The Cosmetic and Perfume Practices of the Ancient Egyptians

by Aimee Bova

Part 1: Introduction and Overview

Much of what we know about cosmetic preparations and even medicinal applications as we understand them today has come from the study of the ancient Egyptians. Hygeine and overall appearance was paramount in ancient Egyptian society and notable with the aristocracy. There were two main catalysts which propelled the art of perfumery and cosmetics in the Egyptian world and its ongoing evolution by other cultures. The first was the harsh, sunny and dry climate of the Giza plateau. Perfumed oils and other cosmetics helped to preserve the skin and hair and its supple qualities. The second was the rituals and oblations expected in the “cult of the Gods”, Egypt’s longstanding and vast pantheon of deities. The use of cosmetics and perfumed preparations has been recorded as far back as 4,000 B.C.E. in Egypt before the dynastic periods had even begun, and it has developed since that time into an art form uniquely its own.

The Egyptian repertoire of cosmetics and perfumes included powders, perfume oils, and complex unguents created from plants and herbal matter native to the land along with imported materials as the spice trade developed in the eastern world. In fact, because of the increasing demand for such exotic preparations a whole seperate industry evolved in the way of containers; both simple and elaborate, as well as other types of bottles and jars with which to store these precious substances. During earlier periods in ancient Egypt most of these receptacles were made of stone, but in later periods marble and alabaster were also used as the manufacturing industry developed.

In Egypt’s Middle Period, new and exotic ingredients were being imported from the famous “Land of Punt” (modern day Somalia). These most sought after additions included resins and spices such as myrhh, cinnamon, laudanum, pistacia resin (mastic), and frankincense. These materials were heavily used in pursuant historical periods, and they still are today.

It was during the Greek Ptolemaic Dyasty that a new capitol, Alexandria, was established which became the greatest center of trade in the ancient world. Other exotic spices and herbs were imported from as far as India and Arabia to support the growing demand for fragrant material which had, by that time, become almost a necessity for daily living. Wall relief of a divinityAnother endeavor of the Egyptians during the Ptolemaic period was the building of elaborate temples with which to honor the Gods and Goddesses of the day, along with laboratories and special “rooms” reserved strictly for the manufacture of the sacred scented preparations. Aromatics were produced for the commoner as well as the elite in Egyptian society. It is due to the remains of these facilities which are still being excavated and studied today, that much of what we know of ancient Egyptian methods and applications for cosmetics has been gleaned.

From recent investigations into the remains of these ancient buildings we know that the craft of perfumer or “perfumess” as it may be, was not a lowly one. Executing complex formulas in an astounding array of combinations required not only extensive botanical knowledge, but a knowledge of chemistry and composition in order to reproduce the variety of recipes.

In the Pyramid Texts, the oldest collection of religious writings in the world, we find the “Seven Sacred” oils recorded. As rendered by noted Egyptologist Dayagi-Mendeles these were named as follows: “Festival Perfume”, “Hekenu Oil”, “Sefet Oil”, “Nekhemen Oil”, “Tewat Oil”, “Best Libyan Oil” and “Best Cedar Oil”. (1) These seven sacred oils or unguents as they have also been called are often referred to elsewhere in Egypt such as the Temple at Edfu along with other aromatic applications mentioned for beauty, healing and ritual. Thanks to the profuse writings of later classical authors such as Pliny and Dioscorides who expressed admiration for the Egyptian’s masterful skill in the area of perfumery, much of the illegible or otherwise obscure writings discovered from ancient times has been better clarified. The greek physician Theophrastus remarked in his work, “Concerning Odours” that Egyptian perfumes were without doubt “the very best to be found in all the world”. (2)

The lavish use of scented oils, aromatic unguents, and incenses continued through to the Late Period when Greek and Rome became more prominent in the political arena. By the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty a new religion was appearing throughout the mediterranian and the eastern world; that of Christianity. Christianity was a monotheistic religion completely opposed to the luxurious style of adornments the Egyptians were famous for; not to mention the vast difference in the ideologies of the two spiritual approaches. Christianity on the one hand was was a faith based upon almost “Essenic” renunciations and austerities. In sharp contrast was the “cult of the Gods”, Egypt’s polytheistic approach to divinity complete with an array of rites, rituals, and sensual accompaniments to go along with it. It was just at this point that the dramatic adornments and traditions as accustomed by the Egyptians was pre-empted by the restictive abstinence preached by Christianity on the new world scene.

