The Curse Of The Mummy

Suspicious Circumstances

In 1922, the death of Lord Carnarvon sparked one of the most mysterious and captivating stories of its time. Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun was followed by a number of strange events and grissly deaths, prompting speculation that the mummy was cursed. News spread across the world that explorers had accidently unleashed an ancient curse, capable of striking dead anyone or anything in its path. It was bad news for man and beast alike.

The deathmask of King Tut.
Carter and his financial backer Lord Carnarvon entered the tomb in November. Five months later Carnarvon was dead. Story has it that at the exact moment of his death, all the lights went out in Cairo, and Carnarvon's dog, back home in England, suddenly and dramatically dropped dead too.

Carnarvon's death was attributed to a mosquito bite on his cheek which was aggravated, leading to septicemia. When King Tut's mummy was unwrapped, years after the media frenzy surrounding Carnarvon's death, it was found that the king had a wound on his cheek in exactly the same location as Carvarvon's mosquito bite.

As well as Carnarvon five others from the twenty-six strong expedition were dead within the decade. And when Carter entered the tomb in November it has been reported that his pet canary was swallowed by a cobra - a particularly dramatic way to die.

Media Frenzy

The bizarre nature, and sheer number, of these deaths, along with the strange tales that surrounded them, lead to the belief that anyone who entered the tomb would succumb to the fatal curse. The press went wild, and the validity of the curse was enhanced by the publication of a warning by novelist Mari Corelli who claimed there would be dire consequences for anyone who entered the tomb. By this point, for many people, the story of the curse had become a fact.

Don't Mess With The Mummies

Historical evidence also adds weight to the story. Contrary to popular belief, talk of the curse of the mummies did not originate in 1922. Stories of the curse are believed to have been started by the ancient Egyptians to protect the tombs from grave robbers. Vengeful mummies are the equivalent of modern bogey-men, often invoked by today's real mums in order to keep young scoundrels in check.

Evidence suggests that the Arabs who invaded Egypt in 641AD believed in the curse. Arab writers warned people not to tamper with the mummies or their tombs. The Egyptians, they claimed, practiced magic during their funeral services and the paintings inside the tombs suggested that the mummies could return to life and seek revenge.

In London a rather bizarre stage show depicted Egyptian mummies being unwrapped on stage, and the stories of the curse became more widely known. The story of the curse rippled through Britain, surfacing in the work of several writers of the time. One of these was the author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, who wrote the little known novel Lost in a Pyramid, The Mummy’s Curse. Now, most people remember the badly-rated movie, The Curse of The Mummies.

Fact or Fiction

There are of course arguments to suggest that the curse is nothing more than a figment of the media’s imagination. At the time of the discovery of King Tut's tomb, the treasures found by Carter generated a media frenzy, and a lot of sensationalised headlines. In the 1920’s newspapers were the only media outlet. News travelled more slowly and less reliably. Newspaper editors knew that by printing tales of a curse they could play to the public's superstitious natures and sell more papers.

Journalists have even been accused of making up stories simply to fuel interest in the curse. One reporter claimed that over the entrance to the tomb there was an inscription which read: "Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh"” This was simply not true.

The Sensible Explanation

Rather than being cursed, Scientists believe Carnarvon’s death was due to years of poor health and blood poisoning from an infected Mosquito bite. Although Six of the twenty-six members of the expedition were dead within the decade, Carter, who had been the first to enter the tomb and so the most likely to fall under the curse, was not one of them, dying in 1939.

Reports of the lights in Cairo going out at the time of Carnarvon’s death have been discredited by those who say that this, even today, is a frequent occurrence within the city, and the stories of the deaths of Carnarvon’s dog and Carter’s canary being are unproven.

Could it be True?

In recent years some scientists have suggested that the curse was biological in nature. Lab studies have shown that some ancient mummies have carried poisonous mold spoors, some of which can cause congestion or bleeding in the lungs. This theory has been discounted by the majority of scientists, who believe that there is not enough evidence to prove it, although archaeologists and scientists working in the tombs today wear special clothing for protection against harmful spoors.

Sceptics may claim that the curse is nothing more than superstitious nonsense fuelled by the media. But history suggests there could be more to it. The ancient Egyptians did indeed use spells, potions and amulets during the mummification process, and believed that the spirits of the dead could return to their mummified bodies. Perhaps they were right all along, and perhaps these rituals were more effective than we realize.

Whether Lord Carnarvon died from boring old septicemia or from an ancient curse, the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb is still one of the most significant events in Egyptology to date. And the story of the curse of the mummies is definitely one of the most alluring.