The legend of Egyptian Priestess Amen-Rah was a global story that thrilled audiences everywhere during the Victorian and Edwardian periods and even in the proceeding decades. One notable urban legend is still in circulation, where this cursed piece was responsible for sinking the Titanic. So, did the Egyptian noble have any actual influence on the sinking? Her history is long and troubled… around 3,000 years of trouble.
The Priestess Amen-Rah wasn’t actually a mummy. It wasn’t even a complete coffin or sarcophagus. It was merely a decorative lid piece for an inner coffin, also called a “mummy board.” The trouble with the piece wasn’t limited to owners. It soon became established that just looking upon the case could get you cursed, or even killed. During the Victorian Era, ancient Egyptian coffins and cases were much more sought after than the mummies themselves. Many British explorers depleted their wealth seeking treasure and fame beneath Egyptian sands.
The lore and myth involved in this case is far more interesting than what really happened. There are three common origins for the tale. All three are presented here.
Little is known about the case’s true origins. Legends state her name was Hetare, a member of the royal family in Egypt. Her brother was the Pharaoh Amunhotep IV. She followed her brother’s new monotheistic religion, despite the fact that it was heresy. Amunhotep IV disliked the power of the traditional Amun-Ra, he envisioned the god Aten. He destroyed the old temples and defaced their traditional religious imagery. He changed his name to Akhetaten and created a city of the same name, away from Thebes. Today, his city is called el-Amarna. He’s also suspected of being King Tutankhamen’s father.
Hetare was a daughter of Pharaoh Amunhotep III, of the 18th Dynasty, and a priestess of the temple of Amun-Ra. She eventually deserted the temple, a move to prove her allegiance to her half-brother in his battle for the throne.
All was not well in her brother’s kingdom. Hetare was cursed for abandoning Amun-Ra and she remains cursed. She was murdered for her wonton sacrilege, no matter why she engaged in it. Her remains were lost long before her inner coffin lid was purchased. Rumors stated the body was lost while traveling up the Nile in the Nineteenth Century.
Conflicting documentation reported the purchase as being anywhere from the 1850s to the 1870s. Two of the team lost their entire wealth within hours. Thomas Douglas Murray was said to be the original purchaser, and first victim of the curse. One had to have his arm amputated while in Egypt. Another was blinded by an explosion and the final member died a mysterious death from an unknown affliction.
The remaining owner lost his fortune six months after bringing the mummy to England. Arthur Wheeler, the final member, found himself financially ruined and died from the strain. Mrs. Warwick Hunt, Mr. Wheeler’s sister, inherited the case.
The family had a photographer attempt to capture the case on film in September of 1887. The photographer died and the resulting image of the case showed only a spectral male figure. Another man was brought in to translate the hieroglyphs, but shot himself a few days later.
Mrs. Hunt was frightened of the trinket, but didn’t want to pass any ill fortune onto anyone she knew. She donated it to the museum. Unfortunately, this was not the end of Amun-Ra’s wrath.
Five English explorers came across the Amun-Ra lid in 1859. They traveled the Nile on their route to Thebes, when they stopped to visit with Lady Duff Gordon. They told her they wanted to purchase a rare and unique antiquity to carry back to England. Several Arab treasure hunters brought the lid in for them to view. The men drew lots to see who would be the owner of the case and Mr. Wheeler won.
She’s also called Tcheser Ka Ra, Priestess of the Sun God. In 1910, newspapers claimed she’d been responsible for at least seven deaths and countless misfortunes. In this version, she was the high priestess of the Temple of the Sun at Thebes, second in importance only to the Pharaoh. The coffin inscription dates the coffin to 1,600 BC.
This story also claims that one priestess of the Sun Temple was selected annually to be the “Divine Wife.” She was sacrificed. Her body was not recovered, but her spirit was summoned to inhabit the coffin.
Mustapha Ali, an unknown Egyptian character, loaned one of his best treasure hunters to a team of English explorers in the 1880s. They were all busy at the ruins of the Theban temple when they eventually discovered the ill-fated lid.
A mere 30 minutes after the discovery, someone’s gun went off for no reason. The Englishmen’s leader had to have his arm amputated because it was nearly shot off. The day after, another member of the group died from similar accidental gunfire. Mail for the group arrived that night and two other men found they were financially ruined. The fifth explorer paid the other men for their interest in the coffin and brought it home to England.
