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 & Fragrance

Egypt, Greece and Rome













This paper was written by Ty Narada for Dr. Kosso 

Cosmetics have been used for as long as there have been people to use them. Face painting is mentioned in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 23:40) and eye shadow was used in Egyptian burials dating back to 10,000 BC (Llewelyn) The word "cosmetae" was first used to describe Roman slaves whose function was to bathe men and women in perfume. (Keville, Green) Since the Egyptians, each subsequent civilization invented unique words that referred to cosmetics and fragrance as one science, but the science eroded after Rome. Anthropologists speculate that primitive perfumery began with the burning of gums and resins for incense. Richly scented plants were fused into animal and vegetable oils for ceremonial anointings and for pleasure. From 7,000 to 4,000 BC, the fatty oils of olive and sesame were combined with fragrant plants to create the original Neolithic ointments. When the Egyptians were learning to write and make bricks in 3,000 BC, they were also importing large quantities of myrrh. The earliest recorded items of Egyptian commerce included spices, gums and other fragrant plants that were reserved mainly for religious use. (Keville, Green)


As early as 10,000 BCE, men and women used scented oils and ointments to clean and soften their skin and mask body odor. Dyes and paints were used to color the skin, body and hair. They rouged their lips and cheeks, stained their nails with henna, and lined their eyes and eyebrows heavily with kohl. Kohl was a dark-colored powder made of crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite, chrysocolla (a blue-green copper ore) or any combination thereof. (Cohen) It was applied with a small stick. The upper and lower eyelids were painted in a line that extended to the sides of the face for an almond effect. In addition to reducing sun glare, it was believed that kohl eyeliner could restore poor eyesight and reduce eye infection. (ED 370) Kohl was kept in a small, flat-bottomed pot with a wide, tiny rim and a flat, disk-shaped lid. (Carnegie Museum)

Cosmetics were an inherent part of Egyptian hygiene and health. Oils and creams were used for protection against the hot Egyptian sun and dry winds. Myrrh, thyme, marjoram, chamomile, lavender, lily, peppermint, rosemary, cedar, rose, aloe, olive oil, sesame oil and almond oil provided the basic ingredients of most perfumes that were used in religious ritual and embalming the dead (Cohen) For lips, cheeks and nails, a clay called red ochre was ground and mixed with water. Henna was used to dye fingernails yellow or orange. Makeup was stored in special jars that were kept in special makeup boxes. Women would carry their makeup boxes to parties and keep them under their chairs. (ED 370) Although men also wore makeup, they did not carry their makeup kits with them. (Brand)

The ancient Egyptians took great pride in their appearance and cleanliness. Most Egyptians bathed daily in the river or out of a water basin at home. Wealthy homes had a bathroom where servants would pour jugs of water over their master (equivalent to a modern day shower). The runoff was drained through a pipe to water the garden. A cleansing cream made of animal or vegetable oil mixed with powered lime and perfume was used instead of soap. (Rigby) People rubbed themselves daily with a perfumed unguent oil that had soaked in scented wood. The mixture was left in a pot until the oil absorbed the wood scent. Perfumed oil was used to prevent the skin from drying out in the harsh climate. At parties, servants would place a cone of perfumed grease on the head of each guests. The grease had a cooling effect as it melted and ran down the faces of each guest. Everyone, regardless of age or gender wore makeup. Highly polished silver and copper mirrors aided the application of makeup. (Rigby, Brand)

Some hairstyles were very similar to that of todays. The common folk wore their hair short. Young girls usually kept their hair in pigtails while boys had shaved heads with one braided lock worn to one side. (ED 370) Egyptian men shaved their head in order to avoid getting lice. (PSU) Wigs made of sheep’s wool or human hair were worn by men and women to parties, official functions and for protection from heat. A hairpiece might be used to enhance real hair. When not in use, wigs were stored in special boxes that were displayed on a stand at home. (ED 370) To preserve hair from the effects of sun, it was treated with a moisturizing cream in the shape of a cosmetic cone. Evidence comes from sculptures, reliefs and paintings from the New Kingdom. The cone would gradually melt and give the wig a pleasant fragrance. (Rigby)

Because jewelry has been inherently connected to cosmetics, makeup and apparel, some abridgment is necessary. Everyone in Egypt wore some type of jewelry to include children. Because the Egyptians were very superstitious, rings and amulets were worn to ward off the evil spirits and injury. (Carnegie Museum) Both men and women wore pierced earrings, armlets, bracelets, anklets and beaded necklaces. The wealthy wore jeweled or beaded collars, necklaces, and pendants made of gold, silver, or electrum (gold mixed with silver) and inlaid with semi-precious stones of turquoise, lapis lazuli (a deep blue stone), and carnelian (a copper or reddish orange stone). The peasants wore jewelry crafted from copper, wood, leather, metal or faience, a gem made by heating powdered quartz. (ED 370, Brand) Various classes wore jewelry made of amethyst, garnet, jasper, onyx and shells. (Carnegie Museum) Only the upper class and Pharaoh’s family could afford jewel-studded gold cartouches with their names engraved in hieroglyphs. (Brand)

