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.

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