Last year I investigated the secret origins of the so-called “Curse of the Pharaohs.” It is always disheartening to see a mystery one has solved turned into a zany romp on Ancient Aliens, but because this particular mystery is so close to my heart, tying in with projects to which I have devoted countless hours, I can’t help but feel particularly upset by the stupid, stupid, stupid bastardization of a very complicated story into the ridiculous claim that aliens were responsible for the curse.
You can read all of the details yourself, but the short version is that the so-called “curse of the pharaohs” originated as a pulp fiction story trope until dragged into the realm of nonfiction by Marie Corelli, a popular novelist with some lunatic fringe ideas about history, including her belief that the ancient Egyptians had telephones. Corelli heard about the death of Lord Carnarvon following the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and she published in various newspapers the claim that “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 alleged, based on the book, that Carnarvon had died because he had touched poisoned garments or jewels meant to ward off tomb robbers.
Her claim caught to the attention of Arthur Conan Doyle, and with two famous authors spreading it, the so-called curse of the pharaohs became a media phenomenon. It did not exist prior to Corelli’s invention of it. However, the book she based the claim on certainly does exist. She was using the English edition of the French translation of the now-lost Egyptian History of Murtada ibn al-‘Afif, a medieval book of Arab legends about the pyramids. In turn, Murtada’s book is derived from (directly or from a common source) the Akhbar al-zaman, the oldest surviving account of these legends.
These books record fictitious medieval legends—unattested before c. 950 CE—about the origins of the pyramids and the measures the kings of ancient Egypt put on their tombs to ward off robbers. They stories are fantastical, involving robots, ghosts, poisons, death-traps, magic spells—all the things you associate with pyramids in pulp fiction, which borrowed them from these sources. They are the product of what used to be called the Oriental imagination, meaning that they are the stuff of legend, elaborate fairy tales used to explain the contents of tombs and the unreadable hieroglyphs engraved in them.
Now, that’s not to say that the curse of the pharaohs was unknown before King Tut, as odd as that seems. It’s just that it was considered pulp fiction before then, appearing in dozens of short stories about rampaging mummies, like Lucian Sorrel’s 1897 Argosy short story “Pharaoh’s Curse,” which told of exactly what Corelli fantasized: an explorer felled by poison cunningly impregnated into the pharaoh’s grave goods. It takes no master detective to conclude that she conflated something like this story with Murtada’s book, which she seems not to have actually read since 1892, 30 years earlier.
The first segment begins with cross-promotion for The Curse of Oak Island, a production from the same company as Ancient Aliens. The show presents the probably fake “curse” that claims that Oak Island must see seven deaths before giving up its secrets, and David Childress alleges that the secret is that the Ark of the Covenant is buried on the island. This mini-promotional message brings the show to Ramy Romany in Egypt, and the Egyptologist retells the story of Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, followed by a description of the alleged “curse of the Pharaohs.” The show alleges that seven people died after entering Tut’s tomb and that this is the same number as the lives Oak Island must claim. The show neglects to note that the “curse” was remarkably inconsistent, failing to claim the life of Howard Carter, the actual person who disturbed the seals and opened Tut’s sarcophagus.
This leads the talking heads into a discussion of whether magic spells are real and utilize space alien superpowers. They claim, for example, that four bricks containing spells from chapter 151(a) of the Theban recension of the Book of the Dead were actually alien technology, presumably activated by voice. How these would work considering they contain no electronics of any kind is a mystery the show is not interested in solving.
OK, so in the second segment, the show asks why King Tut had a fifth curse brick instead of the standard four in his tomb. This brick contains the same magic spell against encroaching desert sands that I quoted in my article on the curse of the pharaohs, a text that is not unique but had been found in tombs for decades before the one in Tut’s tomb had been found. The show suggests that the fifth brick indicates that there is a hidden chamber in Tut’s tomb, and they wonder if the hidden chamber contains the burial chamber of Akhenaten (even though most Egyptologists believe his mummy was found in 1907), the heretic king the show has long alleged to be a space alien because his artisans depicted him as a curvy, spindly man. Here the show rehearses its claims about Akhenaten as an alien that we have heard dozens of times before. The show has on Ahmed Osman, a looney tune who proposes a Bible-based revisionist history of Egypt in which (seriously) Jesus was really King Tut, as an “Egyptologist” (he has a Master’s in the subject) to discount the idea that any known mummy belongs to Akhenaten, all the better to keep looking for space alien corpses.
