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.
Preparing course notes on Ancient Near Eastern religions often sheds light on the religions we practice today. Religious beliefs are organic and, although many religions claim special revelation, their basic components have been around for millennia before they appeared. In the broad sweep of ancient times it becomes clear that religions evolve to fit the viewpoint of the power structures of society. The favorite god of a puissant sovereign became the chief god of a nation. When rulers change, gods sometimes change with them. Without doubting the sincerity of ancient believers, the truth is that gods serve the needs of the state as long as the state upholds the monarch. When gods become too sympathetic to the working class, well, it’s time to shuffle up the pantheon a bit. The story of Akhenaton’s advocacy of Aton worship is a case-in-point.
Somewhere along the way to modernity, symbolism became literalism. Anyone who follows the news of the various theocracies of modern history can see this pattern endlessly repeating itself. Politicians need a power-base and religious believers are often natural followers. By wedding gullibility to expediency a religious right is born. Akhenaton would have been proud. Of course, the message repeatedly doled out by our rapidly evolving, technical society is that studying history and religion (among other arcane subjects) is a waste of time. Look! New toys! We set ourselves up to fall prey to the unscrupulous.
How else do we explain the revelations of hypocrisy that spring up like toadstools whenever an über-religious candidate claims public office? Thank goodness modern religions teach forgiveness! In the empires of days long gone, kings lived a life out of touch with the common worker. They enjoyed luxuries that the laborer couldn’t even conjure. When a challenge arose to that power, all you need to do is bring the gods onto your side and even the most stalwart peasant will back off. When Akhenaton’s young son Tutankhaten inherited his shaky throne, the populace demanded the old gods back. Tutankhamen acquiesced and the balance of power was restored. The gods, apparently, did not seem to notice.
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.