Clothes were made of linens ranging from coarse to fine texture. During the Old and Middle kingdoms, men wore a short skirt called a kilt. Women wore a straight fitting dress held up by straps. The wealthy men wore pleated kilts, and older men wore a longer kilt. When doing hard work, men wore a loin cloth, and women wore a short skirt. Children ran around nude during the summer months and wore wraps and cloaks during the winter. Noblewomen wore beaded dresses. (ED 370) The upper class and royal family dressed like the lower classes, but added elegant accessories and dyed the fringes of their clothes. (Brand) Kings and Queens wore decorative ceremonial clothing fitted with feathers and sequins. Most people went barefoot, but wore sandals on special occasions. The king wore very elaborately decorated sandals, and sometimes decorative gloves on his hands. Clothing styles were chosen for comfort in a hot, dry climate. (ED 370) Egyptian sandals were made of papyrus and palm-fiber, and sometimes of goat or gazelle's skin. (Portland State University)

Anyone who worked for a Pharaoh had to be ritually pure and have fresh breath. Breath was freshened by chewing on pellets made of ground tamarisk leaves -- there is no evidence of toothbrushes or toothpaste. Bad breath and bad body odor was grounds for shame. (Brand) Beautiful smells were essential to the Egyptian belief that ‘cleanliness is godliness.’ Egyptians had learned how to distill essential oils thousands of years ago. (Brand) The Egyptian science of perfumery eroded over the centuries "until its final rupture in the Middle Ages." (Rady) Because "Smell" was incomprehensibly fundamental in Egyptian society, perfumery began as a secret art in Egypt that was perfected by 2,500 BC. It was practiced by the priesthood in the temple of Denderah where pharmaceutical products were made. (Rady) One of the temple walls shows a method of oil extraction and distillation that is still used by Egyptian farmers today. (Rady) The function of perfumery was to achieve spiritual rather than physical perfection by perfecting the physical, emotional and mental aspects of Human existence. (Rady) Perfumes made the body function perfectly. Ra, the sun god, was the source of all smell. Under Egyptian belief, "to smell beautifully was a sign of holiness," and ONLY perfect-smelling persons would be received by the gods when they died. (Rady) Egypt was deeply driven by spiritual concerns and virtually everything invented had a spiritual application, e.g., the science of mummification was the immediate beneficiary of perfumery.

Cedar Oil was considered the most sacred of all the distilled oils and the principle oil used in mummification. (Rady) Egyptian priests discovered the true power of oils and believed that certain types of perfumes could add to one’s personal power. Since the neighboring civilizations were perceived as primitive, hostile, morally corrupt, spiritually inept, lacking the maturity, evolution or self-control to use oils, the priests did not want them to have their knowledge. (Rady) It was believed that the spiritual essence of plants had healing qualities and supernatural power; the embodiment of the plant’s healing spirit, rather than the plant’s chemistry made the extraction process and the oil sacred. (Rady) The seven sacred oils used for mummification were: The Festival Perfume, Hekenu, The Syrian Balsam, Nechenem, Anointing Oil, The Best Cedar Oil and The Best Libyan Oil. These oils also formed the  foundation of ritual Egyptian magic. (Rady) The most famous Egyptian fragrance, kyphi, meaning "welcome to the gods", was said to induce hypnotic states. The City of the Sun, Heliopolis, burned resins in the morning, myrrh at noon and kyphi at sunset to the sun god, Ra. Aside from religious use, kyphi could lull one to sleep, alleviate anxieties, increase dreaming, eliminate sorrow, treat asthma and act as a general antidote for toxins. One recorded recipe includes a heady blend of calamus, henna, spikenard, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, cypress and terebinth (pistachio resin), and other ingredients. The ingredients were also mixed and matched for variety. Cubes of incense was prepared by mixing ground gums and plants with honey; a similar technique used by the Babylonians that the Greeks and Romans adopted. (Keville, Green)

Commensurate with Egyptian practices are the traditions of neighboring countries that developed similarly: Women in India did not use soap either but instead used a turmeric germicidal cream treatment composed of gramflour or wheat husk mixed with milk. The wheat husk would remove dead cell tissue. The ancient Hebrews employed fragrance to consecrate their temples, altars, candles and priests. The book of Exodus (approximately 1,200 BC) provides a recipe for the Holy anointing oil given to Moses for the initiation of priests. It contains: Myrrh, cinnamon and calamus mixed with olive oil. Although the Mosaic Law decreed severe punishment to anyone who used Holy oils or incense in a secular fashion, some aromatics were less restricted. (Keville, Green) Two biblical references to perfume include Proverbs 27:9, "Ointment and perfume rejoice the heart," and Song of Solomon 1:13-14,

