Mummies in Legend: Setma Khāmuas and Nefer-Ka-Ptah

mummyposterThe living mummy of horror films is one of pop culture’s biggest icons of ancient Egypt, but the concept has almost no basis in actual Egyptian belief. So far, in reading up on the topic, I’ve come across precisely two stories from ancient Egypt that involve resurrected mummies. One is the myth of Osiris, who came back from the dead to have intercourse with Isis after she had embalmed his body; this story is mentioned multiple times in The Mummy with Boris Karloff as precedent for the mummy’s resurrection (in fact, an early draft of the script suggests that Karloff’s character actually is Osiris). The other is the story of Setma Khāmuas and Nefer-Ka-Ptah.

This legend is recorded on a papyrus from circa 233 BC, and is one of a number of legends about Setma Khāmuas, a folk-hero derived from the historical figure Prince Khaemweset (a son of Ramesses II). I believe that the first English translation of the story was by Peter Le Page Renouf in Records of the Past (1875), but the version I have at hand is from Sir Ernest A. Wallis Budge’s book Egyptian Tales & Romances (1931). I’ve seen various different spellings of the characters’ names, and deferred to those used by Budge.

In this tale, Khāmuas goes looking for a magic book written by Thoth, god of wisdom. He tracks down the tomb of Nefer-Ka-Ptah, the previous owner of the book, but the spirits of Nefer-Ka-Ptah and his wife and child prevent Khāmuas from taking the volume. In a story-within-a-story, the ghost of Nefer-Ka-Ptah’s wife Ahura relates how the family obtained the book and the woes that followed them as a result.

After some domestic drama involving the siblings Nefer-Ka-Ptah and Ahura marrying against the initial wishes of their father and having a son named Merab, the story turns to Nefer-Ka-Ptah learning about the book of Thoth from a priest:

Written in It are two spells. The recital of the first will enable thee to bewitch the heavens and the earth, the Other World, and the mountains and the seas. And thou wilt understand the speech of the birds of the heavens, and the movements of the creeping things on the earth, and thou shalt see the fish that are in the depths of the sea, and the power of God which resideth in the waters. The recital of the second spell will, even if though art resident in the Other World, enable thee to resume the form which thou hadst upon the earth, and thou shalt see the Sun-God Rā in heaven surrounded by his company of gods, and the Moon-god rising in his shining disk.

Nefer-Ka-Ptah pays the priest a hundred pieces of silver and two sarcophagi to divulge the location of the book. The tome turns out to be well-hidden:

[T]he Book of Magic was enclosed in an iron box which had been deposited in the Lake of Coptos […] The box of iron was enclosed in a box of copper (or, bronze), the box of copper in a box of sandal-wood, the box of sandal-wood in a bocx of ebony and ivory, the box of ebony and ivory in a box of silver, and the box of silver contains [sic] a box of gold, and within the box of gold was the Book of Magic. Around this nest of boxes a serpent, without beginning and without end, was coiled, and the water or several miles round the boxes was filled with dragons and snakes, and scorpions and every kind of reptile.

Ahura pleads with Nefer-Ka-Ptah not to go on this dangerous journey, but he embarks anyway, taking his wife and son with him. He heads out into the Sea of Coptos with the aid of a wax boat, crewed by model sailors that he has brought to life through magic. Using magic and cunning he fights off the creatures that guard the book, and retrieves the magical volume. Nefer-Ka-Ptah then copies the spells in the book onto papyrus, which he soaks in beer and then places in water; the writing dissolves, and he absorbs the magic by drinking the spell-infused beverage.

Up in the realm of the gods, Thoth is displeased by this theft and, aided by Ra, curses Nefer-Ka-Ptah’s family with grave misfortunes. The first to be hit is the son Merab, who falls into the Nile and drowns. Using magic, Nefer-Ka-Ptah revives the boy long enough to tell him of Thoth’s anger, but this is only temporary and Merab is soon dead again. The exact same set of events then befalls Ahura. Finally, Nefer-Ka-Ptah fastens the book to his person and drowns himself.

The story-within-a-story ends and the narrative returns to the present. Khāmuas insists on having the book, and the ghost of Nefer-Ka-Ptah challenges him to a board game for possession of the magic text. Nefer-Ka-Ptah wins the first round, and causes Khāmuas’ feet to sink into the ground. Nefer-Ka-Ptah wins the second round and third rounds, with Khāmuas sinking further until only the top of his head is above ground.

Khāmuas refuses to play a fourth round, lest his entire body be trapped below the earth, and calls for his brother Ankh-Herru to “go up to earth” (does this phrase indicate that Ankh-Herru exists in the underworld?) and fetch amulets and magic books for him. These objects free Khāmuas from the ground, and he makes off with Thoth’s book.

Later, in a turn of events is implied to be divine punishment, Khāmuas becomes attracted to a beautiful but evil woman named Tabubu. Wearing “a garment of fine linen which was so transparent that her whole body could be distinctly seen,” this temptress agrees to sleep with Khāmuas so long as he signs off all of his possessions to her, including his home. He consents to this – and even consents to have his children executed so that they cannot start a dispute over inheritance. As his kids are put to death, Khāmuas calmly drinks wine. In a note to the story, Budge theorises that the wine is drugged, and that the executions of the children occur only in a dream.

Khāmuas later comes to his senses, now destitute and remorseful. He finds his children alive and well and decides to return the magic book to Nefer-Ka-Ptah. After he does so, the spirit of Nefer-Ka-Ptah tells him to retrieve the bodies of Ahura and Merab from Coptos, so that the physical remains can be reunited with the spirits that haunt Nefer-Ka-Ptah’s tomb. While Khāmuas is in Coptos he meets Nefer-Ka-Ptah, who has risen from his tomb and taken on the form of an elderly priest so as to help Khāmuas find the two bodies. The bodies are duly reunited and Nefer-Ka-Ptah’s tomb closed.

I’ve come across some writers, such as Julie M Schablitsky in her book Box Office Archaeology, who have suggested that the story of Khāmuas and Nefer-Ka-Ptah was an influence on the plot of the 1932 Mummy film. Budge’s 1931 translation would have been on the market at the time the script for that film was written, so it’s a distinct possibility. I must say, though, I’m a tad doubtful.

The legend does have multiple cases of characters rising from the dead (Nefer-Ka-Ptah, Ahura, Merab and apparently Ankh-Herru) but these figures bear little resemblance to the mummies of Hollywood. In any case, given the presence of ghosts in the story, it’s somewhat ambiguous as to which of these revenants are revived corpses (mummified or otherwise) and which are discarnate spirits.

A more striking similarity is that both the legend and The Mummy involve a magic text written by the god Thoth which can be used to perform resurrections  but brings misfortune to its owner – although this too could be a coincidence. The association between ancient Egypt and magic texts, curses and (via the Osiris myth) resurrection was well established in the popular imagination by the time the film was made.

Still, it’s interesting to read the legend in light of how ancient Egypt has been processed in horror films and fiction. There are a lot of elements here that lend themselves to the Hollywood treatment: ghosts, magicians, angry gods, even a scantily-clad temptress. But it also has plenty of genuinely weird images, from Khāmuas sinking into the ground as he loses a board game to Nefer-Ka-Ptah drinking the magic book. Think how much more interesting the mummy subgenre would be if it stopped cribbing from itself, and started paying more attention to actual Egyptian legends…

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