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A Mummy's Tale

A Mummy's Tale - origins

How did the idea of a mummy's curse start?

Page from 'The book of the dead'
  • A page from ' The book of the dead'
  • We do not know where the idea of the curse came from. Some scientists suggest that it may be because grave robbers, in the old days, sometimes became ill. Dead bodies can carry germs that are dangerous to living people. Maybe, when the tombs were opened, the fresh air stirred up dangerous mould and the robbers breathed the dust and became ill. This may have led to people long ago believing in a "mummy's curse".

    However, it is more likely that the idea came from the Victorians, who were more interested in the supernatural, than the Egyptians. There is no evidence that the ancient Egyptians believed that mummies were cursed. In ancient Egypt, death was not sad or frightening but was meant to be 'beautiful'. It was a step on the way to the next life and making the dead people into mummies helped them on this journey. Howard Carter, who found the tomb of Tutankhamen, said:

    'There is no place less morbid than an Egyptian tomb. The paintings and inscriptions contain not curses on possible intruders but blessings on the deceased, magical spells to ensure a good afterlife'.

    How did our story arise?

    Mummy casket
  • A mummy and casket
  • The Victorians and Edwardians were very interested in strange things and happenings. Museums and collectors all over the world, wanted Egyptian mummies. They were often shown with other strange things in travelling shows.

    One researcher (Dominic Montserrat) believes that the tale of the mummy's curse may have started just before the Victorian period; a strange show, about unwrapping mummies, took place in a theatre near London's Piccadilly Circus in 1821.

    This gave an idea to an author, Jane Loudon Webb, and she wrote a fantasy story called, "The Mummy"; in this book, an angry mummy, who wants revenge, comes back to life. Then in 1869, Louisa May Alcott, the author of "Little Women", wrote a short story called "Lost in a Pyramid: The Mummy's Curse": this was about an explorer whose fiance is turned into a living mummy. Over the next 30 years, many stories followed. So, by the time of our story in Great Yarmouth, the idea of a mummy's curse was already well known.

    There was also an interest in collecting 'foreign strange objects' during this time, so there may well have been a mummy's casket in the school. It is also true that some mummies were unwrapped and destroyed about this time: this was very risky because the bodies might hold dangerous germs.

    During the 19th century, ghost stories became popular, as did 'spiritualism'; this is the idea that the spirit of a dead person lives on and can be 'talked to' using a special person called a 'medium'. Many mediums were shown to be cheats but the idea caught on. Often the 'spirits' seemed to let people know they were there by knocking or tapping. So, after rumours of a secret burial, when tapping noises seemed to be heard around the Church and vicarage, many people found it easy to believe that this was the mummy's spirit.

    Are there other legends of mummy's curses?

    Tutankhamen Mask
  • Tutankhamun's Mask
  • Most people know about the idea of a mummy's curse today through horror films and stories. However, perhaps the most famous legend is based on the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

    In November of 1922, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, in the Valley of the Kings, on the West Bank at Luxor. The treasures that were later discovered in the tomb were wonderful and newspapers competed for stories. In late March of 1923, an author, Mary Mackay, warned that awful things would happen to anyone who entered the sealed tomb. Her idea may have come about because, on the day Howard Carter opened the tomb, his pet canary was swallowed by a cobra. Cobras, as the goddess Wadjet, were the protectors of the Pharaoh.

    When Lord Carnarvon, who gave the money for the excavation, died on April 5th 1923, six weeks after the burial chamber was opened, the 'curse' hit the headlines. For years afterwards, the death of anyone who had anything to do with finding the tomb was believed to have been the 'curse' working. Newspapers reported that a curse was written on the tomb walls. It was meant to have read:

    "Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of Pharaoh."

    In fact, there was no such curse. Lord Carnarvon had been poorly for some time and Howard Carter, the first to enter the tomb, lived on for many years.

    Why were the mummies made?

    Mummy and Casket
  • Mummy and Casket
  • The earliest Egyptian mummies were made without people doing anything. The dead were buried in reed caskets in the sand. The very, very hot sand caused the bodies to dry quickly, so they did not decay. Later, the Egyptians started making wooden tombs, and 'mummification' was developed to make sure that the bodies would not decay in the afterlife.

    The Egyptians believed that the body was home to a person's 'Ka' (spirit), which was needed in the afterlife. 'Embalmers' were the people who preserved the bodies: embalming was a sacred 'rite'.

    'Mummification' took about 70 days. All the organs inside the body were taken out and kept in jars to protect them. In later times, the organs were treated and put back in the body. The heart was left in place because it was thought to be the centre of the body.

    The body was then washed with palm wine. Moisture was removed by using a special sort of salt. Then the body was wrapped in large amounts of linen, some of which contained spells and magic 'amulets' to help the dead person in their journey to the afterlife. The wrappings were covered in warm resin (special sap from trees) to make sure they stayed in place.

    Finally the body was placed in a container. For less important people, this would be a simple tomb. More important people would be placed in well decorated cases (coffins). The most important people, such as pharaohs, would be placed in a set of nesting mummy cases (that fitted one inside another) and then in a stone sarcophagus (coffin), which was very decorative. The sarcophagus, along with other things the dead person might need, was housed in a Pyramid or, in later times, a huge, decorated tomb, such as those found in the Valley of the Kings.

    Souces: The Mummy's Curse - by John Warren
    Burials and Archaeology: A Survey of Attitudes to Research
    Francis Celoria; Folklore, Vol. 77, No. 3
    British Museum

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