Mummies are a key to the past–a way to examine what was and what people believed long before our time. But digging up a grave, disturbing a tomb isn’t as easy as it sounds. And sometimes, the results are deadly.
The Curse of the Pharaohs is a curse believed to befall any person that dares to disturb the mummy of an ancient Egyptian person, especially a pharaoh. The curse makes no exceptions, not for a thief or well-intentioned archaeologists. The curse appears in many forms, including serious bad luck, illness, and even death.
One of the first reported stories that helped give rise to the haunted lore of the mummy is from 1699. Louis Penicher’s Traite du Embaumements (Treatise on Embalming) [you can read the whole thing if you speak french by clicking there]. He writes the troubling account of a Polish merchant that buys two mummies in Alexandria, Egypt. The traveler, on the voyage back, has repeated disturbing visions of two specters on his sea journey home. The stormy seas continue to worsen, as do his visions, until finally in a fit of desperation, the mummies are thrown overboard into the ocean. Only then, does the storm subside along with the man’s haunting visions. The traveler was alarmed by recurring visions of the haunting, and the stormy seas did not abate until the mummies were thrown overboard.
Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Egypt on July 1st, 1798. He brought 400 ships, 54,000 men, and 150 savants (scientists, engineers, and scholars). This trip was different from his recent Italy invasion. He intended to not just invade Egypt, but to study it. To study the soil, the culture, the history. The savants write and sketched what would be volumes of information to share what they had learned. They worked to organize and finalize information when they returned to France in 1801, and eventually in 1809, the first volumes of Description de l’Égypte were published. This work eventually concluded in 1828 with 23 volumes, some of which were the largest books ever printed.
This study of Egypt helped give further rise of Egytpomania, a the renewed interest of Europeans in ancient Egypt. This included Egyptian inspired fashions in costume, painting, furnishings, and architecture. This also inspired a fab for public unrolling of Egyptian mummies in the 1830’s and 1840’s. A man named Thomas Pettigrew, a doctor and amateur Egyptologist, a man previously fired from his hospital job for corruption, became a key figure in popularizing mummy unrollings for a handsome profit in large groups.
In 1845, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a satirical short story that was published in American Review: A Whig Journal called “Some Words With a Mummy.” In the story, a group of men gather in the middle of the night to examine a mummy for the sake of “scientific discovery”. Of course, things don’t go as planned due to the mummy, Allamistakeo, awakening and condemning the men for their abuse.
This, of course, was only the beginning. Soon thereafter, we see an explosion in literature involving mummies.
- Jane Webb Loudon’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827)
- Theophile Gautier’s The Mummy’s Foot (1840) and The Romance of the Mummy (1856)
- Louisa May Alcott’s Lost in a Pyramid, or, The Mummy’s Curse (1869)
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Ring of Thoth (1890) and Lot No. 249 (1894)
- HD Everett’s Iras, A Mystery (1896)
- Guy Boothby’s Pharos the Egyptian (1899)
- Hesketh V. Pritchard and Kate O’Brien Ryall Prichard’s The Story of Baelbow (1898)
- Algernon Blackwood’s The Nemesis of Fire (1908)
- Bram Stoker’s Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903)
All of these stories only further aided in the interest and brewing of curses, obsession with foreign lands, and of course, horror.
In November of 1922, the discovery of the tomb of Tutakhamun would help solidify the mummy’s curse and the fad of late Victorian mummy fiction.
Lord Carnarvon, the dig’s sponsor died on March 19, 1923 not long after unearthing the mummy.
To be continued…