Volume 9, March 2005, Section V051

Perfumes and Cosmetics in the Biblical World

Norman A. Rubin
Journalist, Independent Scholar

Perfumes"This will be the manner of the Kings... he will take your daughters for perfumers..." (I Sam 8:13-14)

Since cosmetics and perfumes are still in wide use today, it is interesting to compare the attitudes, customs and beliefs related to them in ancient times to those of our own day and age. Cosmetics and perfumes have been popular since the dawn of civilization; it is shown by the discovery of a great deal of pertinent archeological material, dating from the third millennium BC. - mosaics, glass perfume flasks, stone vessels, ovens, cooking-pots, clay jars, etc., some inscribed by the hand of the artisan. Evidence also appears in the Bible, the Talmud (1) and other classical writings, where it is written that spices and perfumes were prestigious products known throughout the ancient world and coveted by kings and princes. The written and pictorial descriptions, as well as archaeological finds, all show how important body care and aesthetic appearance were in the lives of the ancient people. The chain of evidence spans many centuries, detailing the usage of cosmetics by various cultures from the earliest period of recorded history.

In antiquity, however, at least in the onset, cosmetics served in religious ceremony and for healing purposes. "Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him.. " (I Sam 16:13).  Cosmetics were also connected with cultic worship and witchcraft: To appease the various gods, fragrant ointments were applied to the statuary images and even to their attendants. From this, in the course of time, developed the custom of personal use, to enhance the beauty of the face and the body, and to conceal defects.

Perfumes and fragrant spices were a precious commodity in antiquity, very much in demand, and at times exceeding even silver and gold in value. Therefore they were a luxury product, used mainly in the temples and in the homes of the nobles and the wealthy. The Judaean kings kept them in treasure houses (2 Kings 20:13). And the Queen of Sheba brought to Solomon, "camels laden with spices, gold in great quantity and precious stones." (1 Kings 10:2,10). However, within time, the use of cosmetics became the custom of the period. The use of cosmetics became widespread among the lower classes of the population as well as among the wealthier. The peoples of the past used substances that softened the skin and they would anoint it with fragrant oils and ointments.

The unguents used for anointing the skin after bathing in past history were composed a base of vegetable oils, such as olive oil, almond oil, sesame oil and others. To these various on fixative materials were added, including milk, honey, and different salts. Fragrant resins or aromatic flowers were added to the unguents and oils to give them a sweet scent. (Today, we are fortunate to have numerous cosmetic industries that produce various scented perfumes, bath oils and soaps; all that is necessary is to enter a suitable beauty shop and chose and purchase the product that delight our senses.)

HYGIENE. In the hot dry climate of the Near East, washing the body and anointing it with oil was hygienic of the first order. The ancient Egyptians paid great attention to cleanliness and bathed daily (and often after meals); their priests were required to bathe three times a day and even to wash the statues of the gods. In Rome, going to the baths was a social occasion and a central part of everyday life. To the people of ancient Greece, bathing was considered a culture, connected in great extent to sports... and in contrast, the people of Mesopotamia washed the entire body only on festive occasions in order to approach his gods to offer a sacrifice. Despite the hostility that the ancient Israelites harbored against that the Romans, they were capable of appreciating the improvements the latter had introduced into the country, among these the baths, "How fine are the works of these peoples! They have made streets! They have erected baths!" (The historian Josephus)

Washing to all peoples in the Ancient East. In the Talmud it is said that one must wash one's hands every morning and evening before prayer (Talmud, Babyl. Shabbath, 109a)." Another custom in those ancient lands was in washing the feet. Abraham observed this custom when the three angels came to visit the hands in perfumed water upon rising and before meals was a common practice him: "Let me send for some water so that you may wash your feet.." (Gen. 18:4-5)

egyptian make-upFACIAL CARE AND MAKEUP. To the ancient peoples facial treatment was highly developed and women devoted many hours to it. They used to spread various scented creams on the face and to apply makeup in vivid and contrasting colors. An Egyptian papyrus from the 16th cent. BC contains detailed recipes to remove blemishes, wrinkles, and other signs of age. Greek and Roman women would cover their faces in the evening with a 'beauty mask' to remove blemishes, which consisted mainly of flour mixed with fragrant spices, leaving it on their face all night. The next morning they would wash it off with asses milk.

