The Same Old Wrap? - A New Take on the Mummy's Curse

My thanks to Dr Jasmine Day for agreeing to be the author of today's post...!

The Same Old Wrap? – A New Take on the Mummy’s Curse
Mummy! thou shalt henceforth be to me as a companion. I will bear thee about with me in my wanderings, and learn lessons from the sad spectacle thou dost present.
Nicholas Michell, ‘The Mummy of Thebes’,
The New Monthly Magazine, 1860 (120: 188–90)
Come Halloween, we think of monsters, including mummies – but this is a very different vision of mummies from that held by many people during the nineteenth century. The “mummy’s curse” of vengeance upon those who defile tombs, the stock in trade of Hollywood horror classics, was a myth that actually arose not out of fear of mummies, but pity for them. During the nineteenth century, as Europeans and Americans began to explore Egypt in droves and plunder its antiquities in an age before the development of systematic archaeology, a large proportion of mummies were taken not as museum specimens but as industrial fodder. An untold number wound up (along with millions of animal mummies) as fertiliser, as the key ingredient in Mummy Brown paint, as fuel for fires or steam engines, or were ground up for medicine. Others were stripped of their wrappings which, imported into Maine, were turned into paper in the days of rag fibre paper manufacture. The lucky mummies were purchased by private collectors, although dozens of them were destroyed in fires, lost or damaged beyond repair long before they could finally make their way into a museum to be properly cared for. Tourists who could not afford a whole mummy could purchase a head, hand or foot on the Egyptian black market and smuggle it home, where it would eventually become an unwanted family heirloom to be burnt, buried, thrown out or gifted to a museum, likely to be relegated there to a storeroom.
It is anybody’s guess how many tens of thousands of human mummies, themselves representing but a portion of those originally preserved in ancient times, were destroyed not so very long ago. (It is also annoying to see how many journalists and commentators still doubt the truth of tales of mummy paper, fertiliser and steam engine fuel, all of which have now been verified in academic studies). Leading thinkers of the late nineteenth century – among them novelist Henry Rider Haggard and Amelia Edwards, founder of the Egypt Exploration Society – railed against the inhumane treatment of mummies. Small wonder, then, that by the 1860s some American female writers of dubious “shock fiction” created the first stories in which female mummies took revenge upon their male violators. This proto-feminist origin of the curse, which drew an horrific and effective analogy with rape, alluded to the injustice of the colonialism and patriarchy that had given rise to what Brian Fagan calls The Rape of the Nile. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, more famous male writers of fiction including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker altered mummy fiction to portray a male archaeologist symbolically seducing a female mummy, or otherwise a living mummy whose attacks upon people are unjust and monstrous. I can only suggest that growing popular fascination with archaeology caused some revision of former Christian scruples about desecrating the dead, so that by the time Hollywood created its mummy classics, the mummy had become a shambling monster and lost most of its former poignancy.
This is a very brief summary of some of my findings about the origins of the mummy’s curse legend in my book The Mummy’s Curse: Mummymania in the English‑speaking World (Routledge 2006). Some recent popular books and websites on the subject of mummymania and the curse have, to my surprise, overlooked my findings gathered over ten years’ study and continue to claim that famous male writers of the late nineteenth century created the curse legend! In truth, its origins date back to European maritime superstitions about the bad luck of bringing mummies aboard ships during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Somehow this lore seems to have evolved into the sentiments of the 1860s literature, something I would like to investigate further.
I must admit to feeling frustrated by recent statements by journalists and writers that the curse continues to remain a mystery. They ask why the legend persists – the answer, of course, is that they are perpetuating it! Also, they have clearly not read either my book (the first extensive study of mummymania in English) or the excellent 2012 The Mummy’s Curse: the True History of a Dark Fantasy by Roger Luckhurst, not to mention the massive number of papers about fictional mummies published over the past 20 years in the fields of literary, film and media studies, many of which are available online. The failure of journalists and popular writers to do their homework has deprived the public of the news that the mummy’s curse is a mystery long solved: it’s not magic, nor some unknown scientific phenomenon, but what is called a discourse – a widely‑held belief that is taken as fact, but is actually highly political, sometimes prejudiced, and can advantage some people at the cost of others. (The ideas that “thin is beautiful” or that Nazis were “the master race” are good examples of discourses.) If I could teach everybody one very useful idea that unfortunately only those who study humanities at university usually hear about, it would be discourse, a concept developed by the French scholar Michel Foucault.
When we look at what has been discovered about mummies in popular culture, we come to realise that mummies have been used as tools to prick the conscience of Western society. Everywhere, they are Puck‑like figures who stir up trouble. They have been used in satire and horror genres to criticise patriarchy (Johnson 1991), colonialism (Johnson 1991; Luckhurst 2012; Shohat 1997), class inequality (Luckhurst 2012), racism (Lhamon Jr 2003:46–53), capitalism that treats mummies as mere objects (Daly 1994) and untrammelled technological development (Strickrodt 1999). Mummy characters mock or attack characters or institutions that represent various forces of social oppression (just look at the way that the mummy Allamistakeo in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 short comic story Some Words With a Mummy challenges the arrogance of his unwrappers). Even “evil” mummies in movies undermine the expertise of scientists and archaeologists, who in the past were agents of colonialism. The curse, while not the only type of mummy discourse, has been the most powerful and as Roger Luckhurst has convincingly shown, legends about curses upon aristocratic British families who acquired mummies were a covert way for lower class people to express resentment against their overprivileged overlords. “I hope that Lord So‑and‑So catches the curse!”
So really, there is no mystery any more about the curse or the ongoing popularity of mummies, but this heralds a fascinating new area of research as we rediscover the many inventive and extraordinary ways in which mummies have been used in the imagination to shape the Western world as we know it today. I encourage you to read any of the intriguing pieces listed below that will get you thinking about mummies in a whole new way, or any of my own papers listed on my webpage at <>.
The mummy’s curse is dead – but death, as they say, is only the beginning …
Dr Jasmine Day

