The Mummy

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The Mummy (PG-13)
1999
57% rotten tomatoes

So this is actually a remake of a 1932 movie called… The Mummy, which starred Boris Karloff and damn he looks awesome. I’m a sucker for old movies regardless, but this one looks really good. And you can’t go wrong with Karloff; he’s a master.

But back to 1999. DID YOU KNOW – Brendan Fraser almost actually died for real in that scene where his character is hung? Something went wrong with the rope, and he died for many seconds and had to be resuscitated. WE ALMOST LOST BRENDAN FRASER. 

It was a close call.

So, to the meat of the thing. We (meaning white people) have been obsessed with Egypt for a long time. Popular opinion is that this started in the 1920’s when King Tut’s tomb was found, but in fact the obsession goes all the way back to the Greco-Roman era. The obsession was heightened when Howard Carter opened Tutankhamun’s tomb, but it was nothing new. Plus, in the 20’s we had movies and popular pulp fiction books and whatnot, so it was more accessible to everybody. You didn’t have to go to a fancy pants museum to see artifacts and relics.

ADDITIONALLY – King Tut’s tomb sparked a sensational news cycle for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this tomb was a goldmine. Most Pharaoh’s tombs had been looted and stripped of anything valuable way before Carter arrived. But Tut’s tomb was intact and untouched. This was a huge win for Carter, who by the way, had arrived in Egypt in 1891 and worked in several different burial sites for different backers and people. In 1907 he entered into a business relationship with Lord Carnarvon, an Egypt enthusiast (see <the obsession was always there>), to excavate Egyptian nobles’ tombs. Eventually in 1914, he assigned Carter the job of putting a team together and digging where King Tut’s tomb was expected to be. But… hey guess what else happens in 1914? That’s right, Sandbox Scuffle I! If you haven’t listened to our episode on The Neverending Story that won’t make any sense to you. So I’m not going to explain – go listen to the episode. It’s funny.

Fast forward a few years and they can get back to work. They spend a few years coming up empty, and Lord Carnival or whoever is thinking about pulling the plug. But then a little boy, digging in the sand with a stick, found something none of the archaeologists had been able to – A STONE STEP. So, they dig. A few weeks later, and they’re able to get into the tomb, and several months after that, they finally reach the innermost chamber, which holds King Tut’s sarcophagus. All told, it took ten years until the excavation was completed, so there was undoubtedly frequent news reports and updates to people back in the west, and it would stay in the public consciousness for that span of time at least.

Amid the excitement of the excavation, was the even more salacious excitement of the PHARAOH’S CURSE *insert creepy music* So I don’t know how this curse story got started, but it makes sense when you think of human nature – we try to attribute meaning to just about anything. And so I’m thinking that some people figured that since this tomb had escaped the looting of the previous century, there must be some Very Good Reason. Like maybe if you open the tomb you’ll die a slow and horrible death? Sounds right if you don’t think too hard about it.

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Regardless, once the dogma has been established, the confirmation bias will swoop in to make sure those ideas stay firmly fixed in our heads. Here are nine (non-Egyptian) folks who supposedly fell victim to the curse (they’re all archaeologists unless otherwise noted):

