Is the "Curse of the Pharaohs" For Real?

Thanks to classic Hollywood horror films such as The Mummy’s Curse, most of us probably are familiar with the notion that disturbing the tomb of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh will unleash some potentially very bad vibes. Preposterous as that might seem to we modern, science-oriented folks, we have a hard time dismissing by a string of incidents that probably are totally coincidental, but nevertheless are just a little too, well, creepy for the superstitious.

There’s no evidence that Tutankhamun ever put a curse on future grave robbers. But given that the Egyptians were both obsessed with the afterlife and fond of putting curses upon enemies, a mashup of the two concepts is difficult to resist. The meme seems to begun with George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, AKA Lord Carnervon, the backer of the expedition led by Howard Carter that discovered  Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Though only in his mid-fifties, Carnarvon suffered from chronic ill health due to injuries from a 1901 automobile accident. An enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist, he often visited diggings and watched from inside a special screened cage that protected him from dust, flies and the blazing Sun. While visiting Egypt after the discovery, Carnarvon apparently was bitten by a mosquito. He inadvertently tore the wound open while shaving, and the bite became infected. He then developed pneumonia, and died in Cairo on April 5, 1923, as his personal doctor was still en route from England to treat him.

While a lot of people died of such ailments in the tropics prior to the development of antibiotics, supernatural enthusiasts seized upon the nobleman’s demise to push their own dark theories. The British gothic novelist Marie Corelli sent a letter to the Times of London, reporting that she had found in an early Arabic book a description of a royal curse put on grave robbers: “Death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a pharaoh.” Detective novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, a dedicated spiritualist, opined that Carnarvon’s death might have been caused by “elementals” commissioned by ancient priests to guard Tutankhamun’s remains. 

Newspaper wire reporters had a field day with all this. “Has the curse of the ancient pharaohs descended upon Lord Carnarvon and his and his household, and will it overtake those to whom Lord Carnarvon has given sacred objects from the tomb of Tutankhamen?” asked a breathless Associated Press dispatch from April 1923. The account described  Carnarvon’s demise as having been triggered by a “mysterious insect” that bit him shortly after he entered the tomb–facts that were literally true, but hyped. 

Other strange incidents–many of them apocryphal–soon emerged to further embellish the newly developed legend. The stories circulated, for example, that Howard Carter’s pet canary was eaten by a cobra on the day the tomb was opened, and that at the time of Carnarvon’s death there was a huge electrical blackout in Cairo. Neither actually happened, but they sounded convincing to the easily unnerved. Equally untrue was a rumor that the Titanic’s hold had contained a mummy being shipped by the British Museum.

The meme caught on, and in the years that followed, whenever someone connected with the Tutankhamun discovery became ill or died–as people sometimes do–the curse was brought up as an explanation. For example, when noted Egyptologist Arthur Weigall–who for reasons known only to him, dabbled in speculation about the Pharaoh’s curse– died at age 53 in 1934, a Time obituary noted that friends had described his fatal illness as “mysterious.” The Hearst newspapers dug further and ascribed 20 deaths of people connected with the expedition to the curse. A reporter even consulted Dr. Louis Dublin, master actuary for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., who said that the average life expectancy of the dead tomb explorers would have them alive until 1943. After some coaxing, he conceded–perhaps so that he could get back to his real work–that “there is something uncanny about it.”

The “curse of the pharaohs” became so ubuiquitous in popular culture that it even showed up as a plot twist in a 1938 Hardy Boys novel

“When the tomb of Rhamaton IV was opened, a curse was supposed to fall upon those who had violated the royal crypt,” Mr. Scath explained, “and the curse actually seemed to be fulfilled. The newspapers made much of it at the time.”

Over the years, paranormal dubunkers have demolished much of the myth’s foundations. Magician-investigator Jame Randi, for example, actually researched the mortality of the people present at the discovery and/or unveiling of Tutankhamun’s tomb. He found that many of the key figures actually had survived for decades after supposedly evoking the pharaoh’s ghostly wrath. Expediction leader Carter died at age 66, and Dr. Douglas Derry, who dissected the mummy, lived to be 80. 

The myth of the curse persists even today (try Googling “pharaoh + curse” if you need evidence). Some have even tried to come up with scientific explanations for the supposed curse. In 1993, for example, a Scripps Howard wire service article reported on a new theory by Dr. Nichola di Paolo, an Italian kidney specialist. He argued that Lord Carnarvon had been killed not by pneumonia, but by a poisonous mold that had been nurtured in the damp, dank environment ofTutankhamun’s tomb. The nobleman, Dr. di Paolo speculated, probably had entered the long-closed tomb without a mask, and had inhaled the toxin. 
Be sure to watch Treasures of Egypt: King Tut’s Final Secrets, on Wednesday Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. Here’s a sneak peak from tonight’s episode: