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.
Photo credit: The New York Times (public domain)
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.
The day after Maurice Sendak died, Google’s doodle celebrated Howard Carter’s 138th birthday. Although Howard Carter’s name may not immediately ring a bell, his work still affects all of us in the western world in profound ways. An inspiration for both Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, Carter is best remembering for discovering the intact tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. This discovery generated a neo-Egyptian revival in western culture, notable in the Art Deco movement and the Egyptianizing architecture it inspired. As Google’s doodle shows, we are still reaching back to ancient Egypt to find some kind of meaning for ourselves today. In a world of gadgets and hi-tech baubles, we still cast an envious eye towards the dwellers along the Nile.
It is difficult to assess why the Egyptians are so enduring. They were, after all, polytheists and occupied a country that is now part of the “Middle East.” It is, however, a mystique that they held even in antiquity. Raiders and invaders who came to Egypt ended up trying to walk like the Egyptians rather than attempting to force them to follow foreign ways. The ideal in ancient Egypt was a stable cosmos. In a perfect world Egypt would be an island of calm and tranquility. For this they had their strong kings to thank, and they spared little expense to build him tombs that would remain the largest buildings on earth until Eiffel began to tinker with steel.
Perhaps the characteristic we most admire about the Egyptians is their unshaken confidence. Assured that they were in the favor of the gods, they took that assurance to the grave. Even as the neighboring Israelites still confined the dead to a gloomy underworld, the Egyptians were constructing an afterlife that would keep the good times rolling as long as time itself survived. A great deal of effort was expended on the pampering of the dead. Funnily enough, in our Christianized nation the confidence of divine pleasure only seems to be enacted in the limiting of the rights of others. And when it is all over, the righteous still fear death. Google has an almost unlimited choice of inspirations for its doodles, but Howard Carter seems especially appropriate on a day when we remember those who are willing to go to dangerous places where the wild things might lurk yet.
King Tutankhamen is on tour in New York City at the Discovery Times Square Exposition. It is difficult to assess how he feels about this tour, but I am certain the young king would have been astounded at Manhattan. The Egyptians were impressed by monumental architecture, and whatever one’s personal likes or dislikes may be, New York is full of monumental architecture. Tut’s famous golden death-mask will, however, be absent. That never leaves Cairo anymore.
As a sometime lecturer on the Ancient Near East, I can always count on students knowing King Tut. Many can’t name his father, Akhenaton, or even say what he was famous for (a rudimentary monotheism), but all know Tut. The reasons are transparent – all that gold! It is difficult not to be impressed with that shiny yellow metal we all would like to have in abundance. Apparently Tut did. His accomplishments as king were severely circumscribed and lackluster, yet he lives on as the most famous Egyptian pharaoh because we have his gold.
Our appreciation of the superficial in the ancient world is a condemnation of our own society. We continue to be impressed by wealth at the expense of substance. Seldom do we find anything resembling true wisdom surviving from the enormous estates of CEOs. Their wealth assures their place in society, regardless of their accomplishments in moving society forward (or, more likely, not). They are living King Tuts. When ancient historians of the future turn their gaze back to our era it is most certain that the modern day Tuts are the ones who will dazzle them with their worthless gold.
Yet another paternity suit appears in the news as promiscuous fathers try to slink off into the pages of history. This time, however, the kid is famous and his father will bask in reflected glory. Scientists in Egypt have been doing DNA tests on King Tutankhamun, “King Tut,” to determine the father of this most famous of pharaohs. Nor is this an idle bit of trivia, since it may rightfully be claimed that American interest in ancient Egypt was born with the discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922. Art Deco styles began to emulate ancient Egypt, and even skyscrapers in Manhattan incorporated pharaonic stylings. If it weren’t for Tut’s wealth, this experiment wouldn’t garner any public interest at all.
Tut's famous visage from Wikipedia Commons
In a classic case of ancient meets modern, the paltry wealth of Tutankhamun’s burial dazzled American imaginations. Here was a guy who matched the American dream – young, exceptionally wealthy (by even today’s standards), and powerful. Not just a metaphorical god, but a literal one as well. And yet his kingdom was troubled. Was it his father (Amenhotep IV, aka Akhenaten) who launched Egypt into turmoil with an unwanted religious revolution? The state reacted strongly, foundering under this uniformity of a religion that many couldn’t accept. Young Tut was forced to recant, if he hadn’t already rejected the reforms of his predecessor, back to the “old time religion” of eternal Egypt.
We may not know for sure who his father was, but King Tut remains a symbol of the power of religion. Ancient and modern believers alike ascribe strongly to their perceptions of the true religion. No one knowingly accepts a false religion. The truth claims of religions are sometimes mutually exclusive. What seems to have brought about the collapse of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt was the insistence on a religion not widely accepted, but enforced by the government. Considering the religious outlook of the James Dobsons, Pat Robertsons and Sarah Palins of our own political landscape, such a collapse becomes comprehensible. Religion must be allowed its freedom to be sincere. Those who believe only because forced to do so will soon place their own child king on the throne, regardless of whom his father might have been.