A few months after King Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in 1922, the man who funded its excavation, George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, fell ill and died.
Rumors that “Mummy’s Curse” was behind the death of the English lord did not take long to appear.
Although the Egyptology enthusiast possibly died due to an infection caused by the bite of an infected mosquito, reports around the world appeared in newspapers around the world associating his death with a supposed ancient spell, which gave rise to the legend of the “curse of Tutankhamun”.
As unusual as it may seem, several scientists have investigated its possible origins and explanations, publishing various studies on the subject. In research published in 1996 and 1998, for example, experts tried to determine, through mathematical models, whether a long-lived pathogen could be behind the alleged curse.
“Indeed, the mysterious death of Lord Carnarvon after entering the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun could potentially be explained by an infection with a highly virulent and very long-lived pathogen,” wrote Sylvain Gandon, author of one of the studies, quoted by Live Science.
However, more recent research seems to refute this hypothesis. An analysis of the brown spots found in Tutankhamun’s tomb showed that the organism that created them was not active at the time of discovery, details a study published in 2013.
What’s more, research by Mark Nelson, professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at Monash University (Australia), found no evidence that people who entered the Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb died at unusually young ages. On average, these individuals lived to be 70 years old, an age of death not particularly low for the early and mid-20th century.
Origin of the curse
Actually, the association of mummies with curses has existed since before King Tut’s tomb was found.
“The curse is a legend that developed gradually, since sometime in the mid-19th century, and has grown progressively with cumulative contributions by fiction literature, horror films, news media and most recently, the internet,” said Egyptologist Jasmine Day, author of a book on the curse of the mummy.
The study carried out by the doctor of cultural anthropology uncovered forgotten American fictional stories from the 1860s, in which “adventurers strip female mummies and steal their jewels, only to suffer a horrible death, or dreadful consequences for those around them”.
“These stories, written by women, emphasise the unwrapping of mummies as a metaphor for rape. In turn, this shocking comparison seems to condemn the destruction and theft of Egypt’s heritage in the heyday of Western colonialism,” detailed the expert.
Day also said that even the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 came to be associated with a similar curse. Some people believed that the mummy of a priestess in the British Museum had caused the sinking. The museum curator received so many questions about the alleged cursed mummy that he was forced to write a flier debunking the rumors to be distributed to the public.
“Despite this, some people sent money for the museum to purchase flowers to lay at the feet of the dead priestess to placate her soul — and the tale of the mummy that sank the Titanic continues to circulate on the internet today,” said Day.
Other scholars agree that the association of mummies with curses and spells was already quite common even before the discovery of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh.
“The idea that Egypt was a land of mystery went back to the Greeks and the Romans,” said Ronald Fritze, professor of history at tat Athens State University in Alabama.
According to Fritze, when Egypt began to open up to the West after Napoleon’s expedition, a fascination with mummies emerged. At the time, wealthy people bought them to unwrap as a form of entertainment. This “meddling” in the world of the dead worried many people. Then, fictional stories began to emerge that spoke of curses associated with mummies.
The film has also been a great catalyst for the popularity of the legend of the curse of the mummies, says Eleanor Dobson, a professor of English literature at the University of Birmingham (UK) and author of a book on the link between literature, culture and Egyptology. According to the expert, at the time of Carnarvon’s death, the public was already predisposed to associate the discoveries of Egyptian artifacts with these narratives.
The curse today
Although almost a century has passed since the first entry into the tomb of Tutankhamun, some people still associate archaeological discoveries and other contemporary events with pharaonic curses.
When a huge 2,000-year-old coffin was found in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2018, for example, many people feared that opening it would unleash a curse. Similarly, when a vessel blocked the Suez Canal a few months ago, some also tried to blame the mummies, pointing out that the transport of the mummies of various pharaohs to a museum in Fustat, Egypt was planned.
“People want life to have meaning and not be chaotic and random or coincidental. Traditionally, formal religion has supplied that need to explain existence. But many people have [turned] to magical and supernatural beliefs, and these include curses,” concluded Professor Fritze.
Image Credit: GEtty