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The Historian who Goes to the Movies is currently going on his honeymoon, so this post is going to be a fairly quick one. The Mummy (1999, dir. Stephen Sommers) is pretty clearly a fantasy film rather than history, but it does touch on historical topics, so I figured I’d just point out a couple things it gets wrong.


1) At various points, the archaeologist heroes discover two books, the Book of Amun Ra and the Book of the Dead. These are massive metal books purportedly from ancient Egypt. The problem here is that the Egyptians didn’t actually have books in the modern sense of the word. The codex (the technical term for the physical things we call a ‘book’) wasn’t invented until shortly after the birth of Christ, approximately 1200 years after the film’s books were supposed to be produced. Prior to that texts in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mediterranean were written on papyrus scrolls. The Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’ is not a literal book in the modern sense, but simply a ‘written text’. I guess a bunch of evil metal scrolls didn’t seem imposing enough.

It looks cool...

It looks cool…

2) The plot revolves around an attempt to resurrect the evil princess Anck-Su-Namun. The main villain, Imhotep, is punished by the ancient Egyptians with immortal life and his supporters are mummified alive. There are a lot of problems with this. First, for Egyptians survival into the afterlife is highly sought after, not a bad thing, so punishing Imhotep with immortality seems a lot like punishing a thief by making him a billionaire (evidently, they sent him to Wall Street…) The Egyptian view of the afterlife is that it is much like this world, only much better, so the idea of resurrecting someone would have been foreign to the Egyptians, since it would have involved bringing your loved one back to a less pleasant place. And finally, in the Egyptian system, the afterlife was extremely hard to achieve. It required the preservation of the body, the preservation of the deceased’s name, a whole lot of spells to make sure the deceased survived the journey into the afterlife, regular rituals to feed the deceased’s soul, and so on (and believe me, I’m really simplifying). If any of this goes wrong, the deceased’s soul will probably just cease to exist. So if they wanted to punish Anck-Su-Namun, the Egyptians wouldn’t have bothered burying her. They would have destroyed the body, because that would have guaranteed her oblivion. In essence, the plot only makes sense from a modern Western perspective (and even then, punishing an evil sorcerer by guaranteeing him immortality makes no sense).

3) I probably don’t need to tell you this, but I did have to tell a student of mine years ago, so here goes. Scarab beetles are not the land version of piranhas. They do not swarm people and strip them of their flesh. Scarabs are dung beetles. They eat crap. Literally. They’re pretty much harmless unless you’re a pile of poo. The reason Egyptians liked them is that scarabs roll dung into a small balls and push them around. To the Egyptians that looked like the ball of the sun, rolling across the sky, so they saw scarabs as symbols of Ra, the Sun God.

4) Much of the later action takes place at the fictional Hamunaptra, the city of the dead. The Egyptians associated the western bank of the Nile with the dead (because the sun goes down in the west) therefore most of the major funerary locations are on the west bank. So it’s a fairly safe bet that Hamunaptra is on the west bank. Why does this matter? At the end of the movie, after escaping from Hamunaptra, the hero and heroine climb onto a pair of camels and ride off into the sunset. That means they’re riding off into the uninhabited desert of the west bank of the Nile, where they probably died of thirst.

Want to Know More?

The Mummy (1999) is available on Amazon.