King Tut's Many Curses

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New research shows that Egyptian pharaoh King Tutankhamun had a rough life: he suffered from malaria and deformed feet, two of his children were stillborn, and he died at the age of 19. Scientific analysis suggests that despite his status as royalty, his life seemed cursed.

But was his death cursed as well, as many believe?

Stories circulated that anyone who dared disturb Tut’s resting place would face the terrible wrath of the mummy—and some believe that nearly two dozen people mysteriously fell victim to the curse since that time. Mystery investigators such as James Randi have researched the story behind the dreaded curse of King Tut and found that there’s less than meets the eye.

As Randi notes, “When Tut’s tomb was discovered and opened in 1922, it was a major archaeological event. In order to keep the press at bay and yet allow them a sensational aspect with which to deal, the head of the excavation team, Howard Carter, put out a story that a curse had been placed upon anyone who violated the rest of the boy-king.” In fact, the tombs of all royalty—not just Tutankhamun’s—were reputed to be cursed, as part of a folkloric effort to deter looters and grave robbers. Other royal tombs with exactly the same “curse” had been opened without doom befalling their excavators, so there was no reason to think that it would be any different with King Tut. (Makes for a great story, though.)

It is true that some people involved with the excavation (however peripherally) died shortly after the Tut’s tomb was opened. The most famous victim of the curse was probably Lord Carnavon, who financed the work; he died the following year in Cairo. (Of course, his death is less mysterious when we learn that he suffered severe health problems before he even arrived in Egypt.)

Nonetheless, the fact of his death combined with the widely-publicized curse to create an enduring myth (and provide a career for Brendan Fraser). There were dozens of people connected in some way to opening Tut’s tomb, and out of so many people, at least a few deaths and tragedies would be expected by random chance. A curse is simply attributing a sinister cause to a random event.

As Randi notes, “The average duration of life for…those who should have suffered the ancient curse was more than twenty-three years after the ‘curse’ was supposed to become effective. Carnavon’s daughter died in 1980, a full fifty-seven years later. Howard Carter, who not only discovered the tomb and physically opened it, but also removed the mummy of Tutankhamen from the sarcophagus, lived until 1939, sixteen years after that event,” and so on.

It seems that scientific analysis provided evidence for one kind of (non-supernatural) curse, and disproved a mythical one.

Watch a video about excavating mummies.