A Modern Problem as Old as the Pyramids
by Judith Illes
With autumn rapidly approaching, parents' thoughts turn to their children's return to school. . . and also perhaps to one of the more unpleasant roots of ancient Egyptian beauty and style.
Oh, of course there are modern style associations with back to school, too. Department stores tempt children, adolescents and parents with this season's back-to-school fashions. In addition, kids may look forward with mixed enthusiasm and trepidation to their reunion with friends, teachers and books. One aspect of back-to-school, however, can only fill parents with dread: the increased and apparently ever-increasing incidence of head lice infestations.
Once upon a time, not too long ago actually, head lice were hardly a topic of polite conversation. They were a shameful secret, their existence so repressed that generations of kids accused each other of having cooties without having the faintest clue of what a cootie actually was. There was a great deal of finger pointing and denigration involved with an infestation; the general belief being that only the poor and unhygienic ever suffered from this affliction. Now, of course, tables have turned. Now that it's become prevalent and lice removal turned into a profitable business, it's now widely touted that given the choice, head lice actually prefer clean, well-maintained hair.
Having worked in a public school, this author witnessed the lengthy, detailed seminars offered by school nurses several times a year, teaching parents the nuances of lice recognition and removal. Head lice have become a big business: drug store shelves are lined with countless remedies: you can choose chemical, aromatic or homeopathic poisons. Another remedy exists that involves applying a solution to the hair causing the creatures to glow in the dark, thus effecting easy removal. An advertisement in a local parents' magazine offered the services of lice-eliminators, who came to your house, deloused your children sufficiently to regain admittance to school, at the rate of $50.00 an hour!
The ancient Egyptians would have been very sympathetic- and no doubt interested in our remedies as well. They, too, were tormented by these minute parasitic and very unattractive creatures. Much energy and imagination was expended towards their elimination.
This isn't theory. Amongst the glittering treasures, the gold and gems, unearthed from ancient tombs are the remains of head lice. Tormenting the Egyptians in life, they accompanied to them to the grave. Some of their ancient remedies survive as well.
The Ebers Papyrus recommends a potion of date meal and water, served warm and then spat out "in order to drive away the Fleas and Lice that desport themselves. . ." Whether this remedy was effective, and personally I have my doubts, it was certainly less dramatic than another intended to keep mice from clothing. That formula recommended smearing cats' fat "on everything possible." So much for sacred cats. When it comes to ridding oneself of vermin, apparently nothing is holy. This extreme formula, however, does illuminate the inconsistency of human nature. How many high-minded individuals today abandon their ideals, by breaking down and compromising their environmental principles, for instance, when rats or fleas invade? How many denounce the spraying of pesticides- until it's their very own lawn that's infested. The ancient Egyptians, just like us, could not tolerate these pests in their midst.
Supremely clean people, possessing stringent notions of hygiene, the ancient Egyptians put tremendous effort and creativity into the never-ending battle against vermin. One formula for driving vermin from the home has a modern ring: a solution of natron water was sprinkled to eliminate and repel fleas. Natron is a salt and lavishly sprinkling carpets with salt and then vacuuming is a modern remedy against fleas.
What a creepy, disgusting subject, you say. Why is she writing about this? She usually writes about beauty. What can this possibly have to do with the topic? Well, quite a lot really. The Egyptians hatred of parasitic infestation is among the roots of their classical ideals of beauty.
Visualize an ancient Egyptian beauty. What do you see? A slender, yet shapely form, perhaps. Dramatically dark outlined eyes, definitely. What about thick, lush, often elaborately braided and bejeweled hair? Exactly the kind of hair from which it is so difficult to dislodge head lice, right? Except that in the case of the ancient Egyptians that hair was rarely real. Well, it may have been real hair but odds are it wasn't attached to the scalp it covered.
Largely in response, perhaps, to the frustration and fear caused by lice, ancient Egyptians, men and women alike, typically kept their head shaved smooth. Those beautifully lavish hairdos were usually wigs.
