Magic, Medicine, and Eternal Love: Why Mummies Still Fascinate > News > USC Dornsife

Magic, Medicine, and Eternal Love: Why Mummies Still Fascinate > News > USC Dornsife

A hundred years ago, the excavations of the tomb of King Tut brought us a mummy with the “curse of the pharaoh”. Our fascination with mummies, however, goes back much further. USC Dornsife researchers explain why we’re still so engrossed in these strange remains.

Key points:

  • November 4 marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of King Tut’s tomb, which some believe triggered a curse.
  • Our fascination with mummies actually dates back to medieval times and has even made its way into medicinal cures.
  • In the modern age, mummy films have become a means of dealing with collective anxiety and guilt over the historical disturbance of graves.

On November 4, 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter broke down the sealed doors to King Tutankhamun’s tomb, revealing a sarcophagus containing the ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s mummified remains and a vast expanse of wealth. It was a remarkable find. Yet it is a morbid curse, not the treasure of gold, that will launch the discovery into the sphere of the mythical.

Howard Carter and his archaeological team prepare to make the first incision in King Tut’s mummy. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Shortly after the tomb was opened, the expedition’s financier, Lord Carnarvon, died of an infected mosquito bite. Newspapers picked up the incident, falsely claiming that a warning against those who entered the tomb had been inscribed above the door.

The “Mummy’s Curse” quickly became as compelling to audiences as King Tut’s gold or silver. The 1932 movie The Mummy loosely adapted that story for the big screen and ever since, it seems, cursed mummies have held a permanent place in our cultural consciousness. They’re a staple of monster movies and scary books, and have joined our standard Halloween costume repertoire alongside the vampire and the witch.

Yet the “mummy craze” sparked by King Tut was just one of many waves of enthusiasm for bandaged remains that have swept the West since the Middle Ages. A closer look at why we remain so fascinated by these ruined creatures reveals a rich array of origins, from a long-held belief in Egyptian magic to guilt over the behavior of colonial empires to a desire for ‘everlasting love.

A teaspoon of sugar brings down the mummy powder

Western interest in mummies grew out of the idea that the ancient Egyptians possessed a lost form of magic. A passage from Exodus that mentions the “magicians of the pharaoh”. as well as the strange and undeciphered hieroglyphs left by the extinct Egyptian civilizations, fired the imagination of medieval Europe.

Powdered mummy remains became a common remedy throughout medieval Europe, prescribed for everything from bruises to epilepsy. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

“All of this brought the view of ancient Egypt as an occult opposition to Judeo-Christian beliefs,” says Thea Tomaini, professor (teacher) of English. “Medieval Europeans believed that hieroglyphs were picture writing. So not only were they mysterious and connected with the magic of Pharaoh’s magicians, but they were engraved images and specifically idolatrous.

Mummies also played a strange and important role in early European medicine. Throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and even into the Victorian era, Europeans used powdered mummy remains for healing powders and potions.

It originally stemmed from the Arab practice of using bitumen or “mummy” in Persian, a sticky form of petroleum that naturally seeps from the earth in parts of the Middle East, as a curative.

European apothecaries read about this substance in Arabic medicinal texts and soon a robust trade in bitumen between Europe and the Middle East arose. Eventually, suppliers of the material resorted to grinding ancient Egyptian mummies, whose preservation techniques appeared to use bitumen, into a powder to satisfy demand.

Over time, the allure of bitumen has been superseded by the newer, romanticized notion of consuming the literal flesh of mummies. “They thought mummy powder had magical powers. It connected the idea of ​​ancient Egyptian mysticism to the idea that the bodies of the ancient Egyptians themselves had this magic,” Tomaini explains.

Dead, unwrapped

Napoleon’s artists’ engravings of Egyptian structures, art, and daily life sparked a craze in Europe and America for all things Egyptian. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

The metaphorical appetite for mummies was further heightened by Napoleon’s excursion to Egypt at the turn of the 19th century. The detailed art, pyramid and temple engravings published thereafter inspired art, literature, architecture and fashion across Europe and America.

It also sparked excitement for a new type of festive activity: mummy unrolling. Guests watched as the host unrolled the bandages of a mummy imported from Egypt. Spectators could closely examine the hair, bones and jewelry of the dead.

The mummies also made their way into museums and traveling exhibits, drawing large crowds who could gaze with frank curiosity at the withered remains. These exposures overlapped with the rise of funeral homes. More and more families are contracting out caring for the dead to funeral directors, so in the modern era, an exposed mummy may be the first corpse a person sees.

“Mummies allow us to contemplate corpses in complete safety. They delight us with their exoticism and provide a comforting replacement for the historical reality of handling the bodies of our own dead,” says Diana Blaine, professor (teacher) of gender and sexuality studies.

However, all that unboxing and awed stares seem to have sparked lingering feelings of guilt, which might explain why we also associate mummies with anger.

“Most people, wherever they are on the planet, have a deep religious or moral connection to the idea that they will rest in peace,” Tomaini says. “The fact that you’re digging up mummies, unwrapping them at dinner parties, and putting them in museums, really strikes at that deeper fear in human beings that your final resting place will be violated by someone in the future. .”

It was also this time, long before the discovery of King Tut, that produced the first stories of a resurrected mummy and the curse of a mummy. The Mummy! written in 1827 by Jane C. Loudon featured a reanimated mummy, and Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 short story “Lost in a Pyramid” centered on haunted seeds taken from the tomb of a pharaoh. Notably, the earliest tales of vengeance mummies were written by women, who may have viewed grave-breaking as analogous to rape, according to noted anthropologist and Egyptologist Jasmine Day.

Love is eternal

Our collective guilt for the treatment of mummies has rather obviously spilled over into mummy films. Their plots invariably involve an intrusive archaeologist incurring the wrath of a mummified pharaoh after disturbing his tomb.

Much of this can be linked to our anxiety about the exploits of colonial empires, which dug graves and removed thousands of mummies without regard to local customs.

“I think there’s a lot of colonialist guilt in these stories. We must ask ourselves: ‘What if my final resting place was violated by someone from a distant country who was not only interested in my business, or my resting place, but who wanted to violate my body by unwrapping it from her laundry, taking off my jewelry and cutting me to pieces? Said Tomaini. In order to remove the gold bracelets and burial mask of King Tut, for example, archaeologists separated his joints and then pieced them back together.

However, dealing with guilt isn’t all these films are about. “What really triggers the plot and gives it its energy is the theme of lost love,” says Leo Braudy, university professor, professor of English and art history and holder of the Leo S. Bing Professorship of English and American Literature.

In the 1932 film The Mummy and its 1999 remake, much of the plot revolves around the resurrected mummy’s former love for Princess Ankhesenamun, which is then transposed to a modern woman he meets after waking up. “It’s a theme in many other monster movies, like Dracula. Is love eternal, does it last over time? Brady said.

And, of course, mummy films explore one of the biggest questions: can we conquer death? The resurrection powers of mummies will likely continue to fascinate as long as immortality eludes us.

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