Fig. The Opening of the Tomb of Nitocris by Darius (?) – René-Antoine Houasse circa 1686


Daisy Butcher

The nineteenth century’s fascination with Egypt reached its apogee in the Mummy novel—from Jane Webb Loudon’s 1827 The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, the first book to feature a reanimated Egyptian mummy, to Bram Stoker’s 1903 The Jewell of Seven Stars, the period abounded with literary representations of the reanimated dead. But curiously, in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the mummy became specifically a  female monster. In narratives such as Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 Lost in a Pyramid and Charlotte Bryson Taylor’s 1904 In the Dwellings of the Wilderness, the female body is specifically invoked as a tool for horror. In these tales, the female mummy conveys the abject female’s ageing, dried up, withered body—suggestive, it seems to me, of the menopausal ‘crone’ figure related to the Victorian medicalisation, dehumanisation and pathologisation of menopause. We often focus on menstruation when considering the interconnected themes of femininity and death, but it is important not to overlook menopause, which occurs when a woman’s reproductive cycle comes to an end, her fertility wanes, and her body changes.  Thomas F. Cash writes in his Encyclopaedia of Body Image and Human Appearance that ‘[l]ower oestrogen levels can result in skin changes the result in wrinkles, sagging breasts, and vaginal atrophy.’[1] The dryness and withering associated with menopause offer a very suggestive comparison to the nineteenth-century novel’s stock figure of the female mummy in the desert.

One early instance of this association appears in Louisa May Alcott’s Lost in a Pyramid, a text published anonymously in 1869 in a British magazine. The story begins with a couple preparing for their wedding day. Forsyth tells his bride-to-be the story of how he and Niles, an Egyptologist Professor, became trapped in the Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt (this is almost an exact replica of the earlier plot of Loudon’s The Mummy!). In the Pyramid, Forsyth and Niles are separated from their guide and decide to create a fire as a signal. They start by emptying and burning the mummy boxes. As the kindling from the boxes runs out, the Professor resorts to drastic measures: ‘“Burn that!” commanded the professor, pointing to the mummy’[2]—a female mummy, as it happens, since ‘Niles found a bit of parchment, which he deciphered, and this inscription said that the mummy we had so ungallantly burned was that of a famous sorceress.’[3]  The burning woman contains powerful cultural significance such as the burning of witches, but, more contemporaneously for this text, also refers to the pathologisation of menopause in the Victorian era. The burning of the anonymous sorceress in Lost in a Pyramid (and also that of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s 1861 Great Expectations) seems to mirror the medical phenomenon of menopausal women bursting into flames during the nineteenth century.[4] Modern sceptics would suggest alternative explanations for how the fire started, but doctors of the period genuinely believed that the constitution of the menopausal female body—dried up, decaying and filled with spirits due to alleged alcoholism—made women flammable, causing them to die by extraordinary spontaneous combustion. As in many tales of the reanimated dead, the burning of the body or bones—here, by an apparently pathological procedure—becomes a key aspect in defeating the undead, the menopausal body’s susceptibility to fire reinforcing the reading of its monstrosity.

In the nineteenth century, women’s physical ‘decline’ was regarded as a spectacle inciting both fascination and revulsion.[5] The juxtaposition of these affects is an important motif that unifies the menopausal woman and the Egyptian mummy. Just as mummies were unwrapped publicly by members of high society, women’s bodies, too, were both spectacular and a reminder of mortality. Victorian female bodies were scrutinised for their physical decline; in literature, curse mummies often employ a killing method of rapid ageing and desiccation upon their victims. This threat emerges in Alcott’s Lost in a Pyramid when Professor Niles plants one of the mummy’s seeds, grows it into a flower, and then wears it on his lapel—only to be killed by its poison. He is described as being ‘shrivelled like a withered leaf.’[6] As the unwitting prey of the powerful sorceress he chose to burn, he is found desiccated like a fly sucked dry by a spider.[7] Similarly, C. B. Taylor’s In the Dwellings of the Wilderness (1904) follows the story of a group of archeologists conducting an excavation in the middle of the Egyptian desert. They come across a forbidden door; upon entering it, they find a crouching mummified woman who had been sealed away alive as punishment for her transgressions. This princess mysteriously goes missing and begins to stalk the Sahara, exacting revenge on her masculine invaders. One of the archeologists, Deane, stumbles across the body of one of the mummy’s (male) victims, describing ‘It… it was a body, Merritt, a dried husk that sounded hollow when I struck it.’[8] A pattern, therefore, emerges of the mummy draining men of not only their lives, but their liquids, with the possible sexual implication that the mummy is extracting the men’s vitality through their semen.

