Why are rational people so afraid of a silly CURSE?
From Tutankhamun ‘killing’ those who breached his tomb to the Boston Red Sox baseball team’s long losing streak, many of us believe that our fate is ruled by inexplicable forces beyond our control. With the Mayo football team hoping to end 66 long years w
AFTER digging for five years in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, suddenly, on November 4, 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter made an extraordinary discovery. He found a stepping stone. Frantically, he cleared away some sand only to find 15 more steps that led to a sealed door.
This was what his British backer, Lord Carnarvon, had longed for. For years, he had poured money into what he believed was a doomed project, but now he was ecstatic for this might, after all, be an ancient gravesite.
Slowly, they removed the door which opened onto a passage filled with rubble. In candlelight, they cleared the debris only to discover yet another sealed door.
Carter then broke a small hole in the second door and nervously held a candle to the opening. Lord and Lady Carnarvon were standing behind him eager to see if there was gold.
First, there was only darkness, but then Carter was ‘struck dumb with amazement’ by what he saw. ‘What is it?’ asked Carnarvon, to which Carter exultantly cried: ‘Wonderful things!’ Everywhere, there was ‘the glint of gold’.
This was, indeed, a tomb containing a golden throne, chariots, life-sized statues and ancient vases. But there was much more to come when, a few months later, on February 17, 1923, Carter and his team broke through another door in the chamber.
Ominously, it was guarded by two large statues. A shrine of gold suggested this was the pharaoh’s burial chamber. They saw a sarcophagus which they soon discovered contained the mummified remains of none other than Tutankhamun. Carter was the first person to look upon the pharaoh’s golden death mask in over three thousand years.
IT was a momentous discovery that electrified the world. However, within days of the discovery, strange events began to unfold that would have an equally dramatic, if eerie, effect.
Soon after he had first gazed upon the face of the dead pharaoh, Carter dispatched a messenger to his home. As the man approached the house, he heard what he thought was a ‘faint, almost human cry’. There, before him, was a bird cage containing a cobra that had consumed Carter’s canary. The cobra was the symbol of the Egyptian monarchy.
Six weeks later, Carter’s financier Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning due to an infected mosquito bite.
On the day that news of Carnarvon’s death reached him, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels, was giving an interview to the Times newspaper. He immedidampen ately speculated that Carnarvon may have fallen foul of priestly ‘elementals’ or ‘curses’ which were said to have protected the royal tomb.
As it happened, one of Doyle’s friends, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, had died in 1907 of typhoid. Doyle disputed this, believing that the real cause of death was Robinson’s fascination with a female mummy at the British museum.
‘I told him he was tempting fate by pursuing his inquiries,’ said Doyle in 1923, ‘but he would not desist... The immediate cause of his death was typhoid fever, but that is the way the “elementals” guarding the mummy might act.’
Similarly, there was no doubt in Doyle’s mind that what killed Lord Carnarvon was the ‘curse of King Tut’.
In the end, it is of no real consequence what really caused the death of Lord Carnarvon, or if the finding of a cobra in the birdcage was apocryphal.
The mere fact that someone so highly respected as Doyle regarded it as true, was enough for the legend to gain traction. Similarly, the fact that most of those who helped excavate the tomb lived long and healthy lives, has done nothing to the widespread belief that the pharaoh is taking vengeance for having been so rudely disturbed.
The global popularity of movies like The Mummy and Indiana Jones proves that the curse of Tutankhamun continues to fascinate and enthral.
When he opened that tomb, Howard Carter could not have known what he would unleash. While it wasn’t an army of fearsome mummies, many believe it was something much worse.
The idea of a curse is as old as humanity itself. The Bible begins with Adam and Eve being cursed to spend the rest of their days far from Eden. In ancient Greek mythology, Princess Cassandra of Troy had the gift of foresight. She was, however, cursed because nobody believed her prophesies, thus leading to the fall of Troy.
And what could be more ter-
rifying than the invocation of supernatural spirits to punish the perpetrators of some malevolent act? The shaman waves his staff, mumbles some mantras and the culprit is doomed to disaster for a lifetime. The mere mention of a curse is enough to unsettle even the most rational of people.
I realise it is normal for us to invoke supernatural causes for our catastrophes. When we experience a run of bad luck, or we endure a series of senseless tragedies, we often look to the heavens and scream: ‘Why me?’
This is but a watered-down version of the old Biblical lament proclaimed by the hapless Job and the prophet Jeremiah: ‘Woe is me!’ The prophet Isiah heightens the despair when he adds: ‘Woe is me, for I am undone!’
