mummy-walk

Halloween Special: So … why Mummies?

Today’s special edition post is by Becca from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are each sharing our passion and  interest in the museum and its objects … and Becca has a special interest in Halloween! 

And to find out more about ancient Egypt, have a look at the Curator’s blog, Egypt at the Manchester Museum.

Halloween Special: So … why Mummies?

Well what passes for summer is gone and winter is most definitely coming, but before everyone gets the advent calendars out, let’s talk about my favourite time of the year …

Yup you guessed it, Halloween!

We’ve got sweets, themed parties, costumes, and my personal favourite, scary films. Now then, prizes will be given for guessing my favourite movie monster (and if you’ve read my other blog posts you probably know where this is going). If you were sat reading this thinking mummies, then very well done, take a gold star, or 30 house points … but I’m keeping the Trick-or-Treat chocolate for myself, sorry!

Finally, the time of the year is here when it’s acceptable to go out covered in toilet roll calling yourself Imhotep – wonderful isn’t it?!

mummy-walk

Manchester Museum’s ‘Mummy Walk’, Piccadilly Gardens, Halloween 2012 (Photo by Sarah Scott)

But the question I’ve always had is, why mummies?

Other Halloween monsters like Dracula (who hangs out in our Living Worlds gallery), or Frankenstein’s monster (looking pretty much like myself before my morning cuppa – it’s not pretty kids, you have been warned!) are rooted in fiction. But mummies are real, ancient once-living people, why are they included in Halloween?

Dracula getting into the Halloween spirit on the Living Worlds gallery, Manchester Museum

Mummies have been the protagonists in books and films since 1903 when Bram Stoker (yup the guy who invented Dracula) wrote The Jewel of Seven Stars.

jewelof_sevenstars

First edition of ‘The Jewel of Seven Stars’ by Bram Stoker (By Source, Fair use, wikipedia.org)

But why are they always so scary?

Well I’m glad you asked, to answer we have to look at them, I mean it – just take a good look! When you see them in a museum, many mummies are wrapped in bandages or are partially or fully unwrapped – whichever way, you’re looking at someone who has been dead for thousands of years but still pretty much looks like a human being.

Manchester Museum 16.4.14 106
Asru, still looking majestic, nearly 3,000 years later. Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum.

Combine this with translations from early coffin texts that inform us that the spirit of the deceased will occasionally return to the body, and all of a sudden, it’s not too difficult to imagine that once they are whole again, they may sit up and maybe even potter around their tomb for a bit.

So now, if you combine this image of someone who may, in some way, return to life occasionally with the idea that the Egyptians believed in magic, you really do have the makings of an evil villain who has come back to life and will use his (or her) power to take over the world … or you know, try a caramel latte, go ice-skating, the list is endless …

The idea that the mummy was someone to be feared may have been compounded by the misfortunes that befell the financial backer of one of the most famous Egyptian archaeologists, Howard Carter. Lord Carnarvon financed Carter’s digs in Egypt up until the intact tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in 1922.

carnarvon

Lord Carnarvon (Photograph by Harry Burton. Image from en.wikipedia, uploaded by Gunray. Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org)

There were rumours of a curse placed on the tomb to protect the pharaoh’s eternal rest but the men opened the tomb anyway … Just four short months after, Lord Carnarvon died. Not only did Carnarvon die, but the radiologist who looked at the sarcophagus also died.

Now, before we all panic that we’ve incurred the wrath of an ancient king, the facts are that Lord Carnarvon died from an infected mosquito bite that lead to blood poisoning. All of the other people who visited the tomb and then died reached an average age of 70! Looking at the evidence then, there is no foundation for this ‘curse’.

So, in conclusion, mummies are scary due to their mix of lifelike preservation, the ancient Egyptian belief in magic, and our own superstitions. However, not all mummies are portrayed as evil, Night at the Museum takes a look at the softer side of the ancient Egyptian re-animated dead with Akhmenrah (possibly based on Tutankhamun) who wishes the best for his people and shows an intense curiosity for the new world he finds himself in.

Akhmenrah, the pharaoh from ‘Night at the Museum’ (Image from: hero.wikia.com)

Not quite the scariest movie I know, but I have to admit, I would like to think that if they could come back to life, it would be like that, rather than to take over the world – one coffee shop at a time!

Even so, I am out of here by the time it gets dark, why take the risk?

Happy Halloween!

Rebecca Horne

For more about Ancient Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, have a look at the curator’s blog, Egypt at the Manchester Museum.

And read some more about the ancient dead from the Visitor Team:
Encountering Corpses
Ancient Egypt Glossary #3: Canopic Jars etc.
Being Human # 2: Reconstructing identity – a new look at the ancient dead
Mother’s Day Special: How to make a mummy

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4 thoughts on “Halloween Special: So … why Mummies?

  1. Reblogged this on An Archaeologist's Diary and commented:
    It’s a few days early, but here’s a fun post about mummies to get you in the mood for Halloween! It’s my favourite holiday, what can I say? I simply love autumn and Halloween (costume parties, mostly). Strangely enough, I never dressed up as a mummy, but I did go as Queen Nefertari (Great Royal Wife of Ramses II) several years ago…

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