A Curse That Refused To Die


Jo Marchant traces the legend of King Tut’s curse, which took root as soon as the pharaoh’s mummy was discovered in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter and his financial backer, George Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon. The latter died in Cairo two weeks after the excavation:

The idea of the mummy’s curse was already a popular story, but Carnarvon’s demise (and [superstitious novelist Marie] Corelli’s apparent prediction of it) turned it into one of the great legends of the age. Rumours quickly spread that Carter had found warnings in the tomb itself. There were reports of a clay tablet, allegedly found over the tomb’s entrance, that read: ‘Death shall come on swift wings to whoever toucheth the tomb of Pharaoh.’

According to the stories, Carter buried it in the sand in case it scared his labourers into stopping their work. The whole situation was a gift for journalists who, four months after the tomb’s discovery, were desperate for more Tutankhamun-related news. Once the curse story took off, they began running daily updates, roping in scholars to debate whether evil spirits were to blame for Carnarvon’s demise. Ernest Budge, a curator at the British Museum, dismissed the theory as ‘bunkum’. The adventure writer Rider Haggard complained that it served only ‘to swell the rising tide of superstition which at present seems to be overflowing the world’. Carter himself apparently said that his answer to the curse was ‘spherical and in the plural’.

But plenty of respected names supported a paranormal explanation. The Oriental scholar J C Mardrus (known for his translation of the Thousand and One Nights) suggested that ‘dynamic powers’ killed the Earl. Impatient with the argument that, were spirits really guarding the tomb, they would have taken out Carter, too, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle insisted: ‘One might as well say that because bulldogs do not bite everybody, therefore bulldogs do not exist!’

(Image: Howard Carter opens the innermost shrine of King Tutankhamen’s tomb near Luxor, Egypt, 1923, via Wikimedia Commons)