As the Tutankhamun exhibit opens in London, a correspondent explains the truth behind the famous curse of the Pharoah’s tomb and others reaching back through the ages.
Fed up with your boss’s ludicrous demands? Wasted a day waiting for a builder who never showed up? Beaten to a promotion by a colleague who knows sweet Fanny Adams about the business? Discovered that your boyfriend is sleeping with your mother?
What you need is a good curse. No, I don’t mean “bloody ’ell, I’m right ’acked off, I am!” I mean a real curse, one that comes foaming from the mouth like a spurt of sulphuric acid. Something with a bit of bite behind it. And of course the backing of an all-powerful deity to make it happen. Something like this beauty: “Let his days be few: and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless: and his wife a widow. Let his children be vagabonds and beg their bread. Let the extortioner consume all that he hath, and let the stranger spoil his labour. Let his posterity be destroyed: and in the next generation let his name be clean put out.”
Blimey! You have to admit it: hurling a few of those vitriol-garnished injunctions at the current bête noire of your life would make you feel a lot better, wouldn’t it? But who would be mean-spirited enough to compose a curse like that, or hand it down from generation to generation?
The answer may surprise you. It comes not from some bloodstained voodoo handbook, or even a creaky old Hammer horror involving Transylvanian vampires, writhing virgins and lashings of tomato ketchup – but from the Bible. Psalm 109, to be precise. Known as “the cursing psalm”, it was reputedly recited by dying men in medieval England in a (literally) last-gasp attempt to bring about the demise of their most detested enemies.
But Psalm 109 isn’t particularly remarkable. There are hundreds of juicy curses to be savoured in the Bible, starting with God Himself (or Herself) unleashing a string of frightful damnations on gullible Adam, temptress Eve, the duplicitous serpent (“you are cursed more than all cattle”), and murderous Cain. Indeed, it could be argued that the entire histories of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are sagas driven by curses and their violent repercussions.
But not just those three great religions. The curse – an incantation or deed designed to prod a supernatural spirit into inflicting misfortune on a third party – is commonplace in nearly all cultures and belief systems. The Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote thousands on lead tablets and placed them in sacred springs, temples or tombs for passing deities to pick up. The Celts had their curse-stones. Turn one over three times, utter your foe’s name in a mean, moody, Christopher Lee sort of voice, and he was as good as dead. And waxed effigies of enemies – to be boiled in a bubbling cauldron, or pierced through the eyes, heart or genitals with a pin – are to be found not just in the witch-doctors’ surgeries of the Caribbean, but ingrained in the ancestral cultures of India, the Middle East, Africa and Europe as well. Our own King James I (or VI, if you are Scottish), who believed himself the victim of a curse when a ship carrying his wedding gifts sank in a storm, wrote an aggrieved treatise on the subject, called Daemonologie. In this somewhat tired and emotional testament he described how the Devil taught people to “make pictures [of their enemies] out of wax or clay”, and then “by the roasting of the pictures”, cause their victims to be “continually melted or die away by sickness”. So exercised was the King by this vile practice that he had dozens of Scottish women burnt as witches. That was unfortunate, because they weren’t.
In England, by contrast, it was widely believed that enraged monks were the greatest hurlers of curses – and in particular those monks dispossessed of their lands, buildings and wealth by the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The monks were said to have cursed the offspring of the marauding knights who seized the property (perhaps Psalm 109 came in useful). Thus was born one of the most commonly found British superstitions, and a wellspring for countless novels and plays, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervillesto Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore – that of the cursed aristocratic family forever condemned to suffer bizarre accidents and sudden, unexplained deaths.
But it isn’t only English Gothic literature that abounds with curses. From the violent Ancient Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides (where whole dynasties were doomed by the intemperate action of a single forebear) to the mighty 15-hour saga that is Wagner’s Ring cycle (where the curse of a very miffed dwarf brings about the death of the gods, the end of the world, and a lot of very noisy music), the curse has been the motivating force in much of the world’s greatest art and literature. The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter novels are mere johnny-come-latelies at an extended orgy of damnation that has been going on for millennia.
And it’s not just people who get cursed. Objects do, too. Perhaps the most notorious is the Hope Diamond, which was supposedly wrenched from the statue of a Hindu goddess in the mid-17th century and has allegedly been extracting a terrible revenge on its various owners ever since – not least Louis XVI, who became separated from his head in unhappy circumstances, and a lady called Evelyn McLean, who bought the diamond in the mid-20th century. Her nine-year-old son was subsequently killed in a car crash, her daughter committed suicide, her husband had to be committed to a mental hospital, and she went bankrupt. The diamond is now displayed in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. Brave chaps, these museum curators.
It’s in this context that one should place what is probably the most famous curse of all – the one supposedly engraved, though it never was, over the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb. Whoever devised it (and an imaginative American newspaper hack is usually given the credit), it is a corker: “Death,” it thunders ominously, “shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the king.”
