Ghosts, Curses and Mummies oh my!

It is Halloween this week so it seemed the perfect time to explore the Ancient Egyptians’ beliefs around ghosts, ghost stories and curses. There has to be a reason why a mummy is a classic Halloween costume and mummy curses exist. 

Ghosts in Ancient Egypt

Although not referred to as ‘ghosts’ per say, the ancient Egyptians believed that the soul of an individual could travel between the land of the living and the dead. To be specific the ‘Ba’ could travel between realms. 

For the Ancient Egyptians the soul of a person consisted of five distinct parts; the physical body, the Ka, the Ren or name, and the Shadow or Shuyet and finally the Ba. Within a modern context we would think of the Ba in line with our idea of a person’s personality as it is comprised of all the non-physical aspects of a person that makes them unique1. However, the Ba also reflected power and could be used to reflect gods and objects. It was necessary for the deceased to journey from the tomb to re-join their Ka if they wished to be transformed into an ‘Akh spirit’, and since the physical body could not do that the duty fell to the Ba. The Ba was often depicted as a human headed bird hovering over the embalmed bodies of the deceased, and the Egyptians considered migratory birds as incarnations of the Ba flying between this would and the next. An fine example of the human head Ba can be seen in the Papyrus of Ani.

The Papyrus of Ani British Museum EA10470 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA10470-17

The spirits could haunt the mortal realm and there are a few reasons why a spirit may be displeased enough to return and sow a little bit of misfortune. These reasons ranged from paying less for mummification even if better could have been afforded, insufficient funerary rites and of course the classic reasons if they had been wronged. In addition to these reasons a spirit might return to the world of the living and could be blamed for misfortunes and illness. We do have an example from Ancient Egypt of a man appealing to his dead wife in the form of a letter pleading for her to stop haunting him. He hasn’t, in his mind at least, done anything to deserve this treatment. The text dates to the 19th Dynasty and can be read as follows;


I took you as a wife when I was a young man and you were still my wife when I filled all kinds of offices. I did not divorce you and I did not injure your heart…. Everything I acquired was at your feet, did I not receive it on your behalf? I did not hide anything from you during your life. I did not make you suffer pain in anything I did with you as your husband. You did not find me deceiving you like a peasant and making love with another woman. I gave you dresses and clothes and I had many garments made for you.’2

An Egyptian Ghost Story

We may think of ghost stories and spooky tall tales as something of a modern concoction- Hamlet, Frankenstein and the brothers Grimm to name a few. However, there is an example of a ghost story from ancient Egypt. This version of the story dates to the late New Kingdom (c.1570-c.1069 BCE), specifically the Ramesside Period and was found across a number of ostraca. Scholars, such as Georges Posener and Jurgen von Beckerath, claim that the story and the views it portrays are in fact older well-established beliefs3. The story tells the tale of Khonsemhab a High Priest of Amun and his encounter with a restless spirit whose tomb had deteriorated. As mentioned above, the story is found on a set of four ostraca that are today housed in Paris, Florence, Vienna and Turin. Unfortunately, we do not have the ending to the story but maybe it will be found one day. As in the case of most ghost stories from around the world this story operates on two levels; entertainment and cultural education.     

Ostrocon – The Ghost Story Turin, Museo Egizio, S.6619.
https://www.ancient.eu/image/5981/khonsemhab-and-the-ghost/

Scholars differ on interpreting the text and claim it is a first person narration by a speaker who spends the night in the necropolis at Thebes and encounters an angry spirit. This narrator goes to the high priest to seek his help and Khonsemhab raises the spirit to talk to it4. Or the third person narration tells us how Khonsemhab encountered the spirit in the necropolis and then dedicated himself to helping it find peace5. The beginning of the story is fragmentary but a journey is referred to and then, depending on who is narrating the story, Khonsemhab appears to layout offerings and ask for the spirit’s family names so that he can ‘do for them whatever has to be done’6. The spirit obliges and tells Khonsemhab that his name is Nebusemekh, son of Ankhmen and Iotiemshas. Khonsemhab then asks the spirits how he can help. Nebusemekh begins to regale Khonsemhab of who he was in life and that his tomb has fallen into a state of disrepair. Destressed by this neglect Khonsemhab weeps and assures the spirit that he will do everything that he can to right this wrong. The spirit is unconvinced by this, however Khonsemhab assures him that he can provide him a new tomb or if not he will have “five men(servants) and / five maidservants, totalling ten, devoted to you in order to pour libation water for you, and I will (have) a sack of emmer delivered daily to be offered to you”7. The spirit then disappears but Khonsemhab does not forget the promise he has just made and sends men to search for the ruined tomb. They find it, and return to celebrate this discovery. At this point the end of the story becomes lost and fragmented but the final line refers to the necropolis at Thebes and it is thought that Khonsemhab returns to where we met him at the beginning of the story to tell Nebusemekh about his new home8.


