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

Irish Daily Mail - - News - by Mark Doo­ley

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

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