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Mascara For the Gods: A History of Make-up
Part One: The Ancient World

page 2

By the late 5th century, Babylon was the principal market for the perfume trade. They used cedar of Lebanon, cypress, pine, fir resin, myrtle, calamus and juniper extensively. When the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon, they brought back a heightened appreciation of fragrance, especially in the form of incense, which was used to consecrate their temples and holy altars. Women in India, instead of soap, used a turmeric germicidal cream treatment composed of gramflour or wheat husk mixed with milk. The wheat husk was known to remove dead cell tissue. They also darkened their lashes and the Kama Sutra includes a recipe for mascara guaranteed to make the user "look lovely."

cosmetics mascaraIn ancient Greece, precious oils, perfumes, cosmetic powders, eye shadows, skin glosses, paints, beauty unguents and hair dyes were in universal use. Export and sale of these items were an important element of trade around the Mediterranean. During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Corinthian and Rhodian traders dominated markets in perfume flasks and cosmetic containers. Bulk storage containers for scented oils and perfumes were called pelikes. They were initially designed to withstand the constant handling and rigors of sea transportation while protecting the contents and maximizing cargo space. As commerce expanded, manufacturers improved packaging to attract customers. During the Classical period, pelikes became more costly as they were packaged in terracotta, alabaster and cored-glass.

The Greeks invaded Egypt with full cognizance of their mystification of oils. Their interests, however, were geared to gaining medical knowledge. The Egyptian priests were unwilling to divulge 3,000 year old secrets for any reason. Under considerable pressure from Alexander the Great, they released misinformation and half-truths, insuring that nothing they had created could ever be properly duplicated. Greek sexual indulgence was deplorable to the Egyptians, who felt (and justifiably so) that the Greeks wanted the oils more for use as aphrodisiacs, cosmetics and medicines.

AthenianBy the 7th century BC, Athens had developed into a mercantile center in which hundreds of perfumers set up shop. Trade was heavy in fragrant herbs such as marjoram, lily, thyme, sage, anise, rose and iris, infused into olive, almond, castor and linseed oils to make thick unguents. These were sold in small, elaborately decorated pots. Some famous Greeks, such as Socrates disapproved of perfume. He personally believed that it might blur the distinction between slaves (who smelled bad) and free men (who didn’t). Some might question how he could be so very sure.

Others dispproved of cosmetics in general. One Greek historian from the 4th century wrote about his bride deceiving him prior to the marriage by wearing makeup that didn’t show her true looks. Another Greek, Clement of Alexandria, proposed a law that would prevent women from using cosmetics lest it tricked their husbands into marrying them!

In an odd aside, when Alexander the Great entered the tent of defeated King Darius after the battle of Isos, he threw out the king’s box of priceless ointments and perfumes. Ironically, after Alexander traveled extensively throughout Asia, he became so addicted to aromatics that he burned Arabian incense beside his throne constantly. He sent plants to his Athenian classmate from every place he traveled. His classmate used the cuttings to establish a lush botanical garden in Athens!

Ancient Greek women painted their cheeks with herbal pastes made from crushed berries and seeds, but their men preferred them to look plain except when they appeared in the Greek court. On those occasions, women would redden their cheeks by first coating their faces, necks and breasts with a white powder and then applying a rouge. Unbeknownst to them, that white powder contained lead and over time destroyed their complexions and in some cases, the women themselves. What price beauty!

By 300 BC, myrrh and frankincense from Yemen reached the Mediterranean by way of Persian traders. The trade routes swelled with increased demands for roses, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, saffron, gum resins and other spices. Iraqi men and women painted their faces with kohl just as the Egyptians did to protect them from the "evil eye." The Romans were hedonistic; Egyptian oils that were considered sacred became nothing more than sexual accoutrements. Romans did discover medicinal applications as well. Plagues were so rampant throughout Rome that aromatic gums and resins were burned to repel demons and bad spirits. The word "perfume" derives from the Latin. ("Per means through and fumum" means smoke)

eye makeupThe Roman Empire used oils extensively, consuming approximately 2,800 tons of imported frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh per year. Perfume merchants in ancient Rome were afforded the same status as doctors and the citizenry referred to their sweethearts as "my myrrh" and "my cinnamon." When Rome was Christianized, the new priesthood perceived that overindulgence in sex and the squandering of money were major sources of sin. (They never came to my house.)

In 54 AD, Emperor Nero spent the equivalent of $100,000 just to scent one party (That’s without food, favors or entertainment. Just for the smell of it!) The ceilings in his dining room were carved ivory and fitted with concealed pipes that sprayed mists of fragrant waters onto his guests below. He had panels that slid to one side, which showered guests with fresh rose petals. One unfortunate visitor was asphyxiated by a dense rose-petal cloud. (He probably would have died anyway. Surely it would have been just a matter of time before Nero got bored with his company and did the mature thing, opting to burn down the party instead of fragrancing it!)

The distillation of essential oils and the use of aromatics progressed in the Far East as well. Chinese Taoists believed that extraction of a plant’s fragrance represented the liberation of its soul. The Chinese used one word to represent perfume, incense and fragrance; heang. It had the following manifestations: tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined or noble. Fragrances were used extensively by the upper classes in China during the Tang dynasties that began in the 7th century AD and continued until the 17th century with the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Everything was richly scented, including baths, bodies, temples, ink, paper, cosmetics and sachets tucked into garments. Fragrant sandalwood was used in the ribs of fans and camphor wood to create huge, sweet smelling statues of Buddha. China imported sesame oil from India, Persian rose water via the silk route and Indonesian aromatics through India.

incenseIt was the Japanese who transformed the use of incense into an art, even though it wasn’t known to their culture until around 500 AD. By that time, a distillation process had been perfected. Starting around the 4th century, incense pastes of powdered herbs mixed with plum pulp, seaweed, charcoal and salt were pressed into cones, spirals or letters and then burned on beds of ashes. Even today, special schools still teach the ancient art of kodo (perfumery). From the Nara through the Kamakura Periods (710-1333), small lacquer cases containing perfumes hung from a special clasp on the kimono. The container for today’s "Opium" brand perfume was inspired by one of these. The ancient Geishas were known to have calculated the cost of their services according to how many sticks of incense had been consumed in the room. (It can only be speculated as to what methods they use today.)

And so it seems there is much more from the ancient world that is a part of our every day lives than previously imagined. For the history of makeup’s entrance into the modern world, we must await part two of this impromptu and highly subjective study. It will come soon, beginning with Middle Ages, a challenging time when people didn’t bathe too often and still managed to procreate into the Renaissance. Stay tuned, but if you get bored check out the
Urban Legends site and the "Lash of the Mohicans."

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Culture is one thing and varnish another
R.W. Emerson, Journals, 1868

In the room, the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock

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