Tomb Curses of Ancient Egypt: Magical Incantations of the Dead
Nothing instilled more fear in the tomb raiders of times past, than the possibility of encountering a curse that warned of dire consequences for those that did not heed its warning. In ancient Egypt, curses were sometimes placed on tomb entrances to protect the sacred monument from being disturbed or looted. Inscriptions sometimes spoke of the deceased coming back to life to seek revenge, or called for judgement to be taken in the underworld. Anyone who ignored such warnings, would do so at their own peril.
Stories and rumors surrounding curses placed upon tombs and mummies have existed for centuries. There are records dating back to the Medieval and Early Modern periods stating that Ancient Egyptian burial sites should not be tampered with, because they, and the mummies residing in them, possessed unknown and seemingly evil qualities. It was believed that curses were placed around burial sites by priests in order to protect both the mummies and their spiritual journeys after death. These beliefs formed the idea behind the so-called ‘curse of the Pharaohs’ – anyone who entered or disturbed the tomb of a mummy, particularly that of a pharaoh, would be subject to bad luck and inevitable death.
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Limestone donation-stele from Mendes, 3rd Intermediate Period, Dynasty XXII. The inscription celebrates a donation of land to an Egyptian temple, and places a curse on anyone who would misuse or appropriate the land. (Wikimedia Commons)
The power of a curse as a deterrent depended upon its location. Though curses were not commonly recorded in the tombs of ancient Egypt, they were used on occasion for the protection of the burial place. Tomb curses would be inscribed in the tomb chapel, the more public part of the tomb complex and also on walls, false doors, stelae, statues, and sometimes coffins. Some of the more unusual curses include the "Donkey Curse" which threatened the violator of the tomb with rape by a donkey, the animal of Seth. Another, complete curse, comes from the administrator of the 18th dynasty, Amenhotep, son of Hapu. He threatens anyone who would damage his tomb with a lengthy list of punishments. The perpetrator would:
lose their earthly positions and honors, be incinerated in a furnace in execration rites, capsize and drown at sea, have no successors, receive no tomb or funerary offerings of their own, and their bodies would decay because they will starve without sustenance and their bones will perish
A stele belonging to Sarenput I, a nomarch of Elephantine under Senusret I (Dynasty 12), is meant to protect the offerings left to the statue in his image:
As for every mayor, every wab-priest, every scribe and every nobleman who shall take [the offering] from the statue, his arm shall be cut off like that of this bull, his neck shall be twisted off like that of a bird, his office shall not exist, the position of his son shall not exist, his house shall not exist in Nubia, his tomb shall not exist in the necropolis, his god shall not accept his white bread, his flesh shall belong to the fire, his children shall belong to the fire, his corpse shall not be to the ground, I shall be against him as a crocodile on the water, as a serpent on earth, and as an enemy in the necropolis.
Legends surrounding the so-called "Curse of the Pharaoh's" start around the 7th Century A.D. when the Arabs conquered Egypt and could not read the hieroglyphics (they would not be deciphered until the beginning of the 19th century). The preservation of mummies must have been a strange sight to behold. Many stories were told and they believed that if one entered a tomb and uttered a magical formula, they would be able to materialize objects made invisible by the ancient Egyptians. Also, it was thought that through magic, mummies could become alive. They believed that the Egyptians would protect their tombs by magical means or curses on anyone who entered. Arab writer’s warned people not to tamper with the mummy’s or their tombs because they knew Egyptian’s practiced magic during the funeral ceremonies. The first published book about an Egyptian curse was published in 1699 and hundreds were to follow.
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The opening of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923, is probably the most famous case of a tomb curse. It launched widespread panic and belief in the ‘Curse of the Pharaohs’. Several people who were at the original opening died before their time and under strange conditions. Most accounts of the story have Howard Carter, English archaeologist and leader of the excavation, discovering a clay tablet in the Antechamber of the tomb. A few days after cataloging it, a team member deciphered the hieroglyphics. The alleged curse, purportedly said, “death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh”. However, no such record of any tablet exists and most assume it either disappeared or is simply a myth.
Howard Carter and associates opening the shrine doors in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun. 1924 reconstruction of the 1923 event (Wikimedia Commons)
The first sign of the curse occurred when Carter sent a messenger to his house. On arrival, the messenger heard a faint cry and saw Carter's canary being eaten by a cobra, the sign of the Egyptian monarchy. Within seven weeks of the tomb being opened, the Earl of Carnarvon, who had discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb alongside Clark, died from complications of a mosquito bite. The media quick embraced the idea of the Curse of the Pharaohs. Conan Doyle, an occultist as well as the author of Sherlock Holmes, spread the word as did Novelist Mari Corelli who warned there would be dire consequences for anyone entering the previously sealed tomb.
Skeptics have pointed out that many others who visited the tomb or helped to discover it lived long and healthy lives. A study showed that of the 58 people who were present when the tomb and sarcophagus were opened, only eight died within a dozen years. All the others were still alive, including Howard Carter, who died of lymphoma in 1939 at the age of 64.
Tutankhamun’s tomb, believed to be protected by a powerful curse (Steve Parker / Flickr)
Most of the Egyptian curses are metaphysical but in some cases, booby traps and the use of poison did enforce these magic spells, causing injury or even death to those who trespassed. For example, tombs were sealed and bolted and contained secret chambers which were difficult to access. Passages were blocked with massive stone slabs, there were hidden holes, trap doors and wires used as booby traps. Ancient Egyptian engineers would also cover the floors and walls of tombs with hematite powder, a sharp metallic dust designed to cause a slow and painful death to those who inhaled enough of it, which was then released into the air when stones were disturbed. When Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass entered the Bahariya Oasis tomb in 2001, his team found the sarcophagus booby trapped with 8 inches of the hematite powder, forcing them to abandon their expedition until they could come back with hazmat suits and respirators.
While curses might seem to be the superstition of the ancients, there are many today who still arm themselves with objects or incantations of protection against the effects of curses. Scientific studies have revealed a powerful psychological phenomenon, in which those who firmly believe they are cursed eventually succumb to a physical ailment brought on by a strong stress response.
In this way, perhaps curses from ancient times remain powerful to this very day.
Featured image: The unbroken seal on Tutankhamun’s tomb, 1922. (Wikimedia Commons)
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