7 Myths About Mummies

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Thanks to modern technology like CT scanning, we know more about the intimate lives of mummies than ever before. Yet weird myths and centuries-old rumors continue to dog these poor desiccated remains. As we edge closer to Halloween, let's take a look at a few myths about mummies.

1. Mummies can cure diseases.

Until the late 18th century (and occasionally beyond), it wasn’t uncommon for medicines to be sourced from human body parts, as unhygienic as that may have been. Mummies—often labeled mumia, from a Persian word referring to the waxes and resins used in embalming—were sold as powders that could be made into plasters or dissolved in liquids to cure various ailments. Natural philosophers Robert Boyle and Francis Bacon advocated mummy powder as a treatment for bruises and for preventing bleeding. Now, of course, we have NSAIDs and Band-Aids for that.

2. Mummies fueled locomotives.

A number of American newspapers in the 19th century reported that Egypt’s nascent railway system used mummies as fuel for locomotives, allegedly due to the lack of other combustible resources. Mark Twain, who took a train from Cairo to Alexandria, wrote in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad, “the fuel they use for the locomotive is composed of mummies 3000 years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D—n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent—pass out a king.’” Twain then qualified his claim: “Stated to me for a fact. I only tell it as I got it. I am willing to believe it. I can believe anything.”

In reality, the whole idea of burning mummies for railway fuel was unnecessary thanks to Egypt’s relations with Great Britain. “Just as the rails and locomotives for the railway were manufactured in Britain, and imported, the obvious source for the fuel was British coal, rather than Egyptian mummies,” scholar Chris Elliott writes in a 2017 paper published in Aegyptiaca: Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt.

3. Mummies make high-quality stationery.

European travelers to Egypt before the 19th century came back with tales of linen mummy wrappings being used to make fine-quality paper. Elliott suggests that these claims were satirical, meant to illustrate certain merchants’ greed or avarice. The myth of “mummy paper” refused to die, however. An 1876 book on the history of paper-making claimed that a Syracuse, New York, newspaper was printed on stock made from imported mummy rags. But the newspaper had actually said:

“Rags from Egypt. Our Daily is now printed on paper made from rags imported directly from the land of the Pharaohs, on the banks of the Nile. They were imported by Mr. G. W. Ryan, the veteran paper manufacturer at Marcellus Falls, in this country, and he thinks them quite as good as the general run of English and French rags.”

Later reports also stated that mills in the Northeast U.S. were producing mummy paper, but all of the sources were anecdotal, and no hard evidence of the practice exists.

4. Mummies curse people who disturb them.

A few 19-century novelists, including Louisa May Alcott, wrote tales about mummies taking revenge on those who desecrated their eternal repose. But mummy curses really took off after archaeologist Howard Carter opened King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Almost immediately, Carter’s colleagues began experiencing weird omens and mysterious demises. A cobra, which is depicted on Tut’s gold mask, supposedly ate a canary belonging to Carter's expedition. Lord Carnarvon, who funded the expedition, died from an infected mosquito bite he got at the site. Carter’s friend Bruce Ingham, a publisher, received a cursed mummy’s hand as a paperweight and then his house burned down.

At the same time, Carter died at the age of 64 in 1939, and Lord Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn, who entered the tomb the day it was opened, died in 1980. Any mummy's curse in play was, at least, unevenly applied.

5. A mummy sank the Titanic.

Shortly after the Titanic sank, a rumor went around suggesting that a mummy had caused the catastrophe. A group of British men allegedly took the coffin belonging to an Egyptian priestess and then died mysteriously or suffered horrible injuries. Somehow the coffin had made it to London and continued to wreak havoc until a brash American archaeologist bought it and arranged for it to be shipped to New York on the Titanic. The mummy's curse fell over the ocean liner, but the coffin itself was saved after the wreck and ended up the British Museum under mysterious circumstances.

