As I am nearing the end of writing my book about legends of the pyramids (just two chapters left!), I have unfortunately come to more recent history, and this is the period when things get really weird—not just because of crazy legends that writers felt free to make up but also because of the completely bonkers misunderstandings of everything that turn even the simplest research questions into days-long quests into the heart of obscurity. This one vexed me for far too long, but it is too weird to let go.
In British archaeologist Charlotte Booth’s 2009 book The Curse of the Mummy and Other Mysteries of Ancient Egypt, the author writes: “This idea of a mummy causing a shipwreck also had its origins in fiction; it comes from a tale written by Louisa May Alcott in 1869, in which a 1699 shipwreck was caused by a consignment of mummies aboard.” In her 2011 book The Myth of Ancient Egypt, she tells the story again, though she dropped Louisa May Alcott from the telling: “This connection with mummies and shipwrecks was introduced in a story of a shipwreck in 1699 caused by a consignment of mummies on board. Mummies smuggled out of Egypt were thought to cause storms at sea, and were often thrown overboard to prevent them.”
I had never heard this story, in either version, and had no idea what Booth was talking about. It turns out, neither did she. Booth is a trained archaeologist who has written more than a dozen books about Egypt. She has also appeared as a talking head on Britain’s Channel 5 and on the History Channel. But she was apparently too quick to accept summaries of summaries in a daisy chain of half-understood repetition dating back more than four centuries.
In trying to figure out where the story came from, I discovered that there are a great many references placing the events in 1699 and calling it a shipwreck, but very few that offer any solid citations to document the story. That Louisa May Alcott did not invent it should be obvious from the fact that it appears nowhere in her fiction. Booth conflated Alcott’s 1869 story “Lost in a Pyramid” with the 1699 story. Why? Perhaps she was basing her summary on the 2003 Routledge anthology Consuming Ancient Egypt, which had been republished in 2009. In that volume, we read:
Louisa May Alcott, best known for Little Women, has recently been identified as the earliest writer to actually utilize a mummy’s curse plot (Montserrat 1998:70-75), though a tale from 1699 of near shipwreck thought to be caused by mummies aboard may have foreshadowed the folklore surrounding a British Museum mummy often incorrectly claimed to have been aboard the Titanic (Green 1992: 35). Alcott’s 1869 story, Lost in a Pyramid; or the Mummy’s Curse, puts a feminine, if not feminist, slant on things as both the mummy and the victim are female.
The source of all of this is apparently an article in a 1992 issue of the magazine KMT, devoted to all things Egyptian, though I have not read the piece, entitled “Mummy Mania: The Victorian Fascination with Ancient Egypt’s Mortal Remains” by L. Green. This is the same magazine where Robert Schoch unveiled his radical re-dating of the Great Sphinx that same year.
Frankly, I don’t really care who screwed it up. I am more interested in why so few tried to figure out what the actual story was.
Fortunately, Dr. Ralf Bülow was able to point me in the right direction via Twitter by linking me to a 1699 French book that does indeed tell the story. That book is Louis Penicher’s Traite du Embaumements, and in it we read a much more developed version of the story that bears only a partial resemblance to the version that we read about in many popular accounts of mummies.
As best I can tell, the account has never been translated into English, so I give it here in my translation. The wording of the seventeenth-century French is a bit obscure in a couple places, but I think the meaning comes through:
… But sometimes there is danger in transporting them (mummies) so far, if we are to believe the story that Radziwill recounts in the third “Letter” of his Voyages.
The thing is that this event—which was not a shipwreck—did not occur in 1699. Our author is quoting from the Polish prince Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł’s 1601 Ierosolymitana peregrinatio (Voyage to Jerusalem), recounting a trip to Jerusalem and back in the late 1500s. I am not able to review the original text to test the accuracy of the French translation. According to World Cat, there are only a few copies of the book, all in Europe, and the text is not online. [Update: The book actually is online! The translation into French is accurate, but condensed. I do not really have the motivation to translate an even longer version!]
While academic literature on Egypt tends to cite the French source correctly (though often without knowing the original), it is rather astounding that popular literature has gotten the story so wrong for so long.
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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