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Michael Dirda on mummies in pulp fiction

Victorian_mummy_unwrapping

Wonderful to come across this new article from Michael Dirda at Barnes & Noble Review, which offers — in typical Dirda fashion — a thoroughly absorbing, insightful, and well-written treatment of a fun and fascinating subject:

Over the past few months I’ve read, or reread, some of the most famous stories about mummies, Egyptian curses, reincarnation and love that prevails over death and the passage of centuries. Unlike other monsters of the id, the mummy lacks a central master text—there is no equivalent to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Instead, these tales display a surprising variety. In 1827 Jane Loudon Webb’s The Mummy!, set in an imagined 22nd century future, employs a revived Cheops to comment on society, ethics and religion. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Some Words with a Mummy” is distinctly satirical and ends with the narrator, sick of his shrewish wife, planning to have himself embalmed for a couple of hundred years. A comparably light-hearted spirit pervades Grant Allen’s “My New Year’s Eve Among the Mummies” (1880). In this instance, a fortune-hunting cad discovers that on one evening every thousand years the mummies inside the pyramid of Abu Yilla return to life. He intrudes upon their millennial banquet, flirts with Pharaoh’s daughter, and decides to have himself embalmed so that he and the princess can be resurrected together in the future. Alas, the elaborate process is interrupted — Or was it all just a dream?

Even as mummies themselves exist in a kind of halfway-state between life and death, so tales about them frequently blur the line between reality and hallucination. . . .

While it might be tempting to shrug off tales of mummies and Egyptian magic as mere period pieces, in fact, they remain astonishingly contemporary. They deal with racial and religious hatred, the place of women in society, our desire for perennial youth, the relationship of modern science and ancient belief, and, surprisingly often, the question of sexual orientation. In his excellent study, The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy Roger Luckhurst further stresses that narratives about the mummy’s curse are the West’s guilt-ridden response to, or way of “acknowledging and negotiating,” its own imperialist violence in the Middle East.

FULL TEXT: “Lost in the Pyramids: Searching for Pulp Fiction’s Mummies

Click through to read Michael’s reflections on various mummy fictions, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth,” Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars, Sax Rohmer’s Brood of the Witch-Queen, and Riccardo Stephens’s obscure 1912 novel The Mummy. He also mentions a couple of recent anthologies devoted to such things.

And of course, for more on everything to do with mummies in fiction and fact, you can consult my Mummies around the World: An Encyclopedia of Mummies in History, Religion, and Popular Culture.

 

Image by Unknown – Science & Avenir Hors Série n°157 – Janvier/février 2009. Page 66., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5864757

‘Mummies around the World’ is a ‘truly rollicking blend of scientific and pop culture’

 

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During a week when mummies are on everybody’s mind because of that widely circulated news story about the mummified Buddhist monk found in a Buddha statue, it’s nice to see that Library Journal has posted a review of my recently published Mummies around the World, which contains a long entry titled “Buddhist self-mummification” that’s written by Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue, the scientists and mummy experts who used to host National Geographic’s Mummy Road Show.

LJ’s verdict, I’m pleased to say, is positive:

This truly rollicking blend of scientific and pop culture offers facts ranging from actual methods of mummification to an entry on the 1955 movie Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and includes trivia-fact boxes. VERDICT: An educational and entertaining compendium that is recommended for all “mummymaniacs” everywhere.

MORE: Review of Mummies around the World (scroll to the bottom of the page)

Remember, you can find the book in your local public, high school, or college library. You can also order it from Amazon, the publisher, and pretty much everyplace else.

Preview of ‘Mummies around the World’ now available

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A Google Books preview of my mummy encyclopedia is now available. At least from my end — and I know these previews tend to shift and alter sometimes — it shows the full table of contents (two of them, actually, one alphabetical and the other topically organized), the full preface and introduction, portions of the master timeline of mummies throughout history, and a few snippets of the book’s A-Z entries. For those of you who have been following my updates about this project over the past couple of years, here’s a glimpse of the final result.

The book is scheduled for publication on November 30. You can order it from the publisher or from all of the usual retail suspects (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.). You’ll probably also find it in a library near you. And remember, you can view a full list of the book’s contributors with brief bios here.

Science or sacrilege? The trouble with mummies

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The mummified body of a Pre-dynastic Egyptian man known as Gebelein Man (formerly called Ginger) in the British Museum

Editing the mummy encyclopedia over the past year and a half has left me with a still-active internal radar that scans the media incessantly for mummy-related news, and a recent (May 20) piece in The Independent about a new exhibition at the British Museum titled “Ancient Lives, New Discoveries: Eight Mummies, Eight Stories” lit up the screen last week like an approaching aircraft carrier.