Ancient Egyptian priests seem not to have covered their meticulously shaven skulls, as a professional badge of purity, it is presumed. Women however kept their heads shaved for comfort and cleanliness but indulged their love of hairstyles through wig fashions. A wealthy woman might have an extensive wig collection, complete with specialized carrying cases. Wigs came in different lengths, styles and colors. Hair extensions were popular as well. A poorer woman, on the other hand, might have but one wig- and that one made from plant fiber rather than real hair.
What is different about the Egyptian approach to both wigs and lice from our own is their open attitude. Just as lice were until recently a shameful secret in modern society, so wigs, again until recently, were to be used discreetly, as covers for bad hair days, to allow a bad haircut to grow out, to cover up illness. I know women who own wigs identical to their own hair, so that when they're too busy to fix their hair, no one will be able to tell the difference.
The Egyptians on the other hand seem to have exulted in wigs. Sometimes wigs were worn over one's own natural hair, rather than a shaved scalp. In surviving imagery, this is clearly depicted, the natural hair showing under the line of the hair, no attempt to hide either the wig or the hair underneath. This may also have had a seductive appeal. There is an eroticism connected with the use of wigs: ancient romantic poetry links seduction with the donning of wigs.
If this were purely a theoretical column, we could end here, the point being made regarding the connection between the Egyptian love of beauty and their hatred of vermin. However, now that I've awakened fears of infestation- and of course, school does approach- it seems hardly fair to leave without a course of action.
The consensus that I've received based upon the combined wisdom of many mothers and several school nurses is that the crucial component of elimination is the special lice comb. Despite the reputed efficacy of various over the counter products, none seem very effective unless used in conjunction with that specialized tool. This is an extremely fine toothed comb, guaranteed to make children weep, but also to effectively remove those horrible little beasts plus the miniscule unhatched eggs that are attached to hair strands with a kind of glue.
The Egyptians had many cosmetic tools: they are among the earliest artifacts. Eye makeup palates, tweezers, razors, regular hair combs. As far as I know (and dear readers, please correct me if I am mistaken) there has been no definitive identification of specialized lice combs, hence perhaps the Egyptian preference for the razor.
This comb may be combined with any of a wide variety of over the counter formulas. (Read the ingredients, some may be more toxic to your children than to the lice.) You can also concoct your own. Many essential oils are insect repellents, some will kill the tiny creatures. Antiseptic substances, they will also soothe, heal and disinfect the scratches made by little fingers in response to the constant itch.
Essential oils are also environmentally sound, reasonably safe if used properly and the lice will not build up a resistance to them, unlike other products. Master aromatherapist Jeanne Rose in her aromatic bible, " The Aromatherapy Book: Applications and Inhalations" suggests various aromatic lice killers, including essential oils of cinnamon, oregano, rosemary, tea tree and terebinth. Tea Tree is indigenous to Australia but the Egyptians could have had at least a passing familiarity with the rest. Certainly they knew cinnamon well: traces have been discovered on mummies (powdered cinnamon, however- as far as we know definitively at this time, the ancient Egyptians did not create distilled essential oils.) They were likely familiar with terebinth as well, which is essence of turpentine derived from pines.
Aromatic Head Lice Formula
One half-cup vinegar
One half cup water
12 drops essential oil of cinnamon
12 drops essential oil of rosemary
12 drops essential oil of terebinth
Mix the vinegar with the water.
Add the essential oils and blend.
Pour onto the hair, concentrating on areas near the scalp line, particularly near the ears and massage into the scalp.
Comb thoroughly and very patiently with a fine tooth lice comb, rinsing or wiping the comb frequently.
If the head is cut, the vinegar will sting. Be prepared for tears and protests. Even without scratches, the cinnamon may cause an intense and unpleasant burning sensation. Cinnamon leaf oil is somewhat gentler than that of cinnamon bark, however if it becomes too unpleasant, substitute thyme linalool for the cinnamon.
Repeat daily as needed, until parasites are completely- every single teensy one- eliminated. Should this take a substantial amount of time, it is beneficial to vary and rotate essential oils. Substitute another from Jeanne Rose's list.