IN THE EARLY part of the nineteenth century, Egypt occupied a liminal place in the British imagination. It represented the height of empire, a country that knew how to create culture as well as how to rule. A civilization like Egypt contained everything that was glorious and backwards about the non-English speaking world; its treasures stupendous, its beliefs both corrupt and naive. England felt a strong attachment to Egypt: when it was lost to the French in the late eighteenth century, it was quickly retaken by British forces in 1802, only to be lost again when Egypt sought independence and forced England out. England continued to celebrate Egypt as a repository of great art and architecture — treasures that, by subterfuge and smuggling, were sometimes spirited away to London.
Unlike other plundered cultures, the riches of Egypt contained something none other did: the bodies of kings and princes, queens and princesses, their children, and even their pets, preserved for millennia with the belief that they would ride the god Ra’s boat into the afterlife. The mummy was first seen as a wonder, then a pop-medical curiosity, and by the late nineteenth century the locus of any number of curse rumors, occult speculations, and supernatural fiction plots. Roger Luckhurst’s new book The Mummy’s Curse attempts a kind of cultural and literary archeology of this phenomenon of how the mummy went from curiosity to dread in less than a century. In the course of his investigation, Luckhurst attempts to show that the story of the mummy’s curse is born of a fusion of empire building, xenophobia, and belief in the inheritance of sin. Luckhurst also makes the significant observation that England’s fascination with the mummy and its supposed otherworldly power is also an important example of the persistence of the occult imagination, even in a scientific age.
The mummy is pure mystery, its true face hidden by wrappings. It is secreted away not to rot in its tomb, but to insure its immortality. That a vast pyramid is constructed to house a single mummy continues to astonish. The mummy comes from a time and place of great wealth, power, and artifice. And yet despite Egypt’s glory, the once great empire fell. Eventually, Egypt came under Western rule, its temples ransacked and its sacred coffins unsealed. But nothing comes free, and even as new empires rise to overtake the old, we have always believed there is a price to pay. In the case of Egypt’s treasures, that price was once thought to be a curse.
Luckhurst’s book begins with the most popular instance of the mummy’s curse, that of Tutankhamen and its first target George Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnavon. Herbert was the bankroll behind archeologist Howard Carter’s passionate endeavor to wrest every secret from the boy pharaoh’s tomb. Together in 1923 they opened the chamber and were the first to see the sarcophagus. Soon after, Herbert was bitten by a mosquito, and shortly died of blood poisoning. It was not long after that the story began to retroactively change as spiritualists and other occult professionals claimed to have foreseen Herbert’s fate if he was to tamper with Tutankhamen’s tomb.
Herbert’s death was the perfect bit of fodder for what would become an obsession with Egyptian myth, culture, and decoration. The rumor surrounding Tutankhamen and his aristocratic victim was only the most sensational of a number of similar tales. Before the curse of Tutankhame...read more