The teaser conveys the gist:

A blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum unwraps the mysteries of 5,000-year-old Egyptian mummies. Zoe Pilger is fascinated — but not sure they should be on show at all.

The article itself takes the form of an absorbing report in which Ms. Pilger, in addition to describing the exhibition’s content and execution in vivid detail, briefly summarizes the history of scientific mummy studies and the cultural phenomenon of “mummymania” that was ignited by the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

She talks about mummy unrollings (the popular practice of unwrapping mummies as a public spectacle in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries),  the cultural myth of a “mummy curse,” the incorporation of the curse motif into Universal Studios’ classic 1932 film The Mummy, the use of image scanning technologically (specifically, CT scans) to conduct non-invasive examinations of mummies, the ancient naturally mummified Egyptian body known as Gebelein Man, Margaret Murray’s famous unwrapping of an Egyptian mummy in front of a crowd of 500 onlookers at the Manchester Museum, and the troubling ethical questions that surround the act of examining and displaying human remains like this at all.

Each of these issues is also talked about at length and in detail in the mummy encyclopedia, the last of them (the ethical conundrum) in two separate articles, one titled “Displaying Mummies,” by scientist and mummy researcher Heather Gill-Frerking and the other titled “Collecting Mummies,” by literary scholar Richard Sugg (author of 2011′s Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians).

I couldn’t help but be impressed at the way Ms. Pilger’s article, in the space of just 1300 words, offers an excellent primer on many crucial issues related to mummies and their scientific and cultural uses. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Here’s a taste:

The first mummy on display is extraordinary. It seems charged with a supernatural energy and I half expected it to wake up. This young man was in his twenties or early thirties when he curled up into a foetal position and died. He was buried in a cemetery in Gebelein, Upper Egypt, and naturally mummified by the dry, hot sand. His remains are 5,000 years old but his presence is vivid. Most of his skin has been preserved: it covers his delicate bones. His feet are drawn up to his chest and his hands are cupped under his chin, as though pleading. He seems vulnerable, lit in a glass case in a dark room like a relic. He has been transformed into an object and put on display. To look at him provokes a primal feeling of horror. This is death made real.

. . . These bodies were not designed to be seen. There is a tyrannical tendency in Western culture to try to know everything — to decode, demystify, and disenchant even the most sacrosanct of secrets. A fascination with the “magic” of other cultures is coupled with a rationalist incredulity. We don’t believe, and yet we can’t stop investigating — historically, through violent methods. The curators of this exhibition seem aware of this danger. Rather than crude unwrappings as a form of public entertainment, these mummies are explored with scientific rigour and respect. Instead of revulsion, we are encouraged to feel a sense of shared humanity; they are dignified through the small detail of daily life — from the wigs they wore to the beer they drank. However, there is a feeling that they do not belong to us and should not be here.

MORE: “Egyptian mummies: Science or sacrilege?

Image: Photo of Gebelein Man by Jack1956 at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

‘Mummies around the World’ now available for preorder

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I’m pleased to announce that my mummy encyclopedia is now available for preorder from the publisher, and also from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and elsewhere. The scheduled publication date is November 30.

From the official publisher’s description:

Perfect for school and public libraries, this is the only reference book to combine pop culture with science to uncover the mystery behind mummies and the mummification phenomena.

Mortality and death have always fascinated humankind. Civilizations from all over the world have practiced mummification as a means of preserving life after death — a ritual which captures the imagination of scientists, artists, and laypeople alike. This comprehensive encyclopedia focuses on all aspects of mummies: their ancient and modern history; their scientific study; their occurrence around the world; the religious and cultural beliefs surrounding them; and their roles in literary and cinematic entertainment.

Author and horror guru Matt Cardin brings together 130 original articles written by an international roster of leading scientists and scholars to examine the art, science, and religious rituals of mummification throughout history. Through a combination of factual articles and topical essays, this book reviews cultural beliefs about death; the afterlife; and the interment, entombment, and cremation of human corpses in places like Egypt, Europe, Asia, and Central and South America. Additionally, the book covers the phenomenon of natural mummification, where environmental conditions result in the spontaneous preservation of human and animal remains.

Here’s an excerpt (slightly condensed) from my introduction to the book: Read the rest of this entry