Thursday 31 October 2019

King Tut and the Mummy's Curse

Its Hallowe’en and time to scare ourselves silly with the 20th century interpretation of the many traditional global ancestor worship festivals held at this time of year. Today I’m writing about one of the most popular supernatural elements often included in 20th century Hallowe’en celebrations, the curse of the Egyptian mummy, and why we have to thank a member of the lgbt community for it.

Today the mummy’s curse has come to include that of any real or fictional Egyptian mummy but for most of the 20th century the curse was associated with one Egyptian in particular, the world famous Tutankhamun.

The fabulous treasures of Tutankhamun, not to mention the story behind its discovery, still captivates the world. A new touring exhibition of some of the treasures is currently making its way around the globe. It is being billed as the first and last chance to see these treasures outside Egypt.

The attraction of Tutankhamun is not only in the treasures and his own life story but what is alleged to have happened to those who were involved in the opening of his tomb in 1922. It didn’t take long for the media to start labelling the series of supposedly unexplained deaths as the curse of Tutankhamun. But where did that idea come from?

Curses are, of course, not a modern concept. They’ve been around for as long as humanity has. Yet none of them refer specifically to any revenge from a mummy. Even the idea of an Egyptian mummy going on the rampage to eke out its revenge wasn’t a new one in 1922.

Ever since ancient Egypt became “fashionable” during the Napoleonic era in the early 19th century there have been novels written about mummies coming alive. The first was “The Mummy!” published in 1827. Even such authors as Louisa May Alcott of “Little Women” fame tried her hand at Egyptian gothic horror in 1869 with “Lost in a Pyramid, or The Mummy’s Curse”.

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb sparked a revival in Egyptology. Improvements in international communications in the early 20th century made it a worldwide phenomenon. Similarly, the mummy’s curse became known worldwide, and it was after 1922 that the curse became associated with one pharaoh in particular. There were letters published in the world’s press at the time that voiced objection to the desecration of Tutankhamun’s tomb. One letter, published on 24th March 1923, stated that the Earl of Carnarvon, leader of the Tutankhamun excavation, was the victim of a curse. Carnarvon had been seriously ill just a few months after the tomb was opened. Very few people took much notice of this opinion – until the Earl of Carnarvon died two weeks later.

The press went into overdrive. They reported Carnarvon’s death as the result of the curse of Tutankhamun. Many other people on Carnarvon’s excavation team were also reported to have become victims of the curse when they died, irrespective of any proven natural cause. I won’t go into all the details but you can discover more for yourself on the internet.

Let’s return to that specific letter in 1923 which linked the mummy’s curse to Tutankhamun. It was written by the most popular novelist in Victorian England. Not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or even Charles Dickens, but Marie Corelli (1855-1924).

Marie was born Mary Mackay in London, the illegitimate daughter of a Scottish song-writing poet and his house servant. Mary inherited her father’s musical talents and began giving piano recitals under the more romantic name of Marie Correlli. It was under that name that she wrote dozens of novels and short stories. He novels were extremely popular, though a little melodramatic (very reminiscent of the extreme camp melodrama of television series like “Game of Thrones”).

Although Marie fell in love with a married man the love was not returned and she never fell in love with another man after that. At the time she was living with Bertha Vyver (1854-1941). They had attended school together before Bertha became housekeeper and nurse to Marie’s father. They lived together for over forty years. There’s nothing to prove a physical lesbian relationship between them, though several of Marie’s biographers have remarked that some of her novels contain many erotic descriptions of feminine beauty which they suggest may be an indication of her own bisexuality. Bertha was an inspiration to Marie and became her literary executor. After their deaths they were buried together.

What interested Marie Correlli in the mummy’s curse and Tutankhamun was her fascination for the supernatural and esoteric subjects. The Victorian era saw a growth in a variety of beliefs and practices whether it was Spiritualism or reincarnation. The mummy’s curse was just one of the supernatural beliefs that she supported.

In her letter to the press in 1923 Marie said that the illness that had descended upon the Earl of Carnarvon was foretold in a book she owned called “An Egyptian History of the Pyramids”. She claimed it described various methods the ancient Egyptians used to poison any intruder into tombs, and that a supernatural curse is implied. It didn’t matter that the book in question was mainly fiction.

