Tut’s Curse: Death Shall Come on Swift Wings

Informal portrait of Howard Carter (the archaeologist) standing with a book in his hand next to a train at a station in Chicago, Illinois

Howard Carter (1924)

The tomb of Tut-ankh-amun, KV62, was unearthed in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter’s expedition, financed by Lord Carnarvon, in 1922—but it’s a miracle that it was. Theodore M. Davis, who had discovered the KV55 tomb in 1907, eventually yielded his concession to dig in the valley, convinced that it had been dug dry. It was snapped up by Carter and Carnarvon, but they were delayed in starting work until 1917 by the advent of the First World War. After four fruitless seasons, Carnarvon called a halt to the dig.

Carter, however, was so desperate to continue that he struck a bargain: if Carnarvon would fund one final season, he could keep all the finds for himself. On November 4th one of the workman unearthed a step in the valley floor. By the following day, the upper part of a doorway was revealed with the seal of the Royal Necropolis still intact. Carter filled the excavation back in to protect it and proceeded to cable Carnarvon in England.

Howard Carter (kneeling), an Egyptian workman, and Arthur Callender at doors of burial shrines in Pharao Tutankhamen’s tomb

The moment Howard Carter opens King Tutankhamen's tomb

Lord Carnarvon certainly took his time in coming. He didn’t arrive until the last week of November, postponing the opening of the tomb until the 29th. It was then that a curious incident occurred. A workman who’d been sent on an errand to Carter’s house heard a faint, almost human cry as he approached, and, on entering, discovered a cobra in the process of devouring Carter’s pet canary inside the poor bird’s cage. This gruesome omen was interpreted by some as a symbol of Ancient Egyptian royalty (the cobra representing the uraeus of a pharaoh’s crown) taking its revenge on Carter for opening the tomb. It was reported in the New York Times on December 22nd 1922, sparking speculation that Tut’s tomb might be cursed.

At the end of March 1923, New York World magazine published a letter written by the English novelist Marie Corelli. Though she is scarcely remembered today—for all her works are thinly-disguised Masonic-styled treatises on self-discovery, a genre which has long since fallen from popularity—in her time Corelli not only outsold Sherlock Holmes’s creator Arthur Conan Doyle but was Queen Victoria’s favourite author. Quoting some obscure reference in her letter, she predicted that a dire punishment would befall all those who defiled the tomb.

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, at Howard Carter’s home on the Theban west bank

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon

Lord Carnavon died of blood poisoning a few days later—on April 5th 1923, after nicking an existing mosquito bite whilst shaving, which then became infected—thus pouring fuel on the rumours that were circulating. While Howard Carter was a rationalist who put no credence whatsoever in the occult, Lord Carnavon was quite the opposite. He’d employed a personal psychic, a woman known as Velma, who, on his death, published an account of her final sittings with the earl, where she had read the man’s palm and consulted her crystal ball. She claimed she had warned Carnavon that he was the focus of powerful occult forces and begged him not to return to the tomb, but apparently Carnarvon viewed these forces as a challenge to be met with and vanquished. Following the publication of her story, other psychics followed suit, each with his or her own take on the curse.

The most convoluted (and most historically inaccurate) version of them all appeared in True Ghost Stories—published some twelve years later in 1934—by a palm-reader styling himself as “Cheiro” (from the term cheiromancy, meaning “palmistry”). A Dubliner by birth, Cheiro had been the most celebrated palm-reader in Britain during the latter part of the nineteenth century, with clients such as the Prince of Wales, Prime Ministers Gladstone and Chamberlain (and even William Thomas Stead, beloved editor of the Pall Mall Gazette), but, as the new century dawned, he’d fallen out of favour (possibly as a result of a prison sentence for mishandling a client’s money) and had moved to America to make a fresh start.

Cheiro was a numerologist and a palmist

Cheiro was a numerologist and a palmist

Cheiro claimed that, during a visit to Egypt before the First World War, he had been taken to Karnak one evening and presented with a mummified hand by his guide. The hand, the guide explained, belonged to Akhen-aton’s daughter, Meket (Meket, you may recall, was Merit’s sickly sister in The Scarab Heart, who historically was the first of the family to disappear from the records—a good indication that she probably died early on in her father’s reign). Meket, the guide suggested, was the only child of the pharaoh to remain loyal to the Aton, and when her family abandoned their faith, she raised an army and marched on Luxor, but was killed in the subsequent battle. The guide declared that Cheiro had been chosen to fulfil the prophecy, according to which Meket’s hand would travel the earth and eventually be reunited with her mummified remains.

Cheiro took the hand back to the United States, but made the decision to cremate it after the skin began to regain its former elasticity and secrete blood. He and his wife consigned it to the flames on the evening of Halloween, 1922. As they watched, Meket’s spirit appeared before them. The very next day (if we believe Cheiro’s version of events as opposed to Howard Carter’s), Tut’s tomb was unearthed. In 1923 Meket made yet another appearance, this time with a warning for Lord Carnarvon that his death would ensue if any of the tomb’s treasures were disturbed.

There is another wonderful—but entirely apocryphal—story of a clay tablet found in Tut’s antechamber, which Alan Gardiner is reputed to have translated thus: “Death shall come on swift wings to whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh”. As no such tablet exists, like all good apocryphal stories, this one offers a plausible explanation for the lack of any tangible proof: fearing that the workmen might be spooked by it, Carter hid or destroyed it and erased any mention of it from the record.

After Carnarvon’s demise, the death of anyone associated with the opening of the tomb (or even visiting the tomb, for that matter) was bound to stir up public imagination. There is in fact a canon of deaths popularly attributed to Tut’s curse, which can be found on Wikipedia. It ends with Howard Carter, who died on the 2nd of March 1939 from lymphoma, some sixteen years after the event. It’s not the only list of its kind. One curse commentator, Philip Vandenberg, even includes Dr Douglas Derry, who had been in charge of unwrapping Tut’s body in 1925—despite the fact that Derry died as late as 1969. Perhaps the wings of death are not so swift after all.

Psychics were not the only ones to be inspired by the curse. Agatha Christie, Queen of the golden era of detective fiction, used it for the basis of a short story that was initially published in 1923 in the illustrated weekly magazine The Sketch, and then later in 1924 as part of her Poirot collection, Poirot Investigates. The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb finds our detective in Egypt to investigate a string of deaths associated with the opening of the tomb of “King Men-her-Ra, one of those shadowy kings of the Eighth Dynasty, when the Old Kingdom was falling to decay.” It is set “[h]ard upon the discovery of the tomb of Tutankh-Amen by Lord Carnarvon”; deservedly so, since it appeared within months of his death. In it Hastings is surprised by his friend’s apparent belief in occult forces, to which Poirot replies:

“You misunderstood me, Hastings. What I meant was that I believe in the terrific force of superstition. Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race...”

It’s interesting to note that at the time Agatha Christie wrote this story she was still married to her first husband, Captain Archie Christie (from whom she separated three years later), as it demonstrates a well-developed knowledge of Egyptology a full six years before she met her second husband, the famous archaeologist Max Mallowan, whilst holidaying with friends at a dig in Ur, near Baghdad. The king’s name is made up, but the description of the Eighth Dynasty, short as it is, is perfect.

Cheiro’s manual Palmistry for All (1916)—still considered by many to be the most authoritative yet approachable text on the subject—and Marie Corelli’s first novel A Romance of Two Worlds (1886)—which, though written in the allegorical style typical of Masonic texts, rocketed her to fame—are both available free from the wonderful Project Gutenberg. Click on the links to download a copy.