Beauty and Ritual in Ancient Egypt
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Allow me to lavish your wig with scented oils and place garlands of sweet lotus around your neck. These were among the first duties towards guests in ancient Egypt. Was it simply vanity that drove King Tutankhamun to have his coffin smelted in gold Isis wings with all manner of precious stones?
From beginning to end, ancient Egyptians represented their gods with every action. Whether hauling limestone blocks to build the pyramids or anointing the heads of guests in the royal court with oils, the invocation of the gods was paramount. Daily rituals were neither vain nor fanatical but an opulent display of reverie for the gods and goddesses of the Nile.
The ritual importance of face painting has long been adhered to, and even today, women proclaim, I won’t be caught dead without my makeup on! Neither would the men in ancient Egypt. All sexes wore makeup for both practical and ritual reasons. Khol was used to prevent eye infections from dust and shield the eyes from the intensity of the hot desert sun.
Kohl was also associated with ancient Egyptian deities such as Hathor, Horus, and Ra and was thought to possess magic and protection. Eye painting even played a significant role in burial preparation. Ancient Egyptians were not permitted to face Osirus (god of the dead) in the afterlife without being made up, as they needed to assure they would be recognized in death, as they were in life. Vials of customized cosmetics were always found in grave goods cache’s and suggested the serious nature of ritual in death, as in life.
In the words of scholar Wendy Bonaventura, coming from a culture in which makeup is considered a protective mask, the more you wear, the more you are shielded from malign spirits and psychic forces.
Protected as they were, the famous kohl-rimmed gaze of the Pharaohs and their queens were some of the most highly decorated eyes in history. In ancient times, the continuation of the species was the ultimate purpose of life. As in the animal world, humans would emphasize their sex and sexuality in their behavior and appearance.
The Minx-like eyes of local Egyptian women peer back outlined in kohl and can still be found in Egyptian markets today.
Prized Egyptian perfumes and oils
Ancient Egypt was admired for its rare and prized perfumes. Perfumes and oils covered almost every inch of an Egyptian’s body as they were associated with the gods. Egyptians also took note of the uplifting healing properties of oils and used them liberally. Nefertum, the god of perfume and healing, eased Ra’s pain, the sun god, with a blend of sacred lotus!
There was no more festive occasion worthy of the senses than a lively festival or perhaps the “feast of Drunkeness for Hathor, goddess of birth, beauty, and pleasure. Often, the host would drizzle the shoulders of guests’ white linen sheaths with rich, fragrant oil, revealing the splendor of the figure beneath.
While maintaining a profoundly religious and symbolic significance, the scent also prepared the mood for intimate time. How better to enchant a lover than by leaving the sweet smell of jasmine and rose as a memory of yearning and desire.
Perfume was a luxury enjoyed by all sexes, as it was known to expand the wearer’s power and presence. During the reign of Ramses lll, grave diggers of Thebes are reported to have gone on strike in protest against a decline in the perfume supplied to them! Imagine!
Incense and oil for the gods
The temples swelled with the intoxicating aromatics of incense. The swirling smoke was a divine offering and accepted as communication between mortals and gods.
Priests and priestesses anointed the heads of statues with oils and burned incense of myrrh three times daily at the foot of honored deities.
Oils were also used to bless the heads of soldiers before charging into battle. If one perished, they would be protected from the unsavory smell of death and decomposition.
Wigs and hairstyles
Scenes are depicted on the walls of tombs showing the significance of hairdressing in Pharaonic times. Have you ever imagined what lay beneath Queen Nefertiti’s commanding crown? Nothing but scalp!
Almost everyone shaved their heads, be it for religious or climatic reasons. Young Egyptians sported the “sidelock of youth,” a single lock that grew long until puberty when it was ceremoniously lopped off.
If natural hair was worn, it was washed only on occasion for fear that the guardian spirit of the head might be displeased or offended. One of the most famous hairstyles was the Hathor wig, with two parts down the sides and one down the back. As customary, deities were honored through beauty rituals, and the Hathor wig was fashioned to emulate the cow goddess herself.
Ceremonial wigs were prepared upon one’s death and journey to the afterlife. Braided wigs were worn for festivals & special feasts and were kept in place with wax and resins. At the start of the gathering, they placed a cone of fat infused with perfumes on top of their wigs.
The cones dissolved throughout the evening with the heat of the body or the desert and kept everyone smelling sweet. It sounds messy, but they didn’t seem to mind, and they must have smelled wonderful. Famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass says wigs played a significant role in intimate relations as wigs were mentioned in love poems as a preliminary to lovemaking!
Protective amulets and charms
The living and the dead wore amulets and charms. Egyptians wore shimmering gold collars of Isis for looks but also protection. Much of ancient Egyptian jewelry had a dual purpose of beautifying and protecting against evil spirits or intentions.
By Jon Bodsworth - http://www.egyptarchive.co.uk/html/cairo_museum_47.html, Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4422291
They even fashioned charms to mimic limbs and combat injuries or accidents to attract spirits that would look out for the individual. Even today, modern Egyptian women wear an amulet called the evil eye to ward off ill intentions.
For ancient Egyptians, personal care and appearance were a mainstay in day-to-day ritual and worship. Beautification and ceremony went hand in hand in ancient Egypt and didn’t cease at death. Splendid as their decoration and adornment were, their thoughts were transfixed on the gods at all times.
While extravagant, the feasts were an opportunity for Queen Nefertiti to lavish her guests (in the name of the gods) with lotus flowers and oils. Generals anointed soldiers' heads with oils before battle to sweeten the sting of death and appease the gods. KingRamses may have donned his ceremonial wig for a romantic time with his queen, but certainly, that gesture too was in awe of the gods.
Perhaps this quote by Orientalist scholar Wendy Bonaventura captures the essence of ancient Egyptians thoughts, “As smoke rose to the heaven, they reasoned, so the perfumed smoke of incense could carry their prayers to the gods.” And so it was.
If you like this, you might fancy 11 Powerful Symbols of Ancient Egyptian Royalty.
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