Tell Us a Ghost Story, Mummy: Khonsuemheb and the Whiny Ghost


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“I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it” – Mark Twain


Some mummies have it better than others…

It’s generally unwise to go about messing with ancient Egyptian stuff.  They were big on curses.  There’s always some mummy lumbering about looking to strangle the unsuspecting archaeologist who claimed his grave goods for God and Country.  Although this probably makes no actual difference to the mummy, his progeny feel a little put out, particularly after they’ve thrown off the chains of their colonial oppressors and tried to re-establish their own cultural centrism.  We’re all for self-actualization, but it makes museum curators have strokes.

Even so, there ought to be some straightforward protocols for dealing with the heavily-bandaged undead.  We have enough mummy movies and macabre tales that provide object lessons on how to avoid an unseemly fate at the hands of a mummy: (1) don’t open the tomb with a clear hieroglyphic curse etched into the doorway; (2) canopic jars are not playthings; and should you choose to ignore the first two caveats, at least remember to (3) put the mummy back in his sarcophagus when you’re done with them.  These are some clear strategies any good graverobber or archaeologist (historically, there has been some overlap) can follow to avoid personal discomfort or epic catastrophe like the rise of an archaic evil priest bent on world domination.  Just saying, if you’re playing the odds, stay away from all this Egyptian frippery.  Go bother a Peruvian mummy.  They’re much more chill.  It’s the altitude.

Now, the Egyptian afterlife was rather complicated, and kind of judgy (not totally judgy like our modern monotheisms which are all up in your moral business), what with all the weighing of one’s souls on scales, and disdain for folks who weren’t buried with a nice afterlife nest-egg or inside an architectural wonder.  And then there’s the whole nine parts of your soul thing.  It’s a wonder anyone could keep their Khat (the physical aspect), Ka (one’s double form), Ba (your soul in the form of a human-headed bird that shuttled between heaven and earth), Shuyet (the shadow self), Akh (the immortal self), Sahu (an aspect of Akh), Sechem (another aspect of Akh), Ab (the heart), and Ren (one’s secret name) straight. That’s a lot of papyrus-work and a pretty good chance that somewhere along the way you’d get your ma’at (harmony, balance) out of whack.  A ghost loitering about Ancient Egypt could be taken as a sure sign that your Akh had hit a bump or two on the rather convoluted road to paradise, where presumably one could get their eternal pharaoh on.

So what’s an Akh entangled in all this afterlife bureaucracy to do?  Well, what we all do of course.  Complain to anyone who will listen.  But don’t take my word for it.  Just ask High Priest of Amun, Khonsuemheb, the central protagonist in what may be among the oldest ghost stories extant in the Western World.  Let me just point out, that one of the oldest ghost stories from the Levant that we have available to us depicts ancient Egyptian ghosts as particularly whiny.  I’m not saying that any given ghost didn’t have a perfectly good reason for feeling aggrieved, just that with the complicated nature of proper ancient Egyptian funerary rituals, a slip or two along the way can only be expected.  What I’m really trying to say is – “hey Egyptian mummies.  Suck it up.  You’re dead.  The hard part is over”, unless of course you have substantive matters weighing rather heavily on your soul.  Then you’re just screwed and don’t come crying to us.  You made your own sarcophagus, now lay in it.  Quietly.

Unfortunately, it took us a while to figure out we had the ghost story from ancient Egypt at all.  And the story we do have is fragmentary.  Why?  Well, when you’re involved in that popular human pastime of looting and pillaging the cultural treasures of your neighbors, you tend not to worry about what piece of antiquity goes with what other piece of antiquity unless it’s especially shiny.  Now, the ghost story of Khonsuemheb must have been popular when it was originally written in the 19th-20th Dynasty of the Ancient Egyptian New Kingdom period (which would have been roughly 1189-1077 BC), as archaeologists had to piece it together from four separate pottery shards, held by four different European museums.  Technically, these shards are called ostraca, or rather discarded pieces broken from earthenware vessel that were frequently used for ephemeral writing ranging from student exercises to doctor’s prescriptions. Savvy scholars noticed that the ostraca in Turin (Museo Egizio, n. S.6619), Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. n. 3722a), Paris (Louvre, n. 667+700) and two in Florence (National Archaeological Museum, n. 2616, 2617) were pieces of the same story.

