Makeup and cosmetics played an important role in ancient Egyptian society. Evidence shows that both men and women in Egypt wore eye makeup, known as kohl. Kohl was the most common type of makeup used in ancient Egypt. It was applied around the eyes to create a dramatic look.
What is Kohl?
Kohl is a dark powder that was used predominantly as eye makeup in ancient Egypt. It was made from various ingredients such as ashes, burnt almonds, oxidized copper, different lead ores, ochre, and chrysocolla (a blue-green copper ore). The ingredients would be ground into a fine powder and then mixed with substances like oil or animal fat to create a paste-like texture that could be applied around the eyes.
Kohl served both cosmetic and practical purposes. The cosmetic purpose was to create striking eye makeup that was fashionable for both men and women. It gave a almond eye shape and exaggerated look to the eyes. From a practical perspective, it helped protect the eyes from sunlight and repel flies.
How was Kohl applied?
Kohl was applied by dipping a small stick made of wood, bone or ivory into the paste and then applying it along the edges of the eyelids. It was applied to both the upper and lower eyelids. The kohl stick was known as a mesmerea or kohl stick. It was often elaborately decorated and made from materials like hippopotamus ivory and dogwood.
To apply the kohl, the mesmerea stick would be dipped into a container or palette of kohl powder that had been mixed with a liquid like oil. The stick would pick up the paste and could then be applied along the rims of the eyes. Some depictions show ancient Egyptians blowing kohl lightly over the eyes once applied to help set it in place.
Kohl was usually applied quite thickly and with an almond shape flicking up at the outer corner of the eyes. While both men and women wore the dramatic eye makeup, women tended to apply kohl more heavily. Different colors of kohl were sometimes layered on top of each other for effect.
Types of Kohl
There were a few different varieties and sources for kohl used in ancient Egypt:
- Galena – A natural mineral that contains lead. It was crushed into a gray/black powder to make one of the most common forms of kohl.
- Malachite – A bright green copper mineral that was ground into a powder and used to make a green eye makeup.
- Ochre – Clays tinted with earth pigments like iron oxide that produced yellow or red ochre powders.
- Soot/Lamp black – Sometimes soot or lamp black made from burned oils would be mixed into kohl preparations.
- Burnt almonds – Almonds could be roasted over fire then ground into a powder to make kohl.
Galena and malachite were the most commonly used ingredients. The lead and copper ores provided intense, vivid pigments that stayed on well when applied as eye makeup. Using purely soot or burnt oils produced a weaker black pigment.
Importance and Meaning
Kohl eye makeup was very important in ancient Egyptian society and culture. It held symbolic meaning as well as aesthetic value:
- Both men and women wore it for beauty and style.
- It was believed to have magical and medicinal powers to protect the eyes from disease and environmental hazards like sun glare and dust.
- Applying kohl was thought to imbue the wearer with the strength and power of the gods Horus and Ra who were associated with the powerful eye.
- The dramatic appearance linked people to ancient Egyptians gods and rituals.
- Wearing thick, dark kohl eye makeup was fashionable and a sign of social status and wealth.
Kohl was so important that both men and women would continue to wear it into the afterlife. Small cosmetic pots of kohl have been found buried in tombs throughout Egypt.
While ingredients varied, the basic process for making kohl eye makeup was fairly consistent in ancient Egypt. The steps were:
- Obtain the desired ingredients. Popular choices were galena, malachite, ochre or burnt almonds.
- Wash the ingredients thoroughly to purify and clean.
- Grind the dry ingredients into a very fine powder using a mortar and pestle.
- Sift the powder through a fine cloth or strainer to remove clumps.
- Mix the powder with a liquid like water, oil or animal fat to form a thick paste.
- Additional ingredients like soot or ochre could be added for color.
- Store the kohl paste in a container ready for application.
Making good quality kohl took skill and practice. Skilled artisans and chemists determined the ideal recipes and ingredients to create eye makeup with the right consistency and color. High status individuals would have custom kohl made just for them by master kohl makers.
Controversy Over Lead Content
The potential risks from lead in ancient kohl has been a source of debate between archaeologists and historians. On one hand, many believe using lead-based galena in kohl resulted in lead poisoning that caused health problems.
However, others argue there is limited evidence that ancient Egyptians suffered specifically from lead poisoning. The counter arguments include:
- The black powder from galena contains relatively low levels of lead once processed.
- Kohl was dried into a powder rather than used wet, reducing absorption.
- The eyelids absorb minimal amounts compared to ingesting lead.
- Egyptian medical texts hardly mention lead poisoning.
- Mummies don’t necessarily show higher lead levels.
The amount of lead exposure from kohl is still unclear. But it’s likely ancient Egyptians were unaware of any potential risks from lead-based kohl recipes.
Decline of Kohl Use
The use of kohl as a prominent eye makeup declined after the ancient Egyptian era. A few key reasons contributed to this:
- Loss of traditional kohl manufacturing skills and knowledge.
- Changing fashions and makeup styles in Egypt and the Roman empire.
- Concerns over toxicity from lead-based kohl.
- Religious and cultural shifts away from strong eye makeup looks.
- The expense and effort to produce high quality kohl.
However, versions of kohl continued to be used in the Middle East and North Africa. Traditional kohl recipes are still made today, though often without the toxic lead content.
Kohl was the quintessential eye makeup of ancient Egypt. Both men and women boldly lined their eyes with black and green kohl powders to create striking looks. Kohl also held deeply symbolic meaning and was believed to ward off the Evil Eye.
Ancient kohl recipes relied on galena, malachite, ochre and burnt oils as ingredients. While the lead content may have posed risks, kohl was an essential part of beauty and culture in Egyptian society for thousands of years. The dramatic kohl eye makeup became an iconic symbol of ancient Egypt still recognized today.