Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Beauty - Eye Make Up

Cats Eyes and Eye Make Up

The ornamented eye is ubiquitous in ancient Egyptian art. Hardly a portrait exists without an impeccably dark, outlined eye. Disembodied decorated eyes (the Eye of Horus) serve as amulets. Should an artist wish to indicate that a cow, for instance, is no mere bovine but a divinity in disguise, this too is indicated, not by a halo, but via eye makeup. And not just any eye makeup. There is a very specific, consistent style that even today has become a virtual shorthand to evoke the mysteries and glamour of old Egypt.

All for good reason: pharaohs, fashions, architecture, even gods, evolved and changed in Egypt yet the depiction of the ornamented eye remains consistent through the history of independent Egypt. It may even pre-date what we consider to be Egyptian: prehistoric palettes have been unearthed bearing traces of malachite, the material used to decorate eyes for centuries thereafter.

Among the themes periodically revisited in this column is the necessity of viewing the concept of cosmetics with a fresh (or rather perhaps with an ancient) eye. Today the typical perception of cosmetics is as a triviality, a luxury, solely for ornamentation. A necessity for some, yes- how many women claim to feel "naked" without their makeup- yet serving no other purpose than physical enhancement. This perception was not shared by our ancient ancestors and predecessors. For them there was nothing haphazard about facial ornamentation. Masters of the holistic, ornamentation for purely abstract physical appeal was inadequate. Enhancement of beauty for aesthetic and seductive purposes was a goal, but intertwined and inseparable from that goal were spiritual, magical and therapeutic intents. In the past, we've examined the therapeutic potential of Egyptian eye makeup, this month let's explore the magical and spiritual possibilities.

Ironically, despite the consistency of depicted eye makeup, we cannot know definitively whether these were realistic depictions. In the manner of modern fashion magazines, much of Egyptian art is highly idealized: the bodies consistently slender yet shapely, the hair never disheveled but always well-coiffed, the makeup perfect- never a smudge or an uneven line. Art for the ancient Egyptians was not merely portraiture: beyond idealized images, colors, numbers and symbols were utilized to deliver messages and offer prayers.

The reality is that it is difficult and time-consuming to reproduce the "ancient Egyptian look" using only the original materials. Modern makeup artists wishing to create the "Cleopatra look" tend to utilize modern products: liquid liner, sharp, pointy kohl pencils. (Remember, real kohl is a powder.) True, it is very possible that the ancient had techniques we haven't figured out. Yet, a hint that the images in art may not have been the sole reality emerges upon examination of the "gilded mummies" excavated at Bahariyya. The faces painted upon these mummies do attempt realistic portraiture. Consistently, they display realistic kohl-ringed eyes, rather than the sharp, stark geometic lines of classical Egypt. This makeup is dark and smoky and recognizably the same look seen among traditionalists throughout the Middle East and North Africa today. No doubt, it was a familiar look in ancient Egypt as well. Purchase some kohl and with only a little bit of practice, the look of the gilded mummies can be yours as well.

So why the consistency and endurance of the traditionally ornamented eye? What did it mean to the ancients? We can only surmise. No documented explanations exist, at least not yet. (Oh, for the lost manuscripts of Alexandria!) Perhaps something so ancient and implicit in a culture would never have been made explicit anyway. However, one key we can observe is the feline connection.

Although cosmetically-enhanced Egyptian eyes are often described as "almond" the lines are in fact exactly like those of a cat. Cats, both domestic and wild, small and large, bear the characteristic black outlined eyes, often with long straight line emerging towards the ears. This can be observed well on many house cats but is especially clear on lions and cheetahs, both animals familiar to the Egyptians. It is possible to presume that through this emulation, the ancients were also enhancing their link to the essence of the cat.

We can also conjecture based upon the practices of other traditional peoples, both known and unknown to the ancient Egyptians. Up until recently, the Matzes people of the South American rainforest have emulated the jaguar and in an attempt to absorb that animal's power, grace and beauty, decorate their bodies and faces, down to the insertion of artificial whiskers into women's faces. On the western edges of Africa, in Benin, among cultures believed to have had ancient contact with Egypt, the leopard is revered as ancestral totem and in a sense as role-model and protector.