Back In England
His sister came to own the case. Some accounts state Wheeler died, but others state he was just financially ruined. Regardless of her brother’s fate, she knew nothing of the case’s reputation. Bad luck poured over the building like water, but no one associated it with the new antiquity.
A photographer tried to capture the case, but caught something else on film. The face in the negative was not the face on the coffin lid. He destroyed the negative and requested another session with the case. It produced the same results. He told the sister, but offended the spirit in the case. He was dead within hours.
The sister had seen enough. She wasn’t entirely convinced of a “curse,” but she knew it was trouble, nonetheless.
At The British Museum
The driver who delivered it to the museum died within a week. One of the men who helped carry the case inside lost both legs in a rail accident a week after. Four of the porters who carried the piece to the display room were also affected, two died, and one broke both of his arms.
Edgar Davies, noted photographer in the 1910s, was asked to photograph the lid for the museum. He was a Bloomsbury picture dealer with an art gallery on Museum Street in London. While adjusting the lights, he found the inscription of the curse beneath some sediment. He joked about the mummy having a silly face while he prepared the cameras, but the laughter was not to last. He was blind within a few weeks. Some sources credit this with the fact that he touched the lid. His recovery required 27 surgeries, but he said the real improvement came after he got rid of the photographs and the negatives.
Davies stated he’d sold a large portrait of the case to a client. The customer returned two months later on the verge of death. The client said he’d endured nothing, but bad luck and sickness since the purchase. He buried the photograph 3 feet down in his garden.
A clergyman took the Sunday school children on a visit to the museum. There were 80 in total and he warned them all to stay away from the Egypt room. A little impertinent girl defied him. She not only went into the room, she stuck her tongue out at the mummy. The next day, she was in a wreck and lost both arms.
There were hundreds of similar stories of misfortune and affliction after viewing the case. The attendants in the Egyptian room petitioned the museum trustees over the case. Two of them also died.
Madam Helena Blavatsky, noted psychic and spiritualist, believed the case radiated evil intent.
The trouble became so difficult for the museum that it secretly commissioned a replica. The curator placed the replica on display and hid the original from the public. The ill luck stopped. The ruse would’ve worked indefinitely, but unfortunately, an American Egyptologist created a scene in the museum. He knew it was not authentic. The curators escorted him to the storage area and explained why they used the deception. The American professed he would take the original and add it to his private collection. The case was packaged in secret and given phony documents to evade the prying eyes of customs officials.
The package was to be delivered aboard the Titanic. Sadly, it never reached its destination.
The fact that the mummy was still in the museum, and not at the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic, did not deter the rumor mill. Headlines in 1921 noted that “The Lady of the College of Amun-Ra,” was back on display in the British Museum. At this time, the Egyptian gallery was closed during the winter months.
The real origins of the mythology surrounding the coffin lid aren’t particularly easy to find. Thomas Douglas Murray died in 1911 at the age of 70. He enjoyed a lifetime of travel to and throughout Egypt. He wasn’t struck down unexpectedly.
Bertram Fletcher Robinson was a popular and ambitious journalist in England. He became an editor at 34. He first heard of the Amun-Ra case in 1904. He decided to cover the antiquity and the lore behind it. He was afflicted with enteric fever in 1907 and died suddenly. This started a series of legends, despite Robinson’s personal belief that the cursed ended when the case was donated.
Unfortunately, much of the mythology surrounding the coffin lid remains myth. The mummy board was taken down during both World Wars, but because they wanted to protect it. It is believed to have actually come from the 21st Dynasty and belonged to a woman of rank, but her ties to royalty are unknown.
Today, the mummy board remains on display at the British Museum, not at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
William T. Stead was a pioneer of sorts in the field of investigative journalism. In 1893, he founded England’s most notable psychical research magazine, Borderland. The publication only ran four years, but established Stead’s reputation for interest and belief in the supernatural. He is believed to be the father of “tabloid journalism,” today. It is unknown if this was due to his actual work, or if he were just slandered due to his belief in the paranormal. No examples of any particularly “sleazy” or “depraved” work by Stead exist. As far as yellow journalism goes, there were countless reporters around the globe engaged in precisely that during that era, who aren’t recalled with such distaste.
Stead was one of the individuals most interested in the case of Amen-Rah. Ironically, Stead perished aboard the Titanic when it sank, and not the legend he investigated so much.