William John Warner, also known as Count Louis Hamon, was an eccentric Irish astrologer and occult figure of the early twentieth century. Before he rose to fame, sometime in the 1890s, he toured across Egypt. During his travels he met with a sheikh who was infirmed with malaria. As Warner had acquired some expertise in medicine, he was able to cure him. Whilst the sheikh recovered, he and Warner became close friends. It was upon learning of Warner’s interest in the occult that the sheikh thought of the perfect reward to give him for having cured his malaria. A mummified hand.
If there ever was such a thing as an ordinary mummified hand, this gift was by no means that. No, this hand had belonged to the daughter of a heretical pharaoh, presumably Akhenaten. She had fervently defied her father’s religious views, and he – knowing his God’s law must be upheld above all else – had his daughter raped and killed. As a further insult, the pharaoh had her hand cut off by the priests and buried separately: for she had converted to the old religion, which held that the body must be intact so as to be able to enter paradise in the afterlife.
The sheikh claimed that for over a thousand years his tribe had held the hand in their possession. And so it was that the gift was given. For the next thirty years, it would remain in Warner’s hands.
It was in 1922 that Warner noticed something peculiar: the mummified hand was softening, with what seemed to be fresh blood running through new veins. Terrified, Warner decided to dispose of the sheikh’s macabre gift. He determined that, on All Hallows Eve – the night when the veil between the world of the living and the dead was at its thinnest – he would burn the pharaoh’s daughter’s hand.
With the mummified hand engulfed in the heat of the fire, Warner read from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It was then that a great wind rushed through the house and opened the door to his study. Emerging from the darkness was the ghostly figure of an Egyptian princess dressed in royal finery. She walked towards the fire and extended out her stump of an arm. She had no hand, just the pitiful remnants of a wrist. Taking these remnants, she cast them into the fire, to burn alongside her hand. Then the spectre vanished, and so did the hand.
According to some reports, Warner was subsequently hospitalised, overcome by the shock of encountering the ghostly princess.
Just four days after these events, Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter discovered the untouched tomb of Tutankhamun. It was the greatest archaeological discovery in Egyptological history. Upon hearing the news, presumably from his hospital bed, Warner wrote his friend Lord Carnarvon an urgent message:
“I know now that the ancient Egyptians had knowledge and power of which today we have no comprehension. In the name of God, I beg you, take care!” 1
Only a few months after, Lord Carnarvon would be laid to rest after a mosquito bite took his life. And, if newspapers are to be believed, more than twenty others connected to King Tut would follow him to the grave.
Stories like this one which tell of cursed mummies have abounded for centuries. Even before the discovery of Tutankhamun, one of the most famous of all the stories is that of a supposedly cursed Egyptian mummy that plagued The British Museum so much that they decided to sell it to a museum in New York. However, on its voyage across the sea, its fatal curse took 1,500 souls down into the icy depths of the ocean: for the ship it sailed aboard was the Titanic. 2
However, this story is riddled with inconsistencies, chief amongst them is that the Titanic’s very thorough ship cargo register did not list any mummy on board.
Such is the case with many tales of cursed mummies.
King Tutankhamun’s curse
The supposed deadly curse of Tutankhamun was said to have claimed more than 20 lives. However, the truth of this story is questionable. In the decades which have followed, many have highlighted the resentment of newspapers at the time, who felt snubbed that Howard Carter had sold exclusive media rights regarding the discovery of Tutankhamun to The Times of London. 3 Vindictive, the media spun every tragedy which could, in whatever small way, be linked to the Boy Pharaoh and his so-called evil curse. Not only that, contrary to popular belief, there was no written curse to be found on King Tut’s tomb.4 The only tenuous link is the dubious account of a scarab bracelet found on a mummified hand in the tomb. It is said to have been inscribed with the words: “Cursed be he who moves my body, to him shall come fire, water and pestilence.” This bracelet was later gifted to Sir Bruce Ingham, whose house subsequently burned down, with his land being flooded during the reconstruction. There is no explanation for this. However, the account is once again corrupted with inconsistencies, with its supposed inscription having at least two different possible wordings. 5 Undoubtedly, this story is suspect.
It must also be noted that out of the 58 people involved in the excavation of Tut’s tomb, only eight died within the first twelve years, with many living to reach a ripe old age. Carter himself – the lead archaeologist of the excavation – did not die until seventeen years later, at the age of 64. 6
Therefore, there is much evidence to indicate that the curse of the mummies is nothing but an urban legend, concocted by sensationally driven media outlets. Furthermore, it has even been suggested that Carter himself helped fuel the flames of the supposed curse, in order to make sure people stayed away from the excavation. 7
That being said, there have been numerous reports of people falling ill whilst in possession of a mummy, or after having entered a mummy’s tomb. Usually, such illnesses are defined by respiratory problems. In 1955, Dr. Geoffrey Dean from South Africa suggested that the supposed “curse of the pharaohs” could be attributed to a particularly deadly fungus, that is know to grow in bat guano and can cause a potentially fatal disease, called Cave Sickness. Indeed, in the case of King Tut’s tomb, bats were reportedly seen in the area and – as the tomb was only protected by an iron gate – bats could have flown in and defecated over the treasures.8 However, the presence of bat guano was not something that was reported by Howard Carter at the time.