Throughout the nations in the Biblical world, the use of cosmetics by men for facial treatment was mainly restricted to the rubbing of oil all over the face (and to many parts of the body). But occasionally a facial cream or lotion was used to protect the skin against the hot rays of the sun. The very common creams used by women in the ancient Far East, particularly important in the hot climate prevalent in that area of the globe, were compounded of oils and aromatic scents. Sometimes the oil in these creams was extracted from olives, almonds, gourds, sesame, or from trees and plants; but for those of limited means, scented animal and fish fats were commonly used. (2)

THE USE OF COLOR IN THE EYES: "..painted your eyes and decked yourself with ornament." (Ezek. 23:40) Women in the ancient past commonly put color around their eyes. Besides beautification, its purpose was also medicinal as covering the sensitive skin of the lids with colored ointments prevented dryness and as protection against eye diseases: The eye-paint repelled the little flies that transmitted eye inflammations.

Egyptian women colored the upper eyelid black and the lower one green, and painted the space between the upper lid and the eyebrow grey or blue. The women of Mesopotamia favored yellows and reds. The use of kohl for painting the eyes is mentioned three times in the Bible, always with disapproval by the sages - 2 Kings, 9:30; Jeremiah 4:30; Ezekiel 23:40. In contrast, Job named one of his daughters "Keren Happukh" - "horn of eye paint" (Job 42:14).

In Ancient Israel there was a distinction used for therapeutic purposes and for facial makeup. The use of makeup was strictly codified with ancient Israelite religious practices. e.g. Since the application of kohl on the eye lids was considered labor it was forbidden on the Sabbath. The temple priests distinguished between healing which was to embellish one eye with kohl and for makeup for embellishing two eyes.  In Talmudic sources there is mentioned the use of dyes of blue-black (kalal) for the eyes, "These are permitted in woman's adornments: she treats her eyes with kohl.." (Talmud, Babyl. Moed Kattan 9b)

The colors used in 'kohl' or eye cosmetics were minerally based: black often being made from lead sulfate, greens and blues from copper oxide, and reds from iron oxide. Such materials were crushed to powder and mixed in a preservative oil base, with addition of fragrance.

The paint was applied either with fingers or with a stylized spatula.  In the language of the Mishnah, the stick, usually made of bronze, was thickened at one end, for applying the paint - the 'male' end, while the other, the 'female' end was shaped in a little spoon or spatula and used to extract the paint from the container. (3) "A kohl stick that has lost its ear spoon is susceptible to uncleanness because of its point (the male part)." (Misnah, Kelim 13:2)

HAIR AND HAIR STYLES. Great importance was attached to the care of hair (4) in ancient times. Long hair was always considered a mark of beauty, and kings, nobles and dignitaries grew their hair long and kept it well-groomed and cared for. Women, devoted much time to the style of the hair; while not cutting, they would apply much care to it by arranging it skillfully in plaits and 'building it up' sometimes with help of wigs.

Egyptian women generally wore their hair flowing down to their shoulders or even longer: In the New Kingdom art, women are usually shown wearing their hair long or plaited, falling down to their shoulders and parted in the middle. In Mesopotamia, women cherished long hair as part of their beauty, and in art are seen with hair flowing down their backs in a thick plait and tied with a ribbon. Assyrian women wore their hair shorter, braiding and binding them in a bun at the back. In Ancient Israel brides would wear their hair long on the wedding day as a sign of their virginity. Ordinary people and slaves usually wore their hair short, mainly for hygienic reasons, since they could not afford to invest in the kind of treatment that long hair required. Thus, for the majority, the care of the hair was of special importance, especially in keeping it free from vermin. It was therefore was continuously washed, anointed, combed and sometimes dyed. The hair was cut (and thinned) regularly, and the higher the person was on the social scale, the more frequently he went to the barber. Talmudic sources contains much information about barbers among the ancient Israelites, their lowly standing, and their implements. These barbers usually traded in perfumes, practiced manicure and pedicure, and sometimes were called for medical functions. Whereas in Mesopotamia, hairdressers constituted an important and respected class, and were organized in a guild: They also performed needed medical functions in treating wounds and ailments (and shaving lepers so that they can be recognized from afar).