To the general public and the press what Marie said was important because she was so popular. She wondered if Carnarvon’s illness was really caused by a mosquito bite (which it actually was). Carnarvon was just one of the hundreds of people who died in Cairo from an infected mosquito bite.

The press started circulating rumours of death warnings found on the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb (there were none) and Marie Correlli confounded the issue by starting her own rumour by claiming that there was an inscription carrying the famous warning “death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a pharaoh” (evidence suggests she made this up herself).

But, like urban legends and modern fake news reports the public and press came to believe it as fact. They believed that the mummy’s curse and Tutankhamun’s curse in particularly were true. Those who said it wasn’t true were ridiculed and were accused of proving there was a cover-up.

And so we arrive in 2019 and the mummy’s curse and Tutankhamun still has a mysteriously strange grip on society, thanks in no small part to Marie Correlli, a bisexual best-selling Victorian novelist.

I’m having another short break now. I’ll be back on 15th November.

Saturday 26 October 2019

Hadrian's Beard

Have you noticed how the fashion in men’s facial hair keeps changing? You can almost tell which decade a particular style of beard comes from. History has some famous examples (William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin).

Just over nineteen hundred years ago there was a time and person to whom a specific change in beard fashion can be attributed. The year was 117 AD and the man was the Roman emperor Hadrian (76-138), pictured below. It was because he was the emperor that his preferred style of beard became fashionable.

In the main Romans considered beards as “un-Roman”. Around the empire there were various traditional hair styles used by the inhabitants of the conquered nations (think Asterix the Gaul), but if you wanted to be considered a citizen of the Roman Empire you were clean-shaven. Some younger male Romans had neatly-trimmed beards, perhaps as a sign of reaching manhood. Older Romans tended to have no beard at all.

Roman emperors had preferred to be depicted as clean-shaven, as can be seen from their coins and statues. Below is a composite of the depictions of emperors in chronological order. Note the absence of beards before him and the preponderance of beards after him.

In pre-imperial times beards were common. As the empire expanded Romans began to see themselves as superior to the conquered nations, and to have a beard like their conquered people meant they were just as inferior as them. So, beards became of sign of barbarity and uncivilised communities.

The words “barbarity” and “barbarian” were Greek in origin and meant someone who didn’t speak Greek. They “babbled”, and the Greek for that was “barbaros”. The meaning was extended to any behaviour that was considered un-Greek and uncivilised. Ironically, it was the Greeks who influenced Hadrian in his choice of un-Roman “barbaric” facial hair.

ven though the Romans had a low opinion of anyone with a beard they hero-worshipped the ancient Greek philosophers who were always depicted with bushy beards. Most of these philosophers followed the traditional practise of having beardless boy-lovers, and had themselves been boy-lovers to older men.

This boy-lover tradition appealed to Hadrian. In general the Romans were opposed to such relationships but Hadrian was living during a period of Hellenisation in the empire which was to blossom during his reign through his influence.

This Hellenisation was actually sparked by Greece itself. There was a move among the Romanised Greek aristocracy to re-adopt the dress and styles of earlier ages to re-assert their Greekness. Through Roman influence the Greeks were also generally beardless, but around the beginning of the first millennium they began start to dress like ancient Greeks and grow beards. These became popular even among the populace. Big, bushy philosopher beards were everywhere, and you didn’t need to be a wise philosopher to grow one.

Hadrian knew Greece well. He had spent time in Athens as Archon, the appointed ruler, in 112 following the death of his mentor Sura. There were some political machinations against Sura’s supporters and Hadrian seems to have been pushed off to Greece to keep him out of Roman politics (he had been made a Roman consul in 108). This actually worked in Hadrian’s favour, and by the time the political situation had died down and he was recalled to Rome he had become enamoured of the Greek way of life. Perhaps this was when he began to grow his beard.

Hadrian’s political career got back on track on his return to Rome. He became a trusted companion and military commander to the emperor Trajan. When Trajan died on 7th August 117 Hadrian was popularly acclaimed as his successor. Hadrian kept his beard, neatly trimmed and fashionably styled. Beards were back! His Hellenisation of the Roman Empire was just as popular.