A wide variety of cats were revered in Egypt. In particular, there were several feline goddesses. Some came exclusively in cat form, like Sekhmet. Hathor, protector of women, matron of perfume, cosmetics, the epitome of beauty, sometimes takes the form of various wild cats. Among Hathor's titles, to further this link, is "Lady of Malachite", a material used extensively for eye ornamentation. Perhaps by adorning the eye with malachite one assumed some of Hathor's feline essence. Both Hathor and Sekhmet also bear the epithet, "Eye of Her Father" indicating their vigilant and fiercely protective natures. Cats represented the bounty of life to the Egyptians. Despite the too-common stereotype of ancient Egyptians as fixated on death, it was their love and enthusiasm for the good life, which stimulated their desire to prolong it for eternity. And indeed it is Hathor, as Lady of the West, who guarded the threshold between life and death, greeting the worthy. Cats represented beauty, prosperity, grace, fertility, the ability to protect one's loved ones, the capacity to enjoy life. Even today, the root of the word feline is related to fecund, fertile and female.

The connection between cosmetics and cats is most explicit in the goddess Bastet, whose epithet is Lady of the Unguent Pot. The promise of the unguent pot exists today: whenever we contemplate a new cream or cosmetic, whose advertising suggests that it will banish wrinkles, cellulite or crow's feet. Beneath that suggestion is the implication that the potential outcome of using the product is not merely a nice-looking eye but true love, self-satisfaction and happiness. These wistful hopes would be recognized by the ancients as well.

Bastet was once among the most revered and popular goddesses of all. Her image was popular as an amulet. Women, in particular newlyweds, commissioned images of Bastet surrounded by specific numbers of kittens, the number intended to correspond with the number of babies wished for by the woman.

If the kittens represented children, then Bastet paralleled the woman herself. And in a stylish pantheon (unlike say Greek Hephaestus), Bastet is among the most stylish of all, often depicted in a fashionable dress, carrying her kittens in a cute eye-catching basket. It is very tempting to visualize an ancient Egyptian woman carefully decorating her eyes, concentrating upon incorporating that feline essence into her very being. Not just women either- remember that the Egyptians did not genderize makeup. Men too outlined their eyes. Bastet's son, purveyor of human fertility, has a lion's head as does a great percentage of Nubian gods. The masculine Eye of Horus was as protective as the feminine Eye of her Father. We can observe makeup's origins as related to the protective talismanic tattoos and henna, all born in ancient Egypt. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is this: rather than rushing through one's makeup in the rear-view mirror or quickly and carelessly at home, it might be beneficial to contemplate as we apply our carefully-drawn lines what qualities we would like to internalize as we ornament the external. Makeup as a vehicle for affirmation, prayer and petition- this is the common ground we can find with the ancients.

The Mysteries of Qurna By Sonny Stengle
Traveling by Train in Egypt By Dr. Susan Wilson & Medhat A-Monem
The Charm of the Amulet By Anita Stratos
Egyptian Rock-Art Unveiled By Arnvid Aakre
Great Hair Days in Ancient Egypt By Ilene Springer
Touring With the Young, and Not-So-Young By Jimmy Dunn
A Tour in Egypt's Mohammed Ali's Mosque By Muhammad Hegab
Ancient Egyptian Agriculture By Catherine C. Harris
Why I Keep Going Back, and This is No 'Fish Story'! By Duncan McLean
Off the Beaten Path in the Sinai By Jimmy Dunn
Editor's Commentary
By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets
By Judith Illes
Book Reviews
Various Editors
Hotel Reviews By Jimmy Dunn & Juergen Stryjak
Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt
By Mary K Radnich
The Month in Review By John Applegate
Egyptian ExhibitionsBy Staff
Egyptian View-Point
By Adel Murad
Various Editors
Egypt On Screen By Carolyn Patricia Scott
Restaurant Reviews
Various Editors
Shopping Around By Juergen Stryjak
Web Reviews By Siri Bezdicek

Prior Issues
June 1st, 2001
May 1st, 2001
April 1st, 2001

March 1st, 2001

February 1st, 2001

January 1st, 2001

December 1st, 2000
October 1st, 2000
September 1st, 2000
August 1st, 2000

July 1st, 2000

June 1st, 2000

Master Index