The Ancient Egyptian Concept of Beauty

The Ancient Egyptian Concept of Beauty

by Maggie Rutherford

A beautiful and richly dressed woman from the tomb of Menna on the West Bank of modern Luxor

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this is never more true than seen over time and between different cultures. Over time, our concept of beauty seems to fluctuate, particularly concerning people, sometimes favoring rather heavy individuals and at other times very skinny ones. In different cultures, parts of the body may be purposefully exaggerated in the name of beauty, the effects of which might even seem grotesque to those of another culture. For example, various tribes throughout the world use different methods to lengthen necks, exaggerate mouths, ears and even the shape of the head.

Nevertheless, there does appear to be certain classical concepts of beauty that are not inconsistent with many of our modern views, and it would seem that the ancient Egyptian concepts of beauty are not very different, at least in regards to the human form. At the same time, Egyptians seem to have been just as influenced by beauty, if not more so, than we are in our modern world. Indeed, it seems at time that beauty may have even been a part concept related to ma'at, the order that Egyptian's saw in their world.

For example, foreign lands were considered by the ancient Egyptians to be a part of chaos, the opposite of ma'at, and foreigners are very often depicted in a form very different than the ancient Egyptians themselves, and in a very different artistic style. Frequently, they may even be represented in a more realistic, and much less idealistic style. A classical example is that of the Queen of Punt recorded during the reign of Hatshepsut, but prisoners were very often represented in very less than ideal forms.

This depiction of the Queen of Punt does not remotely correspond to the model of Egyptian beauty, or for that matter, our modern concept.

Our evidence on how the ancient Egyptians viewed beauty comes from many different sources, including pictorial, sculptures in the round and various textual. Much of it affirms a specific model of beauty, particularly in individuals and perhaps even more specifically in females.

Foreigners from Ramesses III Temple at Medinet Habu, depicted almost in the style of Egyptian women

Foreigners from Ramesses III Temple at Medinet Habu, depicted almost in the style of Egyptian women

Sometimes, ancient Egyptians did not have specific words that relate to modern conceptual ideas. For example, there seems to have been no real term that referred to art in general. At other times, they developed a number of conceptual terms for certain ideas. An example of this is the concept of beauty. In studying the ancient Egyptian's idea of beauty, it is useful to examine the many words they used for this concept.

Werel, the wife of the king's superintendent of horses, May, depicted in the tomb of Ramose on the West Bank of Luxor

There were two adjectives that were used to describe beautiful things, or beautiful people, consisting of "n" and "nfr". The term nfr, which is usually written as nefer in modern Egyptological works, was one of the most common, used in names and even sometimes used up until the present day. There are also substantives and even verbs related to this term. The verbs derived from nfr include snfr, which means beautifully or embellished. nfrw or nfr, and later bw nfr, may also be used as an abstract concept of beauty. And while the term nfr or nfrt may be used to describe a man or a woman, the term appears to have more significance than simply meaning a beautiful person. In fact, these terms often refer to a specific category of individual, and they can reveal something of what the Egyptians regarded as beautiful. For example, a young women referred to as nfrwt is sometimes described as "never having been opened in childbirth" as in the Westcar Papyrus. We find at Ramesses III's palace at Medinet Habu on the West Bank of Luxor (ancient Thebes) a list of captured foreigners including a reference to nfrwt as a category of female between child and mature woman. Nfrw, the masculine version of the same word, is found in several instances when it clearly refers to young men or young people. In one instance, it can even be translated as "recruits". Certain cows are even referenced as nfrwt.

Ramesses II as a

We might also examine a number of phrases or terms that include the adjective nfr. Imntt nfrt, for example, meaning "the Beautiful West", is found often in tombs and funerary texts to describe the city of the dead. Hdt refers to the White Crown of Upper Egypt, but sometimes we see the phrase hdt nfrt and sometimes even nfrt. The king is very often described as the ntr nfr, an epithet which is generally translated as "the Good God," but the "Beautiful God" is also an accurate meaning. However, in a coregency, the term ntr nfr is used to designate the more youthful ruler. In this situation, the older ruler, usually the father, is referred to as ntr'3, meaning the "Great God." In this regard, even though the younger ruler may not be so young, the younger of the two is referred to as nfr.