For almost a century Hadrian’s successors had beards of various lengths. Even the teenage emperors such as Elegabalus had wispy beards. The only ones who didn’t were Emperor Geta, and Diadumenian who was made co-emperor at the age of 9 by his father Emperor Macrinus. They were both killed the following month. From the reign of Elegabalus’s successor, Severus Alexander, onwards beards came and went. When the Roman Empire was converted to Christianity by Emperor Constantine the Great in 313 beards went out of fashion once more. Very few emperors were depicted with facial hair after that.

Who knows what would have happened if Hadrian didn’t keep his beard. Perhaps beards would never have become “civilised”, after all the Roman Empire continued for about another 300 years after his death and its influence would have lasted well into the so-called Dark Ages. Maybe beards never would have become popular. Who knows?

For people like myself with some form of facial hair we have much to thank a gay emperor for turning the beard from the facial adornment of barbarians into the fashionable style for the respectable and civilised gentleman. What’s more, next month’s Movember charity (where men grow beards to raise awareness and funds for male cancer research) may never have been invented.

Monday 21 October 2019

Game of Gay Thrones: Part 3

When I wrote my original “Game of GayThrones” article in 2017 about lgbt claimants and pretenders to royal thrones I didn’t think there’d be any more. How wrong I was. Here I am with my third group, and there’s enough for a fourth next year. So, let’s get straight into it and find out about these other possible lgbt monarchs.

1) Hierocles (d.222) – proposed Emperor of Rome.

Hierocles was a Roman slave and the boy-lover to a future emperor, Gordian, but it is another emperor who proposed Hierocles as his heir. Gordian recognised Hierocles’ athletic abilities (I wonder how!) and taught him chariot racing. It was during a race that Hierocles came to the attention of the 19-year old Emperor Elegabalus.

During the race Hierocles fell out off his chariot right in front of the royal box (I don’t believe in coincidence). His helmet flew off to reveal his fresh young face and blond hair. Elegabalus was instantly aroused and wasted no time at all in rushing down to help the youth to his feet and whisk him off for a night of passion.

Now a freed slave and favourite male lover of the emperor Hierocles found himself as the “husband” in a same-sex marriage (Elegabalus was a hereditary High Priest, so he could perform any marriage he wanted). Unfortunately, Elegabalus wanted to make his “husband” his Caesar, effectively his imperial heir. Even Elegabalus’s politically powerful grandmother objected and persuaded him to nominate his cousin as Caesar instead. But for a while Hierocles was in the running for successor to the Roman Emperor.

It wasn’t that much later that the Praetorian Guard tired of Elegabalus’s ineffective rule and assassinated both him and Hierocles. The cousin became the new emperor.

2) César de Bourbon, 1st Duke of Vendôme (1594-1665) – progenitor of the bloodline of the current pretender to the Jacobite throne of Great Britain.

Here we deal with the most hypothetical claim to any throne I’ve mentioned. César was the eldest son of King Henri IV of France. However, he was born illegitimate and thus ineligible to succeed to the throne, even after he was legitimised in 1595. Consequently, César’s legitimately-born younger half-brother succeeded their father as King Louis XIII.

For most of King Louis’ reign César was involved in plots against the king’s chief ministers, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. The king exiled César several times, but they were eventually reconciled the year before Louis’ death in 1643. It is unlikely César had any plan to become king in place of his half-brother, only to replace his chief ministers.

César was reputedly bisexual. His town house in Paris was nicknamed the Hôtel de Sodome (House of Sodom). He married a wealthy duchess and it is through their heir that we encounter the Jacobite throne of Great Britain (mentioned in the first “Gay Thrones” article).

Cesar’s eventual heir was his great-grandson the King of Sardinia. The king married a French princess, the cousin of Prince Henry Stuart, the gay Jacobite “King Henry IX”. The son of the Sardinian king and queen thus became heir to both the Jacobite “Henry IX” and César, Duke of Vendome.

Let’s add more queerness – a more recent Jacobite heir, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, was the heir of the gay King Ludwig II of Bavaria, so that’s three gay/bisexual men whose bloodline heirs eventually meet and are held by the current Jacobite claimant, the Duke of Bavaria.

