Enduring myths of the clothbound avengers
These were unashamedly commercial developments. But even in the hallowed Egyptian rooms of the British Museum, “a centre of sober scholarship and enlightened modernity . . . also gradually entered the cultural imagination as a very spooky place indeed”. With judicious use of British Museum archives, Luckhurst traces this transformation. It was partly to do with public unease at the exhibiting of mummies – dead bodies, after all – as if they were artefacts; partly with increasing concern in the 1880s about the British occupation of Egypt; partly with worries about the underhand ways in which the mummies had been acquired in the first place; and partly with the ambivalence of the flamboyantly rude keeper of Egyptian antiquities Ernest Wallis Budge, who publicly poo-pooed the very idea of a curse, while also realising that the headlines about cloth-bound avengers kept his museum department in the public eye. Meanwhile, he published several speculative books on The Mummy, The Book of the Dead and Egyptian Magic.
By late Victorian times, the awe and wonder had made way for darker imaginings about ancient Egypt – just as they did in 1922-23 – and Luckhurst studies the rise of “Egyptian Gothic” in literature, a subset of “imperial Gothic” from the 1860s onwards, turning into a torrent of stories and novels by the 1890s. His examples include, rather predictably, Conan Doyle’s Lot No 249 (1894), Guy Boothby’s Pharos the Egyptian (1899) and Bram Stoker’s Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), which, although this book does not say so, borrowed whole chunks of Wallis Budge’s Egyptian Religion in its descriptions of the “Ka” of Queen Tera.
The Mummy’s Curse provides a convincing repertoire of explanations for the popularity of such stories: imperial guilt, ancestral curses and class resentment, squeamishness about corpses being gawped at in public settings and about the desecration of tombs, the fashion for secret occult societies with their “evil eyes” and “astral projections” and a hotline to ancient Egypt, research into hysteria and hypnotism when psychoanalysis was still being treated as on a level with ghost-hunting.
The first part of the book, about King Tut and related stories of curses, is much tighter than the next, which runs down too many irrelevant historical rabbit holes (family biographies, military details, histories of institutions and clubs – all enthusiastically based on archives). Edward Said’s study of orientalism is treated as holy writ throughout. There is no explanation the analysis should be largely confined to Britain.
Luckhurst refers to “Fingal’s Cave in Ireland”, rather than in the Inner Hebrides. But, all in all, The Mummy’s Curse is a thoughtful and thorough exegesis of an enduring popular myth, and a welcome corrective to those commentators, such as Frances Yates, who in the past have dismissed it as “a bottomless bag . . . that deservedly sinks below the notice of the serious historian”.