My husband and I (more me than him) have been on a Psych binge as of late, and one of the episodes got me thinking about curses. The episode, if you’re familiar with the show, is “Shawn (and Gus) of the Dead,” the finale to season two. In the episode, Shawn and Gus investigate the disappearance of a 3,000-year-old mummy from a museum. Gus is superstitious and believes that the sarcophagus is protected by the Mummy’s Curse, and he won't break the threshold of the exhibit.
Also known as the Curse of the Pharaohs, the Mummy’s Curse refers to the belief that any person who disturbs the mummy of an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh is placed under a curse. Priests, in order to protect the tomb and preserve the purity of the ritual, placed these curses on the tombs.
The Psych episode refers to the uncovering of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt and the supposed strange deaths that afflicted its discoverers (though, it should be noted that the mummy in the episode isn't King Tut).
In the early 1920s, Howard Carter and George Herbert found Tutankhamun’s tomb nearly intact. Herbert died just months later, and Carter died seventeen years later of lymphoma. Herbert’s death gave rise to the story of the Mummy’s Curse, even though there is no evidence beyond coincidental bad luck. Most references to the Mummy’s Curse in the aftermath of Carter and Herbert’s discovery were the result of journalistic hype.
Egyptologist James Henry Breasted worked with Howard Carter soon after the opening of the tomb, and he reported that on visiting Carter’s home, he found a cobra in the cage of Carter’s canary. The cobra is a symbol of Egyptian monarchy. Arthur Weigall elaborated on the cobra’s appearance by suggesting the cobra was indeed the Royal Cobra, the Uraeus, come to strike Carter down for disturbing the King’s tomb. Anthropologist Henry Field reported that a paperweight given from Carter to Sir Bruce Ingham was composed of a mummified hand with its wrist adorned with a scarab bracelet marked with “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence.” Soon after receiving the gift, Ingham’s house burned down, followed by a flood when it rebuilt. Carter himself was skeptical of curses, though he did report in his diary that he saw jackals of the same type as Anubis, guardian of the dead, for the first time in over thirty-five years of working in the desert. He referred to the occurrence as “strange.”
The most mysterious happening that fueled the idea of the Mummy’s Curse was the death of George Herbert. He had been bitten by a mosquito, and by accident, he cut through the bite shaving. It became infected, leading to blood poisoning, and later pneumonia. Two weeks before he died, novelist Marie Corelli wrote a letter that was published in New York World in which she quoted an obscure source that said those who intruded upon a sealed tomb would receive terrible punishment. Novelist Arthur Conan Doyle suggested that Herbert’s death was caused by elementals that had been created by Tutankhamun’s priests to guard the tomb. The first autopsy carried out on the body of Tutankhamun revealed a lesion on the left cheek, thought to be in the exact location of the bite that led to Herbert’s death.
Media reported that the words “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King” were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, when in fact no such phrase exists. Leave it to the newspapers to exaggerate things in order to sell more copies.
Of the fifty-eight people who were present at the time of the tomb’s opening, eight died within a dozen years. There are roughly fifteen deaths claimed to be a result of the curse, but there is of course no conclusive evidence of this.
While Tutankhamun’s tomb bears no evidence of a curse, there are other Egyptian tombs that do exhibit inscriptions of curses. Most of these tombs are from the Old Kingdom and the curses are a result of the desecration of the mummy’s remains or treasure. While the curses may not be the work of magic, it is possible that the illnesses associated with the curses could be the result of pathogens placed inside the tombs. When the pathogens were released, the bacteria could affect whoever was present.
Personally, I would like to believe that they were the result of magic, but I’ll always lean toward the fantastical side of things.