The real story behind the Curse of Tutankhamun

Where did the pharaoh legend come from? And why did everyone say it killed Lord Carnarvon? We look at the myth explored in the ITV drama

121993

This Sunday’s instalment of ITV’s pharaoh-finding drama Tutankhamun is a gravely sad one – and not just because it’s the last in the series. In the final episode, Lord Carnarvon, the eccentric aristocrat played by Sam Neill, battles pneumonia after accidentally cutting an infected mosquito bite while shaving.

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But was he a victim of the ancient mummy’s curse that – as the legend goes – wreaked deadly revenge on all responsible for disturbing Tutankhamun’s burial chamber? Or is the myth of the Pharaoh’s wrath just that: a myth?

Here are your pharaoh FAQs…

How long have there been stories of cursed mummies?

Tales of mystic mummies wrecking the lives of those who disturb their tombs didn’t start with Tutankhamun. In fact, the legends began 100 years before Carter discovered the boy king’s burial chamber.

Many Egyptologists believe the myth was born from a bizarre stage show in 1820s London where mummies were publically unwrapped in a kind of “striptease”. Whether these routines were supposed to be scary or saucy is unclear, but we find some solace in the knowledge that the stripping mummies show couldn’t have been performed to a steamy saxophone soundtrack – the instrument wasn’t invented until the 1840s.

121996

But whatever the original intention, these shows inspired some seriously spooky literature: stories of mummies coming to life and strangling those around them became rife.

Even Little Women author Louisa May Alcott penned a short story in 1869, Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy’s Curse, where a married couple are haunted and killed by an ancient Egyptian princess.

Where did the Curse of Tutankhamun story start?

You can probably guess this one: the papers.

The media of the world were caught in a frenzy after Tut’s tomb was discovered in November 1922. And tired of the interference, Lord Carnarvon signed an exclusive deal with The Times, meaning only their journalists were allowed inside.

Were the rest of the world’s press simply going to wait on The Times to get news on Tut? Absolutely not. But seeing as they couldn’t extensively report on the pretty average life of the young pharaoh, or a tomb they couldn’t see, journalists worked the ancient curse angle once Carnarvon became ill.

121994

Lord Carnarvon in 1923

The earliest example of this was by best-selling novelist Marie Corelli in the New York World. Her widely-read article said: “I cannot but think some risks are run by breaking into the last rest of a king in Egypt whose tomb is specially and solemnly guarded, and robbing him of his possessions.

“According to a rare book I possess… entitled The Egyptian History of the Pyramids [a book that was actually an Arabic text, not Egyptian]… the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb.

“That is why I ask, was it a mosquito bite that has so seriously infected Lord Carnarvon?”

Erm, that’s just speculation though, right?

Yes, but things got very out of hand after Carnarvon finally died of pneumonia on 5th April 1923. After his death, The Times reported that a cobra (a symbol for the ancient Egyptian royals) had swallowed Howard Carter’s pet canary on the day the tomb was opened: “A warning from the spirit of the departed King against further intrusion on the privacy of his tomb”.

121995

The real face of Tutankhamun

And this followed bizarre stories about the precise moment of Carnarvon’s death: supposedly his dog in England had let out a massive yelp and died instantly, plus all the lights in Cario went out in Carnarvon’s final moments.

And everyone believed all of this?

Howard Carter himself was extremely sceptical of the myth, but others around the globe were more convinced.

On hearing news of Carnarvon’s death, Italian dictator Mussolini threw out the Egyptian mummy he had previously accepted as a gift. And Arthur Conan Doyle, writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories, suggested the death was down to “elementals” created by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the royal tomb.

122005

But how many mysterious deaths actually were there?

Not that many. Of the 58 people who were present when the tomb and sarcophagus were opened, only eight died within the next 12 years. 

As well as Carnarvon, the press reported the curse was responsible for the blood poisoning that killed Carnarvon’s half-brother later in 1923 and the malarial pneumonia that killed his other half-brother six years later.

Plus, Tutankhamun’s wrath apparently incited *deep breath* the assassination of Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey of Egypt by his own wife in 1923 because he’d taken a photo in the tomb, the arsenic poisoning that killed one of Carter’s excavators in 1928, the choking of Carter’s personal secretary in a Mayfair hotel room in 1929 and the suicide of that personal secretary’s dad the following year. That’s a very angry mummy.

And Carter himself?

The man who you’d think would be the main target of the curse lived for decades after the tomb was opened. He finally died from Hodgkin’s disease in London in 1939.

121998

But could the curse be real, scientifically speaking?

True, lab studies have discovered that ancient mummies carried dangerous mould – Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus – that can cause bleeding in the lungs.

But hold your chariots, you can’t pin all the deaths on this tomb-based bacteria. Egypt in the 1920s was so unsanitary that Lord Carnarvon was probably safer inside Tut’s tomb than outside.

And if there was some undiscovered microorganism hidden in the tomb then answer us this: why hasn’t there been a single case where a modern tourist or archaeologist visiting the tomb experienced symptoms caused by the toxins?

Good point.

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Thanks.