Updated: Mar 2, 2020
When I was about eight years old, I bought the book Return of the Mummy by R.L. Stine (# 23 in his now infamous Goosebumps series). Reading this book at age eight kicked off a phase that a lot of kids go through: The fascination with mummies, specifically the ones of ancient Egypt. Even if you’re not super into ancient Egyptian mummies anymore (or never were), you’ve probably at least heard of the mummy’s curse. But do mummies really exact their revenge on those who disturb what’s supposed to be their final resting place? Let’s find out.
Mummies have certainly had their time in the pop culture spotlight. Even though they go in and out of fashion, like any other trend, you’re almost certainly familiar with the old mummy movies, as well as newer ones. Even though the latest attempt to bring vengeful mummies to the big screen was, um, not that successful, mummies have clearly earned their spot in movie history.
Everyone’s familiar with the trope: Archaeologists discover the grand tomb of some long lost prince (or princess) and are sure this discovery will put them on the map. But apparently the mummy himself (or herself) isn’t so happy about this — so unhappy, in fact, that they return from the grave to exact their revenge on those who disturbed their tomb.
But where did this curse originate? People have been fascinated with ancient Egypt for at least a hundred years. But this interest started out a little bit…less respectful than what we’re used to.
Mummy unwrappings were common in Victorian England. These live shows were exactly what they sounded like: Mummies would be brought out on stage and unwrapped for the audience. These shows were held at places like theaters and universities and would frequently sell out. You know, sometimes people give me grief for spending so much money on concert tickets. But if I can spend my own money to see Niall Horan live, I think that’s a little bit more ethical than paying to see someone’s body basically being desecrated for entertainment.
Mummies also found their way into fiction during this time. In 1869, Little Women author Louisa May Alcott published a short story called “Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy’s Curse.” Dracula author Bram Stoker also tried his hand at mummy fiction with The Jewel of the Seven Stars, published in 1903. But as far as I could tell, nobody really believed in any sort of so-called “mummy’s curse.” Maybe some people saw these unwrappings as unethical and got the idea of mummies returning to life to exact revenge for their corpses being disrespected. But these stories of the vengeful undead were largely confined to fiction. Nobody thought mummies were going to do this to real people. The modern origins of this ‘mummy’s curse’ seem to begin in 1922 with one of the biggest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.
British archaeologist Howard Carter began his work in Egypt in 1891. Early in his career, he worked on an excavation of Amarna, a city built by a controversial pharaoh named Akhenaten. It might have been here that he first heard about Akhenaten’s son and successor: King Tutankhamen. Just after World War I, Carter began to seriously search for Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt’s famous Valley of the Kings.
Tutankhamen, often referred to today as King Tut, was a relatively obscure king in his day, but his reign was marked by what came before it. Like I said earlier, Akhenaten, Tut’s successor and probably his father, was pretty controversial. Unlike other Egyptians, who worshipped many gods, Akhenaten worshipped only one: the sun god, Aton (sometimes spelled ‘Aten’). Akhenaten built new temples for worship of Aton and forbid worship of other gods. Even Tut’s birth name, Tutankhaten, means “the living image of Aten.” For many Egyptians, who had always worshipped the gods that it was now illegal to worship, this sudden change didn’t go over so well.
Akhenaten died in 1333 BC, at which point Tut took over the throne at the ripe old age of nine. With the help of an advisor named Ay, Tut began undoing everything his father had done, ordering repair of the old gods’ temples, reversing the decree that said Egyptians had to worship Aton and moving the capital back to Thebes from Amarna. But other than restoring Egypt back to the way it had been — or at least trying — Tut didn’t accomplish much in his reign, which ended with his death in 1324 BC, at the age of 19. (Roughly — some historians think he was 18. It’s hard to say for sure.)
The size of Tut’s tomb would later suggest he died unexpectedly. Theories as to what killed him range from a hippo attack to a chariot crash to straight up murder. Another, more likely explanation is that his death was caused by physical deformities that resulted due to him being the product of incest.
Regardless of how Tut died, he left no heir. His wife did give birth to two girls, who are believed to be twins, but unfortunately they were stillborn. (Their bodies would later be founding Tut’s tomb.) Tut was succeeded on the throne by his advisor, Ay. Later on, one of Tut’s former generals, Horemheb, became pharaoh and had monuments to Tut destroyed and his name stricken from records. This was apparently pretty common in that day, and it might be at least part of the reason why Tut was relatively unknown when Howard Carter began the search for his tomb. But it wouldn’t remain that way for much longer.
Earlier in 1922, Carter was approached by Lord Carnarvon, who had been financing his expedition. Carnarvon told him he wasn’t going to finance the excavation anymore because it wasn’t going anywhere. Carter begged him to reconsider, and Carnarvon eventually agreed to fund one last season. Carter resumed digging on November 1, 1922.