Daily Life With Aromatics

Bust of NefertititThe Egyptians had a unique approach to the practice of hygeine in their abundant use of fragrant materials for anointing the body and they knew more than thirty different oils for this purpose. Although anointing with oil was common throughout the ancient world, the full bathing of the body was a practice the Egyptians were rigorous about and one rather foreign to other cultures. Most other societies reserved that sort of luxury for festivals and holy days. In addition to the anointing of the body, anointing the sacred deities was another practice of the Egytians as was the burning of incense for ritual offerings.

What we know about the recipes and preparations of Egyptian aromatics has survived from papyrus fragments and temple ruins, along with the documentation left by later writers as mentioned earlier. Common ingredients used in aromatic preparations were animal fats, vegetable oils, beeswax, milk, honey, and of course plant materials. The Ancient Egyptian Woman

Most of the cosmetics and oils used by the ancient Egyptian women were stored in special boxes often elaborately detailed. The higher a woman’s societal status of course warranted the more ornamented accessories. Even less privelaged women however had their own cosmetic “boxes” that were constructed from rush reeds or straw as opposed to the pricier stone or alabaster varieties. These cosmetic cases were often stored under a woman’s bed in ancient times.

From a 16th Century Papyrus:

“To Remove wrinkles Make an ointment of frankincense, gum, beeswax, oil and cypress kernals. Mix it with milk and apply to the face for many days.”(3)

During later Egyptian periods, many of the actual cosmetic containers themselves too became quite ornamental, and some also included inscriptions as to the nature and use of the their contents. Kohl containers were designed in tube shapes and were a staple cosmetic receptacle with which to store the powder/paste used to line the eyes. Kohl paste was made usually from green malachite or jasper mixed with water and fat, also galena was used and at times lapis lazuli for the making of eye “treatments”. All of these were referred to as “kohl”. Not only women adorned the eyes in ancient times but men as well! Lining the eyes was not only decorative, but served to protect the eyes from the harsh sun and dust particles. Dipping small sticks into the kohl “tubes” and then painting around the eyes was the common method of application. A technique from which our more modern eyeliners have evolved no doubt!

Another cosmetic employed by Egyptian women was the use of rouge or blush to paint the cheeks and lips. According to Dayagi-Mendeles, the use of lip paint was first mentioned in the Turin “Exotic Papyrus” which dates from the New Kingdom period. Hematite, red ochre and at times henna were mixed with oils and fats to create a colorful face paint. Although I have not seen it authoritatively mentioned, I find it hard to believe that alkanet (Al-Khanna) was not also included in the pigment choices for rouge cosmetic.

HatshetsutDespite the luxuries locks depicted in ancient Egyptian art and iconography the Egyptians actually promoted the practice of shaving the whole body, head included. Priests were even required to shave their eyebrows! Wigs were common methods of adornment that denoted both status and style in the ancient Egyptian world. The flowing shoulder length style worn by women in some periods was symbolic of the Goddess Hathor, a major feminine deity in the Egyptian pantheon. Although there were occasions when one’s own hair was coiffed, more often than not the elaborate styles as we see them on tomb walls were wigs.

Most wigs were made from both human and animal hair and sometimes plant fibers. Pomade made from wax was believed to have been used as a type of “dressing” to hold the style in place. The members of a harem were often assigned the task of dressing their mistresses hair. Likewise, men of stature had their own servants to assist in the areas of hair style and appearance. On several tomb wall remains we find elaborately styled hair topped by what appears as a cone of sorts. Although still up for debate as to its exact purpose, this odd adornment is widely believed to have been an unguent cone of fragrant fat that sat atop ones head and as it melted it anointed the whole person with scent.

The maintaining of a youthful appearance paramount in ancient Egyptian society was always a challenge with the onset of age. Graying hair was a problem as was baldness. Hence, many formulas were created to remedy these complaints for men and women.

In the pursuant materials given in this feature perfumery ingredients and their preparation will be discussed as well as the practical methodology of the ancient Egyptians. Due to the ongoing controversy in the rendering of ancient Egyptian writings as well as related writings given by later classical sources, some of the materials mentioned may or may not remain accurate particularly in the area of plant identifications. As it stands today, several plants (that were at one time authoritatively accepted as the precise botanical referred to in ancient writings) are now being called into question by modern Egyptologists as new light is shed on the vast and complex perfume arts mastered by the ancient Egyptians.

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