As far as rulers go, King Tutankhamun wasn’t a particularly significant figure to Ancient Egypt. The young pharaoh assumed the throne at age 9 (around 1314 BCE) and died just a decade later following a lifetime of health struggles. But despite his brief reign, King Tut is one of the best-known rulers from Ancient Egypt, and the gold mask of his face is recognized around the world.
Tut’s fame has less to do with the life he lived than what he left behind. When British archaelogist Howard Carter and his team cracked open the his burial site in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt, in 1922, it was untouched by grave-robbers. Never before in modern times had a pharaoh’s tomb been found in such a pristine state, and the discovery became a sensation. Tutankhamun wasn’t a famous figure previously, but he quickly became one through movies, music, and magazines. Even parodies of “Tutmania”—like Steve Martin’s catchy Saturday Night Live song—have become cultural giants in their own right. Here are more ways King Tut has shaped pop culture over the last century.
1. “Old King Tut” got people on the dance floor.
Few archaeological discoveries are sensational enough to inspire hit songs, but that was the case with “Old King Tut” in 1923. The jaunty tune from songwriters Harry Von Tilzer and William Jerome depicted the Egyptian ruler as a lady’s man with a tomb loaded with “gold and silver ware” and “souvenirs.” The song’s popularity coincided with the Charleston, and it was a popular number to dance to in the 1920s.
2. King Tut inspired a horror movie franchise.
Unlike other classic monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein, the Mummy didn’t come from literature. The Universal Pictures horror movie from 1932 was instead inspired by the real-life discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. After Howard Carter located the mummy and his riches in 1922, a series of misfortunes befell prominent figures connected to the expedition. Lord Carnarvon, who helped fund the mission, died of sepsis from a mosquito bite that same year. His secretary Richard Bethell, who accompanied Carter on the trip, died in 1929 under mysterious circumstances—possibly murder.
These and other strange incidents fueled rumors of a “mummy’s curse” unleashed by Tutankhamun when his tomb was disturbed. The myth became the basis for The Mummy starring Boris Karloff, in which a team of archaeologists accidentally bring a mummified Egyptian priest back to life. Screenwriter John L. Balderston had previously covered the discovery of King Tut as a journalist, and his real-life expertise enriched his fictionalization. In addition to its sequels, The Mummy has inspired numerous spinoffs and reboots that all rely on the concept of the “mummy’s curse” that was popularized by Tut’s tomb.
3. Flappers embraced Egyptian style.
Tutankhamun became an influencer of sorts more than 3000 years after his death. When his tomb was discovered, the signature look of Ancient Egypt infiltrated Western fashion. American women in the 1920s channeled the timeless aesthetic with kohl eyeliner, bobbed hairstyles, and ornamental jewelry featuring Egyptian motifs. The fad reached its height in the Flapper era, but influence from Tut’s time can still be found in the fashion industry today.
4. Movie theaters took a cue from Egyptian architecture.
Egyptian-inspired architecture has seen many revivals throughout history. Howard Carter’s discovery in the Valley of the Kings triggered one of the later waves in the 1920s, and this time it blended with the art deco movement. One of the main venues for Egyptian revival architecture during this decade was the cinema, which was exploding in popularity. Dozens of so-called “Egyptian theaters” featuring columns, sphinxes, and other Ancient Egyptian-inspired designs were constructed in the 1920s, and just a fraction continue to operate today.
5. Pulp magazines went to ancient Egypt.
Howard Carter’s expedition was perfect fodder for the adventure pulp magazines of the 1920s and ‘30s. Heroes traveling to “exotic” locales often found themselves in Ancient Egypt, where they would have to contend with vengeful mummies. In accordance with the myth spurred by King Tut’s discovery, these mummies were usually capable of inflicting terrible curses.
6. Ancient Egypt became a marketing tool.
Many company took advantage of Tut fever in their marketing, even if their products had nothing to do with Ancient Egypt. Cards depicting the young pharaoh came in cigarette cartons, and lemons were sold under the label “King Tut Brand” (because nothing screams “fresh produce” like a millennia-old mummy). Other entrepreneurs were more creative in how they embraced Egyptian themes; the stage magician Carter The Great incorporated images and story elements inspired by Tut’s discovery into his act.
7. Steve Martin sang “King Tut” on SNL.
In the late 1970s, America was gripped by Tutmania 2.0. An exhibition titled “Treasures of Tutankhamun”—featuring artifacts from his tomb like his iconic gold mask—toured the U.S., renewing a cultural obsession with the historical figure in its wake. Millions of people saw it, including celebrities like Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor.
The craze was still going strong when Steve Martin donned Ancient Egyptian garb and performed “King Tut” on Saturday Night Live in 1978. With lyrics like “He gave his life for tourism,” the novelty song was meant to parody the commercialization of the exhibit—but the single ended up doing the very thing it mocked when it went platinum. Forty years later, “King Tut” remains one of SNL’s most enduring segments—even if the original context is lost on teens who have only seen clips on TikTok.
8. King Tut fought Batman.
Tutankhamun is technically part of the DC universe—or at least a Batman villain who believes he’s a reincarnation of the boy king is. King Tut debuted in the Adam West-led television series in 1966. The protagonist never reached the same level of notoriety as Catwoman or The Joker, but he’s arguably the most successful villain who originated with the ’60s show rather than the comics. Just don’t expect him to make an appearance in Matt Reeves’s next Batman film.
9. The candy industry jumped on the Tut bandwagon.
The second wave of Tutmania eventually reached the candy aisle. In the 1980s, Terry’s—the makers of those foil-wrapped chocolate oranges—sold a treat called the Pyramint. It consisted of a mint fondant-filled dark chocolate shell shaped like an Egyptian pyramid. Kids around this time also enjoyed Tut-inspired Yummy Mummies. The item was similar to Fun Dip, the main difference being that the candy sticks were meant to evoke bandaged-wrapped mummies (yummy!).
10. King Tut’s mask became a political symbol.
In addition to being an iconic piece of Ancient Egyptian art, Tutankhamun’s funerary mask is one of the most recognizable artifacts of all time. In the past century, the golden face has been used for much more than selling souvenirs; in fact, several groups adopted it as a political symbol. In postcolonial Egypt, the mask came to represent cultural pride and independence. It’s been used as a message of resistance, appearing as graffiti in Cairo during the 2011 revolution. Beyond Egypt, members of the African diaspora have reclaimed the symbol from the colonialist powers that have profited from it historically. The king’s face has appeared on the cover of the NAACP’s monthly magazine and in works by Harlem Renaissance artists. Tutankhamun has had an eventful afterlife as a dynamic part of our culture—even if that afterlife came a few thousand years later than expected.