‘Mummy-Speak’ in Nineteenth Century Fiction

For Halloween last year, the Nile Scribes attended a talk given in Toronto on the mummy in nineteenth century fiction. We are pleased to have the presenter, Dr. Steven Shubert, share his expertise on the subject in a guest blog that takes a closer look at the history and enduring popularity of the mummy genre.

The mummy of Ramesses III is among the best preserved from antiquity (Photo: WikiMedia)
The mummy of Ramesses III is among the best preserved from antiquity (Photo: WikiMedia)

Guest Scribe: Steven Blake Shubert

Although we may be able to walk like an ancient Egyptian, the question is “can we talk like one?” Before the lumbering mummy monster made in the image of Frankenstein, a tradition of intelligent, speaking mummies appeared in nineteenth century fiction. These mummies were either revived by galvanism (electric shock) or were discovered when story protagonists were able to enter tombs which preserved fully-alive ancient Egyptian communities. This connection between past and present cultures meant that there was a potential communication gap to address, but nineteenth century authors came up with a number of creative ways for dealing with their characters’ ability to understand the spoken ancient Egyptian language.

Portrait of Jane Webb Loudon (photo: WikiMedia)
Portrait of Jane Webb Loudon (photo: WikiMedia)

One of the earliest published mummy stories is that by Jane Webb Loudon (1807-1858) entitled The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-second Century (1827). Modelled after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), it includes the re-animated mummy of the builder of the Great Pyramid, Cheops [NS: known as Khufu in Egyptian]. Once revived, the king cries out (in ancient Egyptian presumably):

“Speak! let me hear the sound of another’s voice, before my brain is lost in madness. Have I entered Hades, or am I still on earth? — yes, yes, it is still the earth, for there the mighty Pyramid, I caused to be erected, towers behind me.”

The mummy then hijacks a hot-air balloon, whose guardian notes “his deep hollow voice, speaking in a language he did not understand, fell heavily upon his ear, like the groans of fiends.” The balloon takes Cheops to London where he endures a crash landing, fittingly offering one of the first mummy’s curses in literature: “Curses on the wretches! — May Typhon’s everlasting vengeance pursue them with its fury, and may their hearts wither, gnawed by the never-dying snake!” British officials of the twenty-second century recognize the mummy’s Egyptian nature: “Its language and its dress bespeak its origin, but by what strange event it has been resuscitated?” In the end communication is not a problem in this future world, “for Father Morris, who, like all the English in those days, was an universal linguist.” By this means, apparently all languages became mutually intelligible.

Portrait of Théophile Gautier by Théodore Chassériau (photo: WikiMedia)
Portrait of Théophile Gautier by Théodore Chassériau (photo: WikiMedia)

In The Mummy’s Foot by Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), first published in France (1840) as Le pied de Momie, a young Frenchman falls in love with the Princess Hermonthis, who ventures to Paris to retrieve her mummified foot where it is being used as a paperweight. Gautier notes “Then commenced between the Princess Hermonthis and her foot – which appeared to be endowed with a special life of its own – a very fantastic dialogue in a most ancient Coptic tongue, such as might have been spoken thirty centuries ago in the syrinxes of the land of Ser.” Fortunately, the protagonist is fluent in Coptic! Once again, language is not a communication barrier, but in this case the age difference (27 years vs. 30 centuries) is too great for the princess’ father to allow the couple to marry.

Portrait of Edgar Allen Poe after an engraving by Oscar Halling (photo: WikiMedia)
Portrait of Edgar Allen Poe after an engraving by Oscar Halling (photo: WikiMedia)

Edgar Allan Poe’s (1809-1849) short story Some Words with a Mummy (1845) is set at a mummy unwrapping party in the middle of the night. The mummy, whose brain and internal organs were not removed, is revived by galvanism and engages in satirical banter with those present. One of those present is a historical figure, George Gliddon, known for conducting mummy unwrappings. According to Poe, those immersed in ancient Egypt would be able to speak ancient Egyptian as a matter of course, as the mummy relates:

“But you, Mr. Gliddon — and you, Silk — who have travelled and resided in Egypt until one might imagine you to the manner born — you, I say who have been so much among us that you speak Egyptian fully as well, I think, as you write your mother tongue — you, whom I have always been led to regard as the firm friend of the mummies — I really did anticipate more gentlemanly conduct from you. What am I to think of your standing quietly by and seeing me thus unhandsomely used? What am I to suppose by your permitting Tom, Dick, and Harry to strip me of my coffins, and my clothes, in this wretchedly cold climate?”

