The Curse of the Pharaohs: Truth, Myth or Microbiology?
Tracy S. Morris is the author of the award-winning Tranquility series of Southern paranormal humor mysteries.
Morris's story Fish Story will appear in the Baen anthology Strip Mauled
Her new novel Bride of Tranquility Is available now from Yard Dog Press.
Her website is http://www.tracysmorris.com/
For only the second time since their discovery, some of the treasures of Tutankhamen are visiting United States Soil. Wherever they go, the treasures of Tutankhamen inspire wonder. But when they were first discovered in 1922 they also inspired a little bit of fear – fear of a pharaoh’s curse.
The idea of a pharaoh’s curse didn’t originate with King Tut. The tombs of many pharaohs have carried warnings against thieves who would steal – a common and significant problem in Egypt, where ancient Egyptians buried their royalty with treasures in the belief that the wealth could be taken into the afterlife.
But as the discovery of the undisturbed tomb of “the boy king” created mummy mania around the world, a kind of morbid fascination with curses fueled rumors that the archeologists who opened King Tut’s tomb would soon meet with mysterious fates.
Journalists reporting on the find weren’t above embellishing the truth in an effort to tell a good story. Before the tomb was formally opened, reporters were filling their dispatches with accounts that the pharaoh’s seal contained warnings of death coming on swift wings.
But the morbid fascination with the mummy’s curse really took off several months later with the death of Lord Carnarvon, the expedition’s chief financier. Carnarvon had been present at the opening of King Tut’s tomb where, so the popular story goes he received a mosquito bite which he later nicked while shaving. The wound became infected, and Carnarvon died of blood poisoning on April 5, 1923.
Shortly thereafter, Carnarvon’s death became linked to a series of almost supernatural events. Supposedly, at the time of his death, all the lights of Cairo went out. At his estate back in England, Carnarvon’s dog is said to have howled and then died at the exact moment that he did.
As further proof of a curse, it was said that head archeologist Howard Carter’s pet canary was eaten by a cobra on the day the tomb was opened. Journalists noted that a cobra was often portrayed as sitting on the brow of the pharaoh in protection.
The story of the pharaoh’s curse gained steam with the sudden and unexpected death five months later of Lord Carnarvon’s brother. A handful of other people who either visited the tomb or worked around it also sickened and died, including two workmen and financier George Jay Gould I.
As the years have passed, nay-sayers scoff at the idea of a curse, particularly after compiling a list of the alleged victims of the curse. If there were a curse, why didn’t either Carter or Carnarvon’s daughter, Evelyn die as well? Both were present at the opening of the tomb.
But more recently, scientists are starting to believe in the curse --or at least in an explanation for why the series of curse-like coincidences could have happened.
Here’s a recipe for a curse: Take one coffin filled with human remains. Add in enough food and drink to sustain a person in the afterlife. Bury it in a tomb and let it sit for several thousand years. The result? Deadly, toxic mold and bacteria.
The idea of deadly bacteria fueling a pharaoh’s curse isn’t a new one. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who was also responsible for popularizing the story of the Mary Celeste) speculated that ancient Egyptians may have deliberately put harmful gasses or diseases in the pharaoh’s tombs in retribution for tomb robbers.
Scientists have recently explored newer tombs and found that harmful bacteria and mold is present there. And while the toxic mold and bacteria might not be in levels that would harm most humans, they pose a threat to someone with a compromised immune system – such as someone who may have an infected mosquito bite.
Fortunately, you can see the treasures of King Tut’s tomb (along with several other tombs) without risking a curse, bacterial or otherwise. Two exhibitions are in the United States for limited engagements. Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs will remain in Dallas through May 17 before traveling to San Fransisco, and Tutankamun The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs will also conclude in Atlanta in May and then move to Indianapolis.
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