January 5, 2010

Hair in History: Ancient Egypt

I'm not a history buff by any stretch of the imagination, but I love history. I wasn't one for the political focus in high school, but when I moved on to art history in college, I just ate it up. Hearing and reading little tidbits here and there has spurred me to look at the way body hair figured into cultures throughout history. I thought that every now and then I could do a mini research project on a certain culture, and who knows? It might just reveal the obsession with body hair is just too deeply ingrained in our psyches... or it might put hair in a different perspective. I'm willing to see which it is.

I'm sure some of you won't be surprised that the first place I'm going is ancient Egypt. Quite obviously, they had methods of hair removal. But how, and why?

If you were to visit Egypt today, you'd find it to be a hot and generally without much rain except in the winter months. In the summer, you're looking at an average temperature between 27 °C and 32 °C in summer (or 80 °F and 90 °F), and even higher temperatures on the Red Sea coast. Where I live, 27-32 °C is a freakish and murderous heat wave worthy of lying on a tile floor and sticking popsicles down your pants. Now imagine how sand could reflect that heat back up to you. And knowing how big the ancient Egyptians were on construction, many of them had a lot of heavy work to do in all that heat.

And not only was it hot and busy (and therefore sticky and smelly), but many of them were clustered around the Nile. Where there's water, there are bugs. They lived in constant danger of things like Malaria, parasites, and lice. But according to medical texts recorded on papyrus, the ancient Egyptians apparently had an understanding of where such infections came from. They knew the value of cleanliness. Though they may have bathed several times a day, some resources said they had no soap, and others say they used a mixture of animal fat and chalk. People would be cooler, have less odour and find it easier to bathe with less hair.

From what I've read, it seems that the extent of body hair removal varied in different time periods. Depending on the time, they might have shaved it all off including their heads, or kept head hair in a short bob above the shoulders, or the women let it grow but kept it braided. Even so, they all wore wigs as they could afford them, made of a mixture of human and animal hair and sometimes plant fibres. Just like today, the quality and complexity of a person's false hair displayed their wealth. These things weren't just fashion statements, though. According to some authorities, they were also designed to keep cool and protect the head from the sun. (Could you imagine working on a pyramid all day with a bald uncovered head? Ouch!) I'm sure having a shaved head under a wig would have been less irritating, too.

Apparently men, women and children all practiced hair removal of some sort. Wealthy families could keep a barber on staff. Priests in particular had to keep themselves clean, and according to one source shaved everything ritualistically every third day, and are often depicted with bald heads as a symbol of holiness. And when you see representations of pharaohs with beards, it's possible they are wearing a false beard they could tie on under their chin. (As a kid I always wondered how they could make a real beard look like that!) As much as being hairless was a way to keep clean and cool and differentiate from the surrounding cultures and even social classes, the men still may have felt that having facial hair was a sign of maturity, masculinity, virility, and even dignity. This is still something of a mystery, however, as depictions of beards seem to come and go throughout Egypt's early history.

So how did they do it? Archeologists have uncovered many tools thanks to Egyptians burying each other with things they might want or need in their afterlife. Plenty of razors have been found, usually made of copper or bronze, so apparently hair removal was important enough to continue doing even in the next life. It has also been suggested that they used abrasion with pumice stones to remove hair. (Oww.) One website mentioned an early form of tweezers. Some websites on body sugaring (a homemade alternative to waxing) claim it was an "ancient Egyptian art," but I haven't found any scholastic resources to support that--not that I give myself days to research this stuff, mind you.

And so it appears the Egyptians were very active aestheticians. Some other interesting things:
  • They were apparently concerned about greying hair and used henna to cover this--as well as to fashionably dye hair, lips, and nails. Some sources also quote various potions to color or prevent the greys, such as donkey liver steeped in oil.
  • Men may have been worried about hair loss, too. Prescriptions may have included animal fats (from snakes and crocodiles to hippopotami and cats), and wearing lettuce on the bald spot.
  • You don't wanna know what they used for birth control.
  • Kohl, the black make-up seen under their eyes, was not just for fashion. As with football players today, it helped reduce the sun's glare.
  • Because they were evidently a fastidious people, you can bet they employed some early forms of deodorant, such as incense.

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