“The gods will twist his neck like a goose.”
Thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians were buried in Saqqara, an ancient city of the dead. The priests placed them inside wooden boxes adorned with hieroglyphics, and the sarcophagi were sealed and buried in tombs scattered above and below the sand.
In the last three months, archaeologists have discovered 160 coffins finely decorated on site, which they plan to distribute to museums across Egypt. They even opened a few to examine the mummies within.
According to experts, some of the tombs at Saqqara have colorful inscriptions on the walls to warn intruders.
Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo, explained that such warnings serve primarily to deter intruders who try to desecrate mummies’ resting places. “In general, they claim that if an impure person enters the tomb, then the council of the gods can punish the intruder and twist his neck like a goose’s,” he noted.
Fear of seeing ghosts
The specific curse of Saqqara that Ikram cited was found in the tomb of the vizier Ankhmahor, an official of the pharaoh who lived more than 4,000 years ago, during the sixth dynasty of Egypt. He was buried in a mastaba: a tomb on the ground shaped like a rectangular box. Similar mastabas were built throughout Egypt, including near the pyramids at Giza.
The curse to protect Ankhmahor, roughly translated, warns that anything an intruder “may do to this, my grave, will be done to your property.” He also warns of the vizier’s knowledge of secret spells and magic, and threatens to fill “impure” intruders with a “fear of seeing ghosts.”
Houses for the Hereafter
In the new documentary by Netflix, The Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb, Ikram explains that the tombs were seen as houses for the dead in his afterlife.
“You wanted to have a fabulous life after death, so you had a fabulous grave,” he says in the documentary, adding that a person’s grave would be “decorated with all sorts of scenes from life that they want to enjoy for eternity.”
So, intruders caught trying to steal valuables buried with the dead were punished in a manner commensurate with their crime, the Egyptologist continues.
Punishment for violating a nobleman’s grave, meanwhile, could consist of beatings and potentially the removal of a thief’s nose. They will also be required to return the stolen property.
However, the writings on Ankhmahor’s tomb welcome those of pure and peaceful intent, saying that he will protect them in the court of Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld. The ancient Egyptians believed that Osiris judges dead souls before they pass into the afterlife.
“Similar curses appear in some other tombs throughout Egypt,” notes Ikram. “And most are recorded in the Old Kingdom, between 2575 and 2150 BC.”
Not like in the movies
Writings found in tombs like that of Ankhmahor bear little resemblance to the mummy’s curses depicted in fiction, which often show unwitting archaeologists being hunted by the undead after opening burial chambers.
Still, some members of the public weren’t interested in seeing archaeologists open coffins that had been sealed for more than two millennia.
Who looks at 2020 and says you know what this year needs…a mummy tomb opening? https://t.co/cKUIDILXpj
— Josh Gad (@joshgad) October 5, 2020
But Ikram said there is little risk of becoming contaminated with, say, ancient microbes or fungi when handling the mummies: “If people wear gloves and masks, it should be fine.”
The idea that mummy tombs might contain dangerous pathogens took off in part after archaeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. A member of the expedition, his financial backer George Herbert of Carnarvon, died strangely and suddenly six weeks after the burial chamber opened.
So some researchers wondered if the grave contained a type of toxic mold that could have infected and killed it. This rekindled the ‘curse of a mummy’, a notion that conceptual writer Louisa May Alcott had explored 50 years earlier. But later research showed that Herbert died of blood poisoning from an infected mosquito bite on his cheek.
And although the walls of King Tut’s tomb were free of curses, among the objects found was a tablet that did contain one and warned that death would “lower its wings on the one who interrupts the pharaoh’s sleep.”
A string of mysterious deaths, subsequent to that of Herbert and people also related in some way to the discovery, would perpetuate not only the concept of Egyptian curses, but also the fame of the child pharaoh.
Suspiciously, “the wings of death” did not descend on Carter, who would live peacefully for 20 more years.