  • Lord Carnival (or whatever his name was)
    • Dude cut himself shaving and died of blood poisoning. This isn’t that unimaginable considering that we were still about ten years away from antibiotics, and they weren’t living in the most hygienic conditions. NEXT.
  • Sir Bruce Ingham
    • Howard Carter gave him a mummified hand as a paperweight (… I have follow up questions…), and dude’s house burned down. Then he tried to rebuild and it flooded. That is either some very bad luck, or homeboy’s got enemies.
  • George Jay Gould
    • He visited the tomb once, then got really sick, stayed sick for a long time, and died of pneumonia. I would like to point out that Gould was an American, and many visitors to countries not their own encounter diseases they don’t have any immunity against and die. Especially before antibiotics. NEXT.
  • Aubrey Herbert
    • He never visited the tomb or had anything to do with it, but he was Lord Carnival’s half brother. He was kind of a hot mess. He was born with a degenerative eye disease that eventually left him blind, but he also had really disgusting rotten teeth, and his dumb ass doctor thought maybe if we pull your teeth out your eyes will get better. I kind of think maybe his doctor made it up because he didn’t want to look at his teeth anymore? Anyway, he got sepsis from the tooth extraction surgery and died. This was half a year after Lord Carnival bit it, also from blood poisoning. Again, no antibiotics, no sterile scalpels, questionable medical degree…
  • Hugh Evelyn-White
    • So, this one is weird. I think he might have been a highly suggestible type. He freaked when “two dozen fellow excavators” died, so he hung himself and left a cryptic note about succumbing to a curse. This one, if it’s true as told here, could be due to a mental break, or some sort of delirium caused by illness maybe? Dunno. NEXT.
  • Aaron Ember
    • This was a totally preventable death. He was an Egyptologist present when the tomb was opened. His family’s house burned down, and he didn’t escape because he was saving a manuscript he’d been working on called “The Egyptian Book of the Dead.” I would callously say he did it to himself, but his wife went to get their son and I don’t think any of them made it. Sad next.
  • Richard Bethell
    • He was Lord Carnival’s secretary who was smothered in his room at a gentleman’s club, but apparently he’d previously had some house fires? I don’t know about curses, but I’m thinking it was some kinky stuff gone wrong. The old timey gentleman’s clubs were places dudes could go and do weird stuff in private. Also, I wonder if fire insurance was a thing in the early 20th century?
  • Sir Archibald Douglas Reid
    • He was a radiologist (with a title of nobility???) who x-rayed Tut before he went into the museum. He became very ill and died three days later. MAYBE YOU SHOULDN’T BREATHE MUMMY DUST – I DON’T KNOW?? People weren’t great at washing their hands in the 30’s???
  • James Henry Breasted
    • He was an Egyptologist there when the tomb was opened. Here’s where the story line gets meander-y. When he got back home he found that his pet cobra had eaten his pet canary, and was still in the canary cage, chilling over the bones of his vanquished prey. So you know canaries are thought of as harbingers, canary in the coal mine and all that. The cobra was used as a motif in the garments of Egyptian royalty, so – I guess you can make something out of that. But he didn’t die. Until over ten years later, after he went on another trip to Egypt. I don’t even know why he’s included.

Howard Carter, who was chiefly responsible for organizing the search, died without any connection to the curse – he had lymphoma. Maybe from breathing all that mummy dust. But popular belief is that the pharaohs spared him from the curse, as well as native Egyptians, of course. All those laborers died of normal causes, like negligence and poor working conditions.

You know what I like though? Science. Math and science. When they get married, they have a baby named Statistics. The British Medical Journal did a study in 2002, I’ll spare you the details, but the gist of it is that the survival rates for those Westerners in the excavation crew present when the tomb was opened or examined did not differ significantly from those who were not present. Regarding Carnarvon’s death (remember he cut himself shaving), some theorize that there could have been dangerous mold and bacteria growing down there, but experts say no, he was chronically sickly (as evidenced by his grisly half-brother). Also, if there were these dangerous miocrobe-yinhabitants in the tomb, the deaths would have been much quicker. Who knows.

So, speaking of native Egyptians… it’s us, so you know we have to say “white people ruin everything” at least once a podcast. It hasn’t not been true yet. But the ancient Egyptians had a strong belief in the importance of these tombs, and everything that was done in preparation for  a deceased ruler being sealed inside was intentional and meaningful. So in come some foreign white dudes and they’re like ‘hey we wanna dig up your ancestors and put them on display in a different continent – how bout a little help?’ It’s probably safe to assume that not every Egyptian in the 19th and 20th centuries was overly concerned with the ancient rituals, but on some level you’d think it would be hard to see your native story dug up, interpreted, and displayed by strangers. I don’t know any of the politics surrounding this, and frankly I’m so sick of politics that I didn’t even want to look it up, for fear of discovering some fresh hell, but whether legal or not, it’s shady as hell.

