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Friday, 1 December 2017

Curses, Aleister Crowley and Tutankhamum.

And now for this week’s news from the Egypt Centre: a story of curses, Aleister Crowley and Tutankhamum.

Whilst trying to document more about our collection I noticed that we had some objects which once belonged to Richard Bethell (1883-1929). ‘Who was he?’, I thought.  Bethell was Lord Carnarvon’s half-brother, Howard Carter’s secretary and a member of the Burlington Fine Arts Club. The latter were instrumental in categorising ancient Egyptian artefacts as art in the late 19th century. Interesting stuff on the history of art there, but I digress. Richard Bethell was also the son of the Third Baron Westbury.

Author Mark Beynon claims he was murdered by, or at the behest of, the famous satanist Aleister Crowley[i]. Richard Bethell, was found dead in his bed at Mayfair's exclusive Bath Club aged just 46. Bethell was said to have been in perfect health. Crowley had only recently returned to London and was often a guest of novelist W. Somerset Maugham at the club. Or so Beynon claims. Beynon attributes seven deaths on Crowley.

Actually, at the time, the press seemed to have blamed the 'Curse of Tutankhamun' for the deaths and speculated on the supernatural powers of the ancient Egyptians.

Certainly there were links between the elite, Egyptologists and Crowley. These are commonly known and have given rise to all sorts of strange and often false theories. For example, I once attended a lecture where the presenter claimed that the then British Museum Egyptologist, Wallis Budge, got ideas about a headless god through talking with Crowley. Actually, simply by reading Budge’s work it is easy to find out that this is not the case, but never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

So how much of Beyon’s story holds weight? Many people regularly dined at the Bath Club. Maybe Somerset Maugham was the killer! We don’t actually know what killed Bethell. He could have had a heart attack.

And the Curse of Tutankhamun story, the claim that those who disturbed the king’s tomb died from unnatural causes, is also highly speculative. The vast majority of those involved in the excavation lived out a natural lifespan.

Nevertheless, the link between Bethell, and Carter, and the Burlington Fine Arts Club is all very interesting. And we have some of Bethell’s objects. I haven’t seen it, but according to an online catalogue there is a letter in Griffith Institute, Oxford which relates to Bethell claiming to have to sell his Egyptian collection due to lack of money (Griffith Institute File NEWB2/068). A bit sad.

We have 21 items associated with Bethell. These are interesting, but perhaps not great works of art. They include fragments of New Year vases, dress ornaments and a Coptic cross. And, a faience inlay and fragments of fish dishes from the royal site of Amarna (the place where Nefertiti lived over 3000 years ago).

I have been particularly interested in the fish dishes. The pieces are very pretty and there isn’t much known about them. I haven’t been able to find any complete examples in any collections. Basically what are these for?

A bit more about them here:

Both the objects and their histories, the people who were associated with them, are all interesting. At least I think so.


[i] Mark Beynon. Murder, Black Magic and Tutankhamun in the 1920s West End. The History Press.

1 comment:

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