Why did ancient Egyptian men wear cosmetics?

Egyptian men wore primitive eye liner.
©iStockphoto/urbandevill

Near the Egyptian Valley of the Kings and Queens, on the western side of the Nile River, are the ruins of Deir el-Medina. The maze of waist-high stone walls and shattered artifacts belonged to a village of workers who toiled in the subterranean tombs of New Kingdom pharaohs and queens, including Tutankhamen. From roughly 1525 to 1075 B.C., the royal government supplied these conscripts with all of their basic needs, such as meat, grains and vegetables, in exchange for the sweat of their brows. As the decades gave way to centuries, Deir el-Medina evolved into a robust community, complete with its own village government and cottage industries.

Then, during the reign of Ramses III (1187 to 1156 B.C.), the residents in Deir el-Medina staged what could be considered the first workers' strike in history. Their government-supplied grain hadn't arrived as scheduled [source: Bard and Shubert]. And to make matters worse, officials had also withheld a shipment of massage oils [source: Strouhal, Strouhal and Forman]. The laborers considered the greasy balm essential for their well-being, and without it, they quit working and demanded government intervention.

Oils and animals fats protected the Egyptians' skin from the harsh heat and sunlight of the Nile River delta and soothed their aching muscles. Employers commonly included them as part of a worker's compensation. Sometimes scented or pressed into thick lotions, primitive moisturizers were just one cosmetic involved in an Egyptian man's health regimen.

For instance, before leaving the house for a day's work or heading to a banquet or celebration, an upper-class Egyptian man might take a few moments to adorn his eyes. Like King Tut's thickly lined eyes that stare out from the young pharaoh's sarcophagus, black kohl liner that extended beyond the eyelids to the temples was in vogue during the New Kingdom. Black had replaced green as the shade of choice. Old Kingdom (2650 to 2134 B.C.) fashion had called for a crude emerald eye shadow made of malachite (copper carbonate). To apply their bold highlights, Egyptians might use a flattened and smoothed piece of wood or bone to sweep the powered mineral from the brow line to the base of the nose [source: Stewart].

This ancient Egyptian affinity for cosmetics wasn't purely steeped in vanity. Men, women and children all adhered to remarkably strict personal hygiene regimens dictated by the climate, religion and social hierarchy.

The Ancient Egyptian Cosmetics Counter

Ancient Egyptians modeled their eye makeup after the god Horus.
Ancient Egyptians modeled their eye makeup after the god Horus.
©iStockphoto/AmandaLewis

The interior passageways of the Valley of the Kings and Queens are embellished with frescoes illustrating daily life in ancient Egypt as well as the afterlife. They showed strapping men sporting dark eye makeup created from ground mineral powders and fats. The smoky kohl liner they wore served both practical and ritualistic purposes. It was thought to repel flies, protect the eyes from the sun's rays and ward off infection [source: Strouhal, Strouhal and Forman]. The dramatic makeup also imitated the facial markings of the sun god Horus, who was often depicted as a falcon [source: Stewart].

Ancient Egyptians paid careful attention to facial and body hair, as evidenced by hair stylists and barbers depicted in their artwork. For men, only during times of mourning were they allowed to abandon shaving or trimming their beards [source: Sherrow]. Male priests plucked out all their body hair, including eyebrows and lashes, to sanctify themselves [source: Sherrow]. Upper-class Egyptians would regularly wear perfumed wigs and false beards of human hair, and even lower-class citizens would don faux extensions made of vegetable fiber.

In addition to their function as skin moisturizers, oils and animal fats were also utilized for hair care. Men might rub the fat from a lion, snake, or other animal onto their scalps as a homeopathic remedy for baldness [source: Shaw]. Egyptians also delayed going gray by covering silvery strands with red-tinted henna dye. On festive occasions, men and women secured scented cones of dried fats on the tops of their heads. Melting in the heat, the cones then released the fragrance of pressed lilies, myrrh, cardamom and other flowers and spices.

Socially, cosmetics and accessories reflected one's rank in ancient Egypt, as in today's culture to some extent. Like designer handbags toted around as a status symbol, one sign of a wealthy Egyptian woman was a portable cosmetics box. On the other end of the social spectrum, female dancers and concubines were tattooed with dotted designs and images of Bes, the goddess of song and home [source: Lineberry].

After death, beauty aids still weren't far from reach. Within the Valley of the Kings and Queens, those laborers of Deir el-Medina transported cosmetic items such as boxes of wigs, glittering jewelry and palettes of eye shadow into the burial chambers. Higher-ranking craftsmen in the village may also have been interred with similar comforts. Even in the afterlife, ancient Egyptian men and women needed to primp.

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Sources

  • Bard, Kathryn and Shubert, Stephen Blake. "Encyclopedia of the Archeology of Ancient Egypt." Routledge. 1999. (April 15, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=XNdgScxtirYC
  • Condra, Jill. "The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History." Greenwood Publishing Group. 2008. (April 15, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=vDXXAMqvzBQC
  • Lineberry, Cate. "Tattoos." Smithsonian. Jan. 1, 2007. (April 15, 2009)http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/tattoo.html
  • Shaw, Roberta. "They Walked in Beauty." Rotunda. Summer 1999.
  • Sherrow, Victoria. "Encyclopedia of Hair." Greenwood Publishing Group. 2006. (April 15, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=9Z6vCGbf66YC
  • Strouhal, Eugen; Strouhal, Evzen and Forman, Werner. "Life of the ancient Egyptians." Editorial Galaxia. 1992. (April 15, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=vsvLJJvIIf0C
  • Stewart, Doug. "Eternal Egypt." Smithsonian. June 2001. (April 15, 2009)