Monday, June 25, 2012


An Ancient Cosmetic Case
Hello My Friend and Welcome. 

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”  — Ecclesiastes 1:9 

We can summarize the words of Solomon above in the simple conclusion that human nature has pretty much stayed the same over time. Men are men, and women are women. This is nowhere truer than in the realm of cosmetics and make-up. Cosmetics are, and were, used by women at all levels of society. Women in ancient times manicured their nails, tweezed superfluous hair, and outlined their eyes in colors including black, green, aqua, terracotta and charcoal.  

Apparently humankind’s use of cosmetics dates to pre-historic times. Neolithic burials used red ochre pigments symbolically, either to represent a return to the earth or possibly as a form of ritual rebirth, in which the color symbolized blood and the Great Goddess. About twenty years ago an exhibit related to bathing and the use of beautifying compounds in the ancient Roman Empire was held in Paris. Called The Bath and The Mirror, one of its most interesting sections contained information about 144 different powders, unguents, and other cosmetic materials that had been excavated from various sites, many reconstituted and displayed in recovered glass or ceramic containers. 

Although the definition and standards of beauty differ from age to age and across cultures, the one constant is that women have always relied upon cosmetics to enhance their attractiveness. Even the derivations of the words themselves tell us interesting things. Take, for instance, the word mascara. The modern version, by the way, was invented by Maybelline’s founder, chemist T. L. Williams, for his sister’s use. His original recipe consisted of coal dust mixed with petroleum jelly. Since petroleum jelly was called Vaseline and his sister was named Mabel, he named the resulting concoction Mabelline.   

And why is it called mascara? The Oxford English Dictionary says the word mascara probably came from a Catalan or Portuguese word meaning soot. How lovely. The word cosmetic, meanwhile, derives from the Greek kosmetike, meaning the art of dress and ornament.   

We know more about the cosmetics of Rome, Greece and Egypt than of the Jewish nation. This is not to say that women in Israel didn’t use make-up. They surely did, especially the upper classes. The area was thoroughly Hellenized and Romanized by the First Century. However, the Biblical prohibition against graven images meant that very few paintings, mosaics, frescoes or  statues depicted the human form. A great deal of our knowledge of day-to-day life in the ancient world derives from the artistry preserved in places such as Pompeii, Herculaneum, the Pyramids, Temples, and other ruins. Though no such equivalent sources exist in the ancient Jewish world, we do have the Bible as a resource. 

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 Judean kings kept them in treasure houses (2 Kings 20:13). And the Queen of Sheba brought Solomon, “camels laden with spices, gold in great quantity and precious stones.” (1 Kings 10:2). Over time the use of cosmetics became widespread among the lower classes of the population as well as among the wealthier. Despite this, make-up and cosmetics were not looked upon with favor in all quarters. When Samuel warns the Jews of the dangers of having kings, among his warnings he said, “He will take your daughters to be perfumers…” (1 Samuel 8:13) 

The basic recipe for all cosmetics is pretty much the same — a fatty base, color, and a pleasant scent. To quote a character in my novel PROMISES, “They’re nothing but a pinch of product wrapped in a pound of promise.”  

Just as T. L. Williams turned to Vaseline, the ancients relied upon such things as lanolin, a waxy, viscous fat most often derived from wool, tallow, beef fat, or lard, rendered pork fat. Before the development of synthetics in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, modern cosmetics used the same things. Lanolin had the disadvantage of having a distinctively sheepish smell. Both tallow and lard would keep for long periods of time without refrigeration if stored in air-tight containers. Exposed to oxygen in the air, they quickly grow rancid. 

Once a base was chosen, color and scent were added. The colors used in kohl, or eye shadow, were mostly mineral based. Such materials were crushed to a fine powder and blended into the base. Stibium (antimony), Fulgio (lampblack- fine black soot), or Plumbum nigrum (black lead) where used to achieve a black paste. Greens came from copper oxide or Malachite, copper carbonate. Blues were derived from Azurite, hydrated, or weathered, copper ore. For reds they turned to iron oxide (rust). The earth pigment ochre was also used. A clay mineral, ochre is found in red, yellow, brown, purple or gold.   

Ancient cosmeticians used a substance called Fuco (red algae) from the mulberry plant. Cinnabar, mercury sulfide, was also used for lipsticks. The consistency of the material could be moderated by the addition of waxes obtained from honey comb or palm leaves, giving it smooth, creamy texture. 

Facial masks were made from lentils, honey, barley, lupine (any of a number of leguminous plants which bear tall clusters of flowers), or fennel. Animal byproducts such as various internal organs or the placenta, marrow, genitalia, or gonads of birds, mice, crocodile, calves, cows, bull, mules and horses were added for vigor and skin tone.  

For skin emollients they turned to vegetable oils, such as olive oil, almond oil, sesame oil and others. Fragrant resins and/or extracts of aromatic flowers were added to give them a sweet scent. Plant essences were obtained by chopping and pressing the leaves, roots, petals and flowers, then steeping them in hot oil. The essence of rose petals (Rhodium) was produced mainly in the town of Palestrina along the outskirts of Rome. Various species of lilies were also used. Myrtle and laurel (Mirtum and Susinum), Melinon extracted from Quince and Iasminum was extracted from jasmine. Aromatic resins exuded from certain trees — myrrh, frankincense, balm, balsam were collected as well.  

These essences and scented oils could be added to a bath or applied to the body as perfume. Returning to the Jewish world and Jerusalem for a moment, we find references in the Talmud to perfume dealers who had shops in the market where scents and cosmetics for women were sold. Known as The Street of the Perfumers, this area still exists today as a narrow street in the marketplace in the Old City of Jerusalem. 

The ancient Romans were as beauty-obsessed as any modern society. They studied plants and minerals for their cosmetic properties. Many Roman noble women owned cosmetic cases, which archaeologists have uncovered. These wooden beauty boxes contained the same items you would probably find if you emptied most modern women's purses…a variety of lipsticks and eye make-ups along with rouge, powders and a foundation for covering skin blemishes, freckles and other imperfections.  

By the time of Christ there was a far flung and highly profitable industry devoted to gathering, preparing, packaging, and transporting the raw materials and specialized ingredients used in the manufacture of various cosmetics. Although called The Spice Route, the income derived from aromatic plants, balms, essences and the like rivaled that earned from the sale of medicinal and flavoring items. As the Early Church grew and spread throughout the Roman Empire, its focus on the life of the spirit, and rejection of earthly or bodily pleasures, led to a general decline, but not the elimination, of the use cosmetics and perfumes. 

Until next time, we wish you Peace and Blessings. 

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