It is definitely difficult to have a conversation about King Tut and not touch upon the curse of Tutankhamen. So many tales, stories and confusion spin around the famous boy pharaoh and all of those that played a hand in disrupting the young kings rest. The finding of King Tut’s tomb was sensationalized internationally by the media. Media which was a far cry from what it is today. In 1922 when the pharaohs tomb was discovered, stories were passed by newspapers and traveled much slower than in today’s instant messaging world. It was a time when ethics in journalism were not as important as selling papers. Reporters were known to highly sensationalize stories for profit and, like today, the printed word still holds a lot of weight. The difference from then and now is that in today’s society with a world of information at ones fingertips, people tend to fact-check before believing whatever one reads. In 1922, that was not the case. Society was still very superstitious back then. So when did the story of the curse of Tutankhamen begin and what are the facts and fiction surrounding it?
Howard Carter first traveled to Egypt when he was seventeen in hopes to be able to work as a tracer with the Egyptian Exploration Fund. Tracers were individuals that would copy inscriptions and drawings which would then be able to be further studied elsewhere. It was at Bani Hassan where Carter had his first assignment. The English archaeologist was to copy and record depictions on the walls of the tombs of princes of Middle Egypt. Carter was so enamored with Egypt that the 17-year-old was said to have worked relentlessly during the day and slept in the tombs with the bats at night. Carter eventually worked under George Herbert, the Lord of Carnarvon, whom held one of the most valuable and largest private collections of Egyptian artifacts. Carter was obsessed with finding one tomb in particular. That of a boy king, fairly unknown, named Tutankhamen.
The Egyptologist searched for years to no avail and to the frustration of Lord Carnarvon who was funding the entire project. Finally in 1922, Carter was told that this would be the archaeologists last funded season. Carters perseverance, determination and obsession paid off and finally uncovered a stairway to a tomb. On Nov. 26, 1922 at 4 PM, Carter discovered the tomb of a pharaoh that would become arguably the most famous pharaoh of all time – King Tut. A find so extraordinary that it would take ten years just to have all the items found in the tomb to be cataloged.
Many say the curse of the pharaoh began when Carter’s canary was swallowed by a cobra after the unsealing of the tomb. Cobra’s being known as protectors of the pharaoh’s. This was perhaps the inspiration for Mari Corelli, otherwise known as Mary Mackay, who wrote of warnings for those who entered the sealed tomb in March of 1923. Writing that those involved would face the dire of consequences. Many sources state that the canary was actually left in the hands of Minnie Burton, a friend of Carter’s, who in turn gave it to a bank manager to look after.
However, solid circulation and hype over the curse of Tutankhamen most likely comes from the death of Lord Carnarvon himself. Just weeks after the warnings of Mari Corelli were published, Lord Carnarvon died of pneumonia on April 5, 1923 in Cairo. The media went into a frenzy. It spread like bush fire and even among popular writers such as Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, weighed in on the matter. Doyle stated that the “Pharaoh’s curse” could have been the cause of Lord Carnarvon’s death.
Adding fuel to the fire, many stated that two things happened the moment Carnarvon died; the lights in Cairo went out and that Carnarvon’s dog, Susie, had howled and then died instantly. Of course these events would be very difficult to debunk or prove. It should be stated that it is a common occurrence for the lights to go out in Cairo which happens even to this day. With time zones and lack of modern technology, to prove if Carnarvon’s dog did, indeed, howl and die at the same moment as its master is rather impossible. It is reported that on the day of the unsealing, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito and after it becoming infected, his health worsened. “Was it a mosquito bite,” Mari Corelli wrote, “that has so seriously infected Lord Carnarvon?”
However it has been brought to light that the actual curse of the mummy may have began 100 years before the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. According to research done by Dominic Montserrat, an Egyptologist, the curse of the mummy has been around for decades before the facts and fiction of the curse of Tutankhamen took hold of the world. Montserrat stated in an interview with the Independent UK that his research proves that the concept of mummy’s curses came way before Carnarvon’s find of King Tut’s tomb and even by his death by 100 years.
The Egyptologist is referring to a bizarre “striptease” that took place in London in the 19th century. The show consisted of real Egyptian mummy’s that were unraveled during the show which, Montserrat believes is where the inspiration was born for writers to write tales of mummy’s curses and getting revenge. Montserrat explained that his findings did not discover the origins of the curse of the mummy but that it does prove it did not begin with the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and the strange events that followed.
There are many variations of what the inscription above King Tut’s tomb says. Mari Corelli interpreted from an ancient Arabic text to read, “Death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a pharaoh.”
According to author, John Vornholt the inscription reads: “Death will slay his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the Pharaoh.”
An inscription found over a shrine of an Anubis reads: “It is I who hinder the sand from choking the secret chamber. I am for the protection of the deceased.” This has been reprinted by one reporter to read: “I will kill all those who cross this threshold into the sacred precincts of the Royal King who lives forever.”
Oddly, out of the many reported deaths due to the curse of Tutankhamen, Howard Carter’s is not one of them. The first being Lord Carnarvon, the next death was in 1926 when Georges Benedite died of heat stroke. Benedite was a representative at the Louvre. Carter’s personal secretary, Richard Bethell died in 1929. Harry Burton, a photographer who was highly involved and present in the excavation of the tomb, died in 1939.
The truth is that there were 26 people present for the unsealing of King Tut’s tomb, 6 of which died within the decade. When the sarcophagus of King Tut was opened for the first time, 22 people were present of the original 26. During the decade to follow, only 2 of those 22 people died.
The curse of Tutankhamen has been a source of intrigue and mystery since the day that the famous boy king was found. Surely one of the most well-known pharaohs of all time, even to this day, the mysterious boy king continues to capture our imaginations. The answer to whether or not the curse of Tutankhamen is fact or fiction, shall be left for the reader’s to decide.
By Derik L. Bradshaw