Enduring myths of the clothbound avengers
POPULAR CULTURE:Stories about Egyptian mummies and their curses have been scorned as pyramidiocy, but they reveal a lot about late Victorian and Edwardian culture
The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy, by Roger Kuckhurst Oxford University Press, 336pp, £18.99
On November 26th, 1922, the British archaeologist Howard Carter caught his first flickering glimpse of the contents of the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, who had died more than 3,000 years before, around 1323 BC, in New Kingdom Egypt, at the age of 17. Carter had discovered, by chance, the most complete Egyptian tomb ever found by an archaeologist, and the Times correspondent reported: “Egyptian Treasure – Great Find at Thebes”. By February 1923, Harry Burton’s high-contrast photographs of the interior of the antechamber – Burton had learned from Hollywood professionals – had turned the gilded couches, the golden throne, the dismantled chariots and the life-sized guardian statues into instantly recognisable masterpieces from the history of ancient art, all over the western world.
But after the initial excitement had subsided, and after the newspapers had discovered that the strictly historical significance of the find was less than dramatic – the excavators had unearthed what they thought was a basketful of written records, but these papyri turned out, disappointingly, to be fragments of Tutankhamun’s underwear – the story began to run out of steam.
The many journalists who crowded around the stone parapet above the opening of the tomb hoped to see something to write home about, but as the aristocratic sponsor of the dig, George Herbert, fifth earl of Carnarvon, had signed a lucrative, very controversial agreement with the Times, which gave the Thunderer exclusive access to all official stories emanating from the tomb, they soon had to look elsewhere for copy. Details of the hard slog of labelling, recording, conserving and transporting the many artefacts soon lost their novelty value, and Carter found himself constantly being asked: “When is something going to happen?” The journalists were becoming frustrated and angry.
Then, on April 5th, 1923, Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning and pneumonia – following a bite on his left cheek by a mosquito – and, as his sister Winifred wrote, a story that had opened “like Aladdin’s cave” turned almost overnight into “a Greek myth of Nemesis”.
The rumour mill started to grind immediately. It was reported in the popular press that the entire electricity supply of Cairo, all four grids, had blacked out for several minutes at the moment of his death, while, half a world away on the Carnarvon country estate of Highclere, the family’s favourite terrier, Susie, had let out a mournful howl and dropped down dead. Both of these events were attributed to the curse of Tutankhamun, which had apparently been ferociously energising itself since 1323 BC, just waiting for someone to break in and desecrate the tomb. At last, here was something in which nonspecialist newspaper readers were assumed to have a ready-made interest.
Stories began to circulate about strange artefacts that bore hieroglyphic messages protecting the tomb from intruders and that were being “suppressed” by the Egyptologists. Such stories added an extra ingredient of conspiracy to the proceedings. One of them concerned an “ordinary clay tablet”, said to have been found over the entrance to the tomb, that Lord Carnarvon had had the temerity to remove in order to substitute his own family’s coat of arms. It apparently read: “Death shall come on swift wings to whoever toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh.”
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.
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”.