It has been 100 years since the discovery of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, the boy king who ruled in the 14th century BC. Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in November 1922 by a team of predominantly Egyptian excavators led by the British archaeologist Howard Carter.
Carter’s published account has dominated public understanding of this historic find. His three-volume publication The Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen is responsible for immortalising his purported response to his patron, Lord Carnarvon’s question: “Can you see anything?” To which he responded, “Yes, wonderful things.” It also made famous the image of “everywhere the glint of gold” as he first peered into the tomb.
There was a lot of interest in the discovery at the time, which led to a slew of newspaper coverage. One story that constantly re-emerged, and remain popular, concerns the story of a mummy’s curse plaguing those involved in the excavations – though the notion that those present at the tomb’s opening met untimely ends has been thoroughly debunked.
There are other stories and legends about the discovery, the subsequent excavations and their legacies, all of which contribute to a fuller understanding of the sheer and wide-ranging impact of this event.
One such little-known cultural consequence was how the pharaoh started to regular emerge in spiritualist circles after his tomb’s discovery.
Spiritualism, a religious movement that believes in the survival of the spirit after death and that the spirits of the deceased might communicate with the living, had its heyday in the 19th century.
It had declined in popularity after several high-profile mediums (people who were understood to facilitate this communication) had been exposed as frauds at the end of the 19th century. But then Spiritualism saw a resurgence during and after the first world war as people attempted to reach lost loved ones.
In the 1920s, a new celebrity spirit started making contact at seances, where a group of people, often in a circle around a table, attempt to contact the dead. Tutankhamun began to transmit messages from “the other side” according to believers, showing up at seances globally. People speculated that he had not made himself known in psychic circles prior to his tomb’s discovery because “the spirit [was] drawn back to thoughts of earth by the attention concentrated on him.”
In one instance, Tutankhamun was said to have been channeled by a medium named Blanche Cooper who worked at the British College of Psychic Science. According to one account, from her mouth came “a deep male voice” which “spoke in a foreign tongue, soft and musical.” Tutankhamun’s communication supposedly listed what might be found within his tomb. The tomb’s discovery stimulated such a proliferation of messages purportedly from the boy king that seance-goers complained that they were “getting a little tired of Tutankhamen.”
Tutankhamun was not always a positive presence, however. The International Psychic Gazette reported a more hostile encounter in 1929:
Violent supernatural happenings have occurred […] in the studio of Mr Folt, a well-known sculptor who possesses a superb mansion at Vinohrady, […] Prague. Many persons celebrated in intellectual and artistic circles attended a Spiritualistic seance there. Everything proceeded calmly until the conclusion, when a sitter asked that the spirit of Tutankhamen […] should be evoked.
The medium thereupon sank into trance and announced that that spirit was approaching. Then he uttered a cry of pain, accompanied by unearthly shouts of furious anger. And immediately there was let loose in the studio a fearful uproar, with a tempest of wind so powerful that it broke most of the window panes.
The witnesses of this sudden storm were terrified. They rose at once from the table and put up the lights. Before their eyes the studio lay completely devastated. All the statues of Egyptian figures sculptured by Folt had been broken. One of them, in bronze, had been thrown through the window into the courtyard. Another was lying on the floor bearing traces of blood on the lips and forehead. […] These extraordinary perturbations took place with such rapidity that they did not last more than 30 to 35 seconds.
What such reports indicate is that, for believers,, Tutankhamun’s spirit appeared in a variety of ways from benevolent force to vengeful destroyer; from an individual undisturbed by the penetration of his tomb to an entity driven to rain down havoc upon the heads of those who had violated this sacred space.
With the name Tutankhamun very much in the public consciousness again, we are reminded that this is a pharaoh bound to periodically “return” – whether as a ghostly apparition or in research. His manifestation in Spiritualist circles of the 1920s is just one such way in which popular fascination with the pharaoh has manifested itself over the years.
Eleanor Dobson is Associate Professor in Nineteenth-Century Literature, University of Birmingham.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.