When on the 5th of April 1923, Lord Carnarvon, who had financed the archaeological excavation that had unearthed the tomb of Tutankhamen the previous November, died from an infected insect bite, the rumour went around that he had been the victim of some ancient curse. The popular press added a number of lurid details, such as that at the time of his death all the lights in Cairo went out, and that his dog back in England commenced howling. Over the years a litany of other deaths was added to the list, and despite the fact that Howard Carter, the man who had first entered the tomb lived to a good age, the legend grew in one popular account after another.
How did such an idea originate? Roger Luckhurst traces the development of such stories against the background of Britain’s colonial relationship with Egypt, and changing perceptions of ancient Egypt caused by that connection.
He begins by examining the two previous 'cursed mummy' legends. Of these, the most prominent was that of the cursed mummy of the British Museum, actually not a mummy but a mummy-board or inner coffin lid on which is painted an image of the intended occupant, a high born woman of the 21st or 22nd dynasty. This was supposed to have brought disaster on all who dealt with it. The story was taken up by a number of occult writers, among them the sensationalist journalist and spiritualist W. T. Stead. When Stead died on the Titanic a rumour developed that the infamous “mummy” was also on board and that the sinking was part of the curse. Later versions added in several other shipwrecks, including the Lusitania, and even the start of the First World War. Actually the coffin-board has never left the museum.
The man who presented the artefact to the museum, Thomas Douglas Murray was one of those typical gentleman explorers/archaeologists and the like of the Victorian period. He was also a brother-in-law of Frederick Myers of the SPR (they both married Tennant sisters) and a member of the Ghost Club (from which the two rival latter day Ghost Clubs claim, probably incorrectly, direct descent). Once again T. D. Murray died at the age of 70, considered a good age in those days.
Perhaps this artefact had become confused with another coffin, the story of which makes up the third of the trio. This one might have been considered unlucky, as the man who discovered it was later trampled to death by an elephant that he had shot at with inadequate ammunition. Modern reactions are likely to be in the order of “jolly good show Mrs Elephant, he got what he deserved”. The artefact, or rather parts of it ended up with the Meux family. Sir Henry Meux was a rather different character to the landed gentry as portrayed in Downton Abbey: his father was a syphilitic madman, his mother an advanced alcoholic and his wife a former night club ‘hostess’. The mummy (or parts of it) then ended in the possession of Randolph Hearst (and thus therefore presumably responsible for the kidnapping of Tania Hearst several generations later).
When on the 5th of April 1923, Lord Carnarvon died
from an infected insect bite, the rumour went around that he had been the victim of some ancient curse
Luckhurst traces the changing images of ancient Egypt, from the richly exotic, associated with shopping emporia (still the case with Manchester’s Trafford Centre), to the darkly sinister. Much of this change in attitude he suggests is due to Britain’s growing colonial presence in Egypt. Of course, Egypt had the reputation for occultism going back to the Neoplatonist literature; some of it introduced into Britain by Dr Dee, and Luckhurst traces the rise of such stories through generations of horror literature from eighteenth century gothic to Rider Haggard and sets this against the background of fin de siècle occultism.
There are a number of themes one can detect in these stories, some of which are brought out by Luckhurst and others not. For a start though his main account ends in the 1930s, some of these themes still persist. One of these is the idea of desecration of the dead. Disturbing coffins and the like may well have engendered feeling of guilt among the Victorians because they would have heard stories in their youth about the activities of the resurrection men, who dug up bodies for use in dissection, a practice regarded as all the more appalling in a society that tended to believe rather literally in the resurrection of the body.
Ambiguities about the bodies of the dead persist and haunt us in a number of forms; museums face constant demands for the repatriation of bodies to be given culturally significant disposal; doctors are attacked for keeping body parts for research; there are disputes over the proposed tomb of the fragments of the unknown dead at the 9/11 site. These all point to the idea of bodies or body parts being sacred relics. Violation of these may bring about disaster; several modern ghost stories involve tales of houses built on graveyards, or people being disrespectful in cemeteries. The dead may also been seen as malignant still, as witness the recent demand for the body of Jimmy Savil to be disinterred and burned, presumably lest its residual ‘evil’ pollute the innocent dead. Absence of this exploration is to be regretted.
Luckhurst does however cover two other themes; one is that mummies are liminal creatures, the dead that have not decomposed. Here they exist among other kinds of living dead, the Vampire or Frankenstein’s Monster. Some of the fictional tales of mummy’s revolve around their resurrection by electricity a la Frankenstein. In novels such as Haggard’s She, the living dead seem to be part mummy, part vampire.
The second is that of the revenge of the colonised. Underlying these stories is the idea that the ‘They’, the colonised and exploited may extract their revenge. This ties in with Luckhurst’s point, that as Britain extended its colonial grip on the east, Egypt ceased to be seen as source of ancient wisdom, and instead a place of pagan darkness that needed good clean-cut British public school educated Christian gentlemen to control and modernise. As a number of commentators argued at the time, these stories hinted at actually how insecure that Imperial self-assurance was.
We can extend Luckhurst’s argument if we realise that the tales of cursed mummies are only a sub-set of a wider genre in which members of subaltern peoples make up for their lack of sophisticated technological gadgetry by their superior knowledge of ‘ancient magic’, Europeans can fall under the curse of all sorts of sorcerers, witch doctors, artefacts and the like (such as the famous cursed head in Warrington Museum)
This disturbing gaze is clearly visible in the painting
on the ‘cursed’ British Museum mummy case
on the ‘cursed’ British Museum mummy case
In all of this we can detect the motif of the vengeance of the oppressed and superseded, hints perhaps of colonial guilt. Luckhurst suggests that also these stories reflect back the West’s own colonial violence. In another interesting theme, he notes the prevalence of the ominous gaze from large or ‘other’ eyes, associated with these stories. He connects this to the belief in the evil eye, and Magonia readers will surely connect it to the ominous eyes of greys in modern UFO stories. This disturbing gaze is clearly visible in the painting on the ‘cursed’ British Museum mummy case, see for example the illustration on p.29, and note how illustrations of greys tend to be exaggerations of such images.
Perhaps behind all of this is something deeper, that by disinterring and unwrapping history we risk being contaminated by it, and that when the historically, geographically and spiritually Other become combined, there is an especially potent spell. That these things can subvert our conviction in the security and impermeability of the Western world of daylight reason and common sense, that we risk bringing in something from times and places where modernity, whether it is in form of railways, steam ships and steam hammers; or televisions and computers has no thrall. – Peter Rogerson