Then, on November 26, he got the lucky break he was looking for. Carter and his team discovered the ‘antechamber’ of the tomb — basically a hallway outside what they realized was the actual, still sealed tomb. Carter sent word to Lord Carnarvon, who was at his home in London at the time but made plans to travel to Egypt to witness the opening of the actual tomb. But the same day the antechamber was discovered, Carnarvon’s pet canary was killed by a cobra. Most sources said the bird was actually eaten by the cobra, but one actually said it only attacked the bird, which later died of fright. But whatever actually happened, this was seen by a lot of people as a bad omen.
But the team didn’t pay this any attention. They had come too far and spent too much time and money to quit now.
On February 16, 1923, Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and the rest of their team entered Tut’s actual burial chamber. As Carter went in, Lord Carnarvon asked “Can you see anything?” Carter replied “Yes, Wonderful things.”
(Other sources say the antechamber was discovered in early November and the burial chamber on November 26.)
The tomb was filled with treasure — furniture, chariots, weapons and even some of Tut’s walking sticks. Tut’s body was housed inside three coffins and covered by the famous gold mask you’ve probably seen before. This mask is made from more than 22 pounds of gold and gemstones.
The discovery was stunning, of course — not only because of the treasure, but because it was one of the only tombs of its sort to be discovered intact. Grave robbing was a problem that plagued ancient Egypt, and most tombs in the Valley of the Kings had already been cleaned out. Tut’s tomb had been entered earlier, probably by grave robbers. They took some things but, for whatever reason, didn’t reach the main burial chamber. It’s been speculated that they didn’t get that deep inside the tomb because Tut was such an obscure pharaoh and his tomb was so small and well hidden, they figured there wasn’t much there.
But the joy of this discovery would be short lived. Not long afterward, Lord Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito on his cheek, which later became infected. He contracted blood poisoning and died on April 5, 1923 — just a couple of months after the burial chamber was opened. The night he died, all the lights in Cairo went out at the same time.
About a month before Carnarvon’s death, writer Marie Corelli wrote to The New York Times about a quote she’d found in an old book. The quote read “Death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a pharaoh.” Now that Tut’s final resting place had been disturbed, Corelli was afraid of a curse on the people who had been there for the opening. Lord Carnarvon, of course, died not too long after that. A few days after his death, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for works like The Lost World and the Sherlock Holmes series, said he believed Carnarvon’s death was caused by a curse.
And there were plenty of other suspicious deaths in the months and years following the discovery of Tut’s tomb (of people who were connected to it somehow). On May 17, 1923, wealthy railroad tycoon George Gould* died in his villa in France, supposedly from pneumonia. Gould had reportedly visited Tut’s tomb and contracted pneumonia while in Egypt.
*this link leads to an encyclopedia entry on Gould's father. Check the bottom of the page for information on George Gould.
Another death attributed to the curse was Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey, and Egyptian prince who was killed by his wife on July 10, 1923, just after visiting Tut’s tomb himself. Lord Carnarvon’s half brother, Aubrey Herbert, also died of blood poisoning in September of that year after a routine dental operation went wrong.
Howard Carter’s personal secretary, Captain Richard Bethell, was found dead in his bed from an apparent smothering on November 15, 1929. Bethell had also given some of the tomb artifacts to his father, Lord Westbury, who supposedly jumped to to his death from the seventh floor of his apartment building on February 20, 1930. Another member of Carter’s team died of arsenic poisoning, and the radiologist who x-rayed Tut died mysteriously as well, but I couldn’t find any more details on those two deaths.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many people died as a result of the curse, since whether the curse even exists is up for debate. But estimates are as low as six and as high as twenty.
Meanwhile, Howard Carter, the leader of the expedition, spent his years after the discovery cataloguing the items in Tut’s tomb. Some sources say it took him ten years, others say it took him the rest of his life. He died in 1939 at the age of 66 — 17 years after the making the discovery of the century.
Today, Tut’s body lies in a climate controlled coffin in its original resting place in the Valley of the Kings. His famous death mask is at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Other artifacts from his tomb are currently on tour, as odd as that sounds. The tour was in Los Angeles for awhile, then Paris — which just concluded on September 22 of this year (2019). They’re set to be in London from November 2019 to May 2020. After that, they’ll go to Giza’s Grand Egyptian Museum, which is set to open in 2020.
So, now you know the story of the discovery of Tut’s tomb, and the unusual deaths that occurred after it. But was there really a curse on his tomb?
At one point, a scientific explanation was proposed for all these deaths. Some mummies carried molds like aspergillus niger and aspergillus flavus that can cause congestion or bleeding in the lung. Also found in some old tombs are bacteria like pseudomonas and staphylococcus which can attack the lungs.
These things sound dangerous, but many scientists don’t think they really are. Nobody, scientists or tourist, has had any sort of illness, let alone death, that could be directly linked to any sort of fungi or bacteria from tombs.
There is another interesting theory I found. In 2012, London’s Curse: Murder, Black Magic and Tutankhamun in the 1920’s West End was released. The book’s author, historian Mark Beynon, suggests these deaths were actually the work of famous occultist Aleister Crowley, whose own religious beliefs were inspired by the ancient Egyptian religion. According to this theory, Crowley would have seen the excavation of Tut’s tomb as sacrilegious and wanted revenge. This sounds a bit far fetched to me, but I thought it was interesting enough to share. And if you want to check the book out for yourself, you can purchase it here (affiliate link).
