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

Did you ever wonder where make-up came from? How are its origins connected to the ancient concept of the evil eye? Perhaps only The Shadow knows the answers; perhaps you will too, that is, if you dare to read on.

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. It’s 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 one’s own image to appear in the dark of the pupil of another’s. 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, history’s first mascara. Worn by both men and women, it was applied in a circle or oval around the eyes. It’s 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 Cleopatra’s lipsticks were made from finely crushed carmine beetles, which rendered a deep red pigment. This mixture was then combined with ant eggs. (If you can’t 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 what’s that other wise guy’s 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 plant’s 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.

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."

In 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.

By 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)

The 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.

It 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."

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2004