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Curse of the pharaohs

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Title: Curse of the pharaohs  
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Subject: Tutankhamun, Egyptian mythology, Pharaohs, Book curse, Valley of the Kings
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Curse of the pharaohs

The Royal Cobra (Uraeus), representing the protector goddess Wadjet, atop the mask of Tutankhamun.

The curse of the pharaohs refers to an alleged curse believed by some to be cast upon any person who disturbs the mummy of an Ancient Egyptian person, especially a pharaoh. This curse, which does not differentiate between thieves and archaeologists, allegedly can cause bad luck, illness or death. Since the mid-20th century, many authors and documentaries have argued that the curse is 'real' in the sense of being caused by scientifically explicable causes such as bacteria or radiation. However, the modern origins of Egyptian mummy curse tales, their development primarily in European cultures, the shift from magic to science to explain curses, and their changing uses—from condemning disturbance of the dead to entertaining horror film audiences—suggest that Egyptian curses are primarily a cultural, not exclusively scientific, phenomenon.[1]

There are occasional instances of genuine ancient curses appearing inside or on the façade of a tomb, as in the case of the mastaba of Khentika Ikhekhi of the 6th dynasty at Saqqara. These appear to be directed towards the ka priests to protect the tomb carefully and preserve its ritual purity rather than as a warning for potential robbers. There had been stories of curses going back to the 19th century, but they multiplied after Howard Carter's discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun. Despite popular misconceptions, no curse was actually found inscribed in the Pharaoh's tomb.[2] The evidence for curses relating to King Tutankhamun is considered to be so meager that Donald B. Redford viewed it as "unadulterated clap trap".[3]

Tomb curses

Curses relating to tombs are extremely rare, possibly because the idea of such desecration was unthinkable and even dangerous to record in writing.[2] They most frequently occur in private tombs of the Old Kingdom era.[4] The tomb of Ankhtifi (9–10th dynasty) contains the warning: "any ruler who... shall do evil or wickedness to this coffin... may Hemen ([a local deity]) not accept any goods he offers, and may his heir not inherit". The tomb of Khentika Ikhekhi (9–10th dynasty) contains an inscription: "As for all men who shall enter this my tomb... impure... there will be judgment... an end shall be made for him... I shall seize his neck like a bird... I shall cast the fear of myself into him".[2] Curses after the Old Kingdom era are less common though more severe, sometimes invoking the ire of Thoth or the destruction of Sekhemet.[4] Zahi Hawass quotes an example of a curse: "Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose."[5]

Modern accounts

Hieroglyphs were not deciphered until the beginning of the 19th century by Jean-François Champollion, so reports of curses prior to this are simply perceived bad luck associated with the handling of mummies and other artifacts from tombs. In 1699, Louis Penicher wrote an account in which he recorded how a Polish traveler bought two mummies in Alexandria and embarked on a sea journey with the mummies in the cargo hold. The traveler was alarmed by recurring visions of two specters, and the stormy seas that did not abate until the mummies were thrown overboard.[2]

Zahi Hawass recalled that as a young archaeologist excavating at Kom Abu-Bellou he had to transport a number of artifacts from the Greco-Roman site. His cousin died on that day, on its anniversary, his uncle died and on the third anniversary his aunt died. Years later, when he excavated the tombs of the builders of the pyramids at Giza, he encountered the curse: "All people who enter this tomb who will make evil against this tomb and destroy it may the crocodile be against them in water, and snakes against them on land. May the hippopotamus be against them in water, the scorpion against them on land."[5]

Though not superstitious, he decided not to disturb the mummies. However, he later was involved in the removal of two child mummies from Bahariya Oasis to a museum and reported he was haunted by the children in his dreams. The phenomena did not stop until the mummy of the father was re-united with the children in the museum. He came to the conclusion that mummies should not be displayed, though it was a lesser evil than allowing the general public into the tombs.[5] Hawass also recorded an incident of a sick young boy who loved Ancient Egypt and was subject to a "miracle" cure in the Egyptian Museum when he looked into the eyes of the mummy of King Ahmose I. Thereafter, the boy read everything he could find on Ancient Egypt, especially the Hyksos period.[6]

The idea of a mummy reviving from the dead, an essential element of many mummy curse tales, was developed in [7] However, two stories subsequently discovered by S. J. Wolfe, Robert Singerman and Jasmine Day – "The Mummy’s Soul" (Anonymous 1862) and "After Three Thousand Years" (Jane G. Austin 1868) – have similar plots, in which a female mummy takes magical revenge upon her male desecrator. Jasmine Day therefore argues that the modern European concept of curses is based upon an analogy between desecration of tombs and rape, interpreting early curse fiction as proto-feminist narratives authored by women. The Anonymous and Austin stories predate Alcott's piece, raising the possibility that even earlier "lost" mummy curse prototype fiction awaits rediscovery.[8]

Opening of King Tutankhamun's tomb

Tutankhamun's "curse"

The statue of Anubis figure which guarded the entrance to Tutankhamun's treasury room.

