Throwback Thursday: The Mummy’s Curse

Even though it is a classic trope in movies and books, the curse of the undead mummy is largely an invention of the Victorian era.

We all know the basic story. A tomb is opened, the archaeologists receive some kind of warning not the disturb the tomb. Later, a mummy rises from the dead to take his revenge. What may surprise you is that this notion is mostly a product of the Victorian era.

The Origin of the Curse Myth

The ancient Egyptian culture and way of life is one of the longest lasting in all of human history. It spanned from the first people to settle in the Nile River Valley in 3500 BCE. Then, it fell to the the Roman Empire with the death of Cleopatra VII (usually referred to simply as Cleopatra) in 30 BCE. Of course, this country underwent many changes during that long time period. There is still an Egyptian state today. But her death marked the end of active Pharaonic rulership over the territory.

Though ancient pharaohs sometimes left inscriptions warning off people from the desecration of their tombs, these were more than likely left for future pharaohs rather than archaeologists. It was common practice for a new pharaoh to remove the names from tombs of those who came before. They thought this promoted the notion a pharaoh was immutable. Only after modern interest in this ancient culture did the real idea of a “curse” come into being.

Roots in Politics?

Scholars like Ailise Bulfin, in her article The Fiction of Gothic Egypt and British Imperial Paranoia: The Curse of the Suez Canal (2011), point to the conflict over this valuable real estate as the real cause the Mummy’s Curse trope in literature. The Suez canal is an artificial waterway created in 1869 and connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. This allowed unprecedented access between Britain and its Eastern colonies. In due course, the so-called “Egyptian Question” became of vital political and economic importance during the Victorian era and beyond.

Many of the curse stories written during this time are aimed at satirizing the Imperial presence of Britain and its exploitation of Egypt.
By the late 1860s, several literary magazines were publishing Egyptian-themed stories and the notion of the curse of the mummy became more prevalent just as the Suez Canal reached completion. The very first story to explicitly mention a curse was called The Lost Pyramids and ran first in America and England in 1869, the same year the Canal was completed. In later reprints, they added the subtitle: The Mummy’s Curse.

Read more about Victorian Egyptomania or check out the reading list

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