I have a fun one today, but boy was it confusing! Our story begins with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. According to legend, when Howard Carter broke into the tomb, he triggered an ancient curse, which read “Death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a Pharaoh.” The particular wording of his curse is unusual, all the more so since it doesn’t seem to appear in print until the end of the twentieth century, attributed to a bewildering array of sources. Sometimes it is said to come from a tablet found in Tut’s tomb, or just as an Arabic proverb. Sometimes it is said to have been inscribed about the entrance to the tomb. Other times, it is claimed that newspapers printed the curse either a month before or in the week after Lord Carnarvon, sponsor of the excavation of the tomb of King Tut, died on April 3, 1923 from blood poisoning from a mosquito bite.
The most frequent version is the one we read in this 1999 web article about mummy movies written by Paula Guran:
In March 1923 popular novelist Marie Corelli -- whose occult fantasies included the novella "Ziska," which Jessica Amanda Salmonson has called "a fine tale of erotic horrors, transmigration of the soul, and reincarnations from ancient Egypt, with a breathtaking climax in a secret underground chamber of a pyramid" -- wrote to The New York Times. She claimed to have a translation of an Arabic text promising "Death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a pharaoh." After some play from the fact-starved press, the curse story would probably have died down almost immediately -- except Lord Carnarvon himself died shortly thereafter.
The text appears, in slightly modified form, in S. T. Joshi’s 2006 edited volume Icons of Horror, for which Guran wrote the entry on the “Curse of King Tut.”
Guran, though, was merely repeating a popular claim found in horror scholarship of the 1990s. By contrast, Time-Life Books in 1992’s Egypt: Land of the Pharaohs merely called the sentence an “Arabic proverb” in what is the earliest reference to the exact phrasing I can find. (If true, it would not be the first time lazy authors elevated a Time-Life exaggeration to the status of fact.) The text, though, seems to be based on a much earlier allegation that an inscription on Tut’s tomb read that “Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh.” That one goes back at least to a 1930 New York Times obituary for Howard Carter’s secretary, whose suicide was attributed to the “curse.” The Times merely called it a “malediction” popular among modern Egyptians, though later it would describe it as inscribed on the wall of the tomb. Indeed, in 1936, an Egyptologist wrote to the Times to tell them that the sentence was completely made up, probably by one of their correspondents. Others concluded that newspaper correspondents misreported a spell from the Book of the Dead appearing on a statue in the tomb.
Guran’s sources were conflating this bit of lore from the Times with an actual statement that the bestselling novelist Marie Corelli made to the New York World (not the Times) around the time of Carnarvon’s illness when journalists from the newspaper contacted celebrities with occult leanings for comment. (Arthur Conan Doyle was another—he would blame Carnarvon’s death on a psychically controlled “elemental”!)
Marie Corelli was born Mary Mackay, the daughter of Charles Mackay, the author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. It is not without irony that Corelli grew up to become a popular novelist who actively promoted pseudo-history and psychical phenomena. Mark Twain hated her, but the public loved her novels, tinged with romance, science fiction, and fantasy.
Different newspapers of the time gave various accounts of her statement on Lord Carnarvon falling ill, first published in March of 1923, between the time of the mosquito bite and his April 3 death, with sentences omitted or truncated at random, and modern reprints contain material that does not match 1923 newspaper copies available to me. The version below I have compiled from what I hope are the best readings of the several 1923 newspaper copies I was able to review:
As one who has studied Egyptian mysticism all my life I may say that I am not surprised at an accident occurring to those daring explorers who seek to rifle the tombs of the dead monarchs of the land shadowing with wings. That is what the Bible calls it, a strange designation with a strange meaning behind it. 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. This book gives long and elaborate lists of the treasures buried with several of the Kings, and among these are named “divers secret potions enclosed in boxes in such wise that those who touch them shall know how they come to suffer.” That is why I ask, Was it a mosquito bite that so seriously affected Lord Carnarvon? Could it be that he touched something poisonous among the garments or jewels of the entombed King? In any case I feel that intrusion of modern men into the 3,000 years’ silence and death sleep of the Kings of Egypt is something of a desecration and sacrilege and that it will not and it cannot come to good.
The unusual title ascribed to the book has made it hard for later scholars to figure out what Corelli was referring to. Indeed, many concluded that her own romantic imagination made up the book altogether. Several writers, such as Robert Michael Place (Magic and Alchemy, 2009), Brian J. Frost (Essential Guide to Mummy Literature, 2008), John Mitchinson and John Lloyd (Book of General Ignorance, 2007), and Jasmine Day (The Mummy’s Curse, 2006) all concluded that Corelli had invented the myth of the mummy’s curse through her statement.
