(This is part six of a series about the man, the myth, the legend–the Mummy. Part one is here, or follow the “gods and monsters” tag to see all the installments. Information was sourced from a variety of books, articles, films, and museum resources, but all opinions and conclusions are my own. As we are now getting into the modern films, a spoiler warning is in effect. Enjoy!)
VI – Good and Evil
The Mummy is a two-part show. On the surface, he’s the bandaged man who walks around strangling people and collecting ancient artifacts. He may be slow and unsubtle, or he may be nuanced and grieving. However, he wouldn’t be alive to wreak his havoc or seek his lost love without the ancient power that animates him.
Magic lies at the heart of the Mummy’s story. The very first Imhotep in 1932 was a means of explaining the curses that were said to surround tombs and Egyptian mummies: he, the Mummy himself, not only suffered under a curse himself but inflicted it on others. Imhotep was the manifestation of the curse’s agency and direction. As more films were made, this aspect of the monster was somewhat lost, and the focus shifted to the Mummy as the implacable zombie assassin sent by malicious men. The magic was simply there to explain the Mummy’s ability to rise, rather than the Mummy explaining the magic.
But we can’t forget that this whole saga began with the allure of the “mysterious East” and the unknown. Explorers were fascinated by worlds and cultures that seemed entirely alien to them, and to the romantic Victorian mind, a curse seemed a natural consequence of disturbing these mysterious heathen dead. Throughout the films, the message remains that there are ancient powers and ancient gods that still hold sway today. Without magic and gods, there is no Mummy. Thus, if we wish to fully understand the Mummy, we have to look at the gods—and how filmmakers and storytellers have in turn misunderstood them.
The modern West, with strong Judeo-Christian roots, has a very different view of life and death from ancient Egypt. The central conflict at the root of Egyptian psychology was not good versus evil, or even life versus death, but order versus chaos: ma’at and isfet. For a people certain of how to attain a comfortable afterlife, the concern was not so much dying as possibly being kept from that afterlife by chaos and moral decay. The mummified body itself, unchanging and eternally preserved, was the keystone of a ritual intended to give the soul eternal life.
Crucially, there was no Satan figure. While the concept of sin existed, sinners faced the final judgment of the gods’ council and recited the list of terrible deeds that they had not committed. If found unworthy, they would suffer the final death: not Hell, but complete annihilation.
Gods are often invoked in mummy stories. A mummy being under the influence of a god or magic explains its ability to rise from the grave. However, the complex nature of deities from polytheistic belief systems are not always easy to explain quickly, and a superficial reading of their traits results in a characterization more akin to a Christian demon than the force for righteousness and order which they often embody. Thus, an Egyptian deity may appear in name only, or a new deity may be invented to fill the gap. (Arcam in 1944, Karnak in 1959.)
But like many other aspects of the story, the presentation of Egyptian deities in the mummy narrative has evolved over the decades.
In 1932, Imhotep’s beloved Anck-es-en-Amon was a priestess of Isis—a goddess of wives, mothers, love, and womanhood in general. Imhotep is described as a priest of Karnak: that is, of the divine family of Isis, Osiris, and Horus, whose cult center was at Karnak. Bast, the cat goddess, is called the “goddess of evil sendings,” and is invoked when Imhotep casts spells to murder his enemies. But when Imhotep schemes to have the reincarnated Anck-es-en-Amon transformed into a cursed mummy like himself, she appeals to Isis, and the goddess strikes him down.
Kharis’s religious pedigree is more varied. In 1940, Isis is once again invoked, but by the scheming high priest as he falls. “Isis, forgive me,” he prays. Kharis is said to have been cursed by Amon-Ra, “king of the gods,” but whether other gods are involved depends on the film and the character speaking.
In 1944, Princess Ananka shares in Kharis’s curse for the crime of betraying her vows. She is said to be a priestess of Arcam, who presumably required chastity of his followers and wasn’t pleased that Ananka was making time with Kharis. This deed is held to be so sinful that Kharis’s curse is really hers: she is buried in a special tomb which will prevent her soul from reincarnating, for if she reincarnates she might try to escape her eternal punishment. Kharis, the partner of her crime, is set to watch over her and prevent anyone from violating her tomb.
In 1959, Kharis is described as a priest of the “great god Karnak,” who is represented in the film by a mummiform figure with round mouselike ears. There was no god by the name of Karnak.
Multiple villains, usually high priests, pray to Isis in the Kharis films. As these men are usually engaged in besmirching the heroine’s honor during these scenes, praying to the Protector of Women is something of an odd choice.
Bast reappears in the 1964 film, here called Bubastis and billed as “the most powerful of all the gods.” To my knowledge, this is the only film where Bast is given this sort of prominence; the other gods are vaguely referenced or merely absent. But then, what does every Westerner know about ancient Egypt? That they worshiped cats. A cat goddess seems a natural fit for the role of head god.
Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead, has been the most recent casualty of the psychological mismatch between East and West. In The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), Anubis is the figure of death. When sending forth the mummy Prem to kill the violators of the prince’s tomb, Hasmid prays before a statue of Anubis, who has the titular shroud draped across his feet. In The Mummy Returns (2001), the evil Scorpion King promises his soul to Anubis in exchange for an army of demons, and the demons appear in the form of snarling jackal-headed monsters.
Calling on Anubis for an army of the damned makes no more sense than calling on Isis while assaulting a woman. Anubis, a friend and protector of the dead, would not have had an army of demons to provide—or any reason to bargain for a soul, since all souls would pass through his guardianship eventually. A psychopomp was thus conflated with the Devil, a mismatch akin to equating a bodyguard with a murderer.
In 2017, The Mummy assigned the role of antagonist deity to Set. Set, otherwise known as Seth or Setesh, is not Satan any more than Anubis is. But while he is not Satan, he is a suitable antagonist, being the god of foreigners, storms, the red desert, and other things the Egyptian mindset associated with chaos. In addition, Set fills a Loki-like role in several Egyptian myths, killing his brother Osiris out of jealousy and attempting to deprive Osiris’s son Horus of his rightful throne. This makes Set an excellent choice of patron god for a fratricidal would-be queen. When the evil Ahmanet is killed by Nick (Tom Cruise), who is currently possessed by the power of Set, the viewer can hardly say that this isn’t the god for the job.
But here is another mismatch. The notion of incarnating a god in a human, and the god being subject to the will of that human, smacks of a far more Western than Egyptian viewpoint. Religion was central to the ancient Egyptian worldview, and while gods might appear in human guise to occasionally sire kings or smite down the unworthy, they did not possess people. Furthermore, Nick appears to take control of the Set spirit within him—a notion antithetical to everything we know about the Egyptian gods, who were very unlikely to be overwhelmed by the will of a mere human. That approach is instead reminiscent of Biblical tales of demonic possession. (Or, for a more modern take, every killer who ever claimed “the Devil made me do it.”)
The comparison of Set to Satan is given heavy weight throughout the film. At one point, Dr. Jekyll explicitly states the connection, claiming a linguistic link between the two names. (A doctor should know better: Satan derives from the Arabic shayṭān, or devil, and comes from an entirely different mythological and linguistic tradition.) This Set requires a specific ritual to summon him and, once earthed in a human body, can be controlled and overcome. Ultimately, this disconnection between polytheism and monotheism creates drastic tonal inconsistencies.
The Satan Christians know is a powerful tempter and corrupter, but is opposed and overcome by God, who in Christian belief is the only true giver of life. It thus makes sense for people to be able to cast out Satan or his minions by invoking the name of God; if humans were truly helpless against the Devil, the cosmology wouldn’t make sense, and there would be no reason to worship God at all.
But in the 2017 film, Set does not have an opposite number who would help him to fulfill this role: he is established as a demonic figure, but one who controls both death and life. There is no God to counterbalance his Satan, and his traditional enemies in Egyptian myth—Isis, Osiris, Horus, and Apep—are nowhere to be found. We are thus given an all-powerful evil god of the most fundamental forces in the universe, one who seeks to descend on the world and presumably bring terror and destruction, and who is stopped only by the human will of a questionably-moral protagonist.
(A similar mismatch can be seen in the film Gods of Egypt, which retells the Contendings of Horus and Set with the addition of a humble human protagonist—a trickster type who has no roots in Egyptian mythology. This protagonist’s role is to emphasize the necessity of humility and the fallibility of kings. Egyptian gods and kings would not agree.)
The gods, then, are at a disadvantage in the Mummy story: changing easily depending on the writer and the era, existing chiefly as a throwaway reason or a bit of exotic flavor. But what about the curse?
The curse is the most consistent aspect of the Mummy’s story. As previously discussed, the innovation of Imhotep as both sufferer and bearer of the tomb curse gave the Mummy an identity outside being a symbol of doom. The nature of the curse has shifted somewhat between films, as has the degree of the Mummy’s suffering under its influence, but the ultimate result is always the same: disturbing the dead, who rise to seek retribution.
The first curse, Imhotep’s, is called simply “the nameless death” and is inflicted in punishment for Imhotep’s attempt to defy the will of the gods. Though the detail of the curse are vague, it is said that he was “sentenced to death not only in this world, but in the next.” Imhotep will not move on to the final judgment; instead, he remains forever in limbo.
