We have all seen ancient Egyptian paintings and statues of people with their eyes outlined in heavy makeup. In ancient Egypt, the men and women both used an eye liner that not only heightened the beauty of their eyes, but that also had practical functions. This eye makeup, known as kohl, continues to be used in Egypt today
Whats With the Eye?
Eyes played an extremely important role in the art of ancient Egypt, and eye makeup was considered an essential part of any beauty routine. Usually, when eyes appear in Egyptian art, they are surrounded by eye paint, with the corners of the eye and eyebrow extended to the temples see painting at right).
According to their beliefs, after the eye of the god Horus was taken in battle, it was restored to life so that it could magically ward off evil. Egyptian mythology also told how the eye of the sun god Re was his powerful daughter Hathor, the goddess of love and beauty.
A common funerary practice was to paint eyes on the sides of coffins to allow the mummy within to see the outside world and, thereby, stay connected to the realm of the living. In a love poem written on an uncovered papyrus, a man describes the restorative powers of the eyes of his beloved, "When she opens her eyes, my body is young." In the same poem, the mans sweetheart laments that thinking about her love has made her too heartsick to go about her daily tasks and then says that she can "put no paint upon [her] eyes."
When writing words for "eye makeup," the ancient Egyptians added the same symbol that they did when writing about beauty -- an eye with a traced line below it. Even today in Egypt, eyes accentuated with liner are considered particularly lovely. In fact, no Egyptian dancer, musician, movie star, or bride would want to go without it.
The kohl used in ancient Egypt was mineral pigment, of the same type traditionally used for eye paint in Egypt and the Middle East. The minerals were first ground into a powder and then applied with a pointed implement that resembled a pen. The ancient Egyptians used two types of kohl -- black and green. Black kohl was the more commonly used. Called mesdemet, it was made from galena, a shiny black lead ore. The green variety, known as udju, was made from malachite, a brilliant, emerald-colored copper ore that the ancients associated with Hathor.
Both substances were rare and had to be imported from Egypt's most distant borders, the galena from Aswan or the Red Sea coast and the malachite from the Sinai desert. Naturally, this increased the value and high regard associated with these substances.
Not Just for Beauty
Yet kohl had a practical side as well. It reduced the glare caused by bright sunlight in desert environments in the same way as black paint smudged under the eyes of a football player helps him see better in the sunlight. As a moist paste, kohl kept dust from getting into the eyes, which can be a problem in a dry climate such as Egypt's. And, the chemical compositions of the minerals both helped to keep insects away from the eyes and to protect the eyes against disease and infection. Black kohl was also used as an ingredient in medicines prescribed for skin problems such as burns. Galena is known today to have antiseptic properties. Because the chemical components in a type of kohl were used to distill wine and other beverages, the English language adopted and adapted the Arabic word al kohl (meaning "the kohl") to "alcohol"
How It Was Done
To make the eye paint, the Egyptians first ground the minerals by placing them on a flat stone plaque called a palette and then crushing them with a smooth stone. Since almost everyone wore eye paint in ancient Egypt, the palette was a common possession, and it often came in elaborate shapes. After the minerals were ground, the powder was either kept dry or mixed with water, oil, or fat to form a paste. The powder or paste was then stored in tiny pots. Cosmetic pots often were made of beautifully colored stones, such as milky white alabaster or a light blue stone known as anhydrite. Most of these pots had tiny lids to keep the precious cosmetics protected. The kohl was applied using a pointed stick dipped into a thin tube filled with the makeup (right). The tube shape worked well because an inserted stick would be well covered by the kohl. Excavators often find fancy kohl tubes in the tombs of wealthy ladies and queens.
"My tomb artists did a good job recreating the kohl outlining my eyes, 'thinks 19th Dynasty Queen Nefertari.
Kohl outlines the eyes of these musicians, playing their lutes and flutes on the tomb wall of Nebamun, a 19th Dynasty scribe.
And, eye makeup was not just for women. Just look at the eye of this farmer plowing a field. (from the tomb of Sennedjem, a 19th Dynasty artisan who lived in the workmen's village near the Valley of the Kings)
The inscriptions on these 18th Dynasty wooden ointment containers read: "excellent kohl" (that is, eye makeup); "opens vision" (eye solution), "repels blood" (checks bleeding), and "repels ... (rest is illegible).
Did You Know?
Acne is not a modern skin condition. The ancients struggled with it as well. The Egyptians thought it came from telling lies and used magic spells and charms to treat it. The Romans treated it successfully with baths of warm mineral water and sulfur.
--Marcia Amidon Lusted
Angela Murock Hussein is an archaeological consultant and a cataloger for the Mochlos Excavations in East Crete.