Is the ancient Egyptian “mother’s curse” real?

A few months after the discovery of of King Tutankhamun falls in 1922, the man who financed his excavation – George Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon in England – fell ill and died. It didn’t take long for people to wonder if a “mummy curse” had doomed the Earl.

“Pharaoh’s 3,000-year curse is seen in Carnarvons disease,” read the front-page headline of the March 21, 1923 edition of “The Courier Journal,” a newspaper published in Louisville, Kentucky.

Similar headlines appeared in newspapers around the world when news of Carnarvon’s illness and death broke. He suffered from an infection believed to have resulted from a shaving accident when he cut a bite mark made by a mosquito. Reports claimed his wife, Almina Herbert, was also ill, but she recovered and will live until 1969, dying at the age of 93.

Despite Almina’s longevity, her husband’s death raises a question: is there any evidence supporting the concept of a mummy’s curse?

Related: How do we decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics and other ancient languages?

Carnarvon had funded the search and excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb. When Howard Carter found the grave in November 1922, he delayed exploration inside until Herbert could arrive from Britain. After Carnarvon’s arrival, they ventured into the tomb, seeing the “wonderful” artifacts buried with Tutankhamun. No writing of The ancient Egyptians mentioning a curse was found in the grave.

While the notion of a “curse” may sound ludicrous, it has in fact been seriously studied by scientists, with several papers published on the subject. In an effort to determine whether a long-lived pathogen could have caused the “curse,” scientists used mathematical modeling to determine how long a pathogen could survive inside a grave, according to reports. articles published on the subject in 1996 and 1998 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

“Indeed, the mysterious death of Lord Carnarvon after entering the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun could potentially be explained by infection with a very virulent and very long-lived pathogen,” Sylvain Gandon wrote in the 1998 journal article. Gandon was a researcher at Pierre et Marie Curie University in Paris when the article was published.

However, more recent publications seem to refute this possibility. An analysis of the brown spots on Tutankhamun’s tomb revealed that “the organism that created the spots is not active,” wrote a team of researchers in a 2013 article published in the journal. International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation.

What’s more, a study published by Mark Nelson, professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at Monash University in Australia, found no evidence that those who entered the grave died at an unusually young age. His study examined the records of 25 people who worked or entered the tomb shortly after its discovery. On average, those who entered the tomb lived to age 70, an age of death that was not particularly low in the early mid-20th century. The study found “no evidence to support the existence of a mummy curse,” Nelson wrote in a 2002 article published in the British medical journal.

Origins of the curse

The idea of ​​a mummy associated with a curse actually predates the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. “The Curse is a legend that has developed gradually, since the mid-19th century, and has grown steadily with the cumulative contributions of fiction literature, horror films, the media and, more recently, the Internet. “said Jasmine Day, an Egyptologist who holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology and wrote the book”The mummy curse: the mummy in the English-speaking world“(Routledge, 2006).

Related: Who built the Egyptian pyramids?

“My research uncovered forgotten American fictional stories from the 1860s, in which male adventurers strip female mummies and steal their jewelry, only to suffer horrific death or dire consequences for those around them,” Day told Live Science. “These stories, written by women, emphasize the unboxing of mummies as a metaphor for rape. In turn, this shocking comparison seems to doom the destruction and theft of Egyptian heritage at the height of Western colonialism.”

Other scholars have agreed that the association of curses and magic with mummies was widespread before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. “The idea that Egypt was a land of mystery returned to the Greeks and Romans,” said Ronald Fritze, professor of history at Athens State University in Alabama and author of the book.Egyptomania: a story of fascination, obsession and fantasy“(Reaktion Books, 2016).” Over time, the ancient Egyptians were credited with all kinds of supernatural and magical knowledge. “

In this colorized photo, English Egyptologist Howard Carter (1873-1939) and a colleague look at Tutankhamun's golden sarcophagus in Egypt in the early 1920s.

