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:
I am Isis, queen of Egypt, trained by Mercury
No one will lose my statutes.
I am the mother of Osiris;
I am the first inventor of crops;
I am the mother of king Horus
I am the gleaming dog in the skie
The city of Bubastis has been founded in my honor
rejoice, rejoice O Egypt, you who have nurtured me.
Because the sacred rites of Isis were thought to have been abrogated in the reign of Constantine the great, they assumed the corpse was thousands of years old. The body was male and completely odorless. Feminine cadavers were thought to decay more readily because, according to Herodotus, their flesh was more plump and because young girls and women, not yet withered by old age, were not entrusted to the undertakers and embalmers for three days lest they debauch the corpses!
Octavius made arrangements for its transportation home; entrusting it to a merchant waiting for good winds in the port of Alexandria. They set sail, the wind known as Vulturus blowing. Some demons are still known as “spirits of air” in for example the modern exorcism cult of the Zar (see my books Phi-Neter: Power of the Egyptian Gods and Supernatural-Assault-in Ancient Egypt).
The wind, gentle at first, soon became more violent. When they were far out to sea, a storm stirred from the northwest and angry waves shook the ship’s forcing them to haul in the sails and to toss overboard the heavier cargo. The storm buffeted the ship for a day and a night. Tempests of such intensity usually spent themselves by then but this one lasted days.
The storm buffeted the ship for a day and a night. (Public Domain)
The skipper was terrified, “a sailor conquered by the violent northwest wind” to use the poet's words. He made everyone bale the ship, which was being filled water. All were wracked with pain from the its violent lurching, so instead they prostrated themselves and begged their Gods for forgiveness.
Salomon was reminded of the Biblical storm that caused Jonah to be thrown overboard to placate the storm. But, says Octavius, we had apparently poured out our prayers in vain; until someone reminded the captain to order death for anyone who did not throw overboard any Egyptian corpses that happened to be on the ship!
Terrified at hearing this order Octavius, under cover of darkness, threw the cadaver into the sea. Almost as soon as he had done so the force of the winds lessened, and they made it safely to Crete.
Thus they learned that the transportation of Egyptian corpses always stirred up storms, and thus the nautical laws of Egypt scrupulously prohibited this. If anyone acted contrary to the law, he must throw overboard his cargo and pay damages to the merchants. Naturally Octavius kept quiet about his error!
The participants in the Colloquium are left wondering why storms should arise from Egyptian corpses, when no such thing happens when other bodies are being transported from one place to another? Were the seas stirred up by the power of demons, or from some other emanations from the mummy? But the immediate calming of sea following the jettisoning of Egyptian corpses and the fact that this conformed with previous experience, and the supposed nautical laws and trials themselves makes clear what the answer was. Although it has also to be said that seafarers are, with good reason, notoriously superstitious; There are multiple accounts of demons and fiery images seen on the prow of doomed ships.
The Colloquium innumerates some of these phenomenon, the archetype being Helen (of Troy, perhaps a unidentified star of evil omen). A double light was considered it to be her brothers Castor and Pollux, salutary spirits. Or perhaps this is some special optical phenomenon, “flames” and “unwieldy fires” which are said to move around tombs, gibbets and swamps. These demons are also guardians of corpses, which have power to stir up winds.
A knotty discussion ensues concerning the fiery demonic apparitions connected with tombs in the classical tradition. The consensus is that the reason for bad luck is not the presence of the corpse per se but the powerful quality of the demon that pursues those who have taken it away from the tomb. Octavius again reminding us how these demons envy men who take the salutary remedies recovered from Egyptians mummies.
Egyptian stele with curse inscription. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Such stories are also well known from European folklore, of spirits that guard hidden treasures and kill those who dig them up. The consensus of the Colloquium is that no one who had sought a treasure with a demon's help had ever found it or was enriched with the find.
Book of the Buried Pearl
Jean Bodin, via his characters, comes over as well informed about Egyptian mores. In order to explore how much his stories are a genuine reflection of a view in the Islamic world, we will look at the book that furnishes this article's title; the Book of the Buried Pearl, which like Bodin's Colloquium of the Seven was written in the 17th century.
The Buried Pearl describes many elaborate magical techniques for nullifying curses, enabling the ancient tombs to be plundered. This magic is by no means obsolete and persists, in spiritualized form, in the practices of contemporary neo-pagans.
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It survives in three anonymous manuscripts: two in the Bibliotech Nationale and one in private collection. Its introduction mentions Léon l'African, a 16th century Arab commentator from Fez in Morocco, who wrote that in his time there are many such books. The Book of the Buried Pearl focuses on the treasures of Egypt and is a fascinating list or gazetteer of sites up and down the Nile. These are said to contain the lost treasures of the Pharaohs or valuables left behind by the Hebrews after the Biblical exodus. It also confirms another persistent rumor of the medieval world that ancient Coptic Christian churches, one in particular in old Cairo, were hiding places of the Philosopher's Stone.
Grimoire (CC BY 2.0)
As one might expect, these stories are part fantastical, part factual. They often have descriptions of tombs and temples in obscure but otherwise feasible locations. Even today it is likely there are a vast number of unexcavated and unknown sites in Egypt. Even a “windscreen survey” from the road between Luxor and Edfu reveals innumerable burial sites, some obviously robbed out but by no means all exhausted.
I'm reminded of Mortimer Wheeler's contentions when speaking of India megalithic cyst burials, which are so extensive one could spend several lifetimes opening them, never exhaust the supply nor learn much new about them; or so he thought.
The atmospheric and mysterious El Kab is the epitome of a ripe landscape for treasure hunters. (© Author Chris ‘Mogg’ Morgan)
The Buried Pearl claims to provide the secrets of how to access tombs full of buried treasure, which apart from the physical hazards, are said to require special spiritual and magical precautions. Thus there are invocations, fumigations and amulets to apply before one can carry off the valuables.
One might feel it ironic to publish locations of treasure in a printed book, destined for circulation, no matter how small; surely if these descriptions were ever genuine then the treasure would long ago have been carried off? But I suppose like many comparable early modern magical books, where treasure hunting is also a thing, a large part of the raison d'etre is in fact entertainment. In effect the reader is treated to a ripping yarn. Even so, it is clear that there will always be a percentage of the readership that will take the treasure map at face value and try to follow it, making it the basis of a quest for gold.
Chris Morgan is a respected independent scholar, former Wellcome student, and holder of an advanced degree in Oriental Studies from University of Oxford. He is the author of several books on Egypt, specializing in folk religion, ritual calendars and the “archaeological memory” encoded in the religions of post pharaonic Egypt. His latest book is “Isis: Goddess of Egypt & India.”
By Chris Morgan