RA Egyptian has funded the original research you'll find below on topics related to ancient Egyptian beauty, perfumes and aesthetics.
1. Perfume and personal appearance in ancient Egypt
by Egyptologist Dora Goldsmith
Cleanliness and personal hygiene were highly regarded by the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians associated having the smell of perfume and being dressed in fresh garments with the mode of civilized life. The residential quarters at the city of Amarna brought to light that most private houses were equipped with a bath – only the simplest homes lacked this facility. A pleasant body smell was of utmost importance in the hot climate of Egypt, therefore perfumes were much in demand. Recipes to repel body odor and to enhance personal appeal were recorded in medical papyri.
“Remedy to eliminate stench in the summer: frankincense, ibw-plant, juniper berries and myrrh are made into one mixture to be used as ointment.”
The fragrant remedies of the ancient Egyptians were famous throughout the entire ancient world. As the distillation of alcohol was not known until the 4thc. BC, sweet scents were created either through smoke by burning fragrant resins, barks and herbs (thus the origin of the word ‘perfume’ from per fumum ‘through smoke’) or through maceration by steeping resins, flowers, herbs, spices and wood in wine, animal fat and vegetable oil. Through their antifungal and antibacterial properties, resins, barks and herbs killed microorganisms, eliminating body odor and providing for soft and fragrant skin.
That scented unguents and oils were widely available in ancient Egyptian society is demonstrated by the fact that they served as a payment for work. While on a strike during the time of Ramesses III, the workers of the city of the dead of Thebes complained:
“We have come here because we are hungry and thirsty. We have no clothing, no unguents, no fish and no vegetables.”
(Strike papyrus, Museo Egizio (1824) C1880, Turin)
Nevertheless, there is evidence for an olfactory hierarchy in ancient Egypt. Written sources reveal that the different social strata did not partake in the same fragrances. We learn from The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sagethat myrrh, for example, was not available for the lower classes. The Admonitions describes the First Intermediate Period, a time of crisis, when the order of the world turns upside down. At such a time, the lower social strata, who are normally entitled to receive only certain smells, can partake in higher levels of olfactory sensation. Thus, at the time of chaos, the hierarchy of scents reverses, which is presented in the text as a highly crucial matter.
“See, the baldhead, who lacked oil, has become owner of jars of sweet myrrh.”
(The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage)
A pleasant scent belonged to a person’s aura. The personal name Sn(.t) sTi ‘Encircled by Scent’, popular for both men and women and at the end of the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period, attests to the notion that one’s scent is inseparable from their personal appearance. Several written records preserve the memory of queens entering the hall of the palace, inevitably filling it with their fragrance.
“The one who fills the hall with the smell of her perfume.”
(Barque of Queen Mutemwia, British Museum EA43, London)
Visual and olfactory aesthetics belonged together in the ancient Egyptian ideal of beauty. When mirrors are offered to Hathor in her temple at Dendera, first the goddess observes the form of her lips and the glow of her face in the mirror, then she perceives the scent of the summer lotus under her nose. Mirrors in Egyptian are called ‘that which reveals the face’. Smell was such an important element of one’s overall appearance that even mirrors were thought to reflect it.
“Offering mirrors. I receive the disk. I hold the mirror. I present (it) in front of your ka. You see your countenance. Your heart is glad. Your mouth rejoices in its form. Your face glows. Your lips are sweet. The scent of the summer lotus is for your nostrils.”
(Dendera VI, 22, 1-3)
The Egyptians described scent as an adornment or decoration, enhancing one’s physical appearance. A temple inscription from Dendera calls Hathor’s perfume her jewelry. The goddess’ scent moves with her, just as jewelry moves with the body.
“Words to be spoken by Hathor the great, mistress of Iunet, the Eye of Ra, divine female falcon, mistress of Punt, the sweet-smelling one amongst the goddesses. The fragrance of her jewelry (comes) from the laboratory. Words to be spoken: This goddess, the noble one of Punt, mistress of the land of the god, whose perfume reaches both the lands and the rivers, whose scent fills the shrines. How pleasant is her scent! How pleasant is her scent!”
(Dendera IV, 70, 1-10)
Ancient Egyptian love poems teach us that being attractive required having pleasant, fragrant skin. A young lad’s skin is compared to the mandragora, which was a popular fruit used in floral garlands for its sweet smell and sniffed during banquets and lovemaking for its aphrodisiac properties.
“Your form is the form of a (royal) youth. Your scent is the scent of [Punt]. Your skin is like the mandragora.”
(A Hymn to Ramesses IV or V, oHermitage 1125)
The smell of hair was a matter of great importance. Sweet-smelling hair formed a substantial part of the ancient Egyptians’ aspiration for a perfect physical appearance. Unguent cones and lotus flowers were placed on the head during banquets and other special occasions to make one’s hair fragrant. The exact ingredients of perfume cones remain unknown. Based on the current state of research, it can be concluded that they were made out of redolent flowers and herbs steeped in animal fat and formed into a cone. Throughout the day, the unguent cone would melt, dripping on its wearer’s hair, body and clothing, while emitting a pleasant aroma. Written evidence also indicates that hair was treated with scented oils, such as myrrh and lotus oil.
“Presenting twin gold vessels of myrrh and lotus. Words to be spoken: I am carrying twin gold vessels filled with myrrh, provided with its ingredients (?) cast of gold by the ba, lord of heaven. I am offering (them) to your beautiful countenance, pleasant (moringa) oil of dry, best quality myrrh, first class oil of lotus for your hair.”
(Dendera IV, 70, 1-3)
As a society extremely sensitive to smell, the ancient Egyptians made sure that their clothing was fragrant. The smell of clothing permeated with sweet-smelling oil was considered pleasant, moreover, seductive.
“My desire is to go down to bathe before you, so I may cause you [to see] my beauty, in a robe of finest royal linen, permeated with camphor oil […] [in a pool edg]ed with reeds.”
(oCairo CG 25218 + oDeM 1266)
According to the worldview of the ancient Egyptians, what was not pleasing to the nose and to the eye couldn’t have been good. The ancient Egyptian word nfr meant ‘beautiful’ and ‘good’ at the same time. However, an attractive, fragrant personal appearance embodied more than just a beauty ideal. It expressed cleanliness as opposed to dirtiness, health as opposed to disease, civilization as opposed to chaos, completeness as opposed to imperfection, justice as opposed to corruptness, and good as opposed to evil.