• Weird History

All About Imhotep, The Egyptian Polymath Who Is The Exact Opposite Of The Villain From 'The Mummy'

The Mummy franchise traces its roots to the 1930s, when Boris Karloff portrayed the historic embalmed character at the height of the Universal Classic Monsters heyday. The first film, made in 1932, framed Imhotep as a mummy carrying an ancient curse. But Imhotep was a real-life priest in ancient Egypt, and he wasn't anything like his character in The Mummy movies. 

So who was Imhotep? The real Imhotep lived around 2600 BCE and was one of the first recorded geniuses in world history. He was an engineer, a physician, a politician, and a priest. Over the course of his life, he worked his way through the Egyptian ranks to hold a key position in the governments of two different pharaohs. He was also the mastermind behind the first pyramid.

By contrast, the Imhotep of The Mummy remake is a lovesick megalomaniac who plots against the Pharaoh out of his love for the queen. Thousands of years later, he rises from the grave to wreak havoc on the world and bring his love back to life. He causes plagues, levels cities, and defies the afterlife. The real Imhotep was impressive, but he wasn't quite capable of such supernatural feats.

  • Photo: Berthold Werner / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    Worshippers Traveled To The Saqqara Necropolis, Where They Believed His Spirit Resided

    After his deification, Imhotep was worshipped as a powerful god. His followers traveled from all over the empire to the Saqqara necropolis, his supposed final resting place. At Saqqara, worshippers would ask priests to let them stay overnight, as they believed the dreams they had there would give them guidance and help heal sick family members. Pilgrims also mummified ibises and "gave" them to Imhotep, since the bird was associated with wisdom.

    In the movies, Imhotep isn't concerned with healing anyone except his lost love Anck Su Namun, and even that was more necromancy than medicine.

  • Some Believed He Was The Son Of A God

    When Imhotep was deified, the priesthood needed to decide his place among the pantheon. Ancient Egyptian theology was focused on hierarchy, and certain gods were revered above others for a variety of metaphorical and symbolic reasons. Imhotep was considered the son of Ptah, the god of craftsmen. Together with Ptah and Sekhmet, the goddess of childbirth, Imhotep completed the great "triad of Memphis," a group of three gods associated with the powerful city. 

    Fans of The Mummy franchise know Imhotep wields some impressive magical powers. He can transform himself into sand, control scarabs, and summon plagues. He also has supernatural strength and agility. While the movie never claims he's the son of a god, it might explain how he obtained these supernatural abilities.

  • Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Is Sometimes Called The 'First Physician'

    Eminent Canadian physician Sir William Osler called Imhotep "the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity." Imhotep was a prolific doctor and surgeon, treating over 200 patients in between fulfilling his political, religious, and civic duties. He treated everything from tuberculosis to gall stones, and may have even had a hand in founding the first known school of medicine.

    In The Mummy, Imhotep is surgeon of sorts - in the sense that he wants to vivisect a human in order to provide a host body for his 3,000-year-old lover. 

  • Photo: The Mummy/Universal

    He Wrote The World's First Medical Treatise

    In 1862, a dealer named Edwin Smith bought ancient papyrus, not knowing what he was getting. The "Edwin Smith papers," as they came to be called, are a compendium of medical wisdom. The book covers all manner of cases, including tumors, fractures, and infections. Considering the time it was written (around the 27th century BCE), it is a mostly accurate and sophisticated medical book, and includes a fairly precise description of human anatomy. This document has been attributed by many to Imhotep.

    Hollywood's version of Imhotep has an entirely different relationship to ancient scrolls. When someone accidentally reads from mystical Egyptian scripts, they reawaken Imhotep.