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.

Friday, November 4, 2022

Tut tut

I ran into an interesting article in Science News yesterday about a new museum in Egypt that will feature the famous treasure trove of King Tutankhamun's tomb.  Tutankhamun was, as you undoubtedly know, the pharaoh of Egypt between about 1332 and 1323 B.C.E. before dying at the age of nineteen (probably of complications from malaria).  Because of his short reign and youth he's been nicknamed "the Boy King," and prior to his tomb's discovery in in 1922 held a relatively obscure spot in Egyptian history.  This may have been what saved his tomb nearly intact for archaeologists to find; no one knew it was there.

He was also eclipsed by his infamous father, the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the "heretic king" who attempted to replace the Egyptian pantheon of gods with a single monotheistic religion, the worship of the god Aten.  Trying to decree a change in people's religion went about as well as you'd expect, and after Akhenaten's death everyone went back to worshiping Ra and Horus and Thoth and Anubis and the rest of the gang, not to mention erasing every trace of Akhenaten they could find.

The whole thing, though, put me in mind of the famous "King Tut's Curse," which supposedly claimed the lives of a number of people who investigated the tomb and has since spawned countless movies and horror novels about evil befalling people who violate people's final resting places.  

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Roland Unger, CairoEgMuseumTaaMaskMostlyPhotographed, CC BY-SA 3.0]

The story goes that 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 historian Mark Benyon thinks he's figured out how to explain them.

In his book London's Curse: Murder Black Magic, and Tutankhamun in the 1920s West End, 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, you may recall, was the subject of a seriocomic post here about a magical battle only a couple of months ago, so he's a bit of a frequent flyer here at Skeptophilia.  For those of you who missed that one, Crowley is the guy who proclaimed himself the "Wickedest Man on Earth," and was a sex-obsessed heroin addict who became notorious for founding a magical society called "Thelema."  Thelema's motto was "Do what thou wilt," which narrowly edged out Crowley's second favorite, which was "Fuck 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.

Crowley ca. 1912 [Image is in the Public Domain]

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; after all, almost everyone in London at the time did.  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 is debatable, but even at first glance it certainly makes better sense than the Pharaoh's Curse malarkey.  It's probably impossible at this point to prove if Benyon's claim is correct in all its details, rather like the dozens of explanations put forward to explain the Ripper murders themselves.  But this certainly makes me inclined to file the "Mummy's Curse" under "Another woo-woo claim plausibly explained by logic and rationality."

In any case, I'm glad to hear the archaeologists are still working on the discoveries from Tutankhamun's tomb, and not afraid that they themselves will be struck down by the ghost of the Boy King.  I'll take actual scientific research over loony superstition any day of the week.


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