The association between mummies and menopause is clinched in the men’s description of the princess’s remains. Discovering the mummified body in the tomb, the explorers notice it is ‘not wrapped in bandages, and it’s not in any mummy-case. Just naturally dried up, I guess.’[9] The flippant remark of ‘just naturally dried up, I guess’ could be suggestive of other forms of natural drying in the female body. The description of the princess continues: she is ‘leathery’ with ‘claw-like hands’, implying an animalistic or beastly quality to her physicality that further dehumanises her. Words such as ‘shrivelled’, ‘sunken’ and ‘dry’ reinforce the reading of the female mummy as an abject representation of menopause, as the men are imbued with morbid fascination over their find. Jasmine Day confirms how Victorian-era scientists would not exhibit ugly, naked or badly preserved mummies.[10] This discarding of bodies not deemed attractive enough by the male gaze—be that medically or more broadly—was an experience shared by menopausal women during the Victorian period (and it is likely no coincidence that they had the highest suicide rate).[11] As the ultimate passive female, the mummy could be examined, prodded, and even sexualised without resistance.

Also like the mummy, the nineteenth-century woman was subjected to barbaric experimentation. Edward Tilt famously treated menopause with various methods such as vaginal injections of lead, belladonna plasters placed on the stomachs, tepid baths, laudanum, morphine and opium, and rectal douches of Dover’s Powder and warm milk, to name but a few.[12] Through these different procedures, Tilt attempted to rehydrate the female form through brutal penetrative and invasive means. These attempts at rehydration arose from the medical establishment’s pejorative views about menopause, which held that this most natural of conditions made a woman violent, dangerous, murderous, nymphomaniac, and even Satanic.[13] Tilt believed that ‘The menopause could engender insanity, mania, hypochondriasis, melancholia, apathy, delirium, hysteria, pseudo-narcotism, chlorosis and syncope, to name a few.’[14] But the female mummy’s revenge projected these symptoms outward to her victims: these symptoms eerily echo the ancient Egyptian mummy’s curse upon the archeologists in both Lost in a Pyramid and In the Dwellings of the Wilderness, as they hallucinate, are subjected to poisons, and become delirious while under her spell.

Overall, these two stories are critical of the archeologist’s role as invader, and simultaneously more sympathetic to the female mummy as a victim of invasion—be that of her tomb or sacred space, or of her body under the scrutiny of the medical male gaze. The princess and the sorceress in these tales succeed where their monster contemporaries, such as the vampiress, do not, as they exact their curses by killing or driving away the men of science. In this sense, the female mummy acts as an avenger on behalf of the menopausal woman during the nineteenth century: the assumptions made by Victorian male doctors about the menopausal body are taken in by the mummy and projected back onto the scientists with terrifying and often lethal results. The female mummy challenges male entitlement over female bodies but also the sense of imperial entitlement over the East by the West.  Telling a similar tale to that of Eve and the Serpent, or of Pandora’s Box, the archeologist’s quest for knowledge brings about his fall. It is an ancient tale of hubris and nemesis. Far from the passive female treasure she first appears, the female mummy is anything but a victim, as death and her cultural heritage of strong female rulers and goddesses give her more agency than any other fictional female monster.

Daisy Butcher is a PhD candidate at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. She is developing research focusing on monsters in popular culture from the Victorian penny dreadful to modern day and how these often express anxieties surrounding the female body and femininity. She compares the medical methods used to ‘treat’ and subdue women during the nineteenth century and how this is mirrored in monster slaying narratives, and is particularly interested in how the hyperbolic feminine is often a case of kill or cure.

Image Credit: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Works Cited

[1] Cash, Thomas F., Encyclopaedia of Body Image and Human Appearance (United States: Elsevier Academic Press, 2012), 471.

[2] Alcott, Louisa May. Lost in a Pyramid or the Mummy’s Curse (Kindle Edition, 1869):  14-15.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Foxcroft, Louise. Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause (London: Granta Publications, 2010), 102.

[5] Ibid., 114.

[6]Alcott, Louisa May. Lost in a Pyramid or the Mummy’s Curse (Kindle Edition, 1869), 30.

[7] – accessed 07.08.2017.

[8]Taylor,Charlotte Bryson.  In the Dwellings of the Wilderness (Black Heath Editions, 1904; Kindle Edition), location 772/990.

[9] Ibid, location 257-990.

[10] Day, Jasmine. The Mummy’s Curse: Mummymania in the English-Speaking world. (London: Routledge, 2006, Ebook edition), 29.

[11] Foxcroft, Louise. Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause (London: Granta Publications, 2010), 117-118.

[12] Ibid., 123-129.

[13] Foxcroft, Louise. Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause (London: Granta Publications, 2010), 129.

[14] Ibid., 126-127.

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