3) Prince Philipp von Hessen, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel (1896-1980) – heir presumptive to the thrones of Finland and Chatti.

After the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire several Prince-Electors, a group of German princes who elected the Emperor’s successor, became kings by international treaty. Prince Philipp’s ancestor, Wilhelm II, Prince-Elector of Hesse, declared himself King of Chatti, the name of an ancient tribe who once lived in the Hesse region. An international congress of 1818 denied him this claim. A hundred years later his descendant Prince Philipp became heir to this rejected throne.

A real throne was available to Prince Philipp by this time. After World War I the newly independent Finland decided to become a monarchy. The parliament elected Prince Philipp’s father, Prince Friedrich Karl, as their first king. By now the Prince-Elector title had been dropped and Friedrich Karl was using the original family title of Landgrave (a high-ranking count) of Hesse-Kassel.

Philipp had a twin brother called Wolfgang, so did they become joint Crown Princes of Finland? It was decided that Philipp, the elder twin, would become Landgrave and Head of the Princely House of Hesse. Wolfgang would become Crown Prince of Finland. However, less than two months after making the offer the Finns decided to become a republic.

Recent biographies of Prince Philipp have suggested he was bisexual. He married and had several children. Like many influential aristocrats Philipp joined the Nazi party in the early 1930s and, also like many influential aristocrats, criticised Hitler’s regime during World War II. Philip’s father-in-law, the King of Italy, arrested the Italian fascist leader Mussolini in 1943 and Hitler believed Philipp was involved. Consequently Philipp and his wife were imprisoned in concentration camps, where his wife died. After being freed by US troops Philipp was held prisoner for another two years for his former role as Governor of Hesse under Hitler.

Finnish monarchists considered Crown Prince Wolfgang to be their king until his death without children in 1989. Prince Philipp predeceased him, but monarchists regarded him as heir presumptive, and the monarchists consider the throne of Finland passed to Philipp’s son.

4) Prince Manvendra Gohil Singh (b.1965) – heir to the Maharajah of Rajpipla.

Prince Manvendra is the only living male lgbt heir to a sovereign throne (I’ll mention the only living female heir to another throne in the next Gay Thrones article next year). The prince made headline news in 2006 when he came out publicly as gay.

The throne of Rajpipla in western India dates back to 1200. Under British rule the Maharaja of Rajpipla was accorded the style of His Highness. After India became independent in 1947 Rajpipla was merged with the Bombay Presidency. Indian maharajas retained their titles until the Indian government withdrew recognition of them in 1971. Even though no longer officially royal the many princely families in India are often still referred to by their former titles as a courtesy, as is also the case with deposed European royal dynasties.

Prince Manvendra will, in all probability, adopt the unofficial style of Maharaja of Rajpipla after the death of his father, even if Indian law doesn’t recognise it. No doubt he will still be referred to as a “gay Maharaja” in the media.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Xtremely Queer: Stepping Across the Steppes (Part 2)

Last month I wrote about the first expeditions of the Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky (1838-1888). We left Nikolay and his 1879 expedition about to set off from the Russian frontier post in the Altai Mountains and head for the mysterious city of Lhasa in Tibet.

The expedition encountered blizzards and barren landscapes as they travelled southwards over the mountains to the infamous Takla Makan desert. At one point they came across the horrifying sight of the rotting remains of hundreds of nomads who had starved to death because they couldn’t make it through. Mirages, burning ground and salt-sand storms made life both disorientating and uncomfortable. At last the expedition reached the Humboldt Mountains south of the Takla Makan. These were named after the great gay explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).

At the next outpost Nikolay could see the snow-capped Himalayas ahead but the going was slow. Golf ball-sized hailstones and snow blindness became a problem for both the men and animals, not to mention the daytime sun that burned their faces while their backs froze in the shade.

Advance parties found a mountain pass which led to a Buddhist pilgrim route. Further along the expedition entered the territory of a tribe called the Yograi. These were a fiercely independent people who were suspicious of every stranger. As the expedition rested the Yograi mounted an ambush. The expedition fought back and their guns were superior to the tribesmen’s weapons and the ambush was beaten off, leaving several of the Yograi dead and many injured.