George Gliddon lost some of his credibility when a mummy he had identified as a priestess, upon unwrapping, turned out to be undeniably male (Boston 1850). While at first glance, Poe’s story is credible in terms of ancient Egyptian background, his Egyptological description is almost directly lifted from the 1831 ed. of Encyclopedia Americana. This is demonstrated in Lucille King’s article “Notes on Poe’s Sources” Studies in English 10 (July 1930) pp. 128-134.

Photo of Grant Allen (photo: WikiMedia)
Photo of Grant Allen (photo: WikiMedia)

Grant Allen (1848-1899) was Canadian-born, but was educated and based in Britain. His tale My New Year’s Eve Among the Mummies (1879) is similar to Gautier’s Mummy’s Foot in that the protagonist is mystically transported back to ancient Egypt to meet and fall in love with an ancient Egyptian princess. The description of their initial meeting is as follows:

“May I ask you” she said in Ancient Egyptian “who you are, and why you come hither to disturb us?” I was never aware before that I spoke or understood the language of the hieroglyphics: yet I found I had not the slightest difficulty in comprehending or answering her question. To say the truth, Ancient Egyptian though an extremely tough tongue to decipher in its written form, becomes as easy as love-making when spoke by a pair of lips like that Pharaonic princess’s. It is really very much the same as English, pronounced in a rapid and somewhat indefinite whisper and with all the vowels left out.”

Ah, the power of love! Clearly the secret to learning the ancient Egyptian language is to fall in love with an ancient Egyptian. But Grant has recognized that ancient Egyptian (like Arabic and Hebrew) was written without the vowels. Quickly, just say softly to yourself: “ths s hw ncnt gyptn snds.” (1)

Photo of Julian Hawthorne (photo: WikiMedia)
Photo of Julian Hawthorne (photo: WikiMedia)

In Julian Hawthorne’s (1846-1934) The Unseen Man’s Story (1893), the protagonist is a Frenchman named Carigliano who came to Egypt at age 28 to work with a mission supported by the French Government. Having studied Egyptology, when he arrived in Egypt he was on familiar territory and reports that “the scenes and persons of the days of the Pharaohs were as vivid in my imagination as the memories of yesterday; I spoke their language and I comprehended their wisdom.” He knows ancient Egyptian because he is the reincarnation of Pantour, the son of Amosis, the lover of Queen Amunuhet. Entering into the mountain of western Thebes, Carigliano ultimately makes the ultimate sacrifice for his love.

Image of Carigliano from p. 225 in Six Cent Sam
Image of Carigliano from p. 225 in Six Cent Sam

These texts indicate a level of awareness among nineteenth century authors of the ancient Egyptian language. Gautier’s indication that it is related to Coptic and Allen’s indication that the vowels were left out in writing are accurate snippets of information about the language. Less realistic, but more imaginative perhaps, are the invention by Loudon of the “universal linguist” and the notion of Hawthorne that the reincarnated retain knowledge of the languages spoken in their previous lives. Poe’s suggestion that those who have spent time in Egypt must have picked up the language is the least satisfying resolution to the mummy communication problem; one wonders whether Poe had even made the distinction between Egyptian Arabic and ancient Egyptian. One word sums up the quality of Edgar Allan Poe’s research on ancient Egypt: Nevermore!


Notes

  1. “This is how ancient Egyptian sounds.”

Further Reading

  • Lost in a Pyramid: and other classic Mummy Stories. Edited by Andrew Smith (London: The British Library, 2016)

Selection of twelve short stories published between 1869 and 1910, including the title story by Louisa May Alcott and the story by Grant Allen.

  • Unearthed. Edited by John J. Johnston & Jared Shurin (London: Jurassic London, 2013)

Eleven classic mummy tales, including those by Gautier, Poe and Hawthorne, published in partnership with the Egypt Exploration Fund.


Steven Blake Shubert’s work on modern uses of ancient Egyptian themes has already been highlighted in the Nile Scribes blog on the Egyptian-themed stained-glass windows in Toronto’s Lillian Massey Building. He is a Research Associate of the Royal Ontario Museum contributing to the online database of the Egyptian Collection. He also works as a Librarian at the Toronto Reference Library where he frequently gives public presentations, such as one this coming Valentine’s Day on Harlequin Romances.