This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to join a board game party at the house of a friend. It’s always a delight to be in a group with other nerds: conversation flows fast, but you never know just what you’re going to end up discussing. Except when I’m in the party, of course, at which point the conversation always somehow ends up touching on Egypt.
(I know, I know. I have a problem.)
During the party, someone asked me just when mummies became monsters. I wasn’t able to give a full answer (though I did manage to issue my usual pre-monologue warning, which is something along the lines of “Do you have about thirty minutes for the answer?”), but it’s definitely a topic I love, and when I got home I spent some time reading through some bits of this and that from my research. And one piece I’ve decided to share.
The classic answer to “when did mummies become monsters?” is usually “Around 1699.” That’s when Louis Penicher published his Treatise on Embalming, including a story of a supposedly cursed or malevolent pair of mummies that bedeviled a ship. The tale is taken from the letters of one “Radzevil,” who appears to be one of the Mikolaj Radziwills; which one, I’m not sure. Penicher sets the scene and then turns it over to Radziwill, who has purchased two mummies to bring back to Europe.
(The following is a very rough, homemade translation, and has been edited a little for clarity and ease of reading. Anyone wanting to read the unvarnished account can follow the link above to Penicher’s Treatise.)
“This curious seeker had bought two Egyptian mummies from Alexandria, one of a man, and the other of a woman to carry them to Europe, and he had set them apart, shut up separately in as many chests made of dried tree bark, and in a seventh trunk, he had put the idols which are found in the bodies of these two mummies. But because the Turks defended the sale and transport of these corpses, imagining that the Christians could compose some sort of fortune which would cause misfortune to their nation, this Polish lord decided to win by money, and wine a Jew, who had the commission to visit the bins, and the goods. This helped him, since this commissioner was to load all these chests into the vessel, saying that it was seashell carried in Europe. Before going up to sea I found, said this Gentile man, a priest who was returning from Jerusalem, and who could not finish his journey without the help I gave him on this occasion, by making him enter our ship.
“One day, when this good man said his breviary, a furious tempest rose, and he warned us that, in addition to danger, he found great obstacles to our journey, caused by two specters which continually fatigued him. The tempest finished, I treated him as a visionary, because I would never imagine that my mummies would have been the cause; but I was obliged in the flight to change my mind, when he showed a new, rougher and more dangerous power than the first; and when the specters appeared again to our priest while he was praying, under the figures of a man and a woman, as if they were my mummies.
“This obliged me to ask the captain for permission to enter the store, with the intention of throwing my chests safely into the sea, which he did not wish to grant me, because of the imputability of the waves, which would have flooded his ship. But at last, when the storm was a little calm, and when we reacquired the constellation called St. Germain, he allowed me what he had previously refused me. I caused the seven chests to be thrown out at sea, which, however, could not be carried out quite secretly; so that the Master would not be warned of it. And then, all at once, he promised that we would have no more storms, which actually happened, and the good priest had no more visions; but that did not prevent me from making a severe reprimand for the captain, for having loaded these mummies into his vessel, against which the sea had a great antipathy. But the theologians of the Isle of Crete justified my conduct, saying that it was permissible for the Christians to transport these dead corpses for the treatment of the infirm, and that the Church should not forbid its use.”
And there you have it. Some time before 1699, one Mikolaj Radziwill attempted to transport two mummies from Alexandria. During the journey, while a priest read from his breviary, a storm arose and a vision appeared of two ghosts resembling the mummies stored in the hold. These ghosts made multiple appearances, alarming Radziwill, and after the storms subsided he threw the mummies and their “idols” (likely their Canopic jars and other grave goods) overboard. After the mummies were disposed of, there were no more storms and no more visions.
What really happened on that trip? We have no way of knowing. Note, however, that the story of Radziwill’s mummies lines up with other early mummy stories: that the curse manifested as a force of nature, mindless and impersonal in its vengeance. And the final passage states that carrying mummies is acceptable under Christian doctrine for the “treatment of the infirm”–for the making of ground mummy powder, which was still considered a medicine at that time. Though these mummies have some manifestation in human form, they’re not people, just artifacts with a terrible power inside them.
Indeed, stories like this may have actually contributed to the use of mummy powder as medicine. If something tastes nasty, it must be good for you, and if something is powerful enough to cause storms and visions, well, it must be really good for you.