The third segment begins with a description of a 1909 play that alleged that priests put a curse on Akhenaten, keeping him from the afterlife. Because the play coincided with a dangerous sandstorm that left an actress suffering from trachoma and another dead from complications from stomach surgery following exposure, the show alleges that the curse is real and that (as Childress says) “you have to wonder if there is some sort of extraterrestrial” technology that is “activated by sound.” Childress suggests that curses are activated by words the same way Siri is activated by voice commands. Unless the air is lousy with nanobots or aliens mastered quantum manipulation of reality, either of which should leave testable evidence, one wonders what technology he imagines animates these curses.
The show then reviews Sigmund Freud’s fanciful allegation, made without sufficient supporting evidence, that King Tut’s brother Thutmose was the real Moses. Graham Phillips lies and claims that Moses lived at exactly the time when Thutmose vanished from history, a claim that cannot be true because the Exodus cannot be dated with any certainty. Nevertheless, Freud’s link between Akhenaten (Tut’s presumed father) and Moses allows the show to detour in claims about Moses and UFOs that were old when Erich von Däniken borrowed them from the UFO preachers of the 1950s and 1960s.
The fourth segment examines a portable shrine from King Tut’s tomb and its similarity to the Biblical Ark of the Covenant. The Ark’s similarity to Egyptian religious paraphernalia has long been known, and influence from Egypt has long been suspected. However, the show refuses to consider cultural diffusion, so William Henry tells us that the Ark of the Covenant was actually the so-called “Osiris device,” stolen from Egypt by Moses. If the name “Osiris device” doesn’t mean much to you, it’s because ancient astronaut theorists have imposed the reading on a temple portrait of a Djed pillar standing atop a box.
The show repeats claims from Chariots of the Gods (and UFO writers antedating it) that the dangerous powers of the Ark were really alien technology.
The narrator alleges that aliens cursed King Tut’s tomb to hide the truth about the technology behind the Ark until humanity was ready to receive it, even though none of that is in the tomb, and the Ark continued on its merry way for a millennium after King Tut died.
The fifth segment intends to trace the history of the Ark of the Covenant. Even though this show has been remarkably focused on a single thesis, at least for Ancient Aliens, the show couldn’t quite get through a whole hour on a single subject. So, gone are the curses and instead we get conspiracy theories about whether the Ethiopians really own the Ark, or whether the Knights Templar found the Ark on the Temple Mount and secreted it to Oak Island. This story is a modern one, invented only in the twentieth century and derived, ultimately, from (fictitious) Masonic legends of Enochian treasure buried beneath Solomon’s Temple and unearthed in the “secret vault” ritual. The show then alleges that when the Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay cursed everyone who executed him, this caused the Capetian dynasty to end and the pope to die. “You have to wonder if this curse on King Philip and the pope came through the Ark of the Covenant,” Childress says. No, you really don’t.
The show delivers a rapid-fire series of false claims from this. First, they claim that Henry Sinclair was a Templar (he was a century late), that the Templars traveled to America (they did not), and that the Mi’kmaq have a flag modeled on the Templar battle flag (they do not; there is no such flag). All of these are claims that appeared on Curse of Oak Island and which were debunked.
The final segment describes the alleged curse of Oak Island again. David Wilcock tells us that the so-called ninety-foot stone from the island is identical to an Egyptian curse stone. Tsoukalos says that the Templars buried the Ark on the island, and Wilcock adds that there is a deep, evil force preventing us from accessing these important secrets.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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