This first curse is actually, by ancient Egyptian standards, one of the worst punishments imaginable. Imhotep is unable to live a real life on Earth, but also unable to die and move on to the next world, therefore being eternally severed from the only true eternal life. In recent years the Mummy’s spiritual brother, the vampire, has been the star of numerous romances based on that very same state—but the vampire as we know today is chiefly a Western creature, set in opposition to the Christian god and not deriving from a culture with such a strong identification with the afterlife. This is one area in which the Mummy does not share identification with the Western viewpoint: what is romantic in a vampire is horrifying in a mummy.
Notably, the 1932 Imhotep’s mystical powers are not specifically associated with his curse. He was a priest before the curse and, given that he knows of the Scroll of Thoth, likely privy to ancient and secret knowledge. The curse does not grant him power, only give him the opportunity to be dangerous when finally resurrected.
Kharis, by contrast, is not only as a sufferer but a slave to the curse. Buried alive with his tongue cut out “so the ears of the gods would not be assailed by his unholy curse”, Kharis is placed in his cursed state not only as a punishment, but to ensure that no one else attempts to repeat his crime: as the tool of the high priests, he serves as the guard of his princess’s tomb. Imhotep wields his curse, seeking to use it to his advantage even as it torments him, but Kharis can only stumble along under the weight of it.
In 1964, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb gave us two curses for the main characters to suffer under. The first is the generalized curse mentioned in the title: that “all who open a pharaoh’s coffin and gaze at the face of the mummy therein shall die. Struck down by the wrath of the Egyptian gods.” The second, the curse laid on the mummy’s traitorous brother, is an entirely separate affair and due solely to the murder Thus we have two curses doing the work of one, with the aspects of punishment separated into punishment for tomb violation and punishment for murder.
There is no specified curse at all in The Mummy’s Shroud. Instead, Prem’s resurrection is framed as the final act of a loyal servant, trying to protect his prince in death as he did in life. Nobody is condemned or damned—except the men who violated the prince’s tomb.
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb makes no mention of a curse either, but places heavy emphasis on astrology and a feared evil queen’s resurrection via reincarnation when the time is right. It shares this with Russell Mulcahy’s Tale of the Mummy, where Talos Ihompe’s actions and resurrection are entirely of his own—gruesome—design. Tara and Talos are not cursed, but are instead the curses they inflict upon others.
The 1999 Imhotep provides our next, and perhaps most notable, example of a curse. For the first time, the curse is not only named (the Hom-Dai), but expounded upon. The viciousness of the curse laid on him is intended to make him suffer for eternity, trapped between the living and the dead. Here, Imhotep is not just a cursed man, but a perversion of nature itself: the world bends and warps around him, and his rotting corpse swarms with the scarabs that ate him alive thousands of years ago.
This Imhotep is responsible for the now-accepted concept of the Mummy draining life from his victims. Talos Ihompe did the same thing the year before, but he lacked a curse; he was specifically doing it to reclaim the organs and life-essence that his followers had consumed thousands of years before. Imhotep sucks life from the tomb violators simply to regenerate himself: “and in doing so he will regenerate, and no longer be the undead, but a plague upon this earth.” Trapped in his sarcophagus, caught between life and death, Imhotep could do nothing; now, when he is unleashed via tomb violation and the reading of the sacred words, he is capable of destroying and corrupting others to fuel himself. The Mummy became linked with the vampire.
The theme of corruption is mirrored in Imhotep’s appearance and abilities. He is the first Mummy to appear in a sandstorm—a manifestation of the desert, the realm of chaos. He is heralded by scarabs, symbols of resurrection in the ancient Egyptian mind, and is even seen committing a kind of heresy by eating one.
One curious note is that Imhotep’s powers even extend to bringing the plagues of Egypt. The plagues are unquestionably part of Judeo-Christian tradition, not Egyptian, and would carry no weight for a monster that requires powerful Egyptian deities in order to exist; if the Christian God is capable of blotting out the sun, what power can the Egyptian god have? Yet these, too, are symbols of godly wrath and nature turning against mankind.
Ultimately, the Mummy is a creature that could not exist in true ancient Egyptian tradition. His stories heavily rely on curses, reincarnation, and a notion of good versus evil which simply did not exist in the Egyptian mind. From the first Imhotep’s nameless death to Ahmanet’s goal of incarnating a god in human form, the Mummy is not a true Egyptian monster.
Yet there are, on occasion, surprising overlaps between the historical truth and the pop-culture monster. We’ve seen how the curse the Mummy lives under would indeed be an unimaginable torment for an ancient Egyptian soul, and how the recurring themes of loyalty, suffering, and lost love speak to a universal human experience not rooted in one time or place.
The Mummy is, in a way, the perfect American monster: old traditions brought to the new world and remixed into something fresh. “Chinese” food, “Egyptian” mummy. They may not be accurate, but damn if they’re not delicious.