But the most logical explanation is that there really isn’t an explanation. When you take a harder look at these deaths, some of them start to make sense in context and the idea of a curse becomes a lot less likely.
The first supposed victim of this curse was Lord Carnarvon, who financed the expedition. Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning after a mosquito bite on his cheek became infected. This sounds strange on the surface, but Lord Carnarvon had actually been in pretty bad health for awhile, and had spent as much time in Egypt as he had in hopes to avoid the damp, cold climate of his native England. (I couldn’t find many details about his bad health, but at least some of it stemmed from medical issues he’d sustained in a car accident in Germany.) As for the blackout at the same time of his death — well, it was probably a coincidence. Blackouts are still a pretty regular occurrence in Egypt, even today. Every now and then, you’ll even hear of blackouts in major areas like New York City. There was one as recently as July 2019.
Now let’s briefly go back to the death of Lord Westbury, the father of Howard Carter’s secretary who jumped to his death after being given some of the artifacts from Tut’s tomb. Suicide is obviously a serious subject, and it’s a complex thing, not just caused by one factor, and. We don’t know much about what was going on in Lord Westbury’s life at the time. But I do wonder if the death of his son just a few months earlier was a contributing factor. Again, suicide is very complex and I don’t want to point to one solitary event to explain everything. But this particular death might be more about personal tragedy than a curse.
All in all, depending on what source you look at, somewhere between six and 20 people connected with Tut’s tomb died within the following decade. That is a pretty high number but, again, it is just an estimate, and we don’t know exactly what was going on in their lives or with their health that might have contributed.
The last survivor who was present at the opening of Tut’s tomb died in 1961. Dr. John Ora Kinnaman was an archaeologist in Howard Carter’s expedition, and died of an illness at the age of 84 — hardly a premature death.
But in my opinion, one of the strongest indicators that there wasn’t a curse was the leader of the expedition himself. Not only was it Howard Carter’s idea to disturb Tut’s tomb in the first place, but he was also said to have basically hacked up Tut’s mummy afterwards for the sake of science. Much like Lord Carnarvon, Carter had been in poor health for pretty much all his life. You’d think if anyone would be the victim of a curse-induced premature death, it would be him. Yet he lived another 17 years after the tomb was opened.
So, there are a few mysterious deaths in there that I couldn’t find much information on. Could they be the work of a curse? Possibly. But the fact that the leader of Tut’s tomb robbing himself, Howard Carter, doesn’t seem to be a victim of the curse is enough to make me skeptical.
One of the sources I looked at for information in this video was a book called Raising the Dead. During the book’s section on the mummy’s curse, author Daniel Cohen gives another great piece of evidence as to why the curse probably isn’t real. Even if Tut could somehow exact revenge from the grave, he didn’t really have any reason to do so:
“One thing that was very important to an Egyptian was that his “name” be remembered — that, in some way, helped to assure immortality. Many funerary inscriptions read “To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again,” for it restores “the breath of life to him who has vanished.” Prayers inscribed on the outside of tombs often exhorted the passerby to speak the name of the man buried within. Sometimes where there was a political upheaval, the new ruler would try to obliterate the name of his hated predecessor by having the name cut out of all royal inscriptions. That was considered the ultimate punishment and revenge. It was a fate that King Tut suffered, and is one reason why so little was known about him.
By finding King Tut’s tomb, Carter and Carnarvon made sure that the name of this obscure and otherwise unknown king would be remembered and spoken of throughout the entire world some 4,000 years after his death. Far from placing a curse on them, he should have granted them three wishes."
But none of this has stopped the story from blowing up. In fact, the story is so ingrained in pop culture, it was hard for me to find information about the actual story of the curse. Most of the initial search results show things like movies or games, including a 1944 movie called The Mummy’s Curse.
I don’t think I need to explain why the story of a curse is more compelling than what probably actually happened. Looking at it from the mummy’s perspective in these stories, you can see why they’d be upset. After all, if you were still sentient after your death and someone broke into what was basically your home and tried to steal your stuff, maybe even desecrate your corpse…you’d be pretty upset too. And of course, there’s the fact that dead bodies, especially 3,000 year old mummified bodies…look pretty terrifying.
This is what King Tut’s mummy looked like when all was said and done. No disrespect intended to the boy king, but when I was a kid, that’s the stuff nightmares were made of. If anyone’s gonna come back from the dead to try and kill me…it’s gonna be this guy.
So, as always, I’m curious to know what you guys think. Do you think there might actually be a mummy’s curse? What’s your favorite mummy movie? Being a child of the 90’s, I really enjoy the 1999 movie The Mummy, which is, of course, a remake of one of the classic Universal monster movies. I was 10 when I first saw it, and I was terrified. Now, of course, I think it’s hilarious.