Anyway, while Correlli certainly helped to develop the myth of the curse of King Tut, her citation is to a discoverable source: She is referring to the History of Egypt, as it is conventionally called in English, by the Arabic writer Murtada ibn al-‘Afif. The book was originally composed in Arabic around 1200 CE, but it survives only in a French translation made in 1666 by Pierre Vattier as L’Égypte de Murtadi, fils du Gaphiphe and then translated into English in 1672 by John Davies. This translation appears to be the copy that Corelli owned. The odd title comes from her mistaken rendering of the title of the 1672 edition, which was The Egyptian History, Treating of the Pyramids etc. But you needn’t take my word for it. In 1892, she cited the book by both name and author in her novel The Soul of Lilith. She got the name wrong there, too, calling it The Egyptian Account of the Pyramids. (Interestingly, using Corelli’s mangled title, the chemists B. G. Lennon & Co. advertised for a copy of the book in 1898; I do not know if they found one.) In a 1901 lecture published in her Free Opinions, Freely Expressed (1905), she quoted from it extensively in making some utterly oddball claims that would not be out of place on Ancient Aliens. Note that she once again mangles the title and the date:
Wireless telegraphy appears to have been known in the very remote days of Egypt, for in a rare old book called The History of the Pyramids, translated from the Arabic, and published in France in 1672, we find an account of a certain high priest of Memphis named Saurid,—who, so says the ancient Arabian chronicler, “prepared for himself a casket wherein he put magic fire, and shutting himself up with the casket, he sent messages with the fire day and night, over land and sea, to all those priests over whom he had command, so that all the people should be made subject to his will. And he received answers to his messages without stop or stay, and none could hold or see the running fire, so that all the land was in fear by reason of the knowledge of Saurid.” In the same volume we find that a priestess named Borsa evidently used the telephone. For, according to her history, “She applied her mouth and ears unto pipes in the wall of her dwelling, and so heard and answered the requests of the people in the distant city.”
The trouble is that Corelli wasn’t actually quoting from Murtada, but rather misremembering and conflating bits and pieces of Murtada that she then claimed to be quotations. Presumably, she hadn’t actually read the book since 1892 and the “quotations” above are really meant to be paraphrases. The first, about Surid’s magic fire, isn’t in the book at all but rather conflates three different passages. The first refers to the priest Saiouph, who could kindle a magic fire in which a spirit would appear and answer any question. The second is Borsa’s magic fire that would burn only liars and was used as a lie detector. The third is the story of Surid’s magic mirror through which he could receive images of all the events happening throughout Egypt. The other “quotation” is closer to correct, but still very wrong. Corelli suggests that Borsa could talk to people far away with a pipe in the wall, but the actual text is quite different. This is John Davies’ translation:
She afterwards caused a Castle to be built on the side of the Roman Sea, to which she retir’d, and kept out of the sight of men. In the Walls of this Castle she caused to be put Pipes of Brass, the ends whereof came out and were hollow, having each written on them a representation of the several differences which ordinarily happen between men, and upon which they were went to desire Justice of her. When therefore any one was at difference with another, he came along with his Adversary to the Pipe on which was written the species of their difference, and spoke to it concerning his business very low, alledging all he could, then putting his Ear thereto he receiv’d an answer, which would be fully to all he desired.
It was just a tube in the castle wall, not a long-distance phone system.
Having now established that Corelli was “quoting” from memory, and badly, we can see how her allegation of poison in King Tut’s tomb is a misremembered bit from part of Murtada’s account of Surid’s stocking of the Great Pyramid with treasure. Again, Davies translates:
Then he caused to be brought thither all he could of his Treasures, and the most precious of his Wealth, Jewels, Plate, Precious Stones, cast and coloured Pearls, Vessels of Emerald, Vessels of Gold and Silver, Statues excellently wrought, Artificial Waters, Talismans, precious Iron that would twine about like Cloath, Philosophical Laws, the Nurses of Wisdom, divers sorts of Medicinal Drugs, exquisite Tables of Brass, on which divers Sciences were written; as also Poisons and Mortal drinks, which Kings have ready by them, and wholesome Preservatives and Antidotes; and several other things, which it is impossible to describe.
The long and short of it is that Corelli either quite confidently ascribed material to Murtada ibn al-‘Afif for decades after reading the book without ever going back to check her source, or maliciously misrepresented the material. The farther in time we move from when she read the book, the more inaccurate her accounts of it become.
But ironically Murtada, following earlier material from the Akhbar al-zaman or a closely related book, actually did allege that the kings of Egypt and the priests placed curses on the pyramids and tombs and promised death to those who attempted to enter: “The Guard therefore of the Eastern Pyramid was an Idol of Jamanick shell, black and white, which had both eyes open, and sate on a Throne, having near it as it were a Halberd, on which if any one cast his eye, he heard on that side a dreadful noise, which made his heart faint, and he who heard that noise dyed.” Although her memory was faulty, or her intentions impure, Corelli rightly cited actual medieval legends that tomb robbers would be killed and thus helped to give modern life to an old bit of pyramid lore as the Curse of Mummy’s Tomb.
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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