"A bundle of myrrh is my beloved unto me; he shall lie all night between my breasts. My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire [henna] in the vineyards of En-gedi." (Keville, Green) By the late 5th century, Babylon was the principal market for the perfume trade. The Babylonians 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. (Keville, Green)


In 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 formed an important part of trade around the Mediterranean. During the 8th and 7th centuries BC, Corinthian, Rhodian and East Greek traders dominated markets in perfume flasks and cosmetic containers. The containers included aryballoi, alabastra, pyxides and other small specialized shapes. Cosmetic unguents were imported into Greece in containers carved from the Red Sea Tridacna shell. In the 6th and 5th centuries, Attic products stole the market with toilet oil dispensed in lekythoi flasks. Bulk storage containers for scented oils and perfumes was called a pelike. Pelikes were initially designed to withstand the constant handling and rigors of sea transportation while protecting the contents and maximizing cargo space. As commerce expanded and packaging design became more influential, manufacturers improved packaging to attract consumers. During the Classical period, pelike packaging in terracotta aryballoi and alabastra retailed at a premium. Simultaneously, cored-glass vessels began to appear in shapes adapted from terracotta containers. (University of Pennsylvania #1)

The Greeks invaded Egypt aware of the Egyptian mystification of oils but were interested mainly in the medical knowledge rather than the entire Egyptian spiritual epistemology. With 3,000 years worth of perfumery development under their belts, Egyptian priests were unwilling to divulge the spiritual intrigue of Egyptian oils. Under pressure from Alexander the Great, the priests released disinformation and half-truths to prevent the knowledge from falling into the hands of the inept. (Rady) Greek sexual indulgence was deplorable to the Egyptians. From an Egyptian perspective, the Greeks wanted the oils for sexual practices, cosmetics, incense and medicines. One severe area of contention involved kyphi. Kyphi was created for the most sacred of purposes and the Greeks used it as an aphrodisiac. (Rady) The Greeks were given to simplify things and the Romans took ‘simplification’ a step further. (Rady) From this point forward, the original intention of Egyptian oil loses focus and becomes clouded.

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 ceramic pots, similar to the smaller jars still sold in Athens today. (Keville, Green) Socrates disapproved of perfume. He believed that it might blur the distinction between slaves (who smelled bad) and free men (who didn’t).

When Alexander the Great entered the tent of defeated King Darius after the battle of Issos, Alexander threw out the king's box of priceless ointments and perfumes. Ironically, after Alexander traveled extensively in Asia, he became so addicted to aromatics that he burned an Arabian incense by his throne constantly. He sent plant cuttings to his Athenian classmate in Athens from everywhere he traveled. His classmate used the cuttings to establish a botanical garden in Athens. (Keville, Green)


By about 300 BC, myrrh and frankincense from Yemen reached the Mediterranean by way of Persian traders. The trade routes swelled as the demand for roses, sweet flag, orris root, narcissus, saffron, mastic, oak moss, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, nutmeg, ginger, costus, spikenard, aloewood, grasses and gum resins increased. (Keville, Green) Iraqi men and women painted their faces with kohl just like the Egyptians did. This was to protect them from the ‘evil eye.’ After the defeat of the Greeks by the Romans, the original Egyptian intention suffered its final bastardization beyond any reasonable recovery. The Romans were unabashedly hedonistic; Egyptian oils that were once used for sacred purposes became nothing more than sexual accoutrements in Rome. There was some dignity amended when the Romans discovered medicinal applications as well. Plagues were so rampant throughout Rome, that aromatic gums and resins were burned to repel demons and bad spirits. (Rady) It was the Romans who gave us the actual word perfume and the rest of the surviving vernacular used today. "Per" is Latin for ‘through,’ and "fumum" means ‘smoke;’ the release of aromatic material through burning. Combine the act of burning incense with prayer (the closest they came to spirituality) and the gods in charge of disease (and other problems) were considered appeased. (Rady)

The Roman ‘down to Earth’ mentality did not embrace Greek complexity, much less Egyptian perfumery with its spiritual ramifications. The Greeks did not honor Egyptian spiritual intentions with regard to oils and perfumery and the Romans are almost completely out of context with the ‘preserving’ sentiment. In Egypt, magic, religion, medicine, pharmacology, cosmetics, and chemistry was combined into one science. This once integrated system evolved into separated, independent, totally unrelated sciences by the time Rome came into power. Rome oversimplified to the point of abuse and used oils so heavily that it caused serious financial problems. When Rome became Christianized, the new priesthood perceived the unbridled indulgence in sex, and the waste of money, as a main source of sin. (Rady) By 1 AD, Rome was going through approximately 2,800 tons of imported frankincense and 550 tons of myrrh per year. In 54 AD, Emperor Nero spent the equivalent of $100,000 just to scent just one party. He had carved ivory ceilings in his dining rooms that were fitted with concealed pipes that sprayed down mists of fragrant waters on guests below. He had panels that slid to one side, to shower guests with fresh rose petals. One unfortunate guest was asphyxiated by a dense rose-petal cloud. (Keville, Green)