Curses

The possibility of a potential haunting is seen as a real threat and precautions had to be taken. That rather nicely brings me on to some of the ways the ancient Egyptians had to combat these harmful influences. Invoking the blessings of the gods was the basic initiative taken to protect an individual in warding off evil spirits. To maintain one’s health and safety the ancient Egyptians used ritual and incarnations known as execration texts. Execration means to denounce or curse a person, entity or object one finds detestable, dangerous or offensive in some way9.  The texts were not only curses but also included specific formulae designed to ward off or destroy harmful beings. There are early examples dating to the Old Kingdom inscribed onto the walls of mastaba (the brick shaped structure placed over tomb shafts) used as deterrents for those entering the tomb. One such example comes from the mastaba of Khentika called Ikhekhi. The curse reads;

“All who enter my tomb in an impure statue, having eaten abominations… they shall not be pure to enter into [it] or there will be judgement against them in the Council [of the gods] … I shall seize his neck like a bird … I shall put the fear of myself in him … so that the living may fear the [beings] who go to the west…” 10

Several ‘curses’ like the one inscribed onto the tomb of Khentika called Ikhekhi throughout Egyptian history are violent and threaten to destroy the Ba of the interloper, or seize his neck and destroy him but are also concerned with impure people entering and contaminating the tomb. In addition to this there are examples of execration figures’ ‘curses’ being written on representations of people and pots then broken in a ritual. The image to the right shows an example of one such excretion figure and is currently held in the Louvre. The figure is bound with his hands behind his back and a hole in his chest. The hieratic text on his chest identifies him as Henouy son of Intef. These figures were made in the likeness of one’s adversary, their name written on it and then a variety of actions awaited the figure.11 The options included spitting , smashing, burning, sticking it with nails and burying the figurine. Following the ritual the participant could expect an end to their troubles attached to that person having been, to all intents and purposes, erased.12  

It would be remiss of me not to mention some modern feelings that surround ancient Egypt and curses. Before I continue,, so we are crystal clear King Tutankhamun’s tomb was not cursed and there is no such thing as ‘the mummies curse’. The mummies’ curse was a fabrication of the media at the time to sell papers and fuel the fascination.13 But why is that one of the first things people think of when you mention ancient Egypt?

Authors Image

The ‘mummy’s curse’ has gripped the imagination of the public since the 1800’s. Ailise Bulfin has noted that these stories became popular during the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869 when the canal opened, gaining further momentum after the 1882 occupation.14 I happen to own a book published by the British Library which represents the heyday of the mummy stories’ popularity between 1869-1910 and the British fascination with all things Egyptian, influencing jewellery, crockery and buildings.15 It should be noted that these stories are written in the context of the British protection of the Suez Canal and the continuing excavation of Egyptian tombs. Andrew Smith’s introduction puts this into more context. He writes how these stories “express ambivalence towards both the military occupation of Egypt and the consequences of tomb excavation. The justification for both of these activities seemed to many … as morally questionable, and the idea that one might be cursed as a result of political and economic interference, to indicate that British Colonialism was being subjected to the type of attack that it deserves.”16 The stories include  ‘Lost in a Pyramid’ by Louisa May Alcott and ‘Lot No.249’ by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. ‘Lost in a Pyramid or The Mummy’s Curse’ can be considered one of the earliest examples of a mummy story, published in January 1896, and focuses on the negative consequences of raiding and desecrating an Egyptian tomb17.  

This concludes an incredibly quick guide to curses, ghosts and ghost stories in Ancient Egypt.

References

  1. Nicholson, P. and Shaw, I. (1995) The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press. Page 51.
  2. Tyldesley, J. (1995) Daughters of Isis, Women of Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin. Page 56.
  3. https://www.ancient.eu/article/964/a-ghost-story-of-ancient-egypt/ Accessed 24th October 2020.
  4. https://www.ancient.eu/article/964/a-ghost-story-of-ancient-egypt/ Accessed 24th October 2020.
  5. https://www.ancient.eu/article/964/a-ghost-story-of-ancient-egypt/ Accessed 24th October 2020.
  6. Simpson, W.K.,(2003)  The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry. Yale: Yale University Press. Page 113.
  7. Simpson, W.K.,(2003)  The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry. Yale: Yale University Press. Page 114.
  8. https://www.ancient.eu/article/964/a-ghost-story-of-ancient-egypt/ Accessed 24th October 2020.
  9. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1053/spiritual-defense—execration-rituals-in-ancient/ Accessed 24th October 2020.
  10. Ikram, S. (2003) Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt. London: Pearson Education Ltd. Page 196.
  11. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1053/spiritual-defense—execration-rituals-in-ancient/ Accessed 24th October 2020.
  12. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1053/spiritual-defense—execration-rituals-in-ancient/ Accessed 24th October 2020.
  13. Ikram, S. (2003) Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt. London: Pearson Education Ltd. Page 196.
  14. Ailise Bulfin, “The Fiction of Gothic Egypt and British Imperial Paranoia: The Curse of the Suez Canal” in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, Vol 54, no.4, pp411-43. Page 412.
  15. Smith, A. (2016) Lost in a Pyramid and other classic Mummy Stories. London: The British Library. Page 9.
  16. Smith, A. (2016) Lost in a Pyramid and other classic Mummy Stories. London: The British Library. Page 10.
  17. Smith, A. (2016) Lost in a Pyramid and other classic Mummy Stories. London: The British Library. Page 13.  

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