Now that I’ve broached the subject of the Agade listserv, I’m bound to find some interesting stories therein. The title of this blog “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World” is an artifact that demonstrates eleven years ago I was still keeping up with Ancient Near Eastern studies. I was calling it “Ancient West Asian studies” then, but I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that shifts in terminology are frowned upon by those in an industry that moves at a glacial pace. (Just remember that the tortoise wins in the end.) In any case, one of the recent articles on Agade had to do with the “curse” of Tutankhamen’s tomb. This is an idea that goes back to the 1920s and was in some respects expressed in the Universal monster film The Mummy. In pop culture the idea lives on.
It seems that some, but not all, of those involved in opening Tut’s tomb died in unusual ways shortly thereafter. The deaths were not concentrated within a day, let alone a week or a month, and some of them were natural but premature. The ideas of curses, however, fit the spiritual economy of the human psyche so well that they suggest themselves in such circumstances. A run of bad luck may last for years, causing the sufferer to think they might be living under a curse. It is, in many ways, the pinnacle of magical thinking. No matter how scientific we become the idea never goes completely away. Just when Mr. Spock seems in control of the Enterprise Harry Potter beams aboard. Our minds are funny that way.
The particular article I saw was one that had clearly followed on an earlier piece that I had missed. It mentions “the documentary” but doesn’t say which one. I suppose there are many such filmed attempts to make sense of memes such as the Pharaoh’s curse. From my teaching days I have documentaries about a number of weird things that the History or Discovery channel, and maybe A&E, spun out back in the Dark Ages. I’m not convinced that scientific thinking is really under any threat from such journeys down the paths of speculation. I’m also not sure that there really is any connection to the various deaths surrounding the Carter expedition in 1922. In just two years’ time we’ll be at the centenary of the discovery of the tomb and I’m sure there will be plenty of information on offer then. As long as the curse doesn’t get us all first.