by Judith Illes
Perhaps my greatest challenge, as someone who teaches ancient Egyptian mythology and lifeways to the younger grades, has been, in the face of various, wildly popular Mummy horror movies, explaining that true Egyptian mummies were not intended or perceived as scary, threatening, disgusting or ugly. Instead the process of mummification corresponded to the intense need for beauty among the ancient Egyptians. Mummification ideally preserved and protected the beauty of the human form. A crucial component of this process was a carbonate salt, known as natron.
The use of natron, however, was not reserved for the dead. Based upon the records left to posterity, natron was a fairly ubiquitous product for the living as well. Natron was ancient Egypt's supreme cleansing product. It was used for household cleansing as well as to cleanse the body. Formulae featuring natron were used to rid the home of vermin. It was also used to cleanse the body, teeth and prevent unattractive body odors.
In the holistic world-view so typical of ancient Egypt, natron cleansed many levels simultaneously. Alongside its ability to bestow physical cleanliness, natron also seems to have provided spiritual purification. It is as common an ingredient in the magical papyri as it is in formulae devoted to cosmetics and cleanliness.
This, in fact, corresponds to the way salt is used today: as a preservative, as a magical product, to provide beauty and cleanliness. However, today, the user of salt tends to have only one of those goals in mind at a time; it seems that the Egyptians had a conception of receiving multiple benefits simultaneously.
In fact, salt is a very adequate preservative, as demonstrated not only by mummies but by the quantity of salt contained in modern packaged foods. Applied to the body it also has antiseptic properties, a reasonably effective, if painful, method of cleansing minor cuts and wounds. For the purposes of beauty, salt combined with oils, both true and essential, are easily combined into exfoliating salt scrubs, a modern product whose components would all be recognizable and appreciated in ancient Egypt. Salt, while inexpensive in the supermarket, is still treasured as a protective material in modern magic. The simplest protective spell is a circle of salt, within which one can sit for spiritual safety. Presumably, the natron salts applied to the bodies of the ancient deceased, promoted spiritual safety as well as physical desiccation.
This spiritual component cannot be overestimated. Fragrance was intrinsically tied into the Egyptian conception of beauty and spirituality. Each deity had its own characteristic fragrance. Deities were summoned through fragrance: the scent of the beautiful indicated the presence of the benevolent divine. Foul odors both called and indicated the presence of malevolence. It was imperative that the human body reflect this holiness through the beauty of its aroma, or at least by not smelling absolutely foul. This was an extremely ambitious concept, in a place of heat and limited plumbing. The papyri that remain to us indicate the ancient dread of unattractive body odors. The ancient Egyptians recognized that both health and beauty regimens needed to find their source in cleanliness. For them, cleanliness was literally next to godliness. Natron was the product that fulfilled this ambition for them.
Of all the beauty products that the Egyptians valued (kohl, perfumes, henna) it is purifying salt that is easiest for modern people to reproduce. The closest approximation of natron is not table salt but baking soda, an inexpensive and easily purchased item in the West.
The similarities between the products are readily seen. What do you put in the refrigerator to absorb potential foul odors? An open box of baking soda. What can easily be turned into a homemade household cleanser? Baking soda. Baking soda even has its place in traditional American magic, although not for the same reasons as natron or table salt. In America, the baking soda available for sale is almost invariably Arm and Hammer. The imagery of its label connects it to spells for enhancement of virility. This is also a common goal among the spells from ancient Alexandria's remaining magical papyri, although these spells usually feature far more exotic ingredients. There is no indication whether natron would be recognized as enhancing that process in old Egypt, although there were concerns that the dead would be able to function in that manner in the next life.
Baking soda is also a common ingredient in modern commercial toothpastes. A homemade toothpaste with medicinal properties even has an Egyptian flavor. Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) a resin that seeps from thorny desert trees in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen, was intensely prized in ancient Egypt, for its therapeutic uses, as well as its value in perfumery and temple incense. Myrrh trees were imported with great care by Pharaoh Hatshepsut. Today, myrrh can be purchased in health food stores, as a resin, a tincture or as an essential oil. Still used as a beautiful perfume, it is also valued for its affinity with the oral gums. It is featured in many toothpastes and suggested as an oral cleanser, a gum strengthener and an aid to gingivitis. To make an ancient styled toothpaste, moisten a tablespoonful of baking soda with a little water, to achieve a paste-like consistency. Add one or two drops of essential oil of myrrh, stir with your toothbrush and brush. A drop or two of myrrh may also be added to a glass of warm water, with perhaps the addition of a drop of essential oil of patchouli (Pogostemom cablin) as an anciently flavored mouthwash or gargle. Archives