Beauty Secrets of Ancient Egypt
By Judith Illes
Exfoliants, depilatories, anti-wrinkle cream. Methods for the elimination of stretch-marks, halitosis and unpleasant body odors. Hair extensions. This all sounds pretty modern, doesn't it? It could perhaps be a list of advertisers from a fashion magazine on the newsstand on the street today. Yet all of the above were also concerns and creations of ancient Egypt.
In no other country or culture, was the concern with beautification and body care so extensive. Their interest in beauty transcends time- it is not restricted to a specific period. Cosmetic implements, particularly eye-makeup palettes, have been discovered in the earliest graves. Yet Cleopatra VII, last of the Ptolemies, was herself credited with writing a book of beauty secrets, an art that she was universally acknowledged as mastering. Vestiges of the ancient Egyptians' concerns with beauty and body care linger even today. Modern Egyptian glass perfume vials may be as treasured and coveted today as were the carved alabaster unguent pots of distant ages. American shampoo manufacturers tout Egyptian henna and the virtues of Aloe. Every few years, eye makeup styles based on those of ancient Egypt reemerge once again in popularity.
Egyptian concerns with beauty and body care transcended economic status. Although many of the artifacts that we are able to analyze today derive from the upper classes- kohl tubes bearing the names of Nefertiti and her daughters have been found, for instance- body care was considered a prerequisite for all Egyptians. Records show that sufficient body oil for daily use was one of the basic supplied issued in the form of wages paid to even the lowliest workers. Cosmetics and body care were a common daily concern cutting across all society divisions, just as they do today.
Body care was no triviality, but a central part of daily - and economic- life. Egyptians used body scents and incense (for fumigation of the body and clothing and medical as well as temple use) in tremendous quantities. Most of it had to be imported. After timber, the trade in cosmetics was perhaps the chief reason for Egyptian foreign commerce. Modern interest is piqued by Egyptian funerary practices and yes, many aromatic substances were necessary for the after-life and for religious practices, yet they also held many uses for the living.
Ancient Egyptian concerns with beauty and body care transcended gender lines. Women and men both used cosmetics and body oils. The need for skin protection and moisturizers in a hot, arid climate was perceived as necessary for both genders. Both sexes, of all classes, oiled their bodies regularly. Many of their ancient formulae remain to us: while some were obviously targeted towards women (there are several suggestions for the removal of stretch marks following pregnancy), the many suggestions for stimulating hair-growth and eliminating bald-spots were probably directed largely towards men.
Ancient Egyptian concerns with beauty and body care transcend their distance from us. The past may sometimes seem very remote to us- oh, it's interesting all right, even intellectually stimulating, yet we often feel removed from the past, all too aware of the distance of years and history and perceptions. It is hard to envision an area where history and people come alive more than in the study of ancient body care and beauty. No where is the bridge between humans more firm and sure. Egyptian concerns mirror our own. They, too, worried about weight gain and hair loss. An ancient manuscript is entitled The Beginning of the Book on How to Make the Old Young. A title like that could be a best-seller today. If we could time travel and speak to the individuals of long ago, the subject of body care would be easy common ground.
Our extensive knowledge of the Egyptians' beauty regime can be credited to their burial customs and also to the arid climate which preserves artifacts so well. The earliest graves contain cosmetic implements, not only eye palettes but also tweezers and razors. Later tombs contained sealed unguent pots. The perfume industry of ancient Egypt was justifiably famous; the scents contained in these pots lingered even when they were opened thousands of years later. Wig boxes have been found in graves, the remains of ancient wig factories located. We are now able to scientifically analyze and catalog the contents of cosmetic and perfume jars. We know, for instance, that the Egyptians had access to and used some 21 different types of vegetable oils for cosmetic purposes, a vast repertoire even by our standards. Many are still in use today.
