Dr. Robin Cohen

English 3329, Mythology


“Death Is Only the Beginning”

            These words, uttered by actor Arnold Vosloo, playing the part of Imhotep in Stephen Sommers 1999 version of “The Mummy”, are meant to send chills down the spine of the viewer.  The picture of a fate so horrible that it transcends the grave is enough to frighten even the most stalwart of souls, if one stops to ponder it for any length of time.  However, for those interested in the history and myth of Egypt, these words hold a different meaning entirely, for the death of the ancient Egyptian culture and the end of it’s long line of pharaohs was only the beginning of the present day fascination with what even now lurks beneath the burning sands.  The mystery and enchantment that Egypt holds for archeologists has not dimmed since the discovery of the Rosetta stone, and the paying public’s fascination for all things Egyptian seems to also be booming.  There is something mystical and otherworldly about ancient Egypt, more so than any other ancient civilization.  What draws us to the life of the ancient Egyptians?  Was it the fact that they lived in an advanced civilization well over 2000 years before the birth of Christ?  Was it their monuments, their tombs, their wealth?  Or is it all of these things that bring us back to the Egyptians, time and time again, longing for more of their culture and myth?  How can we bring such an alien society into our own lives and why would we choose to do it?  One of the ways seems to be to graft it onto our popular culture, in the form of the “mummy movie”.

            In 1932, “The Mummy”, directed by Karl Freund, launched itself onto movie screens everywhere, showing the plight of the ancient priest, Imhotep, brought back to life by an archeologist reading aloud a secret spell, and his quest to restore his love, Princess Ananka to life.  (El Mahdy, 175)  This movie began the mummy mania and popular society’s love for the myth of the mummy rather than the actuality.  Interestingly enough, the name Imhotep chooses to call his resurrected self in the 1932 version of “The Mummy” is Ardeth Bey, the name that Stephen Sommers would give years later in the 1999 version of “The Mummy” to the leader of the Medjay, who are trying to keep Imhotep in his tomb! (David and Archbold, 152)

            The 1999 version of “The Mummy” opens in 1930 with Evelyn Carnarvon, a librarian at Cairo’s Museum of Antiquities.  Her brother, Jonathan, has found a puzzle box that will supposedly lead them to Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead.  When the map is destroyed, Jonathan reveals that he stole the box from a man who claims to have been to the mythical city himself.  This man is Rick O’Connell, an American who did indeed stumble upon the fabled city.  Once they save him from a grisly execution, they head out into the desert to find the city, which reveals itself to them and a rival group of archeologists at sunrise.  They all set up camp and commence digging.

            The other group of archeologists finds a book that Evelyn recognizes as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.  She steals it from them and opens it, reading a passage from it aloud before anyone can stop her.  The passage she reads awakens the mummy of Imhotep, a man who was cursed with eternal suffering after he and his lover, Anck-Su-Namun, betrayed the pharaoh, Seti I, and killed him.  When a plague of locusts caused by Imhotep forces everyone to take shelter in the tomb, Imhotep takes the tongue and eyes from one of the other archeologists and finds Evelyn, calling her Anck-Su-Namun.  O’Connell shoots him and they escape; only to be caught at the entrance by a mysterious group of people called the Medjay.  Led by a man named Ardeth Bey, they have sworn their lives since the time of the pharaohs to protecting Egypt and to make sure that the dangerous things that sleep beneath her sands continue to safely asleep beneath her sands.  They let the travelers go and head into the tomb to try to finish Imhotep.

            Imhotep escapes and kill several more of the other archeological team; gaining strength with each one he sucks the life from.  When he reaches his full power, he begins to rain the seven plagues of Egypt down upon Cairo, one by one.  He then captures Evelyn, who the others discover is key to his real plot—the sacrificing of Evelyn will revive Imhotep’s lost love, Anck-Su-Namun.

