19 November 2007

Standards of Beauty:
Healthy and Beauty in Ancient Egypt

By Jean Adams

In ancient Egypt, beauty and personal hygiene, as well as adornment, were necessary to rich and poor alike. Not just for the sake of vanity, but as protection from the sun, sand, dust and wind. The Egyptians developed several unguents and oils for this purpose, mainly from plant extracts and mixed with either cat, hippo or crocodile fat, that softened the skin. In addition, when mixed with perfumes blended from flowers, fruits and herbs, it helped to mask body odour. Scented oils and ointments were considered so necessary that tomb workers went on strike when their payment of perfume didn't arrive on time.

In fact so fastidious were the Egyptians, that those who could afford bigger houses, and therefore bathrooms, would often take three baths a day. Their baths were rather like our showers. They would stand in an linen stall, their modesty enclosed on all sides and bathing attendants would pour water over them from above, probably perfumed.

Their heads more often than not were shaved with curved razors to counter head lice, a persistent problem.

At night, men and women alike wore plaited wigs that sported perfumed cones on top of their heads made of tallow. As the evening progressed the tallow would melt over their wigs allowing perfume to drip over the wigs, faces and clothing. The wigs were padded with vegetable fibre, thus allowing the wig to sit away from the head to help keep it cool.

Greying hair and natural baldness were considered highly unbecoming. Those who chose to keep their own hair tried many formulae for colouring faded hair including the blood of a black cat or a black bull mixed with oil.

Wearing kohl, or eye paint, was considered to be both attractive and pleasing to the gods. It was also protection against the sun and disease-bearing insects. It was worn by men and women alike. A favourite effect was dark grey eyebrows and upper eyelids, using an ore called galena, and green malachite in the lower eyelids. The minerals were ground into a fine powder, mixed with oil and applied using a wooden stick. The look was finished using powdered hermalite, a red ochre, to lend a blush to the cheeks and lips. An eye wash was prepared from ground celery and hemp.

All manner of beautiful containers have been found that were used to store their precious perfumes, from elegant bottles with stoppers to swimming maidens arms outstretched and carrying a small pot.

There is little evidence of tooth decay in Egypt because there was no sugar but teeth were still a problem, or rather sand was a problem for teeth. Many mummies have been found showing evidence of abscesses caused mainly by sand in the bread. It wasn't easy to remove sand from food, mainly because their kitchens were outside the house. This made for a continual battle with wind-blown sand. But the ever-inventive Egyptians did have a method for cleaning their teeth.

Toothbrushes were made of rushes. These were mashed at one end and sharpened to a fine point at the other. They even had toothpaste made mainly of a salt called natron--the same stuff they used to mummify their dead. Natron was ancient Egypt's supreme cleansing product. It was used for household cleaning 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, as well as the teeth and prevent unattractive body odors.

Startling fact: An Egyptian toothpaste formula from the 4th century AD has been found in a collection of papyrus documents. Made of soot and gum arabic mixed with water, an ancient Egyptian scribe carefully wrote down the recipe 'for white and perfect teeth.' This makes it the world's oldest-known recipe for toothpaste. The formula, presented at a recent international dental congress, included mint, salt, grains of pepper and--perhaps the most active component--dried iris flower. News of the ancient formula is said to have 'caused a sensation' among the dentists at the congress. Dental researchers have only recently discovered the beneficial properties of iris--found to be an effective agent against gum disease--which has now been brought into commercial use.

So, just remember, you read it here first.

Happy writing,