National Geographic has an article covering the general idea around when it’s cool to dig up human remains. It’s a sticky subject. We can learn a lot from these efforts, but at the same time, these were human beings who never consented to having their bones dug up and put on display for some bored grade-schoolers to gawk at. In many cultures, it has historically been criminal to mess with remains. In more recent-ish history, this has been partly to prevent grave robbing, a) because that’s a shitty thing to do, and b) because doctors in training had to sneak around to get bodies to study because autopsy was considered immoral, sacrilegious, and/or illegal.

Some of the arguments are that in many cases we don’t know what an individual’s religious beliefs were; even in an area that’s predominantly one thing or another, you can’t be sure. Is it okay as long as you rebury the remains when you’re done studying them? Scientists get into some raging nerd fights over this issue of sending remains back to the country of origin for reburial. (I say nerd fights with love, btw). One bioarchaeologist called the loss of future academic opportunity re-burial would present the same as “book burning.” The First Nations community has won federal legislation demanding the return of these remains, but it’s not enforced, apparently. Of course. Another bioarchaeologist states that the concerns of a group of people for their dead have to be considered more important than scientific exploration.

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The same article lists some benefits that have come from studying human remains: we know more about the types of labor people performed, injuries suffered, foods people ate (and by extension, we learn about the plants and animals in the area at the time). DNA can connect remains to other remains, and help us learn migration patterns of groups of people. We can learn more about historical events, like the Black Death, which had a huge impact on the world (20% of Europe’s population died). Studying these historical diseases can help us understand modern diseases and maybe offer solutions.

Also, continuing research means that you don’t just dig up a body, test it, study it, and then you’re done with it forever. New researchers come up with new studies or technologies, and need to re-examine the remains for something that hadn’t been looked at before.

Now for some bad things about digging up bodies. SHOCKING – there’s a history of racism. Just one example: in the 1800’s, First Nations bodies were dug up so white people could prove that they were superior, presumably to make themselves feel better about stealing the land and being huge dickholes.

Also, like I mentioned before, grave robbing was a big concern. Not just because valuables were taken, but because family members didn’t want their loved ones being dug up and then cut up in some medical student’s dark lab. If you factor in religious concerns about the body into their anxiety, you can see why people took pains to prevent this from happening.

Currently, there are ethical considerations that scientists have to abide by, and they vary by culture. Each country seems to have their own way of regulating excavations. I get the sense that the majority of the argument is about what has already been done in the past. DeWitte, quoted in the article, stresses that for populations that have been historically “marginalized and exploited,” they need to be given more consideration as far as handling their ancestors’ remains, for obvious reasons.

So, coming back to how modern Egyptians may have felt about the white dudes taking their dead away – does it really matter if they okayed it? The ancient Egyptians had strong reverence for the dead – we know this without a doubt. So this is one situation in which we don’t have to guess at the beliefs of the people we exhumed. And I feel pretty confident that they would not be cool with it. Just because a lot of tombs were looted by assholes – does that give us the right say “damage is done” and continue disturbing their dead? It’s not like Howard Carter found King Tut and we were all like “cool, we’re done with Egypt now!” Scientists are still over in Egypt digging stuff up, so we know the Egyptian government is okay with it as long as they’re following the rules, but I think we know that the ancients wouldn’t have wanted that, and that’s what makes me feel weird about it.

Along those lines, I found some stuff stated somewhere but didn’t save the links, but the sentiment was that the difference between digging up bodies being cool or not cool is whether the civilization as a whole is dead. So the First Nations or Native American remains are protected because they are very much still alive and kicking it. But the ancient Mayans and Egyptians – even though Egypt and Peru are still populated, are considered dead – just like we don’t think of modern day Italy and ancient Rome as being the same culture. It’s a thinker, for sure, and luckily it’s not my problem to solve – there’s no right answer here, and there’s no way everyone will be happy.

Moving on!

