Dr R Balashankar
The Mummy’s Curse: The True Story of a Dark Fantasy, Roger Luckhurst, Oxford University Press,
Pp 368 (HB), £18.99
The Egyptian mummies have caught the Western imagination for some time now. There have been books and movies reliving the horror revenge wreaked by the undead. Roger Luckhurst in a fascinating book The Mummy’s Curse: The True Story of a Dark Fantasy recaptures this myth. One of the most widely publicised of the Egyptian excavations was that of the tomb of child king Tutankhamen, called King Tut, made in 1923. For years after the excavation, stories of death and destruction that purportedly visited all those involved in the exercise hit headlines in newspapers.
“It was said that on the day that Carter had laid bare the entrance to the tomb his pet canary had been devoured by a cobra, that emblem of pharaonic power.” Romours like this abounded. Several deaths in the families of people who had anything to do with the excavation were attributed to this curse.
Egyptologists explain, says Luckhurst, that there was no curse on the tomb of Tutankhamen and only two had been recorded from other tombs. Some explain that there are messages in tomb complexes that praise the visitors if he or she honors the name of the dead; “the threat is secondary, alternative consequence if you do not honor the name.” How did this notion spread so wildly? And why was there so much attention to the Egyptian excavations? Carter found the press attention “bewildering” and at times “embarrassing.” He said, “One must suppose that at the time the discovery was made the general public was in a state of profound boredom with news reparations, conferences and mandates.” It was recalled by someone that the story of Tutankhamen broke ‘after a summer journalistically so dull that an English farmer’s report of a gooseberry the size of crab apple achieved the main news page of the London metropolitan dailies.’
There have been several other cases of ‘serial threats.’ Like in the story of Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, misfortune and untimely, violent deaths follow the trail of the precious stone belonging to a deity in India. The story of Koh-i-Noor was believable enough for the British crown to break it (re-cut) before adorning the crown of the queen. “The curse of Tutankhamen was not the first story to circulate about Englishmen stuck down by the Ancient Egyptian dead. Indeed, in many ways the Tutankhamen story followed a script that had already been prepared for it by at least two prior instances that were widely known in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods,” says Luckhurst and goes on to explore two of the best stories of Thomas Douglas Murray and Walter Herbert Ingram.
According to him the curse story is merely a “symptom of a curdling in the cultural imagination about Egypt…the curse could be re-situated to become a prism through which we can perceive large shifts in Victorian society.” Further on, the author discusses two major exhibitions held in London and Paris which showcased the Egyptian culture in an enormously exaggerated tones. The Western museums struggled to present the Egyptian antiquities in a scientific spirit but the objects somehow did not gel well, given the circulating rumours.
Lord Byron, in one of his famous poems Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage presents the curse that befalls the man who destroyed the ruins of Athens. The allusion here is to Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin, who sawed off and cut the relics in Greece and shipped them to England. It is interesting that Elgin led one of the most misfortune lives. Luckhurst narrates to illustrate how literary narratives give imaginative coherence to objects, often in open defiance of scientific artefaction. According to psychoanalyst curse is the ordinary way in which the weak retaliated upon the strong.
So, are these curse stories true? “Contemporary popular culture in the West continues to be stuffed with figures of the undead, with vindictive ghosts, post-apocalyptic zombies, feral vampires and shuffling mummies. Each of these has its own highly specific set of historical origins and allegorical resonances, but all are a trace, I would argue, of a history of violence that returns to haunt modernity’s idealist aim. Unravel the mummy and what we finally encounter is the agony that travels as a secret sharer within modernity,” says Luckhurst. Though his conclusion is definitive that there are no curse threats, reading the book, one gets more and more sucked into the belief of the ancient curse transcending generations. The rationale mind yields to the suspicion of the unknown. That probably is the magic of the ancient. Well informed study into the mummies, Luckhurst’s unbiased style of writing leads us into the world of tombs and ruins and the men who uncovered them to the world. Roger Luckhurst writes on popular culture, and “is interested” in odd spaces between science and popular supernatural beliefs. He also teaches at Birkbeck College, University of London.
(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP UK)