The Curse Of Tutankhamun

Public perception of the famous (or now, infamous) boy King, Tutankhamun, has undergone a complete 180 in recent years, but the tale of his accompanying curse still inspires shudders from contemporary audiences. 

But what do we really know about the Boy King and is his deadly curse a matter of fact or fiction?

Let’s discuss.

Who was King Tut?

Rendering of Tutankhamun from documentary Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered. Image courtesy of BBC1.

As a child, I remember a picture book in my school library which discussed the demise of the the king, claiming his death was mysterious and unnatural. An illustration of a muscular white man with a tan, sprawled across the marble floor with a poisoned wine challis in his hand accompanied still sits at the forefront of my mind. 

Of course, this image of the boy king is one of pure Eurocentric fantasy. Long gone are the claims of murder by either a blow to the head or poison, as the inaccurate children’s book seems to indicate. 

Although there are no contemporary records of his death, it is theorised that the king died from a combination of severe malarial infection, combined with a fall from a chariot. 

Similarly inaccurate is the image of Tutankhamun a strong, healthy -and caucasian- king. We know that Tutankhamun was afflicted with a myriad of health conditions resulting from the close interbreeding of his parents. 

At the time of his death, he stood at 5ft 6in (167cm) and was of slight build, with a narrow waist and full hips. Much like the later Habsburg’s and their infamous jaw, King Tut had large front teeth and a pronounced overbite, an inherited trait of his lineage.   

A CT scan from 2005 showed Tutankhamun had scoliosis and a partial cleft palate among other health conditions. It’s also been theorised that he had Marfan syndrome and a variety of intersex conditions.

Overall, this presents the picture of a young man in overall ill health.

As Tutankhamun inherited the throne at only 8 years old, and as such, had plenty of advisors, including his successor, Ay. During his reign, he (or they) reversed the religious restrictions his father, Akhenaten, imposed. He also sought to restore diplomatic ties with neighbouring kingdoms, and was apparently quite well liked, giving the number of foreign gifts in his tomb. 

He also loved ducks

The Tomb of Tutankhamun

Tutankhamun’s golden mask, via wiki

Before I continue down to fall down the rabbit hole of 18th Dynasty Egypt, lets fast forward several thousand years to 1922, when Egyptologist, Howard Carter catapulted Tutankhamun from the shady palace of memory to the blazing sunlight of modern public consciousness. The rediscovery was of huge historic significance, as it had avoided excessive plundering and remained mostly intact. 

The tomb was rediscovered in November 1922 and resulted in a media frenzy, providing a fanciful escape and promise of eternity to people of the interwar period.

The Tomb contained the mask of Tutankhamun – now one of the most popular representations of ancient Egypt – as well as a verity of sacred artefacts and personal possessions. This included a wooden box, carved with ducks, which contained a pair of gold duck earrings, gold encrusted sandals with little ducks on the front and a childhood tunic, with little duckies on.

One of the most prolific discoveries, however, was something completely intangible. There was no way for the archaeologists to box it up and steal it ship back to the British Museum – lord knows they would have otherwise. 

The most prolific thing to come out of the tomb was its supposed curse.

Howard Carter and an Egyptian assistant examine the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun (colourised) Bridgeman/Leemage

The Curse

Despite rumours to the contrary, Tutankhamun’s tomb did not actually contain any written reference to a curse, although that are not unheard of – they were a frequent occurrence on private tombs of the Old Kingdom. As we’ve seen in other curse stories – like the Kennedy Curse – there isn’t always an inscribed curse to reference.

Never the less, rumours of a curse abound shortly after the discovery, bringing an untimely death to many of those involved in the tomb’s reopening.

The fist supposed victim was Howard Carter’s canary. The story goes that a messenger stumbled upon a cobra in the birdcage, making a meal of the poor canary. The cobra, of course, was a symbol of the Egyptian monarchy, and its trespassing into Carter’s house mirrored his own trespass into the royal tomb.

The next death was the first of the curse’s human victims in the shape of Lord Carnarvon, the financier of the excavation. After being bitten by a mosquito and reopening the wound while shaving, blood poisoning took hold and passed away in his Ciro hotel on 5th April. Rumours abound that the location of Lord Carnarvon’s wound mirrored the location of a mound on the king’s cheek, although this was never definitely proved. Five months after his death, Lord Carnarvon’s brother also passed away of sepsis, and some relate this to the curse.

Another misfortune came in the form of Sir Bruce Ingram, after being gifted the rather macabre gift of a mummified hand as a paperweight. The hand wore a scarce bracelet reading:

 “Cursed be he who moves my body. To him shall come fire, water and pestilence”

Ingram’s house burnt down, and when it was rebuilt, it was devastated by a flood.

Other apparent deaths include:

  • In May 1923, a railroad executive, George Jay Gould I visited the tomb and promptly died after developing a fever.
  • Aaron Ember, Egyptologist who was present when the tomb was opened died after a fire engulfed his house. His wife, allegedly encouraged him to save his manuscript  – The Egyptian Book of the Dead – while she saved their son. Unfortunately all three died in the fire, along with their maid.
  • A.C Mace, a member of Carter’s excavation team died of pleurisy and pneumonia in 1928.
  • Richard Bethell, Lord Carnarvon’s secretory and second person to enter the tomb, died suspiciously in 1929, after being found smothered to death in a London gentleman’s club. Some attribute this death to Alastair Crowley.
  • Sir Archibald Reid, a radiologist, x-rayed the king died three days later.
  • Howard Carter died of Hodgkin’s disease sixteen years after discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb. Some like to link this back to the curse, although Carter himself did not believe in it. 
Tutankhamun receives flowers from Ankhesenamun, his wife and half-sister. This image is on the lid of a box found in Tut’s tomb, via wiki

In Conclusion

The curse of Tutankhamun took on a life of its own and has inspired countless pieces of media, from Hollywood film franchises to songs. As it so often does, popular culture has taken these allegedly connected deaths and stretched it into urban legend. Had many of these deaths or incidents occurred without the link to the king, they’d likely have passed by quite innocently. That being said, their connection to the tomb does connect each of them. Is that to say it was the cause? Who knows. 

Skeptics point out that many of those involved with the opening, removal and study of Tutankhamun’s body and artefacts went on to live perfectly peaceful lives and rather average deaths. What is undeniable is that every person directly involved in opening the tomb is now dead – as they should be, it was a hundred years ago.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a believer in the curse, believing “elementals” created by funerary priests were created to guard the king’s mortal remains in death. Upon hearing the tale, even the surprisingly suspicious Benito Mussolini ordered the removal of his own Egyptian mummy, which had been gifted to him. Which is strange in itself if you ask me. Maybe he was waiting for an excuse to get rid of it?

Whether or not you believe in the curse, it’s story, along with the rediscovery of his tomb, has granted King Tutankhamun with immortality. With only a ten year rule, Tutankhamun’s reign was rather forgettable in the great scheme of the Pharaohs, and his name would have been lost to the side notes of history. Instead, he is known and renowned the whole world over, his name synonymous with Ancient Egypt. Not bad for an eighteen year old kid who loved duckies.

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