Why Do We Love (and Fear) Mummies?

Why Do We Love (and Fear) Mummies?

(Read the article on one page)

Christian-Georges Schwentzel / The Conversation

Somewhere in Iraq, the tomb raider Nick Morton (a never-ageing Tom Cruise) flies over the desert. This is where Egyptian queen Ahmanet lies in her tomb for eternity. Or so we thought.

The plot of Alex Kurtzman’s latest Hollywood blockbuster, The Mummy , which cost US$125 million to make and was released on June 14, brings back a classic cinematographic and literary theme: mummies unleashed.

In Kurtzman’s film, the desiccated queen, played by French-Algerian actress Sofia Boutella, is exotic, sensual and, in turn, monstrous. Enraged at her unearthing, she chases Morton and his cohort to the other side of the world with a millennium’s worth of pent-up resentment.

Kurtzman’s flick revives a long-standing franchise dating back to the 1930s, this time with the novel twist of a woman playing the role of desiccated protagonist. Generally telling tales of forbidden love, terrible curses, eroticism and death, mummy flicks have entertained generations of spectators.

Why this fascination for Egyptian corpses?

‘Modern Antiques’ was an 1806 caricature by Thomas Rowlandson which satirizes the British enthusiasm for ancient Egypt.

‘Modern Antiques’ was an 1806 caricature by Thomas Rowlandson which satirizes the British enthusiasm for ancient Egypt. ( Public Domain )

Enter Egyptomania

It all started in the 19th century.

In 1822, the French scholar Jean-François Champollion, who’d been awed by Egypt since Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1798 military campaign there, cracked the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphics , and the whole world became fascinated with this ancient north African civilisation.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx . ( Public Domain )

A few decades later, the Romance of the Mummy, by French novelist Théophile Gautier , associated for the first time eroticism and death in the form of the mummy.

The 1857 book, in which archaeologists discover the body of Queen Tahoser (inspired by a real queen from the 12th century BC) – a magnificent young woman who also happens to be perfectly preserved – became an instant bestseller.

By the 1880s, European archaeologists had discovered the mummies of pharaohs Ramses II, Ahmose and Thutmose III and their research had a huge following in Europe and North America, nourishing the West’s growing Egyptomania.

Ramses II, photographed in 1889.

Ramses II, photographed in 1889. ( Public Domain )

The public was particularly fascinated by the sophisticated techniques used to preserve the ancient bodies. When the 3,000-year-old mummy of Pharaoh Seti I was discovered in 1881, it looked like he’d only just fallen asleep.

In 1892, best-selling author Sir Conan Doyle published Lot No. 249 , in which a mummy bought at auction is revived by an Oxford student who then uses the creature as a weapon. This theme would go on to inspire horror films into the 20th century.

Egyptomania reached its peak with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, in 1922 , in the Valley of the Kings. When Lord Carnarvon, the wealthy British amateur Egyptologist who had funded the excavation of the tomb , died the following year, the Western press was quick to spread the rumour of a fatal curse that would kill all European archaeologists associated with the expedition.

Tutankhamun has inspired many legends and cursed more than a few on-screen archaeologists.

Tutankhamun has inspired many legends and cursed more than a few on-screen archaeologists. ( Public Domain )

Thus, a legend was born.

Mummy Fever

Films clearly engender and play on a fear of mummies and their ancient curses. But mummies also fascinate us, making us feel we can vanquish time by preserving the most perishable part of our bodies: the flesh.

Ancient Egyptians developed the art of embalming cadavers to ensure eternal life, emptying the body of its viscera, removing the brain via the nostrils using bronze hooks, and placing the body in a bath of natron, a sodium carbonate mix, for approximately 40 days, which desiccated it completely.

Meet with the kings at the Mummy Room in Cairo Museum in Egypt.

Meet with the kings at the Mummy Room in Cairo Museum in Egypt. ( TravellerGroup)

Only the heart, necessary for the deceased to be resurrected in the afterlife , was kept in its place. Is it any surprise, then, that other leaders with dreams of reigning eternal should want their bodies to be embalmed, too?

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his mummy was placed in a mausoleum at the centre of Alexandria, the city he founded, and worshipped. Luminaries such as Julius Caesar and Augustus visited to his tomb.

The communist era also saw its share of mummifications too. Joseph Stalin and Chairman Mao were both embalmed, and Lenin’s mummy, on display in Moscow’s Red Square, is considered a sacred relic. A team of scientists maintains and retouches it so frequently that the 147-year-old leader actually seems to be getting younger .

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

‘God Speed’ (1900) by Edmund Leighton. (Deriv.)
The chivalry of a Medieval knight is indisputable, right? I mean, they had a Code of Chivalry and everything. But wait, not all knights were chivalrous, nor did they have a universally agreed upon idea of what chivalry meant. They didn’t even agree it was necessary to be chivalrous.

Myths & Legends

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article