The ancient prophets discerned the will of the eternal in everything. If something went wrong, it was divine karma for bad behaviour. Misfortune was the penalty for deviating from the way of righteousness.
The entire Old Testament dramatises this often fraught relationship between man and God. There is no other reason for disaster other than divine retribution. In the case of Job and the prophet Jeremiah, their agony is a test of faith that ends when both prove worthy of God’s favour.
BUT what of those famous curses that seem to endure perpetually and are without any apparent explanation? In 1919, for example, the Boston Red Sox baseball team sold their star player, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees. Ruth, known as the ‘Bambino’, led the Red Sox to unprecedented sporting heights prior his transfer.
But then, following his departure, the Red Sox failed to win a World Series for another 86 years. Thus was born the ‘Curse of the Bambino’.
Superstition or something strangely supernatural? The fact is that there are those who will always believe there is something more to events than mere chance. The Curse of the Bambino may seem far-fetched to die-hard sceptics, but for many others it provides a plausible explanation for the persistence of calamity.
And what of the so-called ‘Kennedy curse’, which acquired currency with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963? That was followed, in 1968, by the murder of the president’s brother Senator Bobby Kennedy. Then, in 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy drove a car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, thus ending his presidential hopes.
It didn’t stop there. Two of Bobby Kennedy’s sons died tragically, one of an overdose and the other in a skiing accident. In 1999, John F. Kennedy Jr was killed in a plane crash, along with his wife and her sister.
It is barely believable that one family could endure so much pain, and yet the tragedies just kept unfolding. Can we so easily dismiss the idea that something more than coincidence was at work? Or is it simply that we need to read reasons into tragic events that just happen for no reason?
Is it, in other words, that we just need to make sense of our misfortune, believing that if it is the effect of random chance, we have no way of breaking the spell? If, however, we can do something which will free us from our sad fate, we might get back on track.
This idea is deep-rooted in our cultural and religious psyche. From the sacred scriptures of all traditions, to beloved fairy tales like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, the belief that our lives are somehow part of a great cosmic drama between good and evil is instilled almost from birth.
It is true that every event has a cause. The decisions we take now will directly impact what happens down the line. Cause harm today and suffer the consequences tomorrow. Perhaps, therefore, we are simply the authors of our own misfortune. Perhaps we curse ourselves through our own bad choices. If so, why then do bad things happen to good people?
In life, bad things happen to everybody. Is the old lady who has lived a blameless life, but who has suffered countless tragedies, under some sort of spell? Is she cursed or being punished for some wicked action by some distant ancestor? Or is it just that impulsive decisions and random events have resulted in suffering? Only the most superstitious would say she was the target of malign forces.
I think we all have moments when we believe things are conspiring against us – as if things had the power to conspire. However, the idea of the so-called Fates converging to select their next victim is not one that can survive too much scrutiny. And yet, many of us persist in thinking that, if we can find out what it is they want, we can somehow pacify them.
Tomorrow, the Mayo GAA team will attempt to vanquish Dublin in the All-Ireland football final. It will be a game of high drama – not least because Mayo have not claimed the Sam Maguire Cup since a strange event occurred after their last win in 1951.
ON their way home from Croke Park, the victorious team travelled through Foxford, just south of Ballina. Allegedly, the boisterous victors refused to stand in solemn silence as a funeral cortege passed through the town. The presiding priest was so incensed that he cast a curse on the team, vowing they would never again win an All-Ireland until all the players were dead. Two members of the 1951 team are still alive.
There are some who dispute the ‘Curse of ’51’ as mere myth. One person is UCD academic Dr Arlene Crampsie, who recently researched the curse as part of the GAA Oral History Project in Mayo. She writes: ‘None of the players admitted it. Nobody who went to the homecoming remembers it… Nobody remembers hearing about it until the 1990s, and only in a sustained way since 2010.’
While that may be so, the Curse of ’51 hangs over Mayo like a dark cloud. The fact that the team has reached eight finals since their last win, losing some of those games in bizarre circumstances, only serves to compound the belief that they are cursed. Last year, for example, they scored two own goals in the All-Ireland final against Dublin.
The mysteries of life are manifold and I certainly do not claim to know them. But what I can say is that to believe in curses, such as that of ’51 or of the Bambino, is to see something where there is nothing.
You may as well believe in the power of magic.
That is why, if Mayo do not win tomorrow, it will not be because the team of ’51 were cursed by a priest on his way to bury the dead.
It will be simply because they did not play well enough. Probably.
Ill-fated?: Howard Carter examines King Tut’s remains in 1923