Movie vs Myth: The Mummy
Updated: Feb 16
Released in 1999 and boasting two sequels, a children’s cartoon series, and a 2017 reboot, ‘The Mummy’ has become a cult classic, telling the story of a group of archaeologists and the mummy that they unwittingly called back from the dead. While the movie may have drawn from genuine Egyptian funerary practices, how accurate was it to these customs, and where did they come from?
The film is set in 1923, when a group of archaeologists – spearheaded by siblings Evie and Jonathan, and their guide Rick O’Connell – go on an expedition to uncover the lost city of Hamunaptra. During their search they uncover the mummified corpse of an Ancient Egyptian priest, Imhotep, a man who was mummified while still alive in punishment for his crimes. When Evie reads aloud from a book discovered near the mummy (The Book of The Dead) she accidentally resurrects him. The newly alive mummy then goes on a murderous rampage, killing all those who disturbed his grave, and bringing forth the plagues of Egypt. He is eventually defeated by the gang, who use The Book of The Living to banish him.
The movie plays off old legends and superstitions of treasure hunters and archaeologists being cursed during their excavations of tombs. These superstitions are largely associated with one mummy in particular – Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Two months after the tomb was opened, the dig’s sponsor died of an infection. Newspapers sensationalised the incident, claiming that the sponsor had been cursed. While it was claimed that everyone present at the opening of the tomb had been cursed, only six other members of the twenty-six present died within ten years of the tomb being opened – so if the curse did exist, then it was certainly a slow acting one.
Regardless of how true the mummy’s curse was, it became a common theme in pop culture, with fictional treasure hunters and grave robbers being punished for the crime of disturbing the dead. The curse in ‘The Mummy’ takes on a far more physical and immediate form, with the mummy itself rising from the grave and murdering those who discovered him.
Unlike Tutankhamun, the fictional Imhotep was no royalty. He was instead an immoral priest, falling in love with the Pharaoh’s mistress, and murdering the Pharaoh so that the two of them could escape together. The plan failed, with the Pharaoh’s guards catching Imhotep before they could escape and mummifying him while he was still alive.
While he has little in common with his film counterpart, there was actually a famous Egyptian priest named Imhotep. He was born in the 27th Century BC, where he served as an advisor to the Pharaoh Djoser (who he notably did not murder). Imhotep was known as a scholar, architect, philosopher, and physician, and was a trusted enough advisor to the Pharaoh that he designed the royal tomb – the Step Pyramid, located outside the city of Memphis. After his death, Imhotep became deified, known as a god of scholars, wisdom and medicine. As a god he was widely regarded as benevolent, and unlikely to go around ripping out people’s organs, as the Imhotep from ‘The Mummy’ did.
Speaking of ripping out organs – it is also unlikely that anyone in Ancient Egypt would have been mummified as a punishment, especially not while they were alive. Mummification was thought to be a way to preserve the soul (ka) in the afterlife, and so was a way of honouring the deceased.
In addition to this, the process of creating a mummy involved removing the brain and discarding it, before removing the internal organs and storing them inside Canopic Jars. So, even if someone had been alive when the process began, they certainly weren’t by the time they were buried. In ‘The Mummy’ there were five Canopic Jars, as the heart was also removed, but during the actual process of mummification the heart was left inside the body, as it was thought to hold a record of the person’s life and was used to determine whether or not someone made it into the afterlife.
The secrets of mummification were said to have been taught to humanity by the gods, one god in particular. Anubis, the jackal-headed deity was a god of the dead and protector of the deceased. It is thought that his mythology came about due to cases of wild jackals digging up shallow graves and desecrating the bodies – something particularly horrific to a people who believed that the body needed to be whole in order for the soul to live on. Anubis was therefore prayed too to keep these bodies safe.
Anubis is one of the oldest gods in Egypt and was later assimilated into the myths of Osiris. Osiris became known as ruler of the dead, and Anubis his brother, or son. In this guise, Anubis is credited with the creation and teaching of mummification. Osiris’ brother, Seth, hated him and conspired to kill him, cutting his body into many pieces, and scattering them. His wife, Isis managed to locate these missing pieces and bring them to Anubis, who joined them back together, and embalmed the body. Thus restored, Osiris became a lord of the dead, and ruler of the underworld.
In addition to mummification, Anubis was known for presiding over the weighing of the heart. When someone died, their heart was weighed against the feather of Maat. If the heart was heavier than the feather, they were consumed by the crocodile-headed Amut. Anubis also served as a psychopomp, acting as a guide and messenger between the world of the dead, and the world of the living. He did briefly fulfil this role at the end of ‘The Mummy,’ appearing in a ghostly CGI chariot and removing Imhotep’s immortality, allowing Rick O’Connell to kill the newly human man.
Still, even though ‘The Mummy’ is not particularly accurate, it still remains a popular film with an engaging storyline, and a fun, talented cast. Though it might not be the best pick for historical accuracy, it’s definitely still worth a watch.