Egyptian Beauty Secrets: Article Two

Egyptian Beauty Secrets: Article Two


Beauty and body-care is where we find our common ground with the ancient Egyptians. Just as for us today, hair care was a major concern for the ancient Egyptians. Thousands of years ago, they demonstrated our own current cultural anxieties with baldness, thinning, receding and graying hair. Reminiscent of modern attitudes, the ancient Egyptians associated healthy, luxurious hair with youth, sexuality and sex appeal.

Egyptian hairstyles varied over the ages. Evidence of these styles is provided by surviving wigs, inscriptions, tomb scenes and statuary. During the Old Kingdom, men and women alike kept their hair basically short and simple, although there were variations in style. Young girls, then as now typically the most interested in fashion, wore their hair short or sometimes sported a pony-tail style, falling down the center of the back. The end of the tail either curled naturally or was encouraged to do so. (An implement has been recovered in association with wigs that looks suspiciously like a curling iron.) If a flip wasn't desired at the end, the pony-tail might be weighted down with an ornament or metal disc. Hair was also a popular place for ornaments and amulets; small fish, in particular, were attached to childrens' hair, perhaps to protect against the dangers of the Nile.

By the time of the New Kingdom, styles had become more sophisticated. Both sexes wore their hair longer. Flowers and ribbons were now used to decorate women's hair. One popular Upper Egyptian women's hairstyle was a closely shaven head with the exception of a few tufts of curls, a hair-do identified at the time as Nubian and still identified with that ethnic group.

Throughout, a distinctive hairstyle was reserved for children. The head was shaved completely with one long strand left on the side of the head, the so-called "sidelock of youth." This "s" shaped side lock served as the hieroglyphic symbol for child or youth. This style was worn by both girls and boys until the advent of puberty.

Ramses the Great as a Child

An example of this style can be seen in images of the god Harpocrates, who is depicted with the distinctive sidelock, his finger to his lips, an Egyptian gesture indicating extreme youth, which was misunderstood by Greek interpreters who took it to mean silence or secrecy. The sidelock can also be viewed in the many depictions of the daughters of Akhenaton and Nefertiti; their hairstyles indicate their evolving age and inform us of the passage of time.

This hairstyle is generally accepted as solely indicating age. However, another insight may perhaps be gleaned from a hairstyle still current amongst some modern tribal African groups. Even today in traditional African societies, the appearance of one's hair can be used to create a social announcement. Some hair-do's for instance are reserved for married women or for women who have borne sons. The heads of small children are often shaved with one or more tufts remaining, similar to the Egyptian sidelock. The tuft is dedicated to a saint and exactly where the specific tuft is left indicates which saint has been invoked for the protection of the child. One can literally read the anxieties of the parent upon the child's head.

Very little in ancient Egypt seems random or at least not well thought out; hairstyles also can be interpreted for political significance. Joyce Tyldesley's biography, "Nefertiti: Egypt's Sun Queen" (Viking Books, 1999) analyzes the variety of that queen's hairstyles and how they indicate her shifting political role.

Sometimes Egyptian men and women retained their own hair; quite frequently they did not. Wigs and hair extensions were extremely popular. Sometimes the wigs were placed atop one's own natural hair: statuary and paintings alike often afford a glimpse of the real hair sticking out from underneath the false.

Total removal of body-hair was customary for both men and women in ancient Egypt. Many men and women also preferred to shave their heads bald, replacing their natural hair with a wig. Priests, who maintained stringent codes of cleanliness, are frequently depicted with perfectly bald heads. At least from what ancient imagery recounts to us, despite her shaved head, the average Egyptian woman did not walk around bald, but invariably wore a wig. Shaving the head may have served a multitude of purposes: eliminating one's own hair may have been more comfortable in Egypt's hot climate, cleanliness may have been easier to maintain and head lice certainly easier to avoid. Wigs may have fit better once the natural hair was gone, however the bald look itself does not seem ever to have been a generally popular style for Egyptian women. Although, of course, what was or wasn't worn in the comfort and privacy of one's own home may remain an eternal mystery. Wigs also apparently held sensual connotations, based on the frequent references in Egyptian romantic poetry.

Wigs were popular amongst the upper and middle classes, the wealthier presumably maintaining a greater selection of wigs. A wig-making workshop has been discovered overlooking the Temple of King Mentuhotep at Deir el-Bahri. Wigs were made by barbers or by wig specialists, one of the occupations open to Egyptian women. Because wigs were also considered necessary for the afterlife, they were buried in tombs, some contained in specialized wig chest. Quite a few wigs have survived, in particular from the New Kingdom.

Wigs varied in quality (and presumably price.) The finest wigs were made entirely of human hair. Others, apparently in the mid-price range, have vegetable fibers intertwined with the hair. What appear to be the least expensive wigs, certainly the least realistic wigs, are made entirely from vegetable fibers. Although wigs depicted in artwork are recognizable as such, the effect given is always realistic. The ideal for a good wig seems to have been that it should look like real hair, only better.