            They follow them back to Hamunaptra and manage to stop Imhotep from killing Evelyn.  Meanwhile, Jonathan stumbles across the Book of the Living, which they use to deprive Imhotep of his immortality and then deal him a mortal wound.  The temple collapses around them as they race for the exit, losing both the Book of the Dead and the Book of the Living in the process.

            Eight years later, in “The Mummy Returns”, Evelyn is married to O’Connell and they have a son named Alex.  The archeological family finds a mysterious artifact called the Bracelet of Anubis in some ruins and Alex puts it on, not thinking there is anything special about it.  It turns out, however, that the bracelet belonged to the Scorpion King, a man who tried to take over all of Egypt.  When his army failed, he found himself lost in the desert, where he made a pact with the dark god Anubis, giving his soul for eternal life.  On the place where he stood to make this pact, a beautiful oasis, the Oasis of Am Shere, appears.  Anubis then grants him a powerful army and he wreaks havoc on Egypt for a while before Anubis comes to collect his due.  It is now said that if someone enters the Oasis of Am Shere and defeats the Scorpion King, they will gain control of the Army of Anubis, which is powerful enough to destroy the world.  Alex finds that the bracelet will not come off, and he only has seven days to make it to Am Shere or he will die.

            A woman named Meela, who is the actual reincarnation of Anck-Su-Namun, then kidnaps Alex.  In an ironic twist from the first movie, she raises Imhotep from the dead again, using the once again found Book of the Dead and Book of the Living.  The plan is for them to use the boy to get to Am Shere, where Imhotep will defeat the Scorpion King and gain control of the Army of Anubis.

            Evelyn, O’Connell, and Ardeth Bey, who mysteriously appears on the scene again, follow a path of clues left by Alex to the Oasis.  During their journey, Imhotep restores all of Anck-Su-Namun’s memories, and consequently, all of Evelyn’s memories of her past life as Seti I’s daughter, Nefertiti.

Several very interesting fight scenes and a touching throwback to the first Mummy movie later finds O’Connell and Imhotep, who has been temporarily turned mortal again, battling the Scorpion King for victory and control of the army.  Though it’s a close battle, Rick finally kills the Scorpion King with the Spear of Osiris, which Jonathan has been carrying around unawares for the entire movie.  O’Connell sends the army back to hell, and both he and Imhotep topple over a ledge.  Evelyn saves Rick, but Anck-Su-Namun doesn’t save Imhotep.

The group rushes to the top of the giant golden pyramid in the middle of the oasis as it is sucked in around them, and they are picked up by their airship in the nick of time.  They fly off into the sunset, having once again saved the world from the likes of Imhotep.

The real Imhotep, however, was anything but a monster.  A figure of heroic proportions, he was long thought to be a myth himself.  The stories surrounding his achievements were so fantastical that for many years archeologists dismissed the idea that he could have been a real person, until a statue bearing his titles was found at Djoser’s pyramid in Saqqura.  But no one can blame archeologists for not believing Imhotep could truly exist.  Widely regarded as the world’s first known genius, he held the titles of head architect, chief physician, and high priest under the reign of 3rd Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser. This trio of roles put him second only to the pharaoh himself in terms of importance. (“The Lost Mummy of Imhotep”)   We, however, remember him, not for his importance while he was alive, but for the legacy he left even to this day.  Imhotep was the architect responsible for Djoser’s step pyramid at Saqqura.  The pyramid at Saqqura is the oldest stone building in the world, and at the time it was built, was the largest building of any kind that the world had ever seen. (Reader and Partridge, 18)  Imhotep’s achievement began the pyramid craze in Egypt, and while Imhotep himself was long dead when the great pyramids at Giza were constructed, they could not have been made without the groundwork he laid at the pyramid in Saqqura.