And Death certainly did seem to go into overdrive after Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon opened the tomb, on November 26 1922. First, Carter’s canary was gobbled by a cobra. Not, in itself, a massive omen, except that the cobra was the symbolic serpent guarding the Pharaohs. A few months later, Lord Carnarvon was dead, of infection from a mosquito bite that was allegedly inflicted in the same place on his cheek as the strange incision on Tutankhamun’s own deathly visage. As he died in Cairo, it was said, the lights in the city went out – not, it must be admitted, a unique occurrence. Meanwhile, back in England, his dog let out a chilling howl. . . and also dropped dead!
Conan Doyle, a lifelong believer in fairies, promptly declared that Lord Carnarvon had fallen to “the curse of the mummy”. And after this definitive pronouncement from the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the flood-gates opened. Scarcely a month went by without Hollywood producing some new, spine-chilling celluloid epic featuring terrible ham actors wrapped in bandages, or the world’s newspapers gleefully reporting that another member of that 1922 expedition had suddenly snuffed it in an untimely and suspicious manner. By the mid1930s, the list of King Tut’s modern victims allegedly numbered more than 20.
It was codswallop, of course. Carter, who surely would have been the prime target for Tut’s posthumous wrath, lived another 17 years. And recent mind-boggling calculations by an Australian academic have proved that the life spans of the 25 people most directly concerned with the tomb’s opening were totally consistent with the average life spans of Westerners who visited Egypt in the 1920s. What’s more, even if something in the tomb caused some of Carter’s colleagues to develop fatal illnesses, another academic – a German microbiologist called Gotthard Kramer – has proposed a perfectly rational explanation. After subjecting 40 Egyptian mummies to a medical examination (what fun jobs some people have) he identified spores on the corpses that were potentially toxic and could have survived thousands of years inside the tomb. His theory is that these could have attacked the organs of the people who opened the tomb, if they already had a weakened immune system (as, for instance, Lord Carnarvon did).
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But even if they didn’t have the resources of modern science, people in the 1920s were not daft. So why did this superstitious twaddle so grip the public imagination? There are two answers to that – one specific, one more universal. The specific one is that Egypt was being portrayed as a stalking-ground for mysterious, sinister, supernatural forces from “beyond the grave” for at least a century before Carter opened Tut’s tomb. Jane Loudon Webb’s horror novel The Mummy, in which a deceased Egpytian terrorises a 22nd-century writer, was written in the 1820s, Edgar Allan Poe published his Some Words with a Mummy in 1845, and Louisa May Alcott penned her similarly macabre Lost in the Pyramid: The Mummy’s Curse, in 1869.
The craze for homicidal dead Egyptians caught on, and by 1900 British and American bookshops and theatres were heaving with tales of mummies’ curses. Indeed, when the Titanic went down – a full decade before Carter’s discovery – there was a strong rumour (which exists to this day) that the ship was doomed because it carried a looted mummy in its cargo.
So Lord Carnarvon’s premature death after financing the dig that disturbed Tut’s tomb would have seemed to the 1920s public not random and bizarre, but as predictable as thunder after lightning. Bad things were expected to happen to those who went corpse-bothering in the desert.
But surely the obsession with curses – Egyptian or otherwise – goes far deeper than a literary craze. Since time immemorial the notion of a person or object being cursed is inextricably bound up with the transgression of natural or sacred laws – of a misguided miscreant “selling his soul”, Faust-style, and being forever condemned to face the ghastly consequences.
Throughout history, however, you also see authority figures – and particularly priests – playing on this widespread fear of being cursed to bolster their own authority, or protect their treasures. That’s what the Egyptians were doing with their tomb inscriptions: instilling a sense of terrible doom in anyone who dared to open and plunder their sacred chambers.
That’s quite different, it seems to me, from the curses of voodoo doctors, witches and other sundry weavers of spells and potions. It’s the powerless, not the powerful, who generally resort to these: invoking supernatural forces to harm or kill an enemy who would otherwise be untouchable.
When you analyse trendy modern curses – the celebrated “curse of Hello!”, for instance, which seems to bring misfortune crashing down on the heads of anyone unwise enough to have their lovely homes photographed in that illustrious organ – you can see a mishmash of both traditions. We feel these celebs have indeed transgressed some natural law of divine justice – the one which states that you need at least a small semblance of talent to become rich and famous. That, in itself, might incur the curse of a outraged deity. But pure jealousy also makes us secretly wish them ill. So we add our own curse to the foaming cauldron.
Can curses actually do harm? Yes, of course. Feeling yourself pursued and persecuted by some malevolent spirit isn’t something that happens only to Thomas Hardy heroines. You see terrible evidence of such delusions in psychiatric wards all over the world. Yet even seemingly rational people cling to these weird superstitions. Not long ago the citizens of New Orleans employed a voodoo practitioner to curse drug dealers in their neighbourhood. They then solemnly claimed that crime was down 80 per cent. After 50,000 years, it seems, mankind still can’t escape the curse of making curses.
Via: Times Online