In the early days of television, comedian Milton Berle would scream "makeup" and be bombarded with a bucket of powder in his face. But laugh though everyone did, as if the idea was fresh and new, "makeup" is far older than the world of vaudeville and the golden age of television. Its almost as old as the hills. In fact, cosmetics have been around ever since there have been people living in or around the hills to use them. Their history (cosmetics, not the hills) reads like a melodrama, involving poison, divorce, bugs, hair loss, blood thinning, miscarriage, prostitution and even death. Not even the most sensational soap opera today could claim such a variety of catastrophic events in a single episode!
Belief in the evil eye is a mystery in many ways, not the least of which is its origins. It is an ancient concept that is found in virtually all cultures known to man. Perhaps it goes back to early man glimpsing his own image in miniature in the eyes of others. The phenomenon of pupil reflection causes ones own image to appear in the dark of the pupil of anothers. Perhaps the evil eye stems from the fear that this image might be somehow stolen. This might account for the belief of many early native Americans, including Chief Crazy Horse, who upon his capture by soldiers after the Battle of The Little Bighorn, refused to be photographed because he feared the "capture" of his soul.
Regardless of the exact truth, the Egyptians had their own particular solution for "the evil eye." It was kohl, historys first mascara. Worn by both men and women, it was applied in a circle or oval around the eyes. Its chemical base was antimony, a metal, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite, chrysocolla (a blue-green copper ore) or any combination thereof. It was applied with a small stick and kept in a flat-bottomed pot with a wide, tiny rim and flat disk-shaped lid. Soothsayers were known to have prepared the compound for men, but women created their own formulas, using secret ingredients. (Perhaps Helena Rubinstein really got her start here and was reincarnated with the secret knowledge when she brought the first wand mascara to New York in the 1950s.)
Practically speaking, darkly painted circles around the eyes absorb sunlight and minimize reflections. Usually, the Egyptians painted the upper and lower eyelids in a line that extended to the sides of the face for an almond effect. Today, many baseball and football players smear black grease under each eye before games for the same reason. The early Egyptians, spending considerable time in the harsh desert sunlight, may have discovered this secret and developed mascara for both pragmatic and superstitious purposes.
Face painting is mentioned as far back as the Old Testament (Ezekiel 23:40) and eye shadows, made from ground up semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli and malachite, were used in Egyptian burial ceremonies dating back to 10,000 BC. In the ancient city of Ur, near Babylon, some 5,000 years ago, lipstick first reared its lovely red head. It is said that Cleopatras lipsticks were made from finely crushed carmine beetles, which rendered a deep red pigment. This mixture was then combined with ant eggs. (If you cant kill them when they invade that proverbial picnic, eat them, I suppose. Ugh!)
The use of cosmetics in ancient Egypt dates back to the first dynasty (approximately 2920-2770 BCE). Proof comes in the form of jars of salves found in graves from this epoch. Highly sophisticated cosmetics were used during the New Kingdom (approximately 1550-1069 BCE). These included products to combat stretch marks, minimize wrinkles, eliminate scars and encourage hair growth.
Artistic renderings of the period reflect the importance of beauty and hygiene to the Egyptian culture. An unclean body was thought of as unpure. Most Egyptians bathed daily in the river or out of a water basin at home. The wealthier homes had a bathroom where servants would pour jugs of water over their master (the shower of the day). A cleansing paste of water and natron was commonly used. After washing, an Egyptian woman would rub her skin with oils, some of which were infused with frankincense or myrrh (Did they tell Balthezar, Melchior and whats that other wise guys name about what gifts to bring that first Noel night, or was it really vice versa?) Whatever the answer, even the poorer Egyptian classes used such oils to protect themselves against the unforgiving desert heat.
Most perfumes, which were used in religious rituals and embalming the dead, contained the same basic ingredients. These included myrrh, thyme, marjoram, chamomile, lavender, lily, peppermint, rosemary, cedar, rose, aloe, olive oil, sesame oil and almond oil. For lips, cheeks and nails, a clay called red ochre was ground and mixed with water. Henna dyed fingernails yellow or orange. Makeup was stored in individual jars that were kept in special boxes. Women would carry these boxes to parties (a different, older version of BYOB) and keep them under their chairs. Although men also wore makeup, they did not carry kits with them. (They were too busy carrying their women and their makeup kits back and forth from parties.)
Anyone who worked for a Pharaoh had to be ritually pure and have fresh breath. Consequently, the Egyptians used many products to achieve this purpose. They either chewed pieces of sodium carbonate or rinsed their mouths with a wash of honey and water to which goose fat, frankincense, cumin and ocher had been added. At least one recipe for creating chewable tablets has survived to this day. It involved dried plant matter such as myrrh, mastic, cypress grass and lily. The mixture was finely ground, mixed with honey, heated and then dried into balls.
According to information documented on papyrus rolls, to mask body odor the ancient dwellers of the Nile Valley used small balls that consisted of a sort of oat porridge which was perfumed with an aromatic incense. This was rubbed into their armpits. One deodorizing body peeling cream found in an ancient tomb contained ostrich eggshells and tortoise shell, cooked with gallnut from a tamarisk tree. (Whoever heard of a gallnut, much less a tamarisk tree?)
Beautiful smells were essential to the belief that "cleanliness is godliness." Because this concept was so very important in ancient Egyptian society, perfumery began as a secret art that was perfected by 2,500 BC. It was practiced by the priesthood in the temple of Denderah where pharmaceutical products were made. One of the temple walls depicts a method of oil extraction and distillation that is still used by Egyptian farmers today. The function of perfumery was to aid in the achievement of spiritual perfection. Ra, the sun god, was the source of all fragrances and to smell beautifully was a sign of true holiness. Only the fragrant smelling would be received by the gods in the after life, although mum was the word at the time.
Everything invented in ancient Egypt had a spiritual concern and application. Even mummification was a science that benefited from perfumery. Cedar oil was considered the most sacred of all the distilled oils. Because of their belief in the mystical power of oils and their basic distrust of encroaching civilizations, Egyptian priests kept their knowledge about them a secret. To them, the sacredness of the oil was determined by the specific plants healing spirit, rather than the chemical result of the extraction process. The seven sacred oils used for mummification were: The Festive Perfume, Hekenu, Syrian Balsam, Nechenem, Anointing Oil, The Best Cedar Oil and The Best Libyan Oil.