Once through Yograi territory the expedition at last entered Tibet. By pure chance Nikolay encountered a Mongol pilgrim he had met some years earlier who warned him that Lhasa had got news of his approach and were preparing to prevent him from entering the city. Sure enough, the expedition met a contingent of Tibetan soldiers.

The expedition was only 160 miles (260 km) away from Lhasa. So near, and yet so far. Nikolay steadfastly refused to turn back unless he received a written order from the local governor. The governor himself came to deliver the order. Soldiers followed the disappointed expedition back as far as the Yograi territory. This time they made it through with no trouble.

By New Year 1880 the expedition was well on its way back to Russia with Nikolay’s dream of reaching Lhasa shattered. But the expedition was not all completely in vain. Nikolay had charted the route and collected thousands of specimens, including many plants and animals previously unknown to science.

Nikolay was feted by the tsar, the scientific community and the public, all clamouring to hear of his exploits. The authorities approved of another expedition, except that reaching Lhasa was to be a secondary aim. Expanding his previous surveys and finding the source of the Huang Ho River were his primary tasks.

The new expedition set off from northern Mongolia in late 1883 and arrived in Ulaan Baatar (now the capital city). The temperate was so cold that mercury froze in the thermometers but by New Year 1884 the temperature rose above zero. Tracking the Huang Ho River the route took the expedition around the eastern edge of the Humboldt Mountains. By May it had followed the river to its source and Nikolay completed his first task.

About 700 miles to the south west lay Lhasa and Nikolay’s long-held quest of reaching the city. Despite the intense cold and illness among the expedition members Nikolay made good progress for 100 miles to the Yangtse River. On the other side was last leg to Lhasa. Alas, the Yangtse was deep and fast-moving and its banks were steep and treacherous. Despite the offer of boats from local tribesmen Nikolay decided the risk to the pack animals was too great. There was no other way across and Nikolay chose to abandon his quest yet again.

The expedition headed back towards the source of the Huang Ho. By February 1885 he had reached Lob Nor, the lake on edge of the Takla Makan that he had visited in 1873. Travelling south-west towards Tibet Nikolay noticed that the Chinese authorities were going ahead of him all the way and doing their best to persuade the local tribes to restrict the amount of supplies he needed. They even blocked some of the ravines Nikolay needed to get through and was he exasperated at the attempts to stop him getting any further.

Finally, Nikolay had to concede defeat and decided to abandon all hope of reaching Lhasa. The expedition headed westwards for a couple of months until it reached the River Hotan. Following the river north Nikolay was able to survey the whole area and collect more animal and plant specimens. There was great jubilation when the expedition reached its official end at Karakol (in modern-day Kyrgyzstan) in November 1885.

Back in St. Petersburg Nikolay was again feted as a hero. Not only had he vastly improved the knowledge of plant and animal species (quite a few of them named after him) his survey provided vital information for the Russian military to help plan imperial expansion into central Asia and campaign against the Chinese. For eighteen months Nikolay’s life was a round of public appearances, lectures and official meetings. Yet he was still eager to get back through the wilderness and finally reach Lhasa, by force of arms if necessary.

In summer 1888 Nikolay’s next expedition set off for Karakol, the finishing point of his previous expedition. Following the Hotan River south would take him straight to Tibet. It would be easier this time because he had surveyed the route himself, of course.

When Nikolay arrived in Karakol he was behaving restlessly and complained of feeling unwell. He was hospitalised and the doctors diagnosed typhoid. Nikolay realised he was dying and his dream of reaching Lhasa would never become a reality. On 1st November 1888 Nikolay Przhevalsky died. He was buried, as he instructed, on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul nearby. In 1957 a museum dedicated to his life and work was opened in Karakol, though little, if anything, is mentioned of his relationships with the young protégés he took with him on each expedition.

Nikolay’s reputation as an explorer, geographer and zoologist cannot be overestimated, but he had personal characteristics common for his era and background which may trouble people today. He was racist, imperialist and mysogynostic, and would not achieve the same celebrity status if he lived today that he enjoyed in his lifetime. Yet, modern political correctness should not be imposed upon historical characters, not until a certain nation stops hero-worshipping the numerous slave owners among their past presidents.