Daly, N. (1994) That obscure object of desire: Victorian commodity culture and fictions of the mummy. Novel: a Forum on Fiction, 28(1), 24–51.
Day, J. (2006a) The Mummy’s Curse: Mummymania in the English‑speaking world. London and New York: Routledge.
—— (2006b) Mummymania: mummies, museums and popular culture. KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 17(2):77–83.
—— (2008a/b) The rape of the mummy: women, horror fiction and the Westernisation of the curse. / The seeds of doom: mummy wheat and resurrection flowers in folklore, poetry and early curse fiction. In P. Peña, C. Martin and A. Rodriguez (eds) Mummies and Science – World Mummies Research: Proceedings of the VI World Congress on Mummy Studies. Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Academia Canaria de la Historia, pp.617–21 / 623–6.
—— (2013) The maid and the mummy. In R. Dann and K. Exell (eds) Egypt: Ancient Histories, Modern Archaeologies. New York: Cambria Press Inc.
Johnson, C. (1991) The limbs of Osiris: Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo and Hollywood’s The Mummy. MELUS: the Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi‑Ethnic Literature of the United States 17(4):105–15.
Lhamon Jr, W. T. (2003) Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.
Luckhurst, R. (2012) The Mummy’s Curse: the True History of a Dark Fantasy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shohat, E. (1997) ‘Gender and culture of empire: toward a feminist ethnography of the cinema’, in M. Bernstein and G. Studlar (eds) Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, pp.19–66.
Strickrodt, S. (1999) On mummies, balloons and moving houses: Jane (Webb) Loudon’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty‑second Century (1827). In Lost Worlds and Mad Elephants: Literature, Science and Technology 1700–1990 (Leipzig explorations in literature and culture vol.2), eds. E. Schenkel and S. Welz. Glienicke and Berlin: Galda & Wilch, 51–9.

Dr Jasmine Day at the Rhode Island School of Design with the coffin and mummy of Nesmin, one of the infamous "cursed" mummies whose legend is recounted in Roger Luckhurst's new book on the The Mummy's Curse.


Popular Posts