Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Dirt on Cleopatra's Makeup


The Roman poet Lucan is like the Perez Hilton* of the ancient world: snarky, gossipy and full of dirt on the glitterati.  Take, for example, his description of Cleopatra as a “fatal beauty,” “thick” with cosmetics. 

Oh snap! The ability to complement and insult someone in the same breath was obviously a fine art way before Hollywood even had hills. Later in the same poem, Lucan breathlessly describes one of Cleopatra’s gowns as see-through. You can almost hear the ancient hisses of mock outrage and lascivious curiosity.

My point (and I do have one, I swear) is that when we talk about ancient cosmetics, we have to distinguish how the Romans perceived makeup—as a tool to enhance female beauty, versus how the Egyptians looked at it—as a religious requirement for both men and women.

Cleopatra, of course, wore makeup. Everybody in Egypt did—men, women, kings, queens, servants, children and grandparents.  Why? Because you honored the gods and called upon their protection when you anointed yourself in that way.

Unfortunately, that protection did not extend to brain damage—especially as most of the materials comprising ancient makeup were metal and lead-based. Green malachite came from copper rocks and black kohl was made from lead compounds. Yes, the ancient Egyptians applied more neurotoxins to their faces than Hollywood starlets on a Botox binge.

To apply these lead-based powders, they mixed them with—wait for it—duck fat to make a paste.  Greasy goodness, no?  Thankfully, the ochre (red dirt) that they spread on their lips and sometimes, on the souls of their feet, was mixed only with water.

Various implements such as palettes, flat-tipped styluses, and sponges were used to apply the gobs of stinking duck fat—er, I mean the gorgeous khols—to their eyes.

Modern scientists have discovered that the ancient Egyptian belief in makeup as protection from illnesses may have sprung from practical or medicinal observations. It turns out the lead salts used in kohl actually protected wearers from certain eye diseases. 

So while Cleopatra may have worn make-up—as Lucan says—to make herself into a “dangerous beauty,” more likely, she wore it because of religious traditions and a need to protect herself from common eye diseases. After all, we couldn’t have the queen of the Nile walking around with goopy eyes now, could we?


*A controversial, gossipy, sometimes cruel Hollywood blog.

14 comments:

Tracy Barrett said...

A medieval medical text from Italy supposedly (and probably) written by a woman has an extensive section on cosmetics, so the blending of the two areas lasted a long time! Some of the recipes in that are pretty gross, too.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I can only imagine, Tracy! Actually, if we dug a little deeper into what's in our cosmetics, we'd probably be grossed out too!

Carrie at In the Hammock Blog said...

how interesting!! thank you for sharing, Vicky! I also love the perez comparison :)

webmaster said...

Yes, but was there Retin-A back then? I love this post bc it's one more nail in the coffin of Cleopatra as a seductress who wielded power from her feminine wiles rather than political shrewdness and military insight.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Thanks Webmaster (I know who you are!)

Karen Strong said...

This is so interesting. Duck fat? Really? Hmm...

I see there were many differing views between the Egyptians and the Romans.

But I beat that see-through dress was fabulous! Ha.

H Niyazi said...

Hi Vicky!

Do we have any info on this from non-Roman sources?

H

Vicki Leon said...

Great post----and I love the gorgeous but scary eye at the top. A contrast and compare of Egyptian vs Roman is a super idea! will coiffures be next?

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Vicki--I probably won't write about hair again since I posted on Egyptian wigs a while ago. But good lord, those awful Roman coiffures need a good smack-down, don't you think?

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Hasan, there are many Egyptian sources for the use of makeup, including instructions on the consequences of daring to meet the gods (at their temples or at death) without being properly "painted." And, as you can imagine, these consequences were not good! So while I don't doubt the Egyptians used makeup to enhance their attractiveness, both men and women used it initially to honor the gods...

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Hi Karen. Yeah the see through dress must have been fabulous! And girlfriend could have pulled it off too since she was only in her early 20;s when she met the big "C."

Carrie, I'm glad you like the Perez comparison--I'm kind of waiting for a stuffy classicist to get all outraged on me for that! ;-)

a.k.a. "e" said...

Maybe we should do this for Halloween (with modern products). It's gorgeous! :) e

H Niyazi said...

Cheers for the info Vicky!

I know we have spoken about HBOs Rome before - but did you notice that when some of the Roman male characters were in Egypt they 'went native' and wore eyeliner.. I thought that was an interesting touch - though not sure about its veracity. eg. Would Antony have worn Egyptian makeup when he was Cleo's consort??

H

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Hasan, my guess is that Antony did not wear the Egyptian makeup because if he had, you can bet his anti-Antony enemies would have been ALL over that to discredit him. Occasionally, he dressed up as Dionysus and I think I read somewhere that he dressed as Herakles because--supposedly, his family descended from Herakles' (Hercules) son, Anton...