Facial Hair (Specifically Beards) in Ancient Egypt
By Jimmy Dunn
Facial hair, specifically beards, is a more fascinating topic than many may realize. It is an enigma in later periods, with considerable religious connotations.
Facial hair does have an uneven history in Egypt, though perhaps not so much as in our modern world. Clearly, during the Predynastic period, as well as during the formative early years of historic Egypt, beards were favored by men. We see this in the images from the Narmer palette, for example. We find officials and rulers of the Old Kingdom, such as Prince Rahotep, depicted with moustaches, and full beards are widely shown on mummy masks of the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, such as that of the 12th Dynasty individual named Ankhef. Nevertheless, early in the Dynastic period, shaving seems to have become fashionable, at least amongst the noble elements of society. Later, shaving spread to the rest of the population, which had a rather understandable tendency to follow the customs of higher society. In fact, it became a mark of poor social status not to shave, except when in mourning or about to depart on an expedition abroad.
Triad of Menkaure with Hathor holding his hand
The earliest shaving implements appear to have been sharp stone blades usually set in a wooden handle. In later periods fine copper razors, and from the Middle Kingdom onwards, bronze, trapezium-shaped razors were used. This evidently also produced some of the worlds first members of the barber profession, who visited the homes of the aristocracy but attended to common customers out of doors. We find a depiction of a barber in tomb scenes such as that of Userhet (TT56) on the West Bank at Thebes (modern Luxor) located in the Tombs of the Nobles, where military recruits are receiving haircuts, and from ancient Egyptian literature. The scene in the tomb of Userhet depicts a barber attending to his clients who sit on a bench beneath the shade of a spreading sycamore fig, while other young men wait in a row, seated on folding chairs and tripods.
Yet there remains a mystery associated with beards, evident in art and religion. Despite the apparent low esteem of facial hair during life, the beard was considered to be a divine attribute of the gods, whose closely plaited beards were "like lapis lazuli". In accordance with this religious formula, the pharaoh would express his status as a living god by wearing a false beard secured by a cord on certain occasions. Such beards were usually wider toward the bottom, as in the triad statues of Menkaura. So prevalent was this type of beard in formal royal portraiture, that even Queen Hatshepsut is depicted wearing a false beard.
Statue of Hatshepsut with her fake beard
In death, the kings were frequently portrayed wearing the divine Osird form of the beard, which was a long, narrow beard of several strands plaited like a pigtail with the end jutting forward, as on the gold mask of Tutankhamun. Even deceased non-royal men were shown with short, tuft-like beards. However, this is not a clear cut indication, for the dead king was not always presented with this type of beard.
Such beards in ancient Egyptian art, regardless of their context, always appear to represent divine nature, though certainly not all male gods wore such beards.
Given the divine nature of beards, one question that begs answering is why they lost popularity early in Egyptian history. Certain types of beards resembling those of the gods and the false beards of the living king may have been prohibited, or simply not worn out of reverence. However, more likely, the reason is the ancient Egyptian's obsession with order, neatness and hygiene. Throughout ancient Egyptian history the poorest of the poor appear to have continued wearing beards, and it is even likely that some others wore them regularly. So there was apparently legal restrictions against all beards.
Left: Osiris with Horemheb; Right: Amun-Min
Also, and very interestingly outside of a religious context, beards within Egyptian art usually indicate the foreign nature of an individual. The enemies of ancient Egypt are frequently depicted with beards. Given the ancient Egyptian's distain for foreigners, this may explain some of the popularity of shaving, as well as the reason why officials sometimes did not shave when traveling abroad.
To sum things up, beards are a very important aspect of ancient Egyptian art, providing us with clues as to the nature of an individual, whether royal or common, foreign or Egyptian, god or human and depending on the type of beard, whether the king is depicted alive or dead.
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