As a child, and into adulthood, I was was always interested in ancient cultures and more specifically, how they dressed and represented themselves. Makeup has been an integral part of human culture for thousands of years, and one of the earliest civilizations to embrace its transformative power was ancient Egypt. The use of cosmetics was not only a means of enhancing one’s appearance but also held deep cultural and religious significance. Ancient Egyptians viewed beauty as a divine gift, and they sought to enhance their appearance using cosmetics. The earliest evidence of their makeup usage dates back around 8000 years to the Predynastic period. Both men and women adorned themselves with pigments derived from natural resources. These early cosmetics were crafted by grinding minerals like malachite, galena, and ochre, which were then mixed with oils or animal fats to create vibrant pastes. Even today, I carry a beautiful green malachite rock with me on jobs to calm my brides down if they start to get nervous.
Still one of the most commonly used makeup items today, the humble kohl pencil has a very long and illustrious history. It was the iconic look of the ancient Egyptians. This black pigment, derived from ground galena mixed with other minerals, was applied to the eyes using a kohl stick or wand made from a local tree. It was called mesdemet and since it was made from a substance derived from lead, it was not the safest cosmetic. The striking black-rimmed eyes created with kohl held practical purposes, such as protecting the eyes from the harsh desert sun as it was believed to have a cooling effect.Moreover, kohl possessed symbolic significance, warding off evil spirits and invoking the protection of Horus, the falcon-headed god associated with healing and divine power. and is believed to prevent infections. The shape of the eyeliner was not random – often it indicated one’s class or varied based on the religious occasion. For example:
- Winged Eye (Cats Eye): The winged eyeliner shape, resembling the graceful wings of a bird or the elongated almond shape of a feline eye, was commonly seen in ancient Egyptian makeup. This style was associated with the goddesses Bastet (the feline goddess) and Hathor (the goddess of beauty and love). The winged eye symbolized protection, good health, and divine blessings. It was believed to invoke the protective powers of the goddesses and enhance the wearer’s beauty.
- Full Rim: The full rim eyeliner style involved lining both the upper and lower eyelids, creating a distinct border around the eyes. This bold and defined look was associated with eye protection. In many countries, such as rural India, kohl is still applied to young children’s eyes to ward off the evil eye and prevent dust from getting in the eye.
- Kohl Circles (Udjat Eye): The Udjat Eye, also known as the Eye of Horus or the Eye of Ra, was a significant symbol in ancient Egyptian mythology. This eye symbol represented protection, healing, and royal power. To emulate this symbol, ancient Egyptians would draw circles or semi-circles with kohl around their eyes. The Udjat Eye makeup was believed to ward off evil spirits, bring good fortune, and provide a connection to the divine.
Achieving a flawless complexion was highly valued in ancient Egypt. To this end, Egyptians employed cosmetics like mesdemet and udju (a green or black pigment). A foundation, composed of finely ground ochre, clay, and oils, was applied as a base to create a smooth and even surface. It pretty much meant walking around with a face mask on all day – protecting the skin from the sun and washed off at night to reveal glowing skin which would then be oiled with sweet almond, moringa (a great anti-oxidant!) or castor oil. These oils were considered so essential to daily life that workers during the time of Ramses II went on strike when they were not available. Udju, in turn, contributed to the dark or green shades used for eye and eyebrow makeup. Green eyeshadow in particular was believed to have divine properties. It was made from malachite which is a green iron ore that was mined in the Sinai Desert and then ground into powder and mixed with oils. These eye ointments were kept in beautiful little soapstone pots and jars of which archaeologists have found a plethora, even in the poorest of homes, although theirs were usually made of clay and wood. The application of mesdemet and udju carried not only aesthetic but also religious significance, symbolizing rejuvenation and rebirth in the afterlife which is why archaeologists have found so many of these little jars in graves. The Egyptians wanted to make sure they looked good in the afterlife too!
Although mostly known for their elaborate eye designs, a form of lipstick was worn too! It was created using various ingredients, including crushed carmine beetles for bright red hues (an ingredient that is still used in many lipsticks today), henna for reddish-brown tones, or red ochre mixed with beeswax. Individuals of various genders and social classes painted their lips with different shades, conveying their positions within society. Makeup application was considered an art form in ancient Egypt, and skilled makeup artists held esteemed positions in society. These artisans underwent extensive training, perfecting techniques, color combinations, and styles that adorned the faces of pharaohs, queens, and other high-ranking individuals. They utilized an array of tools, including brushes, spatulas, and small containers, to create intricate designs and transform individuals into living works of art.
Ancient Egyptian makeup transcended mere adornment, carrying profound symbolic and ritualistic meaning. Makeup rituals were intertwined with religious beliefs and cultural practices such as religious ceremonies dedicated to deities like Hathor or Bastet. They were also employed as a form of protection against evil spirits and the “evil eye,” and believed to possess healing properties. The symbolism of makeup in ancient Egypt reflected their connection with the divine and the significance of beauty as a spiritual act.By exploring their cosmetic practices, we gain an appreciation for a fascinating era that continues to inspire and influence modern beauty trends. The legacy of ancient Egyptian makeup lives on, reminding us of the timeless allure and cultural significance of cosmetics across the ages.