Tutankhamen Curse
On November 26, 1922, in the Valley of the Kings, the tomb
of Tutankhamen, the boy king of Egypt, was discovered. After
three thousand years, four burial chambers were uncovered
with nearly five thousand objects of gold, alabaster, lapis lazuli,
and onyx, in addition to the mummy of the king and his gold
mask. These treasures have expanded modern understanding
of the art, life, religion, and history of ancient Egypt.
Two men were responsible for this discovery—Howard Carter,
a British painter-archaeologist, and George E. S. M. Herbert,
fifth Earl of Carnarvon. A few weeks after the excavation,
Lord Carnarvon died suddenly, and this event, together with
the deaths of various other individuals associated with the Tutankhamen
tomb, started the story of a ‘‘Curse of the Pharaohs.’’
One writer claimed the curse was responsible for the lives of
some three dozen scientists, archaeologists, and scholars.
Who Was Tutankhamen
It has been claimed that Tutankhamen was a great king because
his tomb contained such treasures. Others have suggested
he was the pharaoh of Exodus and it was his wife, Ankhesenpa-Aten,
who found Moses in the bulrushes and raised him. In
fact, both claims are incorrect. Tutankhamen reigned during
the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom. He was a boy of
nine when he came to the throne and his reign lasted nine
years, from about 1334 to 1325 B.C.E. He was not the ruler of
Egypt during the exodus described in the Bible.
It is believed Tutankhamen’s name was originally Tutankhaten
(‘‘perfect life of Aten’’). He married AnkhesenpaAten
when a child. He wife was a daughter of King Amenhotep
IV (1372–1334 B.C.E.) who had earlier attempted to supplant
the god Amun by the Aten, in the process changing his name
to Akhenaten (‘‘pleasing to the Aten’’). At that time, the priests
of Amun had more power than the ruler, so as Akhenaten he
reinforced his rule and suppressed worship of Amun.
During the reign of Tutankhamen, the priesthoods dissolved
by Akhenaten were partially reinstated and new images
installed in temples. However, in giving pride to Amun, there
was no attempt to destroy the worship of Aten, only a displacement
of Aten’s former status as principal or sole god. Many of
the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamen indicate tolerance
toward former gods. One inscription on a golden throne
calls Tutankhamen ‘‘image of Ra, beloved of the gods,’’ and a
cabinet inscription states ‘‘eldest son of Aten in heaven.’’ The
memory of Akhenaten is also preserved in tomb objects such
as a box bearing the name of Akhenaten, and an artist’s palette
that belonged to Akhenaten’s eldest daughter Meritaten.
Tutankhamen died before a grand burial tomb could be
prepared. Its importance lies in its contents—chariot bodies,
state chairs, gilded couches, royal apparel, trinkets, cosmetics,
statues, alabaster vessels, even food, and the golden mask of
Tutankhamen himself. Most of the other royal tombs had been
ravaged by robbers over the centuries.
The Excavators
Credit for discovery of the tomb was given to Howard Carter.
Born May 9, 1873, in Swaffham, Norfolk, England, he was
the son of a watercolor painter. At the age of 17, he was hired
by Percy E. Newberry of the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities
to work at the British Museum, London, to make finished drawings
of Egyptian inscriptions. Carter later became assistant to
Sir William Flinders Petrie, an Egyptologist, traveling in Egypt
and recording in watercolors the paintings and inscriptions in
temples.
In 1899, at the age of 25, Carter became inspector of monuments
in Upper Egypt and Nubia, employed by the Antiquities
Service, which was then administered by the French authorities.
In 1904, Britain and France partitioned North Africa, the
French assuming control of Morocco, and the British of Egypt.
But French rights in archaeology continued, and authorization
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Tutankhamen Curse
1595
to excavate tombs required the investigator be accompanied by
an inspector of antiquities and share the finds with the Antiquities
Service on behalf of the Egyptians.
While Carter was an inspector of monuments, he worked for
several seasons excavating the Valley of the Kings with American
millionaire Theodore M. Davis. After opposition from the
Egyptians, the French, and the newspapers, Carter lost his position
as an inspector in 1903 due to an incident in a tomb at
Saqqara.
