Mummy movies play an undeniably powerful role in feeding (pre)conceptions about ancient Egypt among the general public, particularly for museum-goers. In my experience of working with school groups in the last ten years, a good deal of time was spent correcting misinformation gleaned from the swashbuckling Brendan Frasier/Rachel Weiss 1999 ‘Mummy’ franchise. To ignore the most recent re-boot, starring Tom Cruise and on general realise from today, would be churlish. Some Egyptologists will simply laugh it off while others will grumble about inaccuracies, perhaps assuming that Egyptology is in some way an exact science or that museums don’t construct their own ‘facts’ about the Egyptians all the time.
Leaving aside the issue of the quality of the film (which I actually found quite enjoyable), ‘The Mummy’ tells us some interesting things about museums, archaeological research and the ancient Egyptians. The film’s opening exposition connects with very current issues – U.S. intervention in the Middle East and the iconoclastic tendencies of Daesh – and is jarringly candid about the Black Market in the antiquities trade. In this 2017 reboot, it’s the looters and traffickers (rather than the archaeologists) that get their comeuppance by unleashing an ancient evil. There is, of course, a vague but consistent sense of archaeological enquiry; as always, this is never research for the sake of it – this film perpetuates the myth of archaeologists (and researchers in general) as on the hunt for particular things, trying to fathom a specific ancient mystery. The pernicious subtext has always seemed clear to me: don’t trust anyone with a doctorate who isn’t a medic, because research that isn’t hard science is somehow frivolous and indulgent.
Ancient Egypt appears, as usual, much more boring than it actually was: a bland, overly-sandy wilderness as backdrop to some predictable palace-based intrigues. Although, unsurprisingly, no Egyptologists are credited (or would own up to being) among the ‘researchers’, there’s some passable vocalised Late Egyptian among the confused dialogue. One might charitably assume that the name of Princess ‘Ahmanet’ is a reference to Amunet, the female counterpart of the god Amun, representing ‘hiddenness’ – but this may simply be a coincidence. Researchers also seem to have picked up on the idea of (gilded) finger- and toe-stalls from genuine mummies (such as Tutankhamun and Third Intermediate Period royals from Tanis) to add an unusual detail to ‘other’ even further the ancient princess. The appearance of pseudo-hieratic tattoos indicate her possession by the evil forces of Seth, who is actually very rarely name-checked in mummy films as a bringer of chaos.
One intriguing twist in Ahmanet’s backstory is her stated role as the ambitious and capable heir of her father, resentful of being displaced in the succession by the arrival of a baby half-brother. It is easy to see this as a nod to the historical person of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (c. 1473-58 BCE); with ‘Ahmanet’ even suffering the same eventual fate, of being stricken from the historical record. More might have been made of this, but the opportunity was lost.
Regarding the ‘horror’ of the film, perhaps most interesting is the fundamental premise of the eponymous Mummy as a sexual being. Ahmanet is a kohl-eyed seductress, who uses men to advance her position. In this, the story returns to early fictional treatments of the Egyptian mummy not as a shuffling (male) servant/lover of a princess, in 20th Century films, but as a beautiful princess herself ‘stripped’ of her bandages and – restored to life – able to tempt mortal men. This in some way misrepresents genuinely ancient sexualised images of the deceased woman as eternally young and fertile, to aid in her own rebirth. Perhaps the best cinematic example of these misinterpretations was Valerie Leon’s Queen Ta-ra in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) – inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel Jewel of Seven Stars.
A film critic for The Guardian was quite wrong that the ‘mummy’s curse’ has no basis in ancient Egyptian reality. Imprecations against those who would damage monuments are common in Pharaonic sources, and appeals to the spirits of the ‘bad’ dead to desist from bringing harm are relatively well-attested. The Demotic tale of ‘Setne Khaemwaset’ vividly describes the consequences of stealing secret knowledge from the tomb of a magician. The same trope of illicitly acquiring ancient, hidden knowledge from an ‘archive’ of papyrus scrolls still appears here, in 2017, attesting to its continuing fascination.
So, what will this film add to – or detract from – popular knowledge of ancient Egypt? Well, the impact of the movie will likely be lessened by the fact it is not a ‘family’ film; it is aimed at an older audience than the Abbott and Costello-style treatment of the 1999 franchise. It represents ancient Egypt (specifically the ‘New Kingdom’ – described variously as ‘5000’ or ‘3000’ years ago) as a place of sensual exoticism – but also of disquieting horror. There is little point in quibbling about individual points of inaccuracy – if anything, the overall effect was more ‘accurate’ to our present idea of ancient Egypt than many previous ‘Mummy’ movies.
Most people who enter Manchester Museum have some idea of Egyptian mummies from fiction. For many visitors, mummies are not real. Our other main attraction in Manchester – ‘Stan’ the T-Rex – is a cast; many people have no experience of seeing a real corpse; mummies exist in fiction, alongside werewolves and vampires – so can’t be real. Given that this new ‘Mummy’ launches Universal’s ‘Dark Universe’ series of such characters, this film will likely reinforce these assumptions.
Egyptian mummies exist in a strange dimension between desire and revulsion. This film exploits that quandary more than most of recent times. Although she is evil, there are moments when one feels sympathetic towards Ahmanet. In the end, the film proves that unlike many other subjects contained within – and created by – museum collections, ancient Egyptian material has a uniquely seductive mixture of glamour and horror – of sex and death – that people are drawn to time after time.
For museums, it is useful to have this ‘pop’ fantasy as a counterpoint to debunk.