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May is mummy month 9: Mummies in literature

I ended my last post with a crack about pulp fiction, but I’m going to begin this post with some papyrus fiction.

Not surprisingly, the first mummy stories were written in ancient Egypt more than 2300 years ago. One popular character was Setne Khamwas, who in real life was a high priest and lesser royal. In one story, Khamwas has to acquire the forbidden Book of Thoth, but he has to defeat its guardian mummy to do it. Luckily, all he has to do is defeat him at a board game called senet. Unluckily, the mummy wins. Luckily, Khamwas manages to steal the book. Unluckily, Khamwas had never read any mummy stories beforehand, so he didn’t know that cheating a guardian mummy is a bad idea. Things got worse for Khamwas, and he decided to return the book. He lived happily ever after. I’m not sure if the same can accurately be said of the mummy.

The English-language mummy opus had a separate origin. In the 18th and 19th centuries, mummy “unrollings” and other feats of Egyptology were all the rage across Europe and North America. Novelists were a bit slow on the uptake, but they did eventually catch on, with the first mummy novel appearing in 1857. Theophile Gauthier’s Romance of a Mummy tells the love story of a young woman whose mummified remains – and conveniently-recorded biography – were discovered by archaeologists thousands of years later.

One source credited Arthur Conan Doyle with turning mummies into villains in the 1890s, with short stories The Ring of Thoth and Lot No. 249 . This is just another example of a female writer getting cheated of her due. Louisa May Alcott beat Doyle by 21 years, with her 1869 short story Lost in a Pyramid .

As far as I can determine, the first full-length English-language mummy novel was Bram Stoker’s 1903 The Jewel of the Seven Stars . Today, best-selling authors including Anne Rice and Elizabeth Peters continue to carry the torch (which I like to think is made of mummy wrappings dipped in pissasphalt). And I must mention the great doyenne of English literature, Jane Austen, who, with Vera Nazarian, penned the timeless classic, MANSFIELD PARK AND MUMMIES: Monster Mayhem, Matrimony, Ancient Curses, True Love, and Other Dire Delights.

* Pause while Teresa’s head explodes*

Where mummy books truly thrive is in the children’s market, where countless fiction and non-fiction offerings are available. Even if mummies no longer cause adults to say “eek!”, they still cause kids to say “ick!”


Next time: Mummies on Film


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