The belief in a curse was brought to many people's attention due to the sometimes mysterious deaths of a few members of Howard Carter's team and other prominent visitors to the tomb shortly thereafter. Carter's team opened the tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) in 1922, launching the modern era of Egyptology. The famous Egyptologist James Henry Breasted worked with Carter soon after the first opening of the tomb. He reported how Carter sent a messenger on an errand to his house. On approaching his home the messenger thought he heard a "faint, almost human cry". Upon reaching the entrance he saw the bird cage occupied by a cobra, the symbol of Egyptian monarchy. Carter's canary had died in its mouth and this fueled local rumors of a curse.[9] Arthur Weigall, a previous Inspector-General of Antiquities to the Egyptian Government, reported that this was interpreted as Carter's house being broken into by the Royal Cobra, the same as that worn on the King's head to strike enemies (see Uraeus), on the very day the King's tomb was being broken into.[10] An account of the incident was reported by the New York Times on 22 December 1922.[11]

The death of Lord Carnarvon six weeks after the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb resulted in many curse stories in the press.

The first of the "mysterious" deaths was that of Lord Carnarvon. He had been bitten by a mosquito, and later slashed the bite accidentally while shaving. It became infected and blood poisoning resulted. Two weeks before Carnarvon died, Marie Corelli wrote an imaginative letter that was published in the New York World magazine, in which she quoted an obscure book that confidently asserted that "dire punishment" would follow any intrusion into a sealed tomb. A media frenzy followed, with reports that a curse had been found in the King's tomb, though this was untrue.[4] The superstitious Benito Mussolini, who had once accepted an Egyptian mummy as a gift, ordered its immediate removal from the Palazzo Chigi.[12]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, suggested that Lord Carnarvon's death had been caused by "elementals" created by Tutankhamun's priests to guard the royal tomb, and this further fueled the media interest.[13] Arthur Weigall reported that six weeks before Carnarvon's death, he had watched the Earl laughing and joking as he entered the King's tomb and said to a nearby reporter (H. V. Morton), "I give him six weeks to live."[14] The first autopsy carried out on the body of Tutankhamun by Dr Derry found a healed lesion on the left cheek, but as Carnarvon had been buried six months previously it was not possible to determine if the location of the wound on the King corresponded with the fatal mosquito bite on Carnarvon.[15]

In 1925, the anthropologist Henry Field, accompanied by Breasted, visited the tomb and recalled the kindness and friendliness of Carter. He also reported how a paperweight given to Carter's friend Sir Bruce Ingram was composed of a mummified hand with its wrist adorned with a scarab bracelet marked with, "Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence." Soon after receiving the gift, Ingram's house burned down, followed by a flood when it was rebuilt.[16] Howard Carter was entirely skeptical of such curses.[17] He did report in his diary a "strange" account in May 1926, when he saw jackals of the same type as Anubis, the guardian of the dead, for the first time in over thirty-five years of working in the desert.[18] Skeptics have pointed out that many others who visited the tomb or helped to discover it lived long and healthy lives. A study showed that of the 58 people who were present when the tomb and sarcophagus were opened, only eight died within a dozen years. All the others were still alive, including Howard Carter, who died of lymphoma in 1939 at the age of 64.[19][20] The last survivor, American archaeologist J.O. Kinnaman, died in 1961, a full 39 years after the event.[21]

Possible explanations

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speculated in the press regarding the death of Lord Carnarvon soon after opening of Tutankhamun's tomb.

Some have speculated that deadly fungus could have grown in the enclosed tombs and been released when they were open to the air. Arthur Conan Doyle favoured this idea, and speculated that the mold had been placed deliberately to punish grave robbers.

A newspaper report printed following Carnarvon's death is also believed to have been responsible for the wording of the curse most frequently associated with Tutankhamun – "Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King" – a phrase which does not actually appear among the hieroglyphs in KV62, even though it was said to appear in several different places.

While there is no evidence that such pathogens killed Lord Carnarvon, there is no doubt that dangerous materials can accumulate in old tombs. Recent studies of newly opened ancient Egyptian tombs that had not been exposed to modern contaminants found pathogenic bacteria of the Staphylococcus and Pseudomonas genera, and the moulds Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus. Additionally, newly opened tombs often become roosts for bats, and bat guano may harbour histoplasmosis. However, at the concentrations typically found, these pathogens are generally only dangerous to persons with weakened immune systems.

Air samples taken from inside an unopened sarcophagus through a drilled hole showed high levels of ammonia, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide; these gases are all toxic, but are easily detected by their strong odours. Hydrogen sulfide is detectable at low concentrations (Up to 100 ppm) beyond which it acts as a nerve agent on the olfactory senses. At 1000 ppm it will kill with a single inhalation.[22] Recent discoveries show that stones used to build Egyptian tombs often contain uranium, a radioactive metal which decays, producing radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer and other respiratory conditions matching some of the symptoms described for those who died soon after opening the tomb.

