Stories of the curse of King Tutankhamen abounded nearly a hundred years before his tomb was discovered in 1922.
The story of the boy Pharoah, who took the throne at age nine or ten and was buried a decade later along with his two stillborn children used to terrify young children who may have watched The Mummy too young. Egyptian curses in popular fiction are typically a combination of mystical elements and working traps which would flood or trap intruders who might hope to retrieve some gold. King Tut’s tomb had been over-looked for so long because of its small size for such a relatively important King, and although there was some evidence of grave-robbing a long time ago, the burial chamber itself was untouched.
King Tut was perhaps the original source of the mummy legend, and the archaeologists that discovered them were, believe it or not, the inspiration for modern day heroes such as Indiana Jones and tomb raider Lara Croft. Mummies and tomb raiders have permeated the public consciousness and cropped up in movies, TV, comics and cartoons – not to mention several video games, and you can even play tomb raider slots for free. The real life tomb raiders however were somewhat a different breed from their modern day pop culture counterparts.
…a perfectly reasonable explanation for his death…
The first two explorers to enter King Tut’s tomb were Howard Carter, a young archaeologist, and his financial backer Lord Carnarvon. Although nothing happened immediately, it was not long after that the elder Lord was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito – thinking nothing of it, he accidentally made the cut worse while shaving and soon found himself with blood poisoning. This is a perfectly reasonable explanation for his death, although newspapers back in Britain made a much larger issue of it. A novelist in the UK named Marie Corelli, claimed to own a book about Ancient Egypt which contained the ominous phrase “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the king”, which only helped to stir the rumours.
Several slight coincidences were ascribed to the curse, as well. Allegedly, at the time of Lord Carnavon’s death in Cairo Hospital, the lights of the hospital went out for a few moments, and back in England his dog howled and immediately dropped dead. Another rumour concerns a cobra – the symbol of Egyptian royalty – eating Carter’s canary while he was in the tomb. There were increasingly more stories insisting that the curse was true. A visitor to the tomb in 1923 died shortly after from a fever and a radiologist who x-rayed the mummy died under mysterious circumstances; one of the best explanations was from Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who claimed that ancient Egyptian priests had created “elementals” which protected royal tombs.
…a mystical force at work…
Of course, the curse is not likely to be real. Some have speculated that the walls of the tomb may have had some kind of fungus which could cause illness, although only six of the twenty-six people who first entered the cave died within a decade of the event. The curses inscribed on the walls of tombs were likely just deterrents, and while there may have been traps which have survived 3000 years, it seems unlikely that there is a mystical force at work.