A depiction of Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II as a somewhat older woman shows only subtle aging

Indeed. the connection that seems to exist between youth and the descriptive term nfr may be an important clue to understanding the ancient Egyptian concept of beauty. In Egyptian art, the ideal form is a youthful and slim figure with narrow hips, which anthropometric studies of pharaonic mummies have revealed is a fair representation of reality, at least in the case of Egyptian women. Furthermore, their hip to shoulder proportions are not greatly different from those found in male Egyptian mummies. While both sexes may be depicted in this way, representations of males are more likely to vary from the ideal.

In fact, age, when women are depicted, is most often represented subtly, in the form of a slightly drooping derriere, subtly sagging breasts or pouching cheeks, occasionally with horizontal lines across the torso, indicating an increased weight. Usually, the artistic elements are detectable only by close examination and comparison of with other representations. One of the most famous and explicit representations of youth and age in a woman's body is that of the funerals of Nebamun and Ipuky, who both married the same woman. The two funerals are depicted as taking place simultaneously. The representations of the widow show her with bared breasts both firm, and then drooping with a change in profile to suggest a sagging chin in the older version of the woman.

A very youthful looking King Horenheb at a time when he was doubtless not very young at all, having taken the kingship rather late in life

However, representations of the king are often particularly subtle. One must look for almost imperceptible clues that may suggest advancing age of a ruler. For example, in studying numerous depictions of Amenhotep III and his family, it was discovered that the king's torso was depicted as being somewhat thicker than that of other men.

Yet, during various periods of Egyptian history, wealthy tomb owners sometimes wished to emphasize their sagacity, and therefore actually had themselves represented as older men. Tomb scenes could show aged courtiers, who were depicted with toothless faces and heavy sagging bellies. In fact, during the Amarna Period, bowing elderly court functionaries appear in many of the scenes behind the figure of the king and queen. Note however that wrinkles are rarely shown on either sex, and gray hair is very rare. In fact, the Ebers Papyrus contains remedies not only for wrinkles, but also for baldness and graying hair, indicating that the ancient Egyptians, like their modern counterparts, at least attempted to retain the appearance of youth during their lifetimes.

Clearly, the attributes of youth were considered beautiful in ancient Egypt, but we may also examine more precise elements that were considered beautiful in an individual. In love poetry, as well as hymns to Hathor, the goddess of beauty, some sense of what was considered physically beautiful in people may be found. For example, in many poems, Hathor is defined as "golden," which might be a reference to her complexion. Indeed, the skin of gods was often represented in gold.

In the Papyrus of Chester Beatty I, the writer is explicit, mentioning his beloved scent, her hair, her eyes and her buttocks. From the same papyrus, another romantic poem describes the object of his affection as being ""bright" of skin, her arm "more brilliant than gold," long-necked and "white-breasted," hair of "genuine lapis lazuli," (blue?) and fingers like lotus blooms. It also mentions her beautiful thighs and heavy buttocks. He also admired her swift walk, sweet voice and, an age old compliment from men, her ability to know when to stop talking.

Scent and color both seem important elements in many erotic texts, where the lover might desire to see the color of his beloved's limbs. In a Third Intermediate Period (25th Dynasty) hymn, recorded on the Louvre stela C100, there is a description of the priestess Mutirdis, who has locks of hair black as night and dark as "wine-grapes," "brilliant" arms, firm breasts and a complexion "like jasper."

In this tomb scene from that of Nakht on the West Bank at Luxor, note the clear difference in skin color between Nakht and his wife, Tawy

Females are referred to much more in terms of beauty than are men. However, in the "Blinding of Truth by falsehood," a woman desires Truth, a man more handsome than anyone else in the country. She bears his child, who looks like a young god. Hatshepsut also tells us, at Deir el-Bahri, that when the god Amun appears in the bedroom of her mother, Queen Ahmes, her mother is awakened by his divine fragrance, which permeates the whole palace as they make love. Hatshepsut herself is described as appearing before her subjects with skin like electrum (a silver-gold alloy) and smelling like all the perfumes of Punt. Clearly, an alluring scent is connected in the ancient Egyptian mind with divine beauty.