Care of natural hair retained upon the head was also taken seriously. We know that the Egyptians cleansed their hair, although we don't know with what frequency. Hair combs appear among early grave goods, even from pre-dynastic days. Both single and double sided combs, made from wood or bone have been found. A wide variety of surviving formulas indicate that preventing baldness and graying hair, both of which can be perceived as signs of aging, was a serious concern. Like us, the Egyptians were anxious to preserve youth or at least a youthful appearance as long as possible.

Egyptian artwork invariably depicts shiny black hair. No other color is depicted except in association with a foreigner. (Asiatic men, in particular, are usually depicted with full facial hair and unruly brownish hair on their heads, presumably to show how little they conform to Egyptian ideals of beauty.)

Because the imagery is so consistent does not necessarily mean that everyone in Egypt possessed perfect raven-black hair, but it certainly does indicate something of their ideal standard of what it meant to be beautiful, of what "beautiful" should look like. Certainly, the medical papyri includes several formulas to maintain black color and avoid gray. An ointment made from the pressed juice of juniper berries was used to darken the hair. A brown powder, discovered at the aforementioned wig factory, is at present believed to be hair dye.

Who knows? This may even have been one of the incentives for wigs. I've personally known quite a few men who've responded to receding hairlines by shaving whatever is left completely off, preferring the drama of no hair to watching their remaining hair decrease. Perhaps the Egyptians were similarly inclined. If your hair wasn't black enough, thick enough or plentiful enough, a good wig may have been considered preferable to one's sorry reality.

Not that all Egyptians took impending baldness lying down, however. There were many current recommendations for stimulating hair growth. Chopped lettuce patches were applied to bald spots to stimulate growth. (Beyond whatever therapeutic effects this may or may not have had, lettuce was also associated with Min, the Egyptian god of virility.)

Another formula is actually quite similar to one utilized in modern aromatherapy. Fir tree resin was incorporated into a scalp massage to stimulate hair growth. It is unlikely that the average person will be able to reproduce the old Egyptian formula precisely. This is because over the centuries methods of extracting aromatic materials have changed. Modern aromatic materials are typically extracted via steam distillation, a process not in general use before the 10th century CE. The Egyptians extracted aromatic substances using manual techniques, thus they would have used the fir resin itself or made an infusion (a strong tea) from the needles. Unless you own a Christmas tree farm and have plenty of fir trees to play with , it is unlikely that you will have ready access to the pure resin. Modern aromatherapy still utilizes Fir but it now distills the oil from the needles and young twigs. Although Fir is still used, both in perfumery and therapeutically, it's now most likely to be used for soothing respiratory ills.

Rosemary Oil is the modern oil commonly associated with stimulating hair growth. Rosemary is a common Mediterranean plant, and may very well have been familiar to some Egyptian doctors, although there's little evidence for its use. Interestingly, Rosemary has also been used at present to subtly darken hair and to bring out the highlights in darker hair.

The following formula can be used to stimulate hair growth or merely to improve the texture and appearance of one's hair. Almond Oil and Castor Oil were among the vegetable oils used by the Egyptians. Castor Oil is frequently used in an attempt to encourage hair growth but it has a very viscous texture. Mixing it with the Sweet Almond Oil will improve the aroma and make the resulting oil smoother and more easily spread. However, if you wish to somewhat reproduce the stickiness and "tacky" feel of resin from the original formula, eliminate the Sweet Almond Oil and double the proportion of Castor.

Try the Fir Oil if you want to recapture the essence (or at least fragrance) of the original Egyptian formula. Use Rosemary Oil, if you prefer to place your trust in more modern research. You can also combine the two Essential Oils, however no more than an entirety of 10 drops should be used, whether of one oil or both. In addition, Rosemary Oil should not be used during pregnancy or by those suffering from high blood pressure or by those who are prone to seizure disorders. Essential Oil of Fir is generally considered a gentle oil, however, if you have very sensitive skin, you may find a high concentration irritating, in which case use fewer drops or more oil. Both oils are antiseptic and invigorating.

Scalp and Hair Stimulation Oil

One Teaspoon Sweet Almond Oil

One Teaspoon Castor Oil

10 Drops Essential Oil of Fir Needle (Abies spp)

OR Essential Oil of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Mix the Sweet Almond Oil together with the Castor Oil in a small bowl and then add no more than 10 drops of Essential Oil. Mix with your fingers and then rub vigorously into your scalp, concentrating on areas where hair is thinning.

Budget and Independent Travel to Egypt - Part I By Jimmy Dunn

Historical Hotels in Egypt - Part I By Jimmy Dunn

Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn

Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes

Book Reviews Various Editors

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

Medical Advice in Egypt By Dr. Sameh Arab, M.D.

June 1st, 2000

Last Updated: Aug 9th, 2011