We’re not sure how the story starts, as nobody has as of yet found an ostraca that gives us the introduction.  Suffice it to say, some unfortunate, and eternally anonymous individual had the bad luck to camp outside a tomb in the Egyptian desert for the evening, and was awakened to unearthly howlings from inside the tomb.  Note, it is an important like skill to be able to determine “unearthly” from “earthly” howlings.  Earthly howlings tend to emanate from your neighbor’s dogs at inconvenient hours.  Unearthly howling tend to endanger your soul, or at least your status in the existential hierarchy of food groups (you didn’t know there was such a thing, did you? Well, I assure you, your lack of awareness will not necessarily prevent you from being eaten).  Back to Khonsuemheb, or rather a ghost of his acquaintance.

I don’t know how common the name Khonsuemheb was in Ancient Egypt, but sincerely doubt that it was the equivalent of “John Smith”.  The only reason this is of significance is that researchers from Waseda University recently discovered (2014) the Ramesside period tomb in the Theban necropolis, across the Nile from Luxor, of a certain Khonsuemheb.  He is identified as “the chief of the workshop for Mut(Hry Sna n mwt)” as well as “the chief brewer of the temple of Mut (Hry atxw n pr-mwt)”. His wife is Mutemheb (mwt-m-Hb) and has title: “the singer of Mut (Smayt nt mwt)”. Their daughter is called Isetkha (Ast-xa) who is also a “singer of Mut (Smayt nt mwt)”.  They wee big on Mut.  Curiously he is identified in the retellings of his encounters with a dissatisfied ghost as a High Priest of Amun.  One obviously suspects the dude in charge of the beer is far more likely to be chatting with ghosts, although such roles are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

At any rate, an unnamed wanderer reports to Khonsuemheb that he’s heard terrible wailing sounds emanating from a ruined tomb.  As any High Preist worth his salt might, Khonsuemheb opts to investigate.  Well, actually he was more of an armchair ghost hunter, so he decided to summon the ghost.  This is the prerogative of high priests.  Ghosts come to you.  The ghost dutifully reports in, and tells him that he is none other than Nebusemekh overseer of the treasuries and military official under pharaoh Rahotep. Phantom Nebusemekh explains that his afterlife is a mess, as his tomb has collapsed, depriving him of all those funerary goodies that one is expected to be ushered into the great beyond with.

Khonsuemheb seems to have been a pretty empathic guy, as he laments the situation along with the ghost.  “Khonsuemheb sat and wept beside him with a face full of tears, addressing the spirit, saying ‘How miserable are these spirits, without eating, without drinking, without age, without youth, without the sight of the sun’s rays, or the smell of the north wind.  Darkness is in their eyes every day, and they shall not rise in the morning to depart!” (Bryan trans., 2015).  So, Khonsuemheb was moved by the plight of the wayward akh Nebusemekh, and promised to reconstruct his tomb.  Nebusemekh gets particularly whiny at this point, and mentions that plenty of other well-intentioned (or simply frightened folks) have promised to set him up in dead-guy style with little or no follow through.  I suppose a few millennia of disappointment incline one to a certain pessimism.

Well, Khonsuemheb was a high preist (or respected brewmaster), so presumably he had a little juice.  He said to Nebusemekh, “Tell me what you desire so that I may have it done for you, and I will let a burial be prepared for you and let a coffin of gold and zizyphus wood be made for you, and you shall see its beauty.  I shall let there be done for you everything suitable to one of your character” (Bryan trans., 2015).  Sadly, we don’t have the ostraca that tell us whether Khonsuemheb was good to his word, so for all we know Nebusemekh is still wailing away in his tomb, bemoaning the empty promises of mortals.

I think this argues for the “Keep it simple stupid” principle when it comes to cultural funerary practices.  The more complicated your ushering of the dead off into a happy afterlife, the more bureaucratic foul-ups are possible.  Burn them.  Throw some dirt on them.  Say a couple nice things.  Divvy up the grave goods among the relatives.  The most important thing to remember is that once you’re dead, you lose a lot of control, no matter how important you were in life.  As baseball player Chuck Tanner pointed out, “You can have money piled to the ceiling but the size of your funeral is still going to depend on the weather”.

Bryan, Betsy M, Kara Cooney, Richard L. Jasnow, and Katherine E. Davis. Joyful in Thebes: Egyptological Studies in Honor of Betsy M. Bryan, 2015.
Gardiner, Alan H. Late-Egyptian stories. Bruxelles: Fondation Egyptologique Reine Elisabeth, 1981.
Simpson, William K., Simpson, William Kelly, ed. The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry. translations by R.O. Faulkner, Edward F. Wente, Jr., and William Kelly Simpson. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972.