Curse of the Buried Pearl: Tomb Curses, Spirits and the Hunt for Ancient Treasures – Part I
In economics one hears talk of “the curse of oil” – and one might say wherever there is buried treasure there will be a curse, hyper-real or real. The most famous of all curses is of course that supposedly attached to the mummy of Tutankhamen; although in truth what the newspapers and novelists wrote about this in 1922 had very little to do with any actual curse.
I and others have written elsewhere of how the supposed curse of Tutankhamen was “engineered by the mass media in order to suppress opposition to archaeology, a subject of increasingly lucrative press reportage. It initiated the mummy’s transformation from ambivalent figures into the more overtly evil entities they were to become in cinema.”
The mask of Tutankhamun ( CC BY 2.0 )
Even so it would be wrong to suppose there was no danger attached to the plundering of tombs. Several early sources, in Europe and Egypt, describe in great detail the perils connected with what is a very human activity. One remarkable book was written by Jean Bodin and is called Colloquium heptaplomeres (Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Divine). Jean Bodin was a complex character who could be progressive on notions of religious freedom, but was intolerant of witches and magicians. Bodin describes Egyptian tombs, mummies, and a widespread belief in a curse.
Treasure Guarded by Demons, Mummies and Jinn
The Colloquium is structured as a conversation among a seven wise theologians: Coronaeus (Catholic), Curtius (Calvinist), Salomon (Jewish), Toralba (Philosophical naturalist), Fridericus (Lutheran), Senamus (Skeptic), and Octavius (Islamic).
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The Colloquium mirrors the 10th century Jewish Kingdom of the Kazars, whose tolerant and broad minded government existed at a time when fanaticism, ignorance and anarchy reigned in most of Europe. Its supreme court had seven judges made from two Jews, two Muslims, two Christians and one Pagan. All seven characters represent different aspects of Bodin’s own philosophy. Toralba, whose name means “white bull”, could well be the Pagan; for he “believes that true religion consists in the simple adoration of god and following the laws of nature”.
In the Colloquium, Solomon the Jew, recalls how tombs are guarded by a special class of spirits. These would be the species known as the Jinn in Islamic anthropology. It should be borne in mind that in Islamic lore, the Jinn are one several distinct species that share our world, alongside humans and Angels (Arab: Malak).
The black king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Aswad, in the late 14th century Book of Wonders. ( Public Domain )
Buried treasure is always guarded by demons. But why would demons undertake such a good deed? Do they have their own more complex agenda? One suggestion is that demons envy men the remedies discovered from those corpses of Egypt. Perhaps demons have a natural propensity to obstruct humans from sharing in such benefits.
Octavius, a Muslim, offers his own experiences in search of “amomia”—medicine from mummies. Egyptian corpses from antiquity had been soaked for a long time in balsam, cardamom, salt, vinegar, honey, myrrh, aloe, nard, wild cinnamon, resin and myrrh preservative potions. He took up with a Genevan “Empiricist”, who persuaded him to steal a mummy. He stated that there was so much healing power in these corpses that they warded off almost all diseases.
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They went among the pyramids, opening as many tombs as they could, and dragged out a corpse wrapped in leather. Under this were narrow strips of linen wound around and around each part of the corpse covering the gilded skin. Gold was considered a very enduing preservative not only for corpses but also for wood, metals and other things. The flesh seemed gold-colored and tawny because it was soaked by the substance which the ancient Cretans used for sugar.
Shining golden Egyptian funeral mask. (CC BY 2.0)
The corpse was very dry inside since the viscera had been removed. In place of the heart was a stone image with the name of Isis, once an Egyptian queen, whose tomb is in the city of Nysa (Ethiopia) in upper Arabia and whose epitaph was carved on a marble column: