The other day, archaeologist David S. Anderson posted an article on Adventures in Poor Taste discussing the Marvel Comics villain Apocalypse and why he is associated with ancient Egypt. In the piece, Anderson traces back fascination and fear of all things Egyptian to the 1922 opening of the tomb of Tutankhamen and the resulting media frenzy surrounding both the tomb opening and the subsequent allegations that a pharaonic “curse” had felled several of the participants in the excavation. I know Anderson slightly from Twitter, so I hope he will forgive me if I dissent a bit from his analysis.
In the article, Anderson provides a simple and direct line of succession from Tutankhamen’s “curse” to Apocalypse:
Tales quickly emerged that the tomb was cursed. One such story garnered special attention, as it was told by none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. […] During an interview about the discovery of Tut’s tomb, Conan Doyle suggested it might have been cursed. […] The mania surrounding Tut’s tomb and alleged curses spiraled into a ground-breaking moment for the modern genre of horror films when Boris Karloff’s The Mummy was released in 1932. With the emergence of a deadly walking mummy on the silver screen, the ancient past was now alive and dangerous in ways it never had been before. […] The rise of Apocalypse is built upon the back of the mummy as a movie monster.
Anderson’s analysis is both correct and also incomplete.
Anderson is quite right that Tut created a wave of Egyptomania that led to the Mummy movie, but the Mummy drew as much on nineteenth century living-mummy fiction (and there was a surprisingly large amount of it) as it did King Tut. The movie was designed to capitalize on the decade-old Tut story, but it was an original story taking inspiration from Doyle’s 1890 “Ring of Thoth” and the life of Alessandro Calgliostro—of all things.
It’s probably overstating the case quite a bit to say that the ancient past came alive with The Mummy in ways it had not previously. After all, Dracula was a living corpse from the Middle Ages, and the very origins of Gothic fiction trace back to The Castle of Otranto, in which a medieval knight comes back from the dead. The Mummy may have taken the theme further back in time, but not in a way significantly different from Victorian mummy fiction, or from H. P. Lovecraft’s contemporary stories about monstrous aliens from previous eras of Earth’s history returning from their timeless slumber. It would take a book to explore the theme of ancient evils in literature, but at a gross level there are only three places to put evil: the past, the present, or the future. So, by default, most evil has to come from the past, since the future is unknowable and there is much more past than present.
But let us turn to the specific question of Egypt.
As I have written in the past, the origins of the curse of Tutankhamen’s “curse” aren’t to be found only with Doyle but fall more on Marie Corelli, who, in 1923, linked the death of Lord Carnarvon, the sponsor of the Tut dig, to medieval legends of cursed Egyptian tombs: “According to a rare book I possess, which is not in the British Museum, entitled ‘The Egyptian History of the Pyramids’ translated out of the original Arabic by Vattie, Arabic professor to Louis XVI of France, the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb.” She was referring to Murtada ibn al-’Afif’s History of Egypt, which was itself a partial copy of the Akhbar al-zaman (a.k.a. The Digest of Wonders), a medieval digest of legends about Egypt which included influential stories about cursed tombs, secret wisdom, magical artifacts, and the antediluvian history of the pyramids—all elements that found their way into modern pop culture views of Egypt.
How this came to be is a fascinating story that I have told many times, and which I might be turning into a book in the next year or two. The appearance of Murtada’s book in French translation and a later English edition electrified artists and literary types, who saw in it a source of unfamiliar romantic legendry well suited to art. It happened to be published around the same time that Athanasius Kircher claimed to have deciphered hieroglyphics (he had not) and revealed some of the “true” history of Egypt—which turned out to be based on stories copied from the Akhbar al-zaman. These medieval legends are the true origin of cursed tombs and tales of magical Egyptian wonders and the dark powers of Egyptian sorcerers. They have their basis in Biblical and Quranic stories of Egyptian magic, but the medieval versions canonized the now-familiar pseudo-archaeological tropes of death-traps in tombs, moving and talking statues, magical potions, curses, ancient wonders predating all known civilization, and all the other pulp trappings that popular writers have used for the past two centuries.
Murtada’s book found favor with the Romantic writers. Percy Shelley famously became so obsessed with it that a friend had to throw it out of the window to make him stop reading it. The Akhbar al-zaman caused a sensation when published in French at the end of the nineteenth century. In between, partial translations in the Operations of Col. Vyse introduced the same legends to readers of history and science, and they had an influence on science. It was from the Akhbar al-zaman and its accounts of antediluvian civilizations in Egypt that the great Egyptologist Gaston Maspero found his “proof” that the Sphinx predated Egypt, a theme that the Theosophists were quick to pick up and which found its way into pop culture, not least when H. P. Lovecraft incorporated the idea into “Under the Pyramids,” the Weird Tales story he ghostwrote for Harry Houdini.
Some of these elements influenced non-fiction stories about “cursed” Egyptian artifacts that predated the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, such as the claim that the British Museum’s Egyptian coffin lid of a woman, known as the “Unlucky Mummy,” is cursed and responsible for various deaths and catastrophes. The claim goes back to the early 1900s, and it obviously draws on the Victorian and Gothic traditions, with their echoes of medieval Arabic lore, born of European Orientalism.
By the time King Tut was unearthed, there was already large body of literature about cursed tombs, ancient evils, and other such Egyptian mysteries. What Tut did was to spark the largest wave of Egyptomania in modern times, though one that has antecedents going back at least to Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, and amplify existing conceptions of mystical Egypt circulating among adherents of Arabic legendry and the various occult groups.
Western civilization has seen Egypt as a land of deep antiquity, ancient wisdom, and potent magic since at least the time of the Greeks, and it is no wonder that the tradition has continued unbroken down to the present. The specific form this belief has taken in modern times, however, is traceable to the influence of medieval Arabic legendry on Romantic writers and Victorian scholars.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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