At other times, beauty is described indirectly by analogy or simile. For example, in Papyrus Harris 500, a poem written fairly late in Egypt's pharaonic history (about 500 BC) with a female narrator describes herself as being like a field planted with sweet-smelling herbs. She also compares her love's voice to pomegranate wine. This is reminiscent of an amazing talking pomegranate tree mentioned in Papyrus Turin 1966, which compares a beloved's teeth to pomegranate seeds and her breasts to the whole fruit. We are not so sure why the teeth would be compared to pomegranate seeds, however.

More often than not, common women are depicted wearing perfume cones on their heads, which slowly released perfumed fats into their hair, as in this relief from the tomb of Khaemhat on the West Bank at Luxor

Similarly, a male of Cairo Vase 25218 says that he feels immersed in perfume when he embraces his beloved, as if he were in the land of incense. He also claims to be drunk "without beer" when he kisses her.

Color is also important in nonliterary depictions of the ideal form. Men are almost universally shown with red or reddish-brown skin. Women are frequently shown with paler skins, although the color used by artists varies over time. In Old Kingdom representations, we see women with pinkish white skin. During the Middle and early New Kingdom, their skin is often yellowish. Later in the New Kingdom, the shades returned to pink or were pale orange. Goddesses, on the other hand, had yellow or "golden" skin throughout the New Kingdom.

Only during the Amarna Period do we sometimes find male and female with the same, darker reddish skin color. Some Egyptologists have attempted to explain this color variation as the work of the sun. Hence, upper class women remained indoors while men were out in the sun, so that a lighter-skinned woman appeared more aristocratic. Indeed, men depicted with newly shaved heads are often represented with a paler scalp than the rest of their skin, and elderly men are sometimes also shown with paler skin. However, there was also doubtless symbolic meaning. Certainly this is true for the skin of goddesses.

In this Stela of a General discovered at Naga el-Deir, we can see the symmetry of man and woman in ancient Egptian art

Beauty in humans as well as in other animals or objects may also have included symmetry as a necessary component. In both art and architecture the ancient Egyptians favored the rectilinear geometric outline over the curved. Therefore the ideal male body may be summarized as being bounded by two triangles. One is that of the torso, consisting of broad shoulders exaggerated in two-dimensional images by frontal positioning and a narrow waist, shown in three quarter view. The other is the striding legs. The bodies of women were tailored to fit within a long rectangle. Their shoulders were of course narrower than the male's and the feet were together or with one slightly advanced. Only during the Amarna Period does this ideal symmetry vary, but that period's art is so profoundly different than the remainder of Egyptian history as to be a subject unto itself. It is also likely that, though royal depictions and even those of common people varied considerably during this period reflecting a new form of official royal beauty, the idea of real beauty probably did not change among the general population. In fact, the royal bust of Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten (founder of the Amarna Period) was, and is considered to be a classical example of female beauty (or at least of facial features).

The Bust of Nefertiti, now in Berlin

The Bust of Nefertiti, now in Berlin

The elite who commissioned tombs are depicted in much the same way as those of royalty, for the most part. Drastic departures from the slim, youthful and healthy norm are seen primarily in those of lower status. For example, pattern baldness is depicted in representations of herdsmen and other lower class males. Even for the lower classes, age and obesity are rarely shown in women.

Though few indications of real aging, this sculpture of the Dwarf Seneb and his family make little  pretense about beauty

Sculptures in the round also seem to portray what the Egyptians believed to be beautiful. Kings are frequently depicted as very powerful humans, with well formed and well toned muscles. Women, on the other hand, or represented in the round as slender, graceful forms. On the other hand those, particularly non-royal statuary, may at times be more realistic. We find many touching statues of more common people who do not exactly fit the ideal form, and so therefore it may seem that statuary was less of an indication of perfect beauty than that of paintings and reliefs.

It is not only people who may be described as beautiful. In Papyrus Turin 1966, a sycamore fig is described as being beautiful. It has leaves greener than turquoise, branches like faience, wood the color of feldspar and fruits as red as jasper. The beautiful jewel-like colors of the tree are an integral part of its beauty. There are many other instances of descriptions related to beautiful inanimate objects, including that of the Nile, the Western mountains and even Egypt itself. It is also clear that Egyptians saw beauty in many other objects that are even to this day beautiful to us. This obviously includes many items of jewelry, ornate boxes and items made of pottery and various stone, and these items that we see today in museums speak to us of the ancient Egyptian's love of beauty.