IN THE EARLY part of the 19th 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 18th 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 19th 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 Tutankhamen, two other curse stories circulated. The first was connected to a coffin that once housed the mummy of a priestess, known at the British Museum as “acquisition #22542” and thought responsible for the death of many people including a journalist who wrote about it (a phenomenon Luckhurst calls “a recursive curse”). The second was The Coffin of Nesmin, said to be inscribed with a terrible curse. These stories had some similarities: the curse of the mummy was directed against those who had the power and resources to defile its sacred sleep. These curses were not so interested in the workmen who actually did the digging; instead, they targeted more important people, such as the wealthy patrons and aristocratic explorers and dealers in antiquities. Luckhurst narrates the stories of these curses with a historian’s attention to detail, but also with a literary critic’s emphasis on the underlying motivations. The litany of names and events sometimes starts to blur, but a few anecdotes transcend the minutiae.
In the mid-1800s the scholar Samuel Birch and his successor Ernest Wallis Budge created a center for Egyptian studies at the British Museum. Budge would spend much of his time answering letters and queries from the public insisting that the museum was haunted. He even went so far as to spend an evening with a group known as the Ghost Club, a gathering of scientists, writers, and other genteel individuals including the chemist William Crookes and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle. Membership required knowledge of a ghost story, but during his visit, Budge failed to offer one. Budge and other Egyptologists were frustrated by how the rumors of mummy’s curses were begining to seep into the very real and difficult disciplines of archeology and museum practice.
In an attempt to unravel the belief in the mummy’s supposed hidden supernatural powers, Luckhurst’s book maps out not the actual country of Egypt as it existed during the 18th and 19th centuries, but rather the Egypt that existed as a simulacrum within British culture. The education of the British public proceeded via displays and dioramas made up of both real and fabricated artifacts, many of which included actual mummies. Mummy unwrappings became staged events, often by leading surgeons who infused spectacle with science. No matter how violently the surgeon would have to rip and tear and cut at the mummy, the fact that an actual dead body was contained within didn’t elicit the slightest superstitious wince.
Nevertheless, concurrent with the celebration of Egyptian culture was a slowly simmering anxiety. While England had access to Egyptian artifacts and was capable of importing huge pieces of sculpture as well as fully preserved mummies, an unconscious sense that these things don’t belong to the West (or even in the West) started to spawn rumors and literature, both of which sold vast numbers of newspapers and books. For Luckhurst, the curse story exposes what he calls “a curdling in the English cultural imagination about Egypt.” And he locates the final fermentation in a specific event: British society became particularly anxious about the role England would have in Egypt after 1888 when the Suez Canal came under English rule. Taking artifacts was one thing, claiming possession of the land another. Now those ancient powers really had a reason to resent the Western interlopers.
When Luckhurst turns to stories of mummies found in supernatural and adventure fiction of the time, I breathed a sigh a relief. It is here that the book really gains momentum; the author seems more comfortable in the pages of speculation than in the historical details. We learn that the currently popular fantasy sub-genre known as weird fiction was not only born in the imagination of H.P. Lovecraft as is often cited, but from the restless minds of precursors such as M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood. And in particular it’s the fiction related to mummies that turns the rumors circulating in newspapers and in the halls of the British Museum into myth. Weird and supernatural fiction works best when it can draw out unconscious fears.
The two essential characteristics of Egyptian curse tales have their origins in the Victorian Gothic: inherited sin and “curious or menacing objects.” Very few gothic writers were immune to the charms of the mummy story. Luckhurst cites works by Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, and Louisa May Alcott. But it was Blackwood who saw in the macabre fascination with Egypt as something more than a thrilling pot-boiler. In his story “Sand,” an attempt to dismiss the “shabby shivers of tourist rumor,” Blackwood maps a metaphorical Egypt, the obsession to find deeper and more mysterious truths. But unlike buried trinkets, the real Egypt cannot be captured so easily, and the main characters wind up performing ancient rites that do nothing but mummify their souls.
One of Luckhurst’s most curious observations is how often these stories share the topic of hypnotism. Hypnotism arose out of the work of Franz Mesmer, who had developed the idea of “animal magnetism” along with an esoteric belief that humans are governed by magnetic fluids that course through the body and can be controlled by certain techniques. Mesmer’s ideas were ridiculed by scientists, and in popular culture the image of the mesmerist became connected with the goateed conjurer forcing others to do his bidding. The idea that this practice might have originated in ancient Egypt gave it an occult influence.
If Egypt’s power over the West operates through its supernatural agents, what would prevent the West from accessing that very same knowledge? It is in the realm of the occult that the Occident can once again gain the upper hand. For people like Madame Blavatsky and her colleagues in the Theosophical Society, as well as members of the magical fraternity The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, there are other ways to rule nature than through science. Egyptian religion knew something about the secrets of life and death, and not only that, its curses could span centuries. The magicians of England believed that this knowledge was guarded by secret masters in the East and that Egyptian magic was one small but essential part of a vast storehouse of ancient wisdom.
The occultism of theosophy and the Golden Dawn literalized the mummy’s mystery, taking an idea that had a profound influence on British concepts of imperialism and enlightenment and turning it into a kind of science, involving astral projection, spirit conjuring, and other feats of the will. These were believed to be actual powers that after much training adepts could perform. The curse of the mummy was reduced to a misunderstood and ancient esoteric practice. Why fear a curse travelling through time and space when with enough training anyone could cast such a spell? Eventually, as the occult no longer kindled the popular imagination, the curse narrative fell away with it.
The mummy’s curse was a reminder that while we may have the power over something, we might not have the right. A collective guilt surrounding the plundering of long dead and possibly sacred things, combined with a fear and desire to possess the East, is what Luckhurst’s book satisfyingly demonstrates. As monsters go, the mummy is actually the most human. When dead we would prefer not to be excavated and fondled, put on display like a trophy. By digging up the past and exhibiting it, we give it a power it might not deserve. The very act of opening a tomb is one that requires a strange dialectic of belief: that something long buried is free to be looted yet the reason for looting it is that it deserves a modicum of awe and deference. When the mummy closes it rotting dusty hand around the throat of its victim, it’s really just asking for a little respect.