            But Imhotep was not only a genius when it came to architecture.  2000 years before Hippocrates, Imhotep was deified for his work in the field of medicine.  There is evidence that the Egyptians knew how to conduct crude, but effective brain surgery, set broken limbs so they would heal correctly, and knew to use honey, a natural anti-bacterial in many of their mystical poultices. (“The Lost Mummy of Imhotep”)  It is thought, due to later references back to earlier works, that Imhotep was the author of the first Instructions in Wisdom, which detailed medical procedures for the Egyptian priests, though an original copy has never been found. (David, 123)  In fact, the evidence is so compelling that some scholars believe that if the ability to read hieroglyphics had not been lost in the early Christian era, doctors might be swearing the Imhotepic oath instead of the Hippocratic oath! (“The Lost Mummy of Imhotep”)

            There is nothing in Imhotep’s history to suggest regicide; in fact, his greatest achievement was the all-important monument to his pharaoh’s eternal soul.  However, this does not stop him from killing Seti I, or Sethos I, his pharaoh in “The Mummy”.

 This ill-fated pharaoh was actually a pharaoh in the 19th Dynasty, over a thousand years after Imhotep was buried under the sands.  Along with his son Ramesses II, he built many of the monuments we think of when we think of Egypt, such as temples and Thebes and Abydos. (David, 11)  That his daughter could be named Nefertiti is also under suspicion.  While Nefertiti was a common name in the days of the Pharaohs, and it is not impossible that Seti I could have had a daughter named Nefertiti, the historically well known Nefertiti was actually the wife of Akhenaten, a 18th dynasty pharaoh. (David, 10)

            The Medjay, Seti I’s protectors in the movie, are not the product of a movie- maker’s imagination, however.  While there is no evidence to support their existence into the modern era, or any mystical duties they might have to perform to continue to keep Egypt safe, the Medjay did indeed exist.  The Medjay began as tribes of Nubian nomads, conscripted into service to Egypt, though the term eventually became non-ethnic. (Tyldesley, 35)  The Medjay served as an Egyptian police force, protecting the site of the tombs and pyramids during construction and ensuring the good conduct of the tomb workers. (David, 168)  Usually traveling in units of eight, the Medjay were mainly employed in western Thebes, where they protected not only the tombs, but also the cities from Libyan attacks.  They were also employed as messengers, deterrents to tomb robbers, and had authority to punish and interrogate prisoners.  Even though they were given this authority and were considered higher than the workmen and other officials, their roles were mostly protective, rather than punitive. (David, 232)

            While there is much known about the role and place of the Medjay, very little is known about the man they were supposedly fighting against in “The Mummy Returns”.  The Scorpion King, as a strange god-like being is completely fictional, but there was a pre-dynastic, southern king, known only as Scorpion, who made an attempt to conquer northern Egypt.  While he was ultimately unsuccessful, he paved the way for Menes to eventually make his conquest of northern Egypt, uniting it into the form we think of as ancient Egypt today.  It is interesting to note that while there is no mention of Scorpion ever selling his soul to Anubis in exchange for his victories, there are murals of him apparently undertaking some kind of irrigation project.  Perhaps he did, indeed, through much more mundane means, create an oasis.

            Unlike the evil deity who takes Scorpion’s soul in “The Mummy”, Anubis was actually a very important and revered god.  He was regarded as the guardian of the dead and the god of cemeteries.  It was Anubis who performed the most important ceremony in the afterlife-- the weighing of the dead person’s heart against the goddess Maat’s feather of truth.  If the soul’s heart weighed more than the feather, it was immediately eaten by the waiting monster, Ammit.  Anubis was also present at the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, another important ritual in the Egyptian soul’s journey to the afterlife. (El Mahdy, 154)

            Far from being in opposition to Anubis, as “The Mummy” seems to imply, Osiris actually presided at many of the functions where Anubis served his greatest roles.  Osiris was supposedly a human prince of Egypt, who was killed and dismembered by his brother, Seth.  His wife and sister, Isis, put the pieces of his body back together and brought his spirit back to life, somehow managing to become pregnant in the process.  Her son, Horus, eventually avenges his father by killing Seth, and Osiris ends up reigning as King of the Underworld, while his son rules as King of Egypt.  Every king after that was believed to be the successor of Horus, and an embodiment of the gods. (El Mahdy, 155) 

