They say that ancient Egypt was the place where magic was born. We cannot know that for sure, but it is not surprising that the civilization that created the mystical pyramids and the Sphinx, which still stirs our imagination and arouses admiration, was the ancestral home of perfume. Perfumes, just like magic, were somewhere between this and the other world, a way of communicating with the gods and fulfilling earthly desires. As the name of the famous Hermes perfume Un Jardin Sur le Nile suggests, welcome to the Garden of the Nile, the holy place where our common passion arose. In this article, I will guide you through the beginning of the history of perfume – Ancient Egypt.
Queen Cleopatra was well acquainted with the attractive and aphrodisiac power of fragrances. The famous seductress, sailing towards Rome, soaked the sails of her ship with the fragrant essences of rose and jasmine so that their intoxicating scent would travel and enchant Mark Antony, even before she sailed into the port. Shakespeare says that even the winds fell in love with her beauty and enchanting scent.
But perfumes played a far bigger role in Egypt than seduction itself. Some would even say that they signified power since they were widely used in medicine, religion, and even magic. Perfumes were worn equally by men and women, and at parties, guests exchanged decorated bottles full of seductive scents. Everyone wanted perfumes from Alexandria because a few thousand years ago, Alexandria was for perfumes what Paris is today – the capital and center of the entire perfume industry.
Unlike today’s perfumes, which are based on alcohol, perfumes in ancient Egypt were based mainly on fats obtained from plants or animals, which played a role not only as carriers of odors but also as a protection of the skin from the drying heat of the desert sun and warm winds blowing through the Nile Valley.
The Egyptians first anointed their hair with aromatic ointments. A large piece of perfumed grease would be placed on top of the head or attached to a wig. During the day, under the influence of the strong sun, the fat would melt and slowly cover the wig, the smell would spread on the head, shoulders, and arms, and the skin would become shiny and smooth. The famous Egyptian queens, Cleopatra and Hatshepsut, put scents not only on their bodies, but they added them in baths, and they also refreshed their chambers with them.
The ancient Egyptians also put a lot of effort into cosmetics, and the richer kept their make-up in specially decorated boxes of marble and onyx. The recognizable Egyptian make-up around the eyes was drawn with Kayal (a black substance obtained from galenite) mixed with animal fat, to make it easier for face application. Galenite ore was processed into sticks, which were then used to draw lines around the eyes. In addition to being used for beautification, kajal protected the eyes from the bright Egyptian sun and insects. In addition, it had a religious purpose – it was used to draw the holy sign of the eye of Horus on the body, which was believed to provide divine protection. It was also believed that make-up had a magical and healing effect, as well as that it could repair weakened eyesight. Malachite powder, a green mineral, was also used as an eye shadow. Powder blush was made from iron oxide, while lipstick was created by adding animal fat or resin to iron’s red powder.
The Egyptian gods were fragrant beings, each with a matching scent, and priests in the temples smeared their statues with perfumes to invoke and appease them. The most famous concoction, Kyphi was always made of 16 ingredients, according to a legend about the god Osiris was killed and dismembered into 16 parts by his brother Seth. For Osiris to come back to life, it was necessary to reassemble the 16 lost parts, carefully and methodically, just as the perfumes were made.
Egyptian mythology glorifies the god Nefertem as the lord of perfumes. On the preserved records it can often be seen that Nefertem wears water lilies (Nymphaea), which were an obligatory ingredient of the perfumes of that time. It is known from ancient writings about medicinal herbs that Hatshepsut was the first female pharaoh to bring the myrrh tree (Commiphora myrrha) from Punta (present part of Ethiopia) to Egypt, which gives a fragrant resin known as myrrh. Apart from making perfume, priests-doctors also used myrrh for medical purposes, primarily because of its analgesic, cytotoxic and antiparasitic properties.
In addition to making perfumes, the Egyptians were among the first to use deodorant. Recipes for deodorants were similar to perfumes, and their main purpose was to mask the smell of sweat. The world was left with a well-known formula that contained ostrich eggs, nuts, Tamarix, and turtle shell paste. Long before the discovery of roll-on deodorant, in ancient Egypt, they made balls of porridge with incense, which were kept under the armpits.
In Egypt, perfumes and ointments for body lubrication were made in laboratories within temples. In Edfu, the temple of the god Horus, numerous inscriptions on the walls shows how perfumes and ritual oils were made. One of the most famous Egyptian perfumes was Balanos, which was made in the city of Mendes, in the Nile delta, from where it was later exported to Rome. The scent was obtained from the fruit oil mixed with myrrh. It was red, thanks to the pigment obtained from the Anchus plant.
The ancient Egyptians spent a fortune on fragrances. The pharaohs organized frequent expeditions to the southern coast of Arabia and East Africa just to import incense. In the 15th century BC, Queen Hatshepsut ordered that a whole incense tree be brought to her, which was planted in specially prepared land. However, it seems that incense was not well received on Egyptian soil, because similar expeditions continued for the next 300 years. How important scents were in Egyptian culture is also shown by the fact that the trade-in incense and myrrh played a great role in international relations. Over time, as trade routes expanded, so did the range of fragrant ingredients, including exotic spices and herbs.
But not all people of the ancient world were fond of scents. In 361 BC, Agesilaus, king of Sparta, in which perfumes were strictly forbidden, visited Egypt and attended a rich banquet. He was so disgusted with his overly smelly hosts that he immediately rushed outside. His Egyptian hosts, however, considered such behavior uncivilized.
It seems that some things have not changed even after thousands of years. Even today, we, perfume lovers, consider it very uncivilized when someone dislikes perfumes. Each of us has our own Agesilaus, but that does not stop us from using perfumes like the ancient Egyptians to elevate our spirit and bring a little magic into our lives. I hope you enjoyed this little stroll through North Africa. With this, we conclude the beginning of our saga, the history of perfume in Ancient Egypt. In the next article, we travel north – to ancient Greece, where our fragrant adventure continues to flourish.
Part one – History of Perfume – Ancient Egypt
Part two – History of Perfume – Ancient Greece