In this colorized photo, English Egyptologist Howard Carter (1873-1939) and a colleague look at Tutankhamun’s golden sarcophagus in Egypt in the early 1920s. (Image credit: Harry Burton; Apic / Getty Images)

“When Egypt began to open up to the West after Napoleon’s expedition, there was a fascination with mummies, and wealthy people bought them to have them unwrapped as entertainment,” Fritze added. “A lot of people have been troubled by this kind of interference with the dead.” Around this time, fictional stories telling curses associated with mummies began to appear in the literature. Fritze noted that Irish author Bram Stoker, who is most famous for his novel “Dracula”, published a 1903 book titled “The Jewel of the Seven Stars”, in which modern archaeologists suffer from the curse of a mummy.

Cinema also picked up on the idea of ​​a curse associated with mummies, said Eleanor Dobson, professor of English literature at the University of Birmingham in the UK and author of the book “Writing the Sphinx: Literature, Culture and Egyptology” (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). “Essentially, at the time of Carnarvon’s death, the public was ready to see Egyptian artifact finds in terms of Gothic narratives,” Dobson told Live Science in an email.

Day noted that when the Titanic sank in 1912, some people believed the mummy of a priestess in the British Museum caused the sinking. British Museum curator Ernest Wallis Budge “received so many inquiries from the public regarding the allegedly cursed mummy at the museum that he was forced to write a leaflet debunking the rumors that could be distributed to members of the public,” said Day said in an email. “Despite this, some people sent money to the museum to buy flowers to lay at the feet of the deceased priestess to soothe her soul – and the story of the mummy who sank the Titanic continues to circulate on the internet today. hui. ”

Related: Why were the ancient Egyptians obsessed with cats?

The curse explodes

The press exclusivity sold to The Times of London played a major role in spreading the idea that Tut’s grave was cursed. Other media were outraged at being excluded and published articles about the curse, Day said.

“The tallest among the disgruntled journalists was Arthur Weigall, journalist, novelist, former Egyptologist and bitter rival to Howard Carter,” Day said. Upon Carnarvon’s death, “Weigall leaps up, claiming that Tutankhamun’s curse had killed him,” even though Weigall himself did not believe in the curse.

“Millions of gullible people, however, were eager to believe the story [of a curse], having been elevated to the regime of curse and fiction for decades – and desperate to confirm the idea that it was possible to communicate with the dead, having lost so many young men in WWI, ”said Day, and Carter blamed Weigall for the idea that the grave was cursed.

The fact that a number of famous authors believed in the curse – such as Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes novels – helps spread the belief in the curse, Day said. Doyle “told reporters that Carnarvon was killed by” elementals, “protective spirits living in the tomb,” Day said.

Carter himself became embroiled in the hubbub curse when he teamed up with a magazine writer named Percy White in 1923 to write a semi-fictional magazine story titled “Tomb of the Bird: Death of the White Canary. “which recounted the death of Carter’s pet. canary. “It was a semi-fictionalized account of Carter’s canary dying, supposedly as a result of a scare or a cobra bite,” Day said. “Carter’s indulgence in curse speculation came back to haunt him, however, when the newspapers were inundated with more lies than truth about Tutankhamun’s alleged curse, which angered him.”

Related: How were the Egyptian pyramids built?

Curse today

Even today, some like to link archaeological finds and contemporary events to curses. When a huge 2,000-year-old coffin was discovered in Alexandria, Egypt in 2018, some people feared that opening it would trigger a curse. Likewise, when a ship blocked the Suez Canal in 2021, some people tried to blame the mummies, noting that the mummies of several ancient Egyptian pharaohs were to be transported to a museum in Fustat.

“People want life to be meaningful and not to be chaotic, random or coincidental,” Fritze said. “Traditionally, formal religion has provided this need to explain existence. But many people have [turned] to magical and supernatural beliefs, and these include curses. ”

Originally posted on Live Science.

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