            There is nothing in the legend of Osiris to suggest that he was in any way connected, through animosity or friendship, to Anubis, and there seems to be no real reason why a spear blessed by Osiris would have any particular effect on a creature of Anubis, other than him being a higher god.  It would have been much more appropriate, from the bent of many legends, to have had Seth be the source of the Scorpion King’s evil, rather than Anubis, and then a staff blessed by Osiris would have been a very appropriate weapon.

            Of course, judging by the rest of the two movies, historical and mythological accuracy don’t seem to have been high points on Sommer’s to-do list.  Hamunaptra appears to be made out of either entirely whole cloth, or other people’s sewn together fantasies, and this stitching of new myth onto old extends into other areas of the movie as well.  Objects and locations such as the Oasis of Am Shere, the bracelet of Anubis, the Spear of Osiris, and the Book of the Living or any kind of mystical city that could sink into the sands seem to be completely fictitious.  And while it is true that a mummy was found in 1881, improperly mummified and with a visage twisted in terror, indicating he had been buried alive for some heinous crime, it is impossible that such a find could point to any type of belief that anyone believed he could rise again. (El Mahdy, 66)  The Egyptians didn’t even believe in reincarnation, nor did they believe in physical, rather than spiritual resurrection. (El Mahdy, 175)  Even the objects and places in the movie that were real were changed significantly.  The Egyptian Book of the Dead exists, but it is not a mysterious tome of power, but rather a way to peer into what the Egyptians believed about death and the afterlife.  And it is hardly a rare document.  In fact, anyone can go down to his or her local bookstore and buy a copy of it, with full original hieroglyphics, no less, for less than twenty dollars. 

            The first movie uses the biblical plagues, but only features six of the ten mentioned in the Bible, and even then gets them horribly out of order.  Using the plagues of Egypt is subject to scrutiny anyway, no matter how accurate a portrayal could have been done, seeing as how the original plagues were supposed to have come from God, rather than from something evil.  And of course, there is the matter of Imhotep, Seti I and Nefertiti existing in the same time and place, with the pyramids looming in the background, when they lived in completely different dynasties, and Imhotep built the very first pyramid!  Add to this Anubis being a very important and revered god in Egyptian myth, hardly a prime choice for soul buying, and you have a story which, mythological and historically borders on the ridiculous.  In fact, the most accurate thing about this film appears to be the existence of the Medjay, but even then, their purpose and existence into the modern day is suspect, if not ludicrous.  If moviegoers were expecting to learn something about ancient Egypt, they either walked away very disappointed, or with very faulty views and information!

            In this day and age, however, this is not why we head for the silver screen.  We go to be entertained first and educated second.  And there is nothing wrong with this.  After all, we live in an age where we are able to send and receive information and knowledge faster than ever before.  Broadcasts reach around the globe in seconds and new breakthroughs are being made all the time that let us communicate faster and better with one another, no matter what the time or place.  Encyclopedias are available from the Internet and it’s easier than ever to use libraries for more than light reading.  There’s plenty out there about mythology for those who want to read it.  It is no longer our pop-culture’s job to bring us information, as it was in the early days of film and radio, where broadcasts were half-entertainment, half news.  We have other venues for that. 