BottlesPERFUME PRODUCTION. In the Biblical world, perfumes, ointments and spices were a precious commodity, very much in demand; their production and preparation laborious which required great skill. Their high standing, and the great regard in which they were held, are reflected in the saying in the Talmud, "Happy is he whose craft is that of a perfume maker." Many of the scented plants that were used in the production of perfumes, cosmetics and ointments in that era are mentioned in the passages of the Bible. In the Song of Songs 4: 14. there is a listing of scented plants, "Spikenhard and saffron, sweet cane and cinnamon with every incense bearing tree, myrrh and aloes.", and in the Song of Songs 1: 13-14, Ein Gedi is mentioned as a center of perfume production, "Henna blossoms from the vineyards of Ein Gedi".

From the ancient sources we learn about the uses of perfume and scented ointments, but from them there is little information about their production. Mycenean tablets list the raw materials required,  but contain no precise recipes or formules. Assyrian records in the second half of the 13th cent. BC do contain recipes in the preparation of perfumes, as well as the ingredients and tools. The knowledge about perfume production in Egypt comes from inscriptions on papyri and on walls of tombs. During the Temple period in Ancient Israel there were families, who specialized in the preparation of perfumes and spice, "And some of the sons of the priests made the ointment of the spices." (1 Chronicles 9:30).

The most comprehensive information about perfume production in antiquity has come from classical writer. Theophratus (4-3 cent. BC), in his work, 'De Odoribus', describes the various properties of various oils and spices in the production of perfumes and scented ointments, even describing their scent. Dioscorides (1st Cent. AD) in his 'De Materia Medica' discusses the components and their medical properties, and lists detailed formulas. Pliny the Elder, in his 'Naturalis Historia' describes aromatic plants and areas where they are grown. Even a pictorial depiction of the production of perfume has survived - in a wall painting in the Vetii villa at Pompeii: Cupids and Phyches are shown in detailed movement as they carry out the various processes of perfume production.

In the production of perfumes, diferent parts of the plants were used - flowers leaves, branches, fruits and aromatic resins exuded from certain trees - myrrh, frankincense, balm, balsam, etc.. The first stage of production was chopping the plants, followed by pressing - then the plant material was seeped in cold and hot oil, which absorbed the aromatic materials. Most of the perfumes in the ancient world had an oil base: The Israelites mainly used olive oil; in Mesopotamia it was sesame oil; in Ancient Greece it was linseed oil; while the Egyptians used mostly animal fats.

The finished product was kept in a cool and shady place in alabaster (or lead) containers, which kept the contents cool. The ingredients were left standing for a period of four days. Finally the mixture was boiled once more, and after cooling it was strained and decanted into small flasks. (5)

THE TRADE IN PERFUMES, OINTMENTS AND SPICES. It is known that the Egyptian Queen Hatsheput (15th cent BC) sent a royal expedition to the Land of Punt (Somalia) in order to bring back myrhh seedlings to plant in her temple. In Assyrian records of tribute and spoils of war, perfumes and resins are mentioned; the text from the time of Tukulti-Ninurta II (890-884 BC) refers to balls of myrhh as part of the tribute brought to the Assyrian king by the Aramaean kings. The trade in spices and perfumes is also mentioned in the Bible as written in Genesis 37:25-26, "Camels carrying gum tragacanth and balm and myrrh". From the Bible, Egyptian and Assyrian sources, as well as from the words of classical authors, it appears that that the center in the trade in aromatic resins and incense was located in the kindoms of southern Arabia, and even as far as India, where some of these precious aromatic plants were grown, "Dealers from Sheba and Rammah dealt with you, offering the choicest spices..." (6) (Ezekiel 27:22). The Nabateans functioned as the important middlemen in this trade; Palestine also served as a very important component, as the trade routes crisscrossed the country.

THE MARKETING OF COSMETICS. Talmudic literature contains a wealth of information on the marketing of cosmetics. The perfume dealers had their shops in the market where scents and cosmetics for women were usually sold - Street of the perfumers - where today there is a narrow street in the Shouk (market place) in the Old City of Jerusalem that is called in Arabic, 'Shuk ha-Besamim' 'The Street of the Spices'. According to the Temple purity laws, halistosis was a reason for a divorce. For this reason, perfume sellers sold alongside their wares specially prepared peppercorns, ginger, cinamon sticks, and various tastes of gum. It was the wife's duty to beautify herself so as to appear pleasing to her husband, "Oil and perfume bring joy to the heart." (Psalms 27:9) The 'Mishnah' decreed that a husband must give his wife ten dinars for her cosmetic needs. The sages, however, said the amount depended upon local customs. (Talmud, Ket. 66b).

