
king in Egypt whose tomb is specially and solemnly guarded, and robbing him of his
possessions. According to a rare book I possess . . . entitled The Egyptian History of
the Pyramids [an ancient Arabic text], the most dire punishment follows any
rash intruder into a sealed tomb. The book . . . names 'secret poisons enclosed in boxes
in such wise that those who touch them shall not know how they come to suffer'. That is
why I ask, Was it a mosquito bite that has so seriously infected Lord
Corelli reported that
the Egyptian author also warned: "Death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a
Her concerns seemed to
be on target when Lord Carnarvon's condition worsened. The mosquito bite became infected,
he contracted pneumonia, and on April 5, he died. The legend of the curse became fact and
was enhanced by many rumors. Here are five of the most famous rumors - and the real truth
Rumor 1: On the day of the tomb opening,
Carter's pet canary
was eaten by a cobra (a symbol of the ancient pharaohs).
The truth is that,
although Carter had a pet canary, he gave it to a friend named Minnie Burton to watch, and
she gave it (alive and well) to a bank manager.
Rumor 2: At the moment that Carnarvon died in Cairo Hospital,
the lights across Cairo went out for five minutes. Actually, around the time that
Carnarvon died, the hospital lights did go out for a few moments. Within a few
weeks' time, this fact was twisted into the more interesting rumor. As Christine El Mahdy
points out, the lights in Cairo are notorious for going out without warning - even today.
Rumor 3: Carnarvon's dog Susie, back in England, howled and
dropped dead at exactly two o'clock in the morning, the time that Carnarvon died.
one knows whether this story is true or not, but it seems suspicious, especially since
Egypt and England do not share the same time zone. The story might be a bit more
believable if Susie had died at two o'clock Egyptian time.
Rumor 4: Over the door to King Tut's tomb was an inscription
that read "Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of the
Pharaoh." Notice that this inscription closely matches the quotation Marie
Corelli cited from the ancient Arabic text. Even today, it is easy to find books that
report this inscription as fact. For example, in his recent book about mummies, author
John Vornholt writes, "In an outer chamber, they [Carter and Carnarvon] found a clay
tablet that read: 'Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the
Pharaoh.'" This is simply not true.
Rumor 5: Most of the people present at the opening of the tomb
met untimely deaths. Again, Vornholt writes that "13 of 20 people who were
present at the opening of King Tut's burial chamber died within a few years."
Vornholt does not give his source for this information, but it is clearly incorrect. The
truth is that the newspapers at the time had a field day with the curse. Whenever anyone
related to Carnarvon or the discovery of the tomb died, the death was taken as proof that
the curse was in effect.
Herbert E. Winlock examined the evidence some 12 years after the tomb's opening. Of the 26
people present at the opening of the burial chamber, only 6 had died within the next 10
years. When King Tut's sarcophagus was opened, 22 of the 26 people were present, but only
2 of them had died within 10 years afterward. Finally, only 10 of the 26 people had
watched the unwrapping of the mummy. And none of them had died within the
next decade! In fact, many of the people who had the most contact with the king's
mummy lived long and productive lives.
OF PEOPLE THERE
OF DEATHS AFTER 10 YEARS
Perhaps the last word
about the Carnarvon curse should belong to Sir Henry Rider Haggard, who wrote at the time
that the idea of the curse was simply nonsense and "dangerous because it goes to
swell the rising tide of superstition which at present seems to be overflowing the
Of course, there never is a last
word on such a famous curse.
In 1998, another theory was proposed in
the Canadian Medical Association Journal. A French scientist (Sylvain Gandon)
who had studied the apparent long lifespan of deadly bacterial spores (such as
anthrax) published an article in
which he wondered if Lord Carnarvon's death "could potentially be explained"
by his coming into contact with "a highly virulent and very long-lived pathogen." This
thought was also on the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock
Holmes), when he suggested long ago that Egyptian priests may have placed spores
in King Tut's tomb to punish graverobbers.
Did Carnarvon die after a
mosquito bite became infected (as has been thought)? Or could he have inhaled
anthrax spores in the tomb?
A Canadian doctor (James McSherry)
agreed with the French scientist: "A malignant pustule in the oropharyngeal
area could well produce an illness similar to the tragic event that caused Lord
Carnarvon's demise." He went on to explain that "anthrax certainly
existed in ancient times and is often assumed to have been responsible for the
fifth and sixth plagues of Egypt, which are described in chapter nine of Exodus.
Anthrax spores could well have been present in the tomb, and there would have
been a real risk of exposure once the ancient dust was stirred."
When Tut-expert Nicolas Reeves
(author of The
Complete Tutankhamun) was asked what he thought about this possibility,
he pointed out that Carnarvon was already in poor health when he arrived in
Egypt. He also discounted the idea of the curse, indicating that most of the
people who explored the tomb with Carter and Carnarvon survived without any
appearance of "the curse."
In the end, the scientist and the
doctor who have presented anthrax spores as a cause of King Tut's curse are only
guessing...and ignoring the fact that relatively few people who entered the tomb
became sick and died.