            And yet, something about the world of the ancient Egyptians captures our hearts.  From movies and stories about Cleopatra, to the riddle of the Sphinx, from the Wonders of the World to the broken shards of pottery hidden within the sands, something about Egypt draws us and, it seems, has always drawn us.  “The Mummy” is a modern look into, not an ancient record of the way things were, but a recording written on each of our hearts.  It isn’t accurate, true, but we don’t need it to be.  There are other books for that.  What “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns” do, and do so well, is capture the mystery of a society that we have only begun to explore.  Exotic places, costumes, people and ideas assail us from beginning to end—the movies capture the feel of being in the desert, of gazing to the pyramids and the excitement of finding things that no man has laid eyes on in over 3,000 years.  It is the passion of discovery that explorers and archeologists long for so desperately and that resides in each one of us, to some degree.  And it is the fear that all of us have that one-day, we might discover something that we should have left well enough alone.  Imhotep could very well be seen as some of our more destructive discoveries and inventions:  guns, nuclear weapons and man-made plagues. 

            It is interesting that Imhotep only gains his immortality and power through the very curse that other people lay upon him.  If he had merely been killed, he could not rise again.  In essence, the other priests create the very monster they are trying to seal away forever.  This can easily be glossed over as a Hollywood plot device to make an “undefeatable” monster and perhaps that is all it is, but it may also speak to us of the knowledge we all instinctively know-- we do not have power over nature, and we do not, by definition, have power over anything that is supernatural.  Our pop-culture is riddled with books and movies that focus, in their own ways, on this subject.  The disease in The Stand, by Stephen King, is made by our own hands.  In Chunk Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the Narrator’s nemesis is entirely self-created.  In “Memento” Leonard takes advantage of himself to achieve his goals, creating a path of lies for him to follow.  And in the new “Star Wars” movies, perhaps the greatest pop-culture myth ever created, we find that the situation of despair in “A New Hope” is caused, not by invaders from without, but by treachery from within, helped along by people who thought they were doing the right thing.

            In light of all of this, while one’s first reaction might be to scoff at “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns” as nothing more than fluff due to their total disregard for the “facts” of myths or the historical evidence we do know, to do so is to misunderstand it’s purpose, and the niche it fills for the viewers.  While intellectual movies have their own time and place, we no longer rely on the Neo-Classical theory that theatre (and therefore movies) is required teach a lesson.  Instead, it seems, what good entertainment does these days is bring across the spirit of the time or place it is set in and tap into something within our souls which needs our attention.  Even if we do not realize a movie or novel is capturing us in it’s web, there are very few people who could not name their top five favorite books or movies, and give a good reason why each was their favorite.  Each of those books or movies spoke to that person somehow and even if the venue might have been silly or sensational, the modern author or director realizes that how you work your magic isn’t important, it’s that you make sure the magic works.  After all, what’s more important in this uncertain day in age—that you be remembered exactly as you are, or that you be remembered at all?  Movies like “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns” give us hope that somehow, somewhere, someone will carry our story onward and that our death will only be the beginning of our legacy.









Works Cited

David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press,       1999.

David, Rosalie and Rick Archbold. Conversations With Mummies. New York:           HarperCollins, 2000.

El Mahdy, Christine. Mummies: Myth and Magic. Spain: Thames and Hudson, 1989. Joyce Tyldesley. "Crime and Punishment in Ancient Egypt." Egypt Revealed          March/April 2001: 33-37.

King, Stephen. The Stand. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1991.

“The Lost Mummy of Imhotep” Narr. Oskar Eustis.  Discovery Channel. nd.

Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano. I       Remember Productions, 2000.

The Mummy. Dir. Karl Freund. Perf. Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, Arthur           Byron. Universal Pictures, 1932.

The Mummy. Dir. Stephen Sommers. Perf. Arnold Vosloo, Brendan Fraser, Rachel     Weisz, John Hannah. Universal Studios, 1999.

The Mummy Returns. Dir. Stephen Sommers. Perf. Arnold Vosloo, Brendan Fraser,   Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, The Rock. Universal Studios, 2001.

Palanhniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.

Reader, Colin and Robert Partridge. “Older than Djoser?” Egypt Revealed March/April            2001: 18.

Star Wars. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec   Guinness, David Prowse, James Earl Jones. Lucasfilms, 1977.