Tomb paintings, statues, documents and various artefacts such as kohl tubes, unguent jars and a myriad of make-up containers attest to the widespread use of cosmetics and make-up in Ancient Egypt. Whole chapters and books (especially Lise Manniche’s Sacred Luxuries, a book I will quote from in this post) have been written about this subject.
However I will focus on the ritual/magical use of make-up in Ancient Egypt, in particular eyepaint.
Eye make-up for ritual and magical use is present both in magic for the living and magic for the dead (funerary magic) – especially in the preparation of the body during mummification, and is mentioned in the Book of the Dead.
The ancient Egyptians had two type of eyepaints available: green and black. (Interestingly enough, these are both colours with heavy symbolism attached to them.)*
Green eyepaint was made from malachite, a green carbonate of copper which is found on the surface of copper deposits in Sinai and the Eastern desert. It was used by the Egyptians in the fourth millenium and until the end of the New Kingdom. (1)
Black eyepaint was usually based on galena, a dark grey ore of lead which could easily be extracted from a number of localities in Upper Egypt between Quseir and the Red Sea as well as near Aswan. (2)
Ritual make-up for magic for the living
This we can split into these categories: ritual purity (both in daily cult temple activities and specific magic preparations), magical protection (due to its connections to the Eye of Horus – which is depicted as a fully made-up eye - returned to full health and the Solar Eye – which is personified by various Goddesses – such as Hathor, Sekhmet and Bast, [magical] medicine and offerings.
For ritual purity:
I have actually mentioned this before in this post on ritual purity, required of priests/magicians before either temple activities or various acts of magic. References to this ritual purity requirement are many and are especially found in magical papyri such as the Greek Magical Papyri.
Applying eyepaint was also required as a magical gesture during certain spells/rituals, such as this one:
PGM V 54-69 *Direct vision spell:
In a bronze cup over oil. Anoint / your right eye with water from a shipwreck and the left with Coptic eyepaint, with the same water. If you cannot find water from a shipwreck, then from a sunken skiff. (3) (note: eyepaints usually came in powder form, requiring a wet medium such as water, oil or fat to be applied)
For magical protection:
Applying eyepaint was considered to have more than cosmetic value on a day to day basis. It was believed to ward off eye infections and offer magical protection to the eyes against damage and disease.
For magical medicine:
Eye concoctions containing eyepaint (mostly the black one, but also the green was used) are listed in medical and magical papyri as medicines for eye infections or blindness. Usually a mix of eyepaint and animal fats and plant materials are prescribed, together with specific prayers, chants or spells to cure the condition:
The medical papyri contain numerous prescriptions for combatting a variety of eye ailments. Many are in the form of ointments, and some are specifically called cosmetics remedies. Both black and green eyepaint enters into the remedies, mixed with fatty matter, honey and minerals. (4)
Eyepaint was an accepted (and expected offering) to the Gods. During the morning temple ritual when the statue of the God or Goddess was tended with clothing, perfume, food and jewels, eyepaint was also present in the form of offering along with the rest:
Applying eyepaint was part of the daily cult ritual, either as virtual make-up or in the form of a symbolic offering. It is less well known that offerings in the form of live cows would also wear make-up. [...] If the deity itself is in the shape of a cow, such as Hathor in one of her manifestations, her eye, too, will be shown as a fully made-up eye. (5)
Ritual make-up for magic for the dead (funerary magic)
As stated before, this was both part of the mummification process and is mentioned in the spells and instructions of the Book of the Dead. The mummy had to be ritually pure, of course, and the applying of the eye make-up was to this purpose (obviously along with its aesthetic purpose).
Such eyepaint was an essential tool in the process of justification and resurrection of a deceased person. Before presenting himself at the tribunal in the ‘Hall of Justice’ the candidate must purify himself, dress in white garments, make up his eyes and anoint himself. Only then may he enter the realm of Osiris. (6)
Rubric to spell 1 in the Book of the Dead:
The correct procedure in this Hall of Justice. One shall utter this spell pure and clean and clad in white garments and sandals, painted with black eye-paint and anointed with myrrh. [...], and he shall be in the suite of Osiris. A matter a million times true. (7)
I personally use ritual eye make-up while preparing for certain works of heka, I use mainly black eye pencils or liners. I’m not adept at applying it, in fact I tend to draw very unsure lines but making it look all nice isn’t the point, the point is that I try to keep in line with ritual purity requirements. I’m sure other Kemetics use eye make-up for ritual purposes (leave a comment!), of one I know for sure, because she mentioned it here.
I haven’t made any offerings of eye make-up yet because even if it’s such as good idea and it keeps in line with ancient practices, it hasn’t been required. Which is not to say that in the future it won’t be asked of me.
Thankfully nowadays there’s plenty of choice when it comes to it: liquid eye liners, gel eye liners, eyeshadows, pencils….
* On the symbolism of colour you could read up on it on the Shadows of the Sun blog or in an older blog post of mine.
(1) Lise Manniche Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt pg. 136
(2)Lise Manniche Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt pg. 136
(3) Hans Dieter Betz The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells, second edition, pg. 102
(4) Lise Manniche Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, pg. 137
(5) Lise Manniche Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, pg. 137
(6) Lise Manniche Sacred Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy & Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, pg. 136-137
(7) R. O. Faulkner The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, British Museum, pg. 33-34