EDDIE BRAZIL unravels the so-called ‘Curse of the Pharaohs’ aka ‘The Mummy’s Curse’ and asks whether opening an Ancient Egyptian tomb can really cause death and terror…
On a stormy November night in 1956, Police Constable Williams cycled around his beat patrolling a remote area in the Breckland region of North Norfolk.
It was a bitter, cold night with a harsh wind, which whipped and creaked the branches of the trees. At 10.50pm, the constable dismounted his cycle, consulted his watch and calculated that he would complete his beat by midnight.
As he went to re-mount his bike and set off, he heard a curious sound.
In the dark, empty distance he could here a bell tolling – a continuous, single, monotonous ring, which sounded above the wind.
Puzzled, he listened and realised that the sound of the bell was coming from nearby Diddlington.
Yet how could that be? Who would be tolling the church bell at that hour?
He quickly set off and soon reached the graveyard of Diddlington church.
But before entering he stopped.
The sound of the bell continued to toll, and the officer was reluctant to enter…
Before we continue with Constable Williams experience, we must go back some 30 years to a time when the whole world was captivated and enthralled by a fantastic discovery made in the Valley of the Kings near the town of Luxor, on the west bank of the river Nile in Egypt.
Howard Carter discovers Tutankhamun’s Tomb
It was here on 4 November, 1922, that Egyptologist and archaeologist, Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun.
For many years, Carter and his sponsor, Lord Carnavon, had failed to locate the burial chamber of the fabled King Tut.
Yet, the discovery of the nearly intact tomb received worldwide press coverage and sparked a renewed interest in Ancient Egypt.
The clearance of the tomb with its thousands of objects continued for the next 10 years.
After his discovery Carter retired from archaeology and toured the world to give lectures on this most remarkable of finds.
One thing which Carter refrained from discussing following the opening of the tomb was something which perhaps he found ludicrous, preposterous or just to ridiculous to give a second thought to.
Yet, others had warned him of the consequences of not only opening the last resting place of the Pharaoh, but also the despoiling of his tomb.
The enduring myth of the opening of Tutankhamen’s burial place is that an ancient curse – aka Mummy’s Curse – was placed upon all who were present when the grave robbers entered the inner chamber and looted the contents.
All would die for their sacrilege.
Universal Studios in the United States and later Hammer films in Britain brought this avenging myth to terrifying cinematic screen life with their series of Mummy movies.
Hammer films, in particular, vividly portrayed the horror of a murderous, Egyptian zombie crashing through the drawing room windows of Victorian and Edwardian England hell bent on revenge on those who despoiled his grave.
Is the Mummy’s Curse ‘clap trap’?
Of course, to the Egyptologist, archaeologist or the rationally minded such notions are absurd.
They point to the fact that most of those present at the opening of the tomb went on to live long, healthy lives.
Howard Carter, the chief despoiler, lived to the relatively decent age of 64.
Indeed, no curse was actually found inscribed in the Pharaoh’s tomb, and the evidence for curses relating to King Tutankhamun is considered to be so scanty that it is viewed by almost all Egyptologists as unadulterated clap trap.
But is that the whole story?
Although no curse was found inscribed in the tomb of King Tut, there have been other discoveries of ancient Egyptian tombs where genuine ancient curses have appeared inside or on the façade of the burial place, in particular at Saqqara near the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis.
The tomb of Ankhtifi, dating from the 9th-10th Dynasty, contains the warning: “any ruler who… shall do evil or wickedness to this coffin may Hemen, a Falcon God, not accept any goods he offers, and may his heir not inherit”.
The tomb of Khentika Ikhekhi (9–10th dynasty) contains an inscription: “As for all men who shall enter this my tomb… impure… there will be judgment… an end shall be made for him… I shall seize his neck like a bird… I shall cast the fear of myself into him.
But what do we mean by,” a curse”?
Screenwriters create Mummy’s Curse
The screenwriters pen has dramatised this revenge from beyond the grave as a murderous attack by the despoiled Mummy returned to hunt down and destroy those who have looted his tomb.
The Mummy’s Curse makes for great cinema.
But the reality, even though less dramatic, is undoubtedly more subtle, insidious and for the recipient, extremely disturbing.
Those Egyptologists who continue to dismiss the idea that the tomb of Tutankhamun contained a cursed, choose to quote that almost all who were present that day in 1922 bore no ill effects from such a ridiculous idea.
However, that is not the full story. Eleven others were not so lucky.
Murders, deaths and suicide follow King Tut’s tomb opening
Within three years of the opening of the tomb six people, that had been present with Carter, had been murdered.
Three died of illness.
And one committed suicide.
Lord Carnarvon, the financial backer of the excavation team who was present at the tomb’s opening, died on 5 April 1923 after a mosquito bite became infected; he died 4 months later.
His dog, back in England, is said to have howled, whined and died at the same moment as his master.
Howard Carter lived for another 10 years before dying of lymphoma in London, on 2 March 1939, aged 64.
But what of Constable Williams?
As he entered the graveyard the bell still rang out its melancholy toll.
Then suddenly, it abruptly stopped. There was no slowing or fading of the clang.
One moment the bell was ringing; the next moment; silence.
The officer made his way along the church path towards the south door, his lantern picking out the line of shadowy headstones.
Finding the key under the mat, he turned the lock and opened the church.
Williams hesitated, and by his own admission was fearful about entering the building. Something wasn’t right.
He cast the light from his lamp across the interior, along the empty pews and silent nave, and then to the arch under the tower.
There he saw something which made his blood run cold.
The bell rope was still swinging back and forth as if a unseen hand had that very moment released it.
The policeman became scared and sensed he was not alone. He wanted to be away from there.
He closed the church door and turned the lock. Hastily he retraced his steps to the gate and mounted his cycle.
To distressed to complete his beat, he rode through the stormy night to his home.
His wife, on seeing his pale pallor and concerned expression commented that he looked like he had seen a ghost. “Perhaps I have”, came the reply.
Some days later Constable Williams related, in confidence, his strange encounter to an old, local man, and was surprised to learn that the hour he had heard the church bell tolling was the exact time that the last master of Diddlington hall had died.
Built in the 17th century, Didlington Hall was one of the grandest houses in England.
In the 19th century it was extensively remodelled in the Italien style and became the home of William Amherst Tyson.
Tyson was a antiquarian and had amassed a vast collection of artefacts including rare books, tapestries, furniture, works of art, including Egyptian treasures. He was best known for his Egyptian collections.
His passion for the ancient land led him to leave the running of his estate to his land agent. However, this was to prove to be a catastrophic mistake as the agent embezzled to fund his gambling habit, massively depleting the family funds, before committing suicide in 1906. Most of the collection had to be sold off to replenish the families fortunes. Whether the stress of the betrayal and the subsequent sale hastened his end is unknown but Lord Amherst died soon after.
During the second World War, Didlington Hall was requisitioned by the army and was the headquarters for General Miles Dempsey, commander of the British Second Army during the D-Day landings.
After the war, the house remained empty as the damage and neglect during requisitioning had left it beyond economic repair. It was demolished in 1952.
Didlington Hall inspires Howard Carter interest in Egypt
One regular visitor to the hall was Howard Carter.
It was where his passion for Egypt was awakened. The Amhersts were to be the key to Howard’s entry into the world of Egyptology, providing the contacts and recommendations which led to his arrival in Egypt. It was the Amherst family who guided Carter to the entrance to the Pharaohs tomb.
Perhaps what Constable Willliams heard on the cold night in 1956 was a bell tolling for a house which had suffered the same fate as the last resting place of Tutankhamun?