Often such perfumeries could be found in ancient times near the the streets of the women plying the age-old trade; by nature of things, the harlots needed especially large quantities of perfumes, "where the demand for perfumes was great." (Shemoth Rabbah 43:7, Talmud) The moral reputation of this trade was not high, though it was considered indispensable. In the book of Ezra it was the consensus of the period that perfume peddlars should be allowed to circulate freely for this purpose. Women of ill repute, off course, made an art of painting themselves (Mishnah, Shab 34a). But, the sages forbade scholars appearing in public sprayed with scents or painted with cosmetics.

CONCLUSION. From the ancient sources we have learned about the use of perfumes and cosmetics; the materials used in their manufacture; and their methods of preparation. From the archaeological treasures and from the pages of classical literature we can now understand the popularity of cosmetics and perfumes among ancient civilizations. We will continue on the scented historical road. From the ancient East this popularity spread westward to the civilized world. Until the advent of early Christianity, scents and fragrant ointments were widely in demand but the tenets of the new faith, which stressed the life of the spirit and rejected the pleasures of the body, led to a decline in the demand for cosmetics and perfumes. Only the Arabs in the East continued to enjoy their use. In the Medieval period in Europe, cosmetics and perfumes were associated with exoticism of the East. It was only during the Renaissance period onwards, cosmetics and perfumes attained their popularity once again, mainly among the princes and princesses of aristocracy as well among their patrons and their loyal subjects of means. The scented route leads to the present day where women (as well as men) enjoy the luxury of the delicate fragrance of perfumed ointments and scents. "Wash and anoint yourself and put on your raiment." (Ruth 3:3)

(1) TALMUD - The collection of Jewish law and tradition consisting of the Mishnah and Gemara. The MISHNAH is a collection of oral laws, whereas the GEMARA is essentially the commentary to the MISHNAH. The 'TALMUD' mentions other cosmetic dyes as rouge (sarak), purple violet (pikas), white for the face, and colorings for the hair, and toenails.

(2) The fragrant ingredients were usually of vegetable origin: The Bible mentions various plants used - "aloes, balsam, galbanum, balm, saffron, cassia, cane, cinnamon." The best-known cosmetic ointment was the precious 'basalm' which was a highly praised product of the Jericho plain, "Anthony gave Cleopatra the palm-grove at Jericho in which balsam is produced." (Josephus, The Jewish War 1:361)

(3) Applying makeup to the cheeks is also mentioned in the sources; it was customary to put light red or mauve on the cheeks, and it is possible a white powder was used (most probably scented flour). Lips were colored with a cream made of oil combined with red ocher, and nails were painted with pigments mixed with ash or beeswax.

4) Beards received the same care as hair and were occasionally dyed. During the early Babylonian period, men wore long beards. Assyrian kings were represented with square beards made of a group of ringlets.  In the First Temple period, a shaved head and beard was a sign of disgrace. Greek men wore beards, but from the time of Alexander the Great, they appeared clean-shaven. Roman men shaved their beards until the time of Emperor Hadrian who brought beards back into fashion.

(5) Since the expensive cosmetics and perfumes were used in small quantities, special containers were produced to contain the liquids and ointments - bottles and flasks of glass, stone, bone, ivory, porphyry have been uncovered in archaeological sites, some dating from the third millennium BC. Also discovered at sites were the tools for the production of cosmetics - grinding slabs, small motors, and long thin metal, ivory, bone spatulas used for mixing or applying the cosmetics.

(6) The South Arabian kingdoms' monopoly of the growth and production of incence plants and their control of transportation and trade routes brought them great wealth, so much so that in the first century  AD, the Arabians were considered the wealthiest race in the world (Pliny, Nat. His., V1:161)

1. Perfumes and Cosmetics in the Ancient World by Michal Dayagai-Mendels, catalogue Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
2. Encyclopedia Judaica edited by Ketter Press, Jerusalem.
3) The New English Bible, Oxford University Press.
4) Earliest Civilizations of the Near East by James Mellart, Thames and Hudson, London.
5) Women's Hairstyles in Ancient Art by Avshalom Zemer, curator, Haifa Museum Of Ancient Art, Israel.

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