7 Myths About Mummies
Thanks to modern technology like CT scanning, we know more about the intimate lives of mummies than ever before. Yet weird myths and centuries-old rumors continue to dog these poor desiccated remains. As we edge closer to Halloween, let's take a look at a few myths about mummies.
1. Mummies can cure diseases.
Until the late 18th century (and occasionally beyond), it wasn’t uncommon for medicines to be sourced from human body parts, as unhygienic as that may have been. Mummies—often labeled mumia, from a Persian word referring to the waxes and resins used in embalming—were sold as powders that could be made into plasters or dissolved in liquids to cure various ailments. Natural philosophers Robert Boyle and Francis Bacon advocated mummy powder as a treatment for bruises and for preventing bleeding. Now, of course, we have NSAIDs and Band-Aids for that.
2. Mummies fueled locomotives.
A number of American newspapers in the 19th century reported that Egypt’s nascent railway system used mummies as fuel for locomotives, allegedly due to the lack of other combustible resources. Mark Twain, who took a train from Cairo to Alexandria, wrote in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad, “the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies 3000 years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D—n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent—pass out a king.’” Twain then qualified his claim: “Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe anything.”
In reality, the whole idea of burning mummies for railway fuel was unnecessary thanks to Egypt’s relations with Great Britain. “Just as the rails and locomotives for the railway were manufactured in Britain, and imported, the obvious source for the fuel was British coal, rather than Egyptian mummies,” scholar Chris Elliott writes in a 2017 paper published in Aegyptiaca: Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt.
3. Mummies make high-quality stationery.
European travelers to Egypt before the 19th century came back with tales of linen mummy wrappings being used to make fine-quality paper. Elliott suggests that these claims were satirical, meant to illustrate certain merchants’ greed or avarice. The myth of “mummy paper” refused to die, however. An 1876 book on the history of paper-making claimed that a Syracuse, New York, newspaper was printed on stock made from imported mummy rags. But the newspaper had actually said:
“Rags from Egypt. Our Daily is now printed on paper made from rags imported directly from the land of the Pharaohs, on the banks of the Nile. They were imported by Mr. G. W. Ryan, the veteran paper manufacturer at Marcellus Falls, in this country, and he thinks them quite as good as the general run of English and French rags.”
Later reports also stated that mills in the Northeast U.S. were producing mummy paper, but all of the sources were anecdotal, and no hard evidence of the practice exists.
4. Mummies curse people who disturb them.
A few 19-century novelists, including Louisa May Alcott, wrote tales about mummies taking revenge on those who desecrated their eternal repose. But mummy curses really took off after archaeologist Howard Carter opened King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Almost immediately, Carter’s colleagues began experiencing weird omens and mysterious demises. A cobra, which is depicted on Tut’s gold mask, supposedly ate a canary belonging to Carter's expedition. Lord Carnarvon, who funded the expedition, died from an infected mosquito bite he got at the site. Carter’s friend Bruce Ingham, a publisher, received a cursed mummy’s hand as a paperweight and then his house burned down.
At the same time, Carter died at the age of 64 in 1939, and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn, who entered the tomb the day it was opened, died in 1980. Any mummy's curse in play was, at least, unevenly applied.
5. A mummy sank the Titanic.
Shortly after the Titanic sank, a rumor went around suggesting that a mummy had caused the catastrophe. A group of British men allegedly took the coffin belonging to an Egyptian priestess and then died mysteriously or suffered horrible injuries. Somehow the coffin had made it to London and continued to wreak havoc until a brash American archaeologist bought it and arranged for it to be shipped to New York on the Titanic. The mummy's curse fell over the ocean liner, but the coffin itself was saved after the wreck and ended up the British Museum under mysterious circumstances.
The myth is easily proven false by the Titanic’s cargo list, which was completely mummy-free. According to Snopes, the cursed mummy story was invented by W.T. Stead, a well-known journalist, as a prank well before the ship sank. People connected the mummy myth to the Titanic only when Stead himself died in the sinking.
6. Mummies make great fertilizer.
Ancient Egyptians sacrificed, mummified, and entombed millions of animals—particularly cats—as offerings to various deities. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer discovered an ancient necropolis holding thousands of mummified cats, and about 180,000 of them were shipped to England. Some were auctioned off—one cat skull even wound up in the British Museum. The remainder were sold to a Liverpool guano merchant who ground up and sold them as fertilizer. While it’s true that some mummies were used as fertilizer, it doesn’t seem to have been a regular occurrence.
7. Eating mummies confers mystical powers.
Charles II of England, who ruled from 1660 to 1685, is said to have dabbed powdered mummy on his royal visage to absorb the powers of the Pharaohs. The king was also known to have mixed powdered human skulls—which may or may not have been from actual mummies—into a tincture called the “king’s drops,” which he drank to increase his health and stamina. Many Europeans believed mummies possessed ancient wisdom, and that consuming or absorbing them would convey their wisdom to the consumer. Scholars say the concept parallels the Catholic ritual of drinking communion wine.