For a time, Carter sold watercolor paintings to tourists and
made paintings for Theodore Davis. In 1907, he stated working
for the amateur archaeologist Carnarvon. George Edward
Stanhope Molyneux Herbert became fifth Earl of Carnarvon
on the death of his father in 1890. After an automobile accident
he was advised by physicians to avoid the damp English winter
and spent a year in Egypt, where he first became attracted to
archaeological excavation.
The joint explorations of Carnarvon and Carter began in
the winter of 1907–08, with excavations in the Valley of Der alBahari
in Western Thebes. In 1910–11, they discovered an unfinished
temple of Hatshepsut and other remains. In 1911–12,
new ground was broken with excavations of Xois near the Nile
delta. It was thought by 1922 that there were no more royal
tombs in the Valley of Kings, but Carter persisted, and in December
1922 discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.
On November 6, Carter sent a telegram to Carnarvon in England
‘‘AT LAST HAVE MADE WONDERFUL DISCOVERY
IN VALLEY. A MAGNIFICENT TOMB WITH SEALS INTACT.
RE-COVERED SAME FOR YOUR ARRIVAL. CONGRATULATIONS.’’
Carnarvon went to Egypt and 20 days
later the entrance to the tomb was finally excavated and Carter
entered, accompanied by Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert
(Carnarvon’s sister), and an assistant.
On February 17, 1923, Carter and Carnarvon entered the
main burial chamber of Tutankhamen and found a wall of
gold. The work of describing, classifying, and removing the
shrine contents, including the mummy of the pharaoh himself,
could not take place for another season. There were also disputes
between Carter and the Egyptian authorities, notably
with the Frenchman Pierre Lacau, appointed head of the Antiquities
Service in Cairo in 1917. These disputes concerned the
ownership of the antiquities in the Tutankhamen tomb—
Carnarvon and Carter claiming rights to a proportion of them
and Lacau maintaining all the contents were the property of
the Antiquities Service and the Cairo Museum.
In March 1933, Carnarvon and Evelyn left for Cairo so that
Carnarvon could negotiate for a ‘‘proper division’’ of the tomb
antiquities. However, Carnarvon did not live to see the conclusion
of the dispute or even the removal of the golden funerary
mask of the Tutankhamen mummy. In April, he became seriously
ill after his razor nicked a mosquito bite. Infection set in,
followed by pneumonia. He died on April 6. The newspapers
printed a story that he was a victim of the ‘‘Curse of the Pharaohs.’’
The Legend of the Curse of the Pharaohs
Curses were certainly known in ancient Egypt, usually invoking
the wrath of the gods against those seeking to embezzle
funds for guards, occasionally against thieves. Many tombs
were robbed by grave robbers over the centuries. An inscription
of the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, made over five thousand
years ago, reads ‘‘As for any people who shall take possession
of this tomb as their mortuary property or shall do any evil
thing to it, judgment shall be had with them by the great God.’’
In his book The Curse of the Pharaohs (1975), Philipp Vandenberg
states there were 22 other ‘‘mysterious’’ deaths of individuals
associated with the tomb. The American archaeologist Arthur
Mace, who had assisted Carter in opening the tomb,
suffered from exhaustion after the death of Carnarvon and fell
into a deep coma, dying in the same hotel as Carnarvon.
George J. Gould, son of the financier, visited the tomb and died
the next day after a high fever ascribed to bubonic plague. Joel
Wood, a British industrialist who visited the tomb, died of a
high fever on the ship carrying him back to England. Archibald
Douglas Reid, a radiologist who worked on the Tutankhamen
mummy, suffered from weakness, and died after returning to
England.
Other fatalities associated with the tomb included a Professor
Winlock, a Professor Foucraft, and archaeologists Garry Davies,
Edward Harkness, and Douglas Derry. Carnarvon’s wife,
Lady Alimina, died in 1929, apparently from an insect bite, and
Carter’s secretary Richard Bethell died the same year with a circulatory
collapse. When Bethell’s father heard the news, he
committed suicide, and reportedly his hearse ran over a boy on
the way to the cemetery.