Cave Sickness is not the only possible explanation. During the process of mummification, toxic substances could have been used. Thus, there is the possibility that the Pharaoh’s sarcophagi contained formaldehyde, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia gas – all of which attack the lungs. 9
This is definitively known to have been the case when twelve scientists excavated the tomb of King Casimir IV in a cave Poland in 1973. Ten of the twelve scientists subsequently died. When one of the survivors tested some of the samples from the cave, they found a deadly fungus, Aspergillus. 10
Whilst fungi and poisonous gases may account for some of the instances of supposedly curses, there is more to this phenomenon.
Curse making: the power of the written word
Undeniably, there is something about Pharaohs’ tombs which captures one’s imagination. These places of burial were regarded as sacrosanct. Indeed, it was extremely rare for a pharaoh’s tomb to be violated during the reign of a successor. Regardless of potential political motivations, there was an unspoken agreement that every Pharaoh recognized the need to respect their predecessor’s grave in order that theirs would be honoured with the same respect. After all, a tomb was not merely a place to store a corpse. Rather, it would serve as the eternal home for one’s soul. It is no wonder, then, that so many pharaohs obsessed over what would be their more permanent home – life, by comparison, being but a short chapter in eternity.
Yet, life does go on. In the world which these glorious monarchs left behind, respect was costly. In fact, revolutions occurred often in part due to the high maintenance costs needed to preserve the graves and pyramids of so many pharaohs. 11
One inexpensive way to deter people from grave robbing and, even more so, successors from pilfering the valuable goods stored in graves was through curses. As such, these ancient kings were obsessed with the power of the written word. The use of curses was all the more important during times of dynastic instability. One such era was during the Old Kingdom, when a common curse read as follows:
“As for anyone who will do something evil against my grave, remove any stone or any brick from this my tomb,enter my tomb, enter upon these my images in my purity, he will be judged regarding it by the great god. I will wring his neck like a goose or a bird and cause those who live up on earth to fear the spirits who are in the west. I will exterminate his survivors. I will not allow their forms to be occupied.” 12
Understandably, such curses have had a very strong psychological effect throughout the ages. Any archaeologist working in Egypt, no matter how sceptical, will no doubt feel the foreboding presence of an ancient being, admonishing them for tainting their holy edifices with their presence.
Zahi Hawass and the mummies’ curse
Zahi Hawass, a respected senior Egyptologist and former minister of antiquities in Egypt, has reported such encounters with curses.
During his work excavating mummies in the Bahariya oasis, he encountered a family of mummified ancient Egyptians. Under pressure to open up the tomb for public display, he opted to compromise, and sent a few of the mummies to be exhibited at a nearby museum. Amongst them were two children and woman. He has reported that, for many nights afterwards, he would see these two children, wrapped in the fresh linen he had given them, following him in his sleep everywhere he went. The woman even crept into his dreams, pleading with him to do something.
These experiences culminated in something akin to a night terror attack, during which Hawass claims one of the little girl’s stretched her arms to wring his neck. He has reported that, even after he woke up, he had trouble breathing, almost as though the little girl’s hands were still clamped tightly around his throat. Unsettled, he reunited the child mummies with the mummy of their father at the museum. This ceased all nightmares.13
This is certainly a remarkable tale, especially when one considers that it comes from a highly-respected, senior archaeologist.
Upon reflecting on the curse of the mummy, Hawass has another account to relate. Far from always inflicting torment, it is suggested that the power of the ancient Egyptians can have positive effects also. This story involves Mahmoud Saleh, a young man who Hawass met at the age of twelve, after the boy’s father had asked him to meet with him. He has recounted how the boy was obsessed with Egyptology and knew everything about him and his work. He even states that Mahmoud had taught himself how to read and write hieroglyphics. The father told him that all this began at the age of five. Mahmoud had been a very sick child; his parents took him to every doctor and specialist in the region, to no avail. In desperation, the family had consulted a psychic who said that they should take the child on more outings. Mahmoud and his parents visited the zoo, the pyramids and eventually the Cairo museum. There, the boy had stared into the eyes of the mummy of Ahmose, the great Pharaoh who expelled the Hyksos Dynasty from Egypt. After a while, the boy started screaming, falling to the floor in hysterics. When he recovered from his fit, he was cured of his illness. Afterwards, he became suddenly and obsessively fascinated with Ancient Egypt. 14
Thus, it could be the case that some mysterious force dwells amongst the tombs of Ancient Egyptians. If so, it is probably not the kind that would be featured on the dramatic set of a Hollywood movie. Rather than plague throngs of innocents with maledictions and illness, this force – for lack of a better word – is a spiritual one. A force that comes from a sophisticated civilisation which comprised a complex belief system. Many people lived their lives always looking toward death and the afterlife. Indeed, the concept of eternity is often forgotten in the more sensational accounts of the mummies’ curse. Rather than strike the living with pain and suffering, words found in Pharaoh’s tombs are often imbued with a desire to make one’s name live on forever. After all, in the words of Egyptologist Salima Ikram, “the whole point of an afterlife is to be remembered.” 15 This is most certainly the case for Tutankhamun. Although his name was erased from the state record of kings by his vindictive successors16, the Boy King’s legacy has entered eternity, becoming by far the most famous of all the Pharaoh’s of Egypt in modern times.
- The Curse of the Pharaohs’ Tombs: Tales of the unexpected since the days of Tutankhamun, by Paul Harrison (2017)
- Tutankhamun: The Untold Story, by Thomas Hoving (1978)
- The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy, by Jo Marchant (2013)
- The Valley of the Golden Mummies, by Zahi Hawass (2000)