Fact or Fiction: King Tut’s Curse

In 1922, an expedition led by Howard Carter opened King Tutankhamen’s tomb. By 1939, Carter and several other prominent figures associated with the expedition were dead.

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Was it mere bad luck? Or was the Curse of the Pharaohs to blame?

Curses of Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians did sometimes place curses on objects–or even just the walls–within the tombs of the pharaohs and other wealthy, revered dead. However, not every tomb contained curse texts or warnings, and according to the National Museum of Scotland, few examples of written curses survive.

In fact, these “curses” more resemble a sign saying “Trespassers Will Be Shot” than anything occult.

National Museum of Scotland

The Egyptians also conducted ceremonies involving “execration texts.” These rituals were the ancient equivalent of burning a photo of your cheating ex.

The priest would record the names of the Pharaoh’s enemies on small clay figurines or tablets. Then they’d smash the objects, spit on them, burn them, bury them in the ground–whatever they hoped would happen to the person in real life.

Victims of the Curse

But back to King Tut’s tomb and the curse of the mummy.

The first to die was George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, an English nobleman who funded the expedition into the Valley of the Kings. He died from an infected mosquito bite a few months after the tomb was opened.

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Fun fact: The Carnarvon’s ancestral home is none other than Hereclere Castle, the “real” Downton Abbey. The castle still houses an impressive private collection of Egyptian artifacts.

Carnarvon’s death, along with the frenzy for all things Egyptian following the discovery of the tomb, sparked a firestorm. In the ensuing years, any death of a person associated with the expedition or Carter was seen through the lens of the curse.

And, to be honest, there were a lot of deaths. Lord Carnarvon’s secretary, Richard Bethell, was discovered smothered to death in bed in 1929, with no apparent culprit. Carnarvon’s brother, Aubrey, died of sepsis just five months after his brother.

Archaeologist Hugh Evelyn-White died by suicide in 1924–leaving a message behind that stated “I have succumbed to a curse which forces me to despair.” Egyptologist Aaron Ember and his family died in a house fire while working on a manuscript about the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Oh, and Sir Archibald Douglas Reid x-rayed the mummy and dropped dead three days later.

Carter himself died in 1939 at the age of 64. His death sent another wave of “King Tut’s Curse” headlines across the world. Since then, the legend has lingered in our imaginations.

The Sherlock Holmes Connection

One of the reasons that we still talk about King Tut’s Curse today is because of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The famed author of the Sherlock Holmes stories was also a huge fan of anything to do with the occult or supernatural. Even though he created the most famous–and famously rational–detectives of all time, Conan Doyle himself embraced the unknown wholeheartedly.

Conan Doyle helped fuel the idea of an “ancient Egyptian curse” in the popular imagination. He gave multiple quotes to popular magazines and newspapers of the time, insisting that Lord Carnarvon’s death was the result of a curse. He told The Express that “An evil elemental may have caused Lord Carnarvon’s fatal illness,” for example.

A Scientific Explanation?

Some researchers have suggested that Conan Doyle’s “evil elementals” might have a more mundane explanation. When King Tut’s tomb was opened for the first time in 3,000 years, ancient bacteria and mold may also have been uncovered.

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Scientists have discovered everything from mold that makes your lungs bleed to caustic ammonia gas built up in sarcophagi. It’s possible that something in the tomb strained Lord Carnarvon’s already weakened immune system, making him more susceptible to the blood poisoning that ultimately killed him.

However, that theory doesn’t explain the other deaths or suspicious number of fires that afflicted people associated with the opening of King Tut’s tomb.