© Photo copyright Jon Bodsworth. Used with permission.
Though curses were not commonly recorded in the tombs of ancient Egypt, they were on occasion included. One of the more well-known is preserved in the Dynasty 5 Pyramid Texts (Utterance 534, §1278-9):
As for anyone who shall lay a finger on this pyramid and this temple which belong to me and my ka, he will have laid his finger on the Mansion of Horus in the firmament, he will have offended the Lady of the Mansion ... his affair will be judged by the Ennead and he will be nowhere and his house will be nowhere; he will be one proscribed, one who eats himself.
A stele belonging to Sarenput I, a nomarch of Elephantine under Senusret I (Dynasty 12), is meant to protect the offerings left to the statue in his image:
As for every mayor, every wab-priest, every scribe and every nobleman who shall take [the offering] from the statue, his arm shall be cut off like that of this bull, his neck shall be twisted off like that of a bird, his office shall not exist, the position of his son shall not exist, his house shall not exist in Nubia, his tomb shall not exist in the necropolis, his god shall not accept his white bread, his flesh shall belong to the fire, his children shall belong to the fire, his corpse shall not be to the ground, I shall be against him as a crocodile on the water, as a serpent on earth, and as an enemy in the necropolis.
The efficacy of a curse as a deterrent depended, of course, on its location. A curse in a burial chamber itself would be of little value, as the sanctity of the tomb would have of necessity been violated before the curse could be read. Most tomb curses were therefore inscribed in the tomb chapel, the more public part of the tomb complex (curses that were recorded inside the tomb itself might presumably find their power not in being read, but in the written word itself). Curses were inscribed on walls, false doors, stelae, statues, and sometimes on the coffins themselves.
The curse formula typically contained two elements: A description of an act displeasing to the author of the curse, and the consequences to one performing this act (often in both this lifetime and beyond) through some agency (god, king, private person, animal, etc.) The possible consequences meant to befall transgressors were varied indeed:
I shall seize his neck like that of a goose (Inscription of Hermeru, Dynasty 6)
He shall die from hunger and thirst (on a statue of Herihor, High Priest of Amun, Dyn. 20-21)
He shall have no heir (inscription of Tuthmosis I, Dyn. 18)
His years shall be diminished (on a statue of Monthuemhat, Dyn. 25-26)
His lifetime shall not exist on earth (tomb of Senmut, Dyn. 18)
He shall not exist (tomb of Khnumhotep, Dyn. 12)
His estate shall belong to the fire, and his house shall belong to the consuming flame ... His relatives shall detest him (tomb of Tefib, Dyn. 9-10)
He shall be miserable and persecuted (tomb of Penniut, Dyn. 20)
His office shall be taken away before his face and it shall be given to a man who is his enemy (on a statue of the scribe Amenhotep, Dyn. 18)
His wife shall be taken away before his face (Apanage Stele, Dyn. 22)
His face shall be spat at (El-Hasaia tomb, Dyn. 26)
A donkey shall violate him, a donkey shall violate his wife (Deir el-Bahri Graffito No. 11, Dyn. 20)
His heart shall not be content in life (on a statue of Wersu, Dyn. 18)
He shall be cooked together with the condemned (tomb of Khety II, Dyn. 9-10)
His name shall not exist in the land of Egypt (on a statue of the high priest Herihor, Dyn. 20-21)
Recently, a curse was found on the entrance to the Dynasty 3 tomb of Petety at Giza (see the photo at the top of this page):
Listen all of you! The priest of Hathor will beat twice any of you who enters this tomb or does harm to it. The gods will confront him because I am honored by his Lord. The gods will not allow anything to happen to me. Anyone who does anything bad to my tomb, then the crocodile, hippopotamus, and lion will eat him.
The curse was best understood by the ancient Egyptian relative to his religion, culture, and society, all inseparable elements of his daily life. Certain ethical demands were made on him, and these were manifest in his behavior. The curse served to underscore his responsibility to Maat, the total system of order and justice, the overall pattern of life, the norm of social intercourse. The curse also reiterated the dire consequences of rebellion against Maat. This was the power of the curse, power that has vanished along with the civilization that produced it.
Most of the curses above are taken from Katarina Nordth, Aspects of Ancient Egyptian Curses and Blessings: Conceptual Background and Transmission, Uppsala, 1996.
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