Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tut tut

Most of you are probably familiar with the famous "King Tut's Curse."

The story goes that when British archaeologist Howard Carter opened the hitherto undisturbed tomb of King Tutankhamen, the "Boy King" of Egypt during the 18th dynasty, it unleashed a curse on the men who had desecrated it -- resulting in the deaths of (by some claims) twenty of the expedition members.

Tutankhamen was the son of the famous "Heretic King" Akhenaten, and died at the age of eighteen in 1341 BCE.  Some archaeologist speculate that he was murdered, but current forensic anthropology seems to indicate that he died of a combination of malaria and complications from a badly broken leg.

Be that as it may, shortly after Tut's tomb was opened, people associated with the expedition began to die.  The first was Lord Carnarvon, who had funded Carter's expedition, who cut himself badly while shaving and died shortly thereafter of sepsis from an infection.  While it's easy enough to explain a death from infection in Egypt prior to the advent of modern antibiotics, the deaths continued after the members of the expedition returned to London:
  • Richard Bethell, Carter's personal secretary, was found smothered in a Mayfair club.
  • Bethell's father, Lord Westbury, fell to his death from his seventh-floor flat -- where he had kept artifacts from the tomb his son had given him.
  • Aubrey Herbert, half-brother of the first victim Lord Carnarvon, died in a London hospital "of mysterious symptoms."
  • Ernest Wallis Budge, of the British Museum, was found dead in his home shortly after arranging for the first public show of King Tut's sarcophagus.
And so on.  All in all, twenty people associated with the expedition died within the first few years after returning to England.  (It must be said that Howard Carter, who led the expedition, lived for another sixteen years; and you'd think that if King Tut would have wanted to smite anyone, it would have been Carter.  And actually, a statistical study done of Egyptologists who had entered pharaohs' tombs found that their average age at death was no lower than that of the background population.)

Still, that leaves some decidedly odd deaths to explain.  And now historian Mark Benyon thinks he's figured out how to explain them.

In his soon-to-be-released book, London's Curse: Murder Black Magic, and Tutankhamun in the 1920s West End (available for pre-order here), Benyon lays the deaths of Carter's associates in London -- especially Bethell, Westbury, Herbert, and Budge, all of which were deaths by foul play -- at the feet of none other than Aleister Crowley.

Crowley, the self-proclaimed "Wickedest Man on Earth," was a sex-obsessed heroin addict who had founded a society called "Thelema."  Thelema's motto was "Do what thou wilt," which narrowly edged out Crowley's second favorite, which was "Screw anything or anyone that will hold still long enough."  His rituals were notorious all over London for drunken debauchery, and few doubted then (and fewer doubt now) that there was any activity so depraved that Crowley wouldn't happily indulge in it.

One of Crowley's obsessions was Jack the Ripper.  He believed that the Ripper murders had been accomplished through occult means, and frequently was heard to speak of Jack the Ripper with reverence.  Benyon believes that when Crowley heard about Howard Carter's discoveries, he was outraged -- many of Thelema's rituals and beliefs were derived from Egyptian mythology -- and he came up with the idea of a series of copycat murders to get even with the men who had (in his mind) desecrated Tutankhamen's tomb.

It's an interesting hypothesis.  Surely all of the expedition members knew of Crowley -- almost everyone in London at the time did -- and at least one (Budge) was an occultist who ran in the same circles as Crowley.  That Crowley was capable of such a thing is hardly to be questioned.  Whether Benyon has proved the case or not remains to be seen, but even at first glance it certainly makes better sense than the Pharaoh's Curse malarkey.  I will definitely read Benyon's book with interest when it comes out, and may have more to say about it after that -- and until then, we'll just file this under "Another woo-woo claim plausibly explained by logic and rationality."

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