The myth is easily proven false by the Titanic’s cargo list, which was completely mummy-free. According to Snopes, the cursed mummy story was invented by W.T. Stead, a well-known journalist, as a prank well before the ship sank. People connected the mummy myth to the Titanic only when Stead himself died in the sinking.

6. Mummies make great fertilizer.

Ancient Egyptians sacrificed, mummified, and entombed millions of animals—particularly cats—as offerings to various deities. In 1888, an Egyptian farmer discovered an ancient necropolis holding thousands of mummified cats, and about 180,000 of them were shipped to England. Some were auctioned off—one cat skull even wound up in the British Museum. The remainder were sold to a Liverpool guano merchant who ground up and sold them as fertilizer. While it’s true that some mummies were used as fertilizer, it doesn’t seem to have been a regular occurrence.

7. Eating mummies confers mystical powers.

Charles II of England, who ruled from 1660 to 1685, is said to have dabbed powdered mummy on his royal visage to absorb the powers of the Pharaohs. The king was also known to have mixed powdered human skulls—which may or may not have been from actual mummies—into a tincture called the “king’s drops,” which he drank to increase his health and stamina. Many Europeans believed mummies possessed ancient wisdom, and that consuming or absorbing them would convey their wisdom to the consumer. Scholars say the concept parallels the Catholic ritual of drinking communion wine.

Here's What a Man Found After Opening a 25-Year-Old Can of Spider-Man Pasta

Anthony Devlin/Getty Images
Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

From Underoos to Ecto Coolers, tie-in consumer products have always been perennial hits with kids. While you may have fond memories of them, not all have aged well, as Twitter user Dinosaur Dracula recently found out. This is because Dinosaur Dracula decided to open a 25-year-old can of Spider-Man pasta.

Describing the Chef Boyardee product as “wildly corroded,” Dinosaur Dracula promised to reveal the contents if his initial tweet got 1995 likes (a number chosen in honor of the year the product was released). His goal was met, and so the can was unsealed.

As you can see, the result looks like it was idling near Mount Vesuvius. The pasta, mini-meatballs, and sauce have petrified, with only one small area even vaguely identifiable as a Spidey shape.

Canned goods can technically last for years, but that depends on several factors. Cans that rust or corrode can compromise the airtight seal, leading to spoiling. Store cans in a cool, dry place and perhaps they can avoid the fate of Spider-Man pasta.

If you’d prefer to remember the product in better days, here’s a vintage commercial that advertises the pasta’s “secret sauce,” which was presumably botulism.

[h/t Gizmodo]

While Visitors Are in Quarantine, Museums Are Sharing Their Creepiest Objects on Twitter

A long-dead Roman woman’s hair bun, jet pins and all.
A long-dead Roman woman’s hair bun, jet pins and all.

Though they may not be open to visitors during the COVID-19 crisis, museums around the world are finding ways to keep busy. Earlier this month, the UK's Yorkshire Museum challenged museums on Twitter to share the creepiest objects in their collections.

The Yorkshire Museum kicked off the #curatorbattle on April 17 by tweeting a picture of a hair bun recovered from a Roman tomb dating back to the 3rd or 4th century. Since then, dozens of institutions have participated.

The Egham Museum in the UK contributed an antique doll with a balding, cracked head that's simply labeled "MC 294." From the British Toy Museum of Penshurst Place came a red-eyed stuffed bear that pretends to drink when you feed it coins. The winner, at least based on Twitter's response, may be "The Mermaid" of the National Museums of Scotland's Natural Sciences department. The unsettling monstrosity was one of many monkey-fish taxidermy hybrids made popular by P.T. Barnum.

This isn't the first time museums have used social media to show off some of their more unusual items. In October of last year, the History Center of Olmsted County in Rochester, Minnesota, held a contest to determine which of the antique dolls in its collection was the creepiest. This latest challenge is not only a chance for museums to spotlight some underrated objects, but also to connect with the public when people are stuck at home.

If you think you can stomach it, you can view even more freaky museum objects under the hashtag #curatorbattle. For a more pleasant virtual museum experience, here are some world-class institutions you can tour online.