Enduring myths of the clothbound avengers
King Tut’s tomb
Needless to say, no such clay tablet ever existed. But that is not the point. Roger Luckhurst’s fascinating book begins with the story of the opening of King Tut’s tomb, and with the popular authors who jumped on the journalistic bandwagon after Lord Carnarvon’s death: Marie Corelli and Arthur Conan Doyle (who believed in the curse), Algernon Blackwood (who didn’t) and H Rider Haggard, who professed to be sickened by “the rising tide of superstition which at present seemed to be overflowing the world”, even though his own fictions had done much to encourage the rising tide.
Then Luckhurst flashes back to the two best-known ready-made curse stories that helped to prepare the ground. There was the “unlucky mummy” in the British Museum, acquisition number 22542, donated in 1889, an inner coffin lid painted with the “staring, malevolent” image of a woman, maybe a priestess from the 21st or 22nd dynasty, which was said to destroy those who dared to expose the coffin to the light of day – including a sporting young journalist named Bertram Fletcher Robinson, a friend of Conan Doyle’s, who wrote an article about her for the Daily Express and died of fever shortly afterwards. The man who had acquired this coffin lid in Egypt was Thomas Douglas Murray (died 1911), who was himself said to have returned from the dead at a seance in July 1913, in the credulous presence of William Butler Yeats. This “unlucky mummy” was also associated, in some versions of the story, with the sinking of Titanic (was it in the hold? Actually, no) and, in others, with the wreck of Empress of Ireland (ditto) in the St Lawrence River in 1914.
And then there was the mummy of a priest called Nesmin, purchased from the English consul at Luxor by Walter Herbert Ingram, son of the founder of the Illustrated London News – complete with a “blood-curdling inscription” on the case – whose curse was said to lead to Ingram’s being trampled to death by a wounded elephant in Somaliland. This mummy was acquired by the British Museum in 1885, the coffin by Rhode Island School of Design in 1939. Again, the inscription never existed. And the curse went away.
Curse stories, writes Luckhurst with commendable understatement, are “clearly doing a different kind of cultural work than the science of Egyptology”. He explores in detail the many strands of late Victorian and Edwardian culture that came to be synthesised in the curse of Tutankhamun. For too long, he rightly says, the phenomenon has been airily dismissed by academics as a silly superstition – known in the trade as pyramidiocy – when in fact it can reveal a lot about the culture and “mentality” of the period.
In the first half of the 19th century, following the Napoleonic Wars, the architecture and art of ancient Egypt tended to inspire Arabian Nights-style awe and wonder: the interior designs of Thomas Hope from 1804 onwards; the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (1811); Dr Thomas Pettigrew’s public mummy unwrappings of the 1830s; the metropolitan graveyards of the mid-century, with their Egyptian-style mausoleums. The same could be said of popular entertainments such as panoramas and dioramas, showing widescreen painted trips up the Nile or around Cairo – which Charles Dickens likened to feeling sick after swallowing too much opium, but which Luckhurst prefers to call “the immersive exotic”. When the Crystal Palace, originally constructed for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was dismantled and transported to Sydenham in 1854, it featured much more pop-Egyptiana than it had in Hyde Park – which in turn led later in the century to pharaonic attractions in funfairs next door to international expositions. Egypt at this stage was fun, exotic, sometimes erotic and magical.