Evil Eyes And Bulls’ Blood: Beauty Tips From Ancient Egypt

Eye makeup to get you into paradise and skin worthy of resurrection.
Publish date:
July 16, 2013
Elizabeth Taylor, How-To, cat eyes, eyeliner, Cleopatra, Egyptian beauty

So, I came back from Ancient Rome, washed off the asses’ milk, dusted off the soot, and asked myself where (when) to turn for some more handy cosmetic advice from our forebears. As you do.

This time we’re listening to the Ancient Egyptians, since leaving them out would almost definitely provoke some sort of curse involving sandstorms and scarab beetles.

The Ancient Egyptian attitude to beauty is fascinating and multidimensional. Makeup palettes, tweezers and razors have been found in tombs, underlining the importance of cosmetic culture