Deaths popularly attributed to Tutankhamun's "curse"

The tomb was opened on 29 November 1922.

  • Lord Carnarvon, financial backer of the excavation team who was present at the tomb's opening, died on 5 April 1923 after a mosquito bite became infected; he died 4 months and 7 days after the opening of the tomb.[23][24]
  • French Riviera on 16 May 1923 after he developed a fever following his visit.[25]
  • Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey of Egypt died 10 July 1923: shot dead by his wife.
  • Colonel The Hon. Aubrey Herbert, MP, Carnarvon's half-brother, became nearly blind and died on 26 September 1923 from blood poisoning related to a dental procedure intended to restore his eyesight.
  • Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid, a radiologist who x-rayed Tutankhamun's mummy, died on 15 January 1924 from a mysterious illness.
  • Sir Lee Stack, Governor-General of Sudan, died on 19 November 1924: assassinated while driving through Cairo.
  • A. C. Mace, a member of Carter's excavation team, died in 1928 from arsenic poisoning[26]
  • The Hon. Mervyn Herbert, Carnarvon's half brother and the aforementioned Aubrey Herbert's full brother, died on 26 May 1929, reportedly from "malarial pneumonia".
  • Captain The Hon. Richard Bethell, Carter's personal secretary, died on 15 November 1929: found smothered in his bed.
  • Richard Luttrell Pilkington Bethell, 3rd Baron Westbury, father of the above, died on 20 February 1930; he supposedly threw himself off his seventh floor apartment.
  • Howard Carter opened the tomb on 16 February 1923, and died well over a decade later on 2 March 1939; however, some have still attributed his death to the "curse".[19]

See also



  1. ^ "The Mummy's Curse: Mummymania in the English-speaking World, Jasmine Day, Routledge, 2006
  2. ^ a b c d J. Paterson-Andrews, C. Andrews, p. 190.
  3. ^ The Boy Behind the Mask, Charlotte Booth (quoting Donald B. Redford), p. xvi, Oneword, 2007, ISBN 978-1-85168-544-8
  4. ^ a b c Ancient Egypt, David P. Silverman, p. 146, Oxford University Press US, 2003, ISBN 0-19-521952-X
  5. ^ a b c Valley of the Golden Mummies, Zahi A. Hawass, p. 94–97, American University Press in Cairo Press, 2000, ISBN 977-424-585-7
  6. ^ "A born archeologist", Zahi Hawass, Al-Ahram Weekly, February 2004. Retrieved 15 July 2009 [1]
  7. ^ Consuming Ancient Egypt, Sally MacDonald, Michael Rice, p. 26, University College, London. Institute of Archaeology, Routledge Cavendish, 2003, ISBN 1-84472-003-9
  8. ^ The Mummy's Curse: Mummymania in the English-speaking World, Jasmine Day, Routledge, 2006, pp. 46–7; 52–3
  9. ^ Winstone, p. 169
  10. ^ The Face of Tutankhamun, Christopher Frayling, p. 232, Faber & Faber, 1992, ISBN 0-571-16845-0
  11. ^ "Times Man Views Splendors of the Tomb of Tutankhamen", New York Times, 22 December 1922, Retrieved 12 May 2009 [2]
  12. ^ Gunther, John (1936). Inside Europe. Harper & Brothers. p. 183. 
  13. ^ J. Paterson-Andrews, C. Andrews, p. 196
  14. ^ Winstone, p. 262
  15. ^ "In the Valley of the Kings – Howard Carter and the Mystery of King Tutankhamun's Tomb", Daniel Meyerson, p. 158, Ballantine Books, 2009, ISBN 978-0-345-47693-7
  16. ^ Winstone, p. 265.
  17. ^ J. Paterson-Andrews, C. Andrews, p. 198.
  18. ^ Winstone, p. 266.
  19. ^ a b David Vernon in Skeptical – a Handbook of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, ed. Donald Laycock, David Vernon, Colin Groves, Simon Brown, Imagecraft, Canberra, 1989, ISBN 0-7316-5794-2, p. 25.
  20. ^ Egypt: The Mummy Curse of Tutankhamun - Tour Egypt
  21. ^ "Death Claims Noted Biblical Archaeologist", Lodi News-Sentinel, September 8, 1961, Retrieved May 9, 2014 [3]
  22. ^ Egypt's "King Tut Curse" Caused by Tomb Toxins?
  23. ^ "Why we love mummies".  
  24. ^ "Carnarvon Is Dead Of An Insect's Bite At Pharaoh's Tomb. Blood Poisoning and Ensuing Pneumonia Conquer Tut-ankh-Amen Discoverer in Egypt.".  
  25. ^ "George J. Gould Dies in Villa in France.".  
  26. ^ Rupert Furneaux, The World's Strangest Mysteries, (New York: Ace Books, 1961), p. 72-74.

External links

  • Galaxy Babe (16 February 2011). "'"Tutankhamun – the 'Boy King.  
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