While the ancients might have some interest in hearing about Rogaine and Glycolic Facials from us, I suspect that we are the ones who would benefit from any possible interaction. Aromatherapy, the art of manipulating fragrant, volatile, essential oils for cosmetic and therapeutic use, was revived in 20th century France. Its roots lie in ancient civilizations, particularly that of Egypt. The goal of Aromatherapy is to provide "holistic" therapy. Holistic indicates the belief that the body cannot be separated from mind, soul and spirit. All must be approached simultaneously. While we strive to achieve the ideals of a holistic world-view, the Egyptians were such masters of the holistic, they may as well have invented the concept. For the ancient Egyptians, beauty, magic and medicine were inseparable. No where is this seen better than with eye-makeup. Although cosmetics were occasionally applied to lips and mouth, it is difficult to envision an image of an ancient Egyptian lacking the characteristic eye-make up. This make up was most typically Mesdemet, deriving either from Galena (lead sulphide) or from Stibnite (antimony sulphide.) This eye-make up had magical uses: it protected against the evil eye and in fact, the Egyptian word for eye-palette seems to derive from their word for "protect". Yet it also had medicinal purposes. Galena has disinfectant and fly-deterrent properties. Medical papyri also prescribe Mesdemet for complaints of the eye. Linking those two concerns, magical and medical, is beauty. We have only to look at the images the Egyptians left, to see for ourselves how stylish, meticulous and beautiful they were. The images that they created were very often idealized rather than realistic, very much like those of our own times. If thousands of years from now, the only remaining images of our society were fashion magazines and videos of couture shows, would an observer think that all women from our time resembled super-models? The writings of the Egyptians, their concerns with weight and wrinkles indicate something of our own insecurities. They, too, felt the pressure to embody an ideal. We can recognize ourselves in each other. We can recognize many of their cosmetics formulas too.
The ancient Egyptians recognized that body care and beauty begin with cleanliness. They were very conscious of body odors and associated unpleasant smells with impurity. Good smells indicated the presence of the sacred. Once again, we run into the unity of the holistic. To be healthy, attractive and magically-protected, one must be clean. To begin her toilette, the well-groomed Egyptian woman washed herself thoroughly with a special cleansing paste made from water mixed with natron. Natron is a naturally occurring compound of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. It is most famous today as an integral component of the mummification process yet it had many daily uses in Egypt as well. They made a toothpaste from natron. You can easily create a semblance of this toothpaste at home: mix a little water into some baking soda, stir it with your toothbrush and brush! It's clean, refreshing and effective. (Don't do it too often, though- the baking soda will eventually damage your teeth's enamel. It is often remarked upon that Egyptian mummies' teeth are worn down, the enamel damaged, with the blame laid upon diet. Perhaps some examination of their teeth cleansing process should be considered as well?) To enhance the experience, add one drop of Essential oil of Myrrh to the baking soda/water paste. Myrrh was particularly beloved by the ancient Egyptians, note Pharaoh Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt to bring back actual botanic specimens. Myrrh had many uses, in ancient Egypt and in modern aromatherapy. Then, as now, Myrrh was indicated for healthy gums. (Check the ingredients on many tubes of natural toothpaste: myrrh is a popular component.)
To be a modern student of aromatherapy and to read ancient cosmetic papyri is to gasp with recognition. My first successful foray into aromatherapy came some fifteen years ago, when I sampled a formula that was reputed to diminish or remove scars. The scars in question were removed completely, I was delighted and hooked and embarked upon a new career path. The main ingredient in my anti-scar cream? The ancient resin, Frankincense. To this day, it remains perhaps my favorite essential oil. An extremely gentle oil, it is used for various health complaints but mainly for skin care. Used for scars and stretch-marks, it is also reputed to slow down the proliferation of wrinkles and perhaps diminish and/or remove existing ones. Thus without trying it, I can recognize the potential effectiveness of this ancient Egyptian anti-wrinkle cream: Ingredients include a mixture of (yes!) Frankincense, Moringa Oil, Grass and Fermented Fruit Juices, recommended to be applied daily. Unfortunately this particularly formula has not yet been tested as not all the ingredients have been positively identified. (Also because of the devastation of native plant species around the world, it may not be possible to perfectly reproduce a formula.) However it is possible and fairly simple to create a modern skin oil that recaptures something of the essence of the older one.
Ancient Egyptian Anti- Wrinkle Cream Updated
One Teaspoon Sweet Almond Oil
Two Drops of Essential oil of Frankincense
Apply to the cleansed face nightly with a gentle massage.
Almonds were a popular ingredient in ancient Egyptian cosmetics. The Egyptians used oil from Bitter Almonds but Sweet Almond Oil is perhaps the most popular base oil used in modern aromatherapy and very readily available. It has a slight, mild aroma, is light in texture and is absorbed into the skin very quickly. Frankincense is still imported from Somalia and Oman, trade routes the ancients would have found familiar. If the aroma of Frankincense is too reminiscent of a church for you and if expense is no deterrent, add one drop of Rose Attar, also a very gentle oil reputed to heal and strengthen facial skin and well known to the Egyptians.
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What Disease was Akhen-Aton Suffering From? By Dr. Sameh Arab
Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes
Book Reviews By Judith Illes
Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich
Hotel Reviews By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian Exhibitions By deTraci Regula
Nightlife Various Editors
Restaurant Reviews Various Editors
Shopping Around By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian View-Point By Adel Murad
Last Updated: June 1st, 2011
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