Perfume merchants were afforded the same status as doctors and the citizenry referred to their sweethearts as "my myrrh" and "my cinnamon," in much the same way that we say "honey" and "sweetie pie" today (Keville, Green) Rome was in power during the biblical New Testament. One passage of scripture refers to the frankincense and myrrh that was brought to the Christ child as having greater value than gold. Another biblical episode describes Judas Iscariot complaining about Mary Magdalene's anointing of Christ's feet with a costly spikenard. Although Rome was in power, the Greek civilization had not yet demised. The Greek word for Christ, ‘Christos,’ means "anointed," from the Greek word ‘chriein,’ "to anoint." (Keville, Green) Citizens of both Roman and Greek cultures are prominently featured in the New Testament. Gnostic Christians from the 1st through the 4th century AD, held fragrance in high regard because their beliefs were deeply rooted in Egyptian philosophy: They sought release from the limitations of the material world and embraced the symbology of essential oils, that represent the plant’s soul. (Keville, Green) It is the Roman Catholic church in the 5th century AD that is responsible for the schism that we have today. (Rady)


Distillation of essential oils and the use of aromatics progressed in the Far East as well. Like the Christian Gnostics, Chinese Taoists believed that extraction of a plant's fragrance represented the liberation of its soul. Like the Greeks, the Chinese used one word to represent perfume, incense and fragrance. That word was heang. Heang was divided into six aesthetic moods: Tranquil, reclusive, luxurious, beautiful, refined or noble. (Keville, Green) The Chinese upper classes made lavish use of fragrance during the T'ang dynasties that began in the 7th century AD and continued until the end of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Their bodies, baths, clothing, homes and temples were all richly scented, as was ink, paper, cosmetics and sachets tucked into their garments. The ribs of fans were carved from fragrant sandalwood. Huge, fragrant statues of Buddha were carved from camphor wood. Spectators at dances and other ceremonies could expect to be pelted with perfumed sachets. China imported jasmine-scented sesame oil from India, Persian rosewater via the silk route and, eventually, Indonesian aromatics-cloves, gum benzoin, ginger, nutmeg and patchouli-through India. (Keville, Green) The famous Materia Medica Pen Ts'ao was published in China during the 16th century. It discusses almost 2,000 herbs and contains a separate section on 20 essential oils. Jasmine was used as a general tonic; rose improved digestion, liver and blood; chamomile reduced headaches, dizziness and colds; ginger treated coughs and malaria. (Keville, Green)

It was the Japanese who turned the use of incense into an art, even though incense didn't arrive in Japan until around 500 AD. By that time, the Japanese had perfected an effective distillation process. By the 4th to 6th century, incense pastes of powdered herbs mixed with plum pulp, seaweed, charcoal and salt were pressed into cones, spirals or letters, then burned on beds of ashes. Special schools still teach the ancient art of kodo [perfumery]. Students learned how to burn incense ceremonially and perform story dances for incense-burning rituals. (Keville, Green) From the Nara through the Kamakura Periods (710-1333), small lacquer cases containing perfumes hung from a clasp on the kimono. The container for today's ‘Opium’ brand perfume was inspired by one of these. An incense-stick clock changed its scent as time passed, but also dropped a brass ball in case no one was paying attention. A more sophisticated clock announced the time according to the chimney from which the fragrant smoke issued. Geisha girls calculated the cost of their services according to how many sticks of incense had been consumed. (Keville, Green)


University of Pennsylvania #1
All text © 1995, 1996 by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Shahnaz Husain Cosmetics – India

Cosmetics and Perfumes, Egypt, 10,000 BCE by Mindy Cohen, 1999

ED 370 Dakota State University

Constituting an Adorned Female Body from Pandora to Livy's Lex Oppia by Rebecca Resinski

Eyeliner, Egypt, 4000 BCE by Kelly Buffington

Carnegie Museum

Clothes, Cosmetics & Jewels by Ali Brand

Cosmetic Items by Mark T. Rigby

University of Pennsylvania #2

Portland State University

University of Pennsylvania #3

The History of the Schism Between Ancient Perfumery and Its Modern-Day Counterparts by Raed Rady

A History of Fragrance ©1995 Kathi Keville and Mindy Green

Period Cosmetics or How to be a Bona-fide Byzantine Belle by Gwendolyn Merch Llewelyn