This movie kinda starts and ends with Imhotep, who was a real dude, many thousands of years ago (he was alive in the 27th century, bce, which would make him like… 4500 years old or something). So, he did everything – he was an architect, astrologer, minister, magician, medicine guy, etc. He was considered a genius – Leonardo DaVinci comes to mind for me when I read about him – and was held in high esteem. He was second in command under the king Djoser. He is thought to be the architect of the step pyramid at the necropolis in Memphis (Egypt). It’s currently the oldest example of “hewn stone” and thought to be the first pyramid.

At only 100 years after his death, he was considered a demi-god of medicine (which was pretty fast, and also remarkable considering he was born a commoner – LIKE DAVINCI). Then in the 1st century bce, he was elevated to a full deity. He’s still revered by physicians because apparently he was less of a quack than other old-timey doctors, like Pliny. He rejected magic, and his writings contain the first known descriptions of anatomical details and medical procedures, such as trepanation (relieving pressure on the brain but cutting into the skull). He may also be the first to develop plant-based medicine. In fact, since he was so awesome, people didn’t think he was a real person until the late 1800’s when proof of his existence was found. And since we’re talking about tombs – Imhotep’s burial place has never been found.

Okay, so. I kept reading about him but I couldn’t find any reason that he would be converted into what we see in The Mummy,  in either 1932 or 1999. There’s no mention of his love life anywhere, or any reference to the dark arts. I’m assuming the ancient Egyptians would have considered resurrection rituals dark magic, on account of how they treated their dead, but I don’t know for sure.

Well, turns out Hollywood just used dude’s name. The fictional Imhotep was around in 1290 bce, and was high priest under Seti I, who was a real dude (son of Ramses I, father of Ramses II). And speaking of remains, you can view his online, if you so wish. So, Seti built a memorial temple and dedicated it to Osiris, so I think that’s why Imhotep is called a high priest of Osiris in the movie. Seti was considered the greatest king in Egypt’s history, and is speculated to have been incredibly handsome. I looked at his wife (Tuya) to see if I could find any kernels of drama  with Imhotep, but there’s nothing there.

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Now, if you recall your ancient history, Nefertari was the wife of Seti’s son, Ramses II, and that is who Evelyn is a reincarnation of in The Mummy, which would be Imhotep’s boss’s daughter-in-law, it seems.

Now for Anck su namun. There was a real woman whose name is pronounced the same, though spelled a little differently (Ankhesenamun). She was born to Nefertiti and Akhenaten, and was married to her half-brother Tutankhamun. Fun fact – she’s thought to have also been married to Tut’s successor after his death, who was HER GRANDFATHER. And then maybe after her mother’s death she was married to HER FATHER before she married Tut. Now – these may have been symbolic marriages and not sexual ones, since it was common for kings and pharaohs to have more than one wife. But maybe not. Gross. Anyway – she would have been alive at the same time as Seti I, so it fits, though Seti I would have been king after Tut. It should be noted that records of her disappear after marriage to her grandfather.

These folks were alive in a time of religious upheaval in Egypt, which maybe inspired some of the magical plot points in The Mummy? Regardless, the 1932 movie, on which the 1999 movie was based, was inspired by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, so it makes sense that they would craft a story based around him (kind of). And to be fair, since the tomb was just discovered, there may have been a lot of information they didn’t know then that we know now.

Supposedly, the original script was loosely based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “The Ring of Thoth,” but was later changed so that instead of running around murdering women that look like his long lost love, he’s trying to bring her back from the dead. With the Scroll of Thoth. Much more romantic.

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So the Scroll of Thoth is made up for the story, but Thoth was a real person, who is believed to have authored The Book of the Dead, and who is supposed to have brought Osiris back from the dead when Isis asked nicely. So now the Osiris reference is making more sense.

CAN WE TALK ABOUT ODED FEHR NOW???

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He’s so beautiful. So he’s Israeli, but he lives in the US now. Probably somewhere in Southern California.

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I looked on his Wikipedia page, and his father is listed as a geophysicist and a marketing executive, which sounds pretty random but very cool.

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Anyway, we just need to clone him and make a bazillion of him.

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Enough to go around.

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So long as the clones are willing, of course.

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Okay, everybody leave now.

What did YOU think of the topics we discussed? We’d love to hear from you!

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