Vandenberg further claimed Carter had found a clay tablet
in the antechamber with an inscription that Alan Gardiner deciphered
as ‘‘Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the
peace of the pharaoh.’’ However, such a tablet was never cataloged
and there is no trace of it.
One newspaper reported there was a hieroglyphic curse on
the door of the inner shrine ‘‘They who enter this sacred tomb
shall swift be visited by wings of death,’’ but this story is a fabrication.
Similarly another report cited an inscription on the
mud base of a candle that stated ‘‘It is I who hinder the sand
from choking the secret chamber. I am for the protection of the
deceased and I will kill all those who cross this threshold,’’ but
the last phrase was another invention.
‘‘The Curse of the Pharaohs’’ became a newspaper topic for
many years and every death of an individual even distantly associated
with the tomb long after the excavation was solemnly
recorded as another victim of the curse.
Some of these claims were remote. They included the friend
of a tourist who had entered the burial chamber; the friend was
knocked down by a Cairo taxicab. An associate curator of Egyptology
at the British Museum in London died peacefully in his
bed, while an Egyptologist in France died of old age—both
were reported as curse victims. A workman in the British Museum
was said to have died suddenly while labeling objects from
the tomb—although the British Museum did not have any of
the Egyptian antiquities. For some time, such stories panicked
collectors of Egyptian antiquities, who hurriedly donated their
souvenirs to museums.
Carnarvon’s son was interviewed on NBC Television in New
York on July 14, 1977, and questioned about the ‘‘curse.’’ Carnarvon’s
son stated he ‘‘neither believed it nor disbelieved it,’’
but added that he would ‘‘not accept a million pounds to enter
the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings.’’ A New
York Daily News report claimed that the same evening, the
younger Lord Carnarvon was attending a dinner in an apartment
high above Manhattan and looked out over the city and
saw all the lights flicker and black out. After candles were lit,
he said to his hosts ‘‘It is again the curse of Tutankhamen.’’
However, Carter lived for 17 years after his great discovery,
dying March 2, 1939, in his mid-sixties.
For decades, relics of Tutankhamen remained in the Cairo
Museum, limited by space, and many objects were not even displayed.
In June 1974, President Richard M. Nixon visited
Egypt, where President Anwar Sadat suggested an exhibition of
the masterpieces of Tutankhamen in the United States could
affirm the friendly accord and goodwill between the two nations.
The subject of ‘‘King Tut’s Curse’’ has been raised from time
to time and still has believers. The term is also used by travelers
in the Middle East to describe the hazard of diarrhea, also
known in Mexico as ‘‘Montezuma’s Revenge.’’
Sources
Budge, E. A. W. Tutankhamen Amenism, Atenism and Egyptian
Monotheism. London M. Hopkinson, 1923. Reprint, New York
Bell Publishing, 1979.
Tutankhamen Curse Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1596
Carter, Howard. The Tomb of Tut-ankh-Amen. 3 vols. London
Cassell, 1923–33. Reprint, New York Cooper Square Publishers,
1963.
Gilber, Katherine S., with Joan K. Holt and Sara Hudson,
eds. Treasures of Tutankhamen. Catalog of an Exhibition between
1976 and 1979. New York Ballantine Books; New York Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1976.
Herbert, G. E. S. M. (5th Earl of Carnarvon), and Howard
Carter. Five Years’ Explorations at Thebes, 1907–1911. London
H. Frowde, 1912.
Hoving, Thomas. Tutankhamen The Untold Story. New York
Simon & Schuster; London Hamish Hamilton, 1978.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit Gale Research,
1993.
Vandenberg, Philipp. Der Fluch der Pharaonen. Scherz Verlag,
1973. English edition as The Curse of the Pharaohs. Philadelphia
J. B. Lippincott, 1975.
———. Der Vergessene Pharao. C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 1978.
English edition as The Golden Pharaoh. New York Macmillan;
London Hodder & Stoughton, 1980.
Wynne, Barry. Behind the Mask of Tutankhamen. New York
Taplinger, 1973.