Ancient Egyptian Eye Makeup Doubled As Germ Protector But Was Poisonous

Ancient Egyptian Eye Makeup Doubled As Germ Protector But Was Poisonous

(Read the article on one page)

It’s sort of like the evil eye, but in reverse: the good eye, brought on by an application of lead-based kohl makeup that was unknowingly poisonous to ancient Egyptians but also had anti-microbial properties. Plus there was the magical aspect of invoking the gods Horus and Ra with an application of the black makeup and further protective properties.

In ancient Egypt, as modern archaeologists and Egyptologists can tell you, people from all classes, from laborers to royalty, applied kohl to their eyes. But this phenomenon of thick, black makeup has been known worldwide, and people still apply it in North Africa and Central Asia, says an article about the practice on Discovery.com.

A man and his granddaughter in India with kohl around her eyes. Scholars are concerned about the presence of lead in today’s eyeliner in some regions of the world. This thick, black makeup also had lead in it in ancient times, but the ancients still may have benefited somewhat from antimicrobial properties of the beautifier. ( Wikimedia Commons photo /Jorge Royan)

The components of kohl in Egypt were many and some quite rare and expensive, Discovery says. The main ingredient was galena or lead sulfide, a metallic mineral. Presumably for the rich it also had ground, precious gems, including rubies, emeralds and pearls. It also contained silver and gold, coral and the substance known today primarily as an incense, frankincense (see this story on Ancient Origins for an exploration of the euphoric and ritual properties of frankincense). It also contained medicinal herbs of neem, saffron and fennel.

The ancients then diluted all these substances with liquids that made them more applicable to the eye, including water, milk, animal fats and oil.

A bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti, shown with kohl around here eyes.

A bust of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti, shown with kohl around here eyes. ( alberto a.s. / flickr )

According to Discovery, kohl was present in more around the world than just ancient Egypt:

Kohl’s vast presence throughout history and across the globe testifies to its cultural, social, and hygienic purchase and evidence for its usage has been unearthed at the sites of ancient civilizations across North Africa, Central Asia, the Mediterranean and East Asia (2). It’s an incredibly old product, having been present since the Bronze Age (3500-1100 BC) and it’s usage has even been alluded to in the Old Testament, with two allusions at Kings II 9:30 and Ezekiel 23:40 to “painted eyes”.

Different people called it by different names. Arabs and people in modern Egypt still call it kohl, while ancient Romans and Greeks called it kollurion and modern Indo-Pakistanis name it surma.

Knowridge Science Report says that some samples of the complex chemical from 52 ancient kohl containers underwent examination by French scholars in 2010. They found four types of lead, including galena and laurionite. Neither the laurionite nor another lead chloride, phosgenite, occur naturally in Egypt. This means they were brought in for the manufacture of lead oxide and kohl, Discovery says. The French researchers’ paper says this may have been the “the first known example of a large scale chemical process.”

An old kohl bottle from Tunisia

An old kohl bottle from Tunisia ( Wikimedia Commons photo /Bacimov Nefzi)

These types of lead compounds (and other types of heavy metals) often are found in today’s eyeliners in North Africa and Central Asia, which may lead to lead poisoning. “This is particularly a serious issue with young children sporting the cosmetic as protection against the evil eye, as they are more likely to engage in hand-to-mouth behavior while learning about their environment,” says Discovery.

In ancient times lead was not known as a poison. But even with it present in kohl, the makeup gave the antibacterial protection and also may have reduced cataracts, blindness and ocular scarring by way of activating an immune response and killing bad bacteria to prevent infections.

Galena lead

Galena lead (Wikimedia Commons photo /Ra’ike)

The knowledge of ancient Egyptians and their salves, ointments and makeup were considered so advanced that we got our word for chemistry from them. Says a story on the American Chemical Society website about the French researchers’ work:

“It is no wonder that kemej, the Egyptian word that referred to the Egyptian land and to the black earth of the Nile valley, was handed to us via the Greeks and then the Arabs to eventually coin our present chemistry.”

Top image: Ancient Egyptian funerary mask Louvre ( CC by SA 3.0 / Janmad )

By Mark Miller

Comments

Thank you for an interesting article. I had a vague idea about ancient Egyotian eyemakeup but I never knew any details. Also, thank you for the links. I truely enjoyed reading them. Great article

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

“Lord Rama got fed up with asking a non-responding Varuna (God of the oceans) to help him and took up the Brahmastra.” (Fair Use) Ram Setu – a natural phenomenon or perhaps a manmade bridge built to save a queen?
Built by a king and his army to save a queen from the clutches of a rival? Or maybe a bridge to a land which led Adam to his atonement? While both of these ideas are far-fetched, current research suggests the Ram Setu link between India and Sri Lanka is not natural as most people have been told to believe, but is a man-made bridge which is thousands of years old.

Human Origins

Map of sites and postulated migratory pathways associated with modern humans dispersing across Asia during the Late Pleistocene.
Most people are now familiar with the traditional "Out of Africa" model: modern humans evolved in Africa and then dispersed across Asia and reached Australia in a single wave about 60,000 years ago. However, technological advances in DNA analysis and other fossil identification techniques, as well as an emphasis on multidisciplinary research

Ancient Technology

Ancient Places

Pictorial representation of Pyramid in Teuchitlán Guachimontones Museum.
Guachimontones (known alternatively as Huachimontones) is an archaeological site located in the western Mexican state of Jalisco. This is an important site of the Teuchitlan tradition, which was a pre-Columbian complex society that flourished in the western part of Mexico (occupying territories in the modern Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit).

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article