In the second part of his look at the impact of the historical figure of Imhotep, Matt Szafran charts the character’s role in recent mummy movies. An exhibition on this topic is under discussion…
In Part 1 we considered the ancient, and modern, cultists of Imhotep and what they worshipped. Today, outside of Egyptology and medical history, Imhotep is most known for giving his name to characters in popular culture – especially in monster movies (although not exclusively). To the proverbial ‘person on the street’ the name of Imhotep is only known from popular culture, predominantly through representations in movies. The name Imhotep was first seen used on film for Boris Karloff’s titular character in The Mummy (1932), however in more recent times the name is probably best known for Arnold Vosloo’s portrayal in The Mummy (1999) and reprised in The Mummy Returns (2001).
Whilst the Imhotep of these productions is a priest, this is essentially where the similarity to the real-world Imhotep ends. Unfortunately none of these representations draw any historical parallel or venerate Imhotep for his intellect, ingenuity or medical prowess and instead depict him as a (virtually) unstoppable force, with a host of supernatural powers, acting as a malevolent force working against the movies’ protagonists to bring about the end of the world.
The 1932 Imhotep worked alone, and the movie did not contain any form of cult to him. In his 1999 outing Imhotep does have followers, however Imhotep’s cultists are essentially portrayed as mindless slaves who follow Imhotep in a mob chanting his name and used as mindless instruments to enact their master’s will. It is not until the 2001 reprisal that we see a more recognisable cult to Imhotep.
This version of a cult of Imhotep is evident in the movie through their ‘uniform’ of red and black robes and turbans – something more akin to the modern day context of a cult member. This cult appears to mostly be comprised of thugs, with little interest in the worship and adoration of Imhotep and his achievements, as with their ancient world counterparts, and more interested in the strength and power granted Imhotep in the 1999 movie’s ‘Hom-Dai’ ceremony (itself issued as punishment for Imhotep’s adulterous actions with the wife of the king). These movie cultists wish to use Imhotep as a mindless force for destructions, something which is diametrically opposite to the real-world cultists who venerated Imhotep’s wisdom and powers of healing.
It is only the cult leader, Alun Armstrong’s Baltus Hafez character, who demonstrates any form of academic inclination in his role as curator at the British Museum. Even so, Hafez is still always seen in his uniform red and black turban – even when wearing civilian clothing. Hafez does perform rituals to Imhotep however rather than trying to take on Imhotep’s attributes, as with ancient the ancient cultists, these are instead almost the opposite and are to essentially attempt to control Imhotep – analogous to the use of a golem or a voodoo zombie. The Hafez character leads his cult in pursuit control of the ‘armies of Anubis’, hoping to use Imhotep as a ‘blunt instrument’ to further this goal, in a bid for world domination – something Campbell has assured me is not the typical behaviour for Egyptology curators!
We therefore see that the popular culture depictions of the cult of Imhotep bear very little resemblance to that of the ancient cults; instead of focussing on knowledge they focus only on the power Imhotep could bring them. It should also be noted that the Ancient Egyptians viewed the mummy, or saH, as a ritually purified divine entity and not something which should be ‘re-animated’ for use under the control of a cult to abuse its power.
It is unfortunate that most people will only know this nefarious power-hungry version of Imhotep and that Hollywood has subverted the name of the original man and his undeniable achievements and influence. Today only scholars of Egyptology truly know the reality and extent of achievements of Imhotep – at least until a more accurate version of him graces the silver screen.
– Matt Szafran