The pyramids have always amazed us. It’s just impressive that any ruler can have a mountain built to serve as their tomb. If you’re going to put that much effort in your grave then you’re going to want a good security system. However did they use curses to get the job done or is the mummy’s revenge more mythical than factual.
In 1842 Karl Lepsius translated a set of papyrus which he called The Book of the Dead gave a detailed description of the ancient Egyptian views on the afterlife. It also gave instructions for a set of spells. Many of these pages were commonly painted on tomb walls. So there are actual hieroglyphics that threaten grave robbers with all manner of nasty things. Often the punishment was to have their soul eaten by crocodiles. The book of the dead may have served as the origin story for the mummy’s curse.
The first mention of any curse that haunts tomb robbers outside of Egypt dates back to the Victorians. It was common for adventurers to rob pyramids of their treasures and morbidly of the actual mummies. They would then sell them to those looking for a conversation piece. It’s possible the idea of the legend of the mummies curse was spread to dissuade rich Victorians from buying these Ill-gotten treasures.
But the legend really took off when Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb on February 16th 1923. Now people were able to see photos of the unimaginable wealth sitting in these tombs. Egyptian fever exploded and with it the story of the curse. When Lord Carnarvon the backer of the Tut project became ill and died a few months later the curse seemed to be confirmed.
In fact of the over 50 people who entered the tomb only six died in the next ten years. Even Carnarvon’s death is hard to blame on a curse. Carnarvon was a sickly person and the pop up villages near the tombs were known for spreading diseases. So really the fact he died of a blood infection isn’t all that strange. Also Carter the first person to enter the tomb died of cancer over 20 years later which is a long time wait for a curse to kick in.
Soon mummies became a popular monster of 1930’s pop horror. The first full length horror movie to feature the undead pharos was 1932’s The Mummy by Karl Freund. In these movies the mummy often was brought back to life by the curse to enact its revenge. Even now we are still making films like the remakes of The Mummy and Scorpion King Series. The idea of a long hidden away threat locked away in a tomb full of treasure just makes for great fantasy.
So while there might be messages on the walls of pyramids saying if you enter your heart will be eaten by the crocodile god Sebek, your average tourist or archeologist is probably safe. I think the reason the curse remains so popular is there is a lot about ancient Egypt that is still a mystery. The mummies curse serves as a warning that those who seek to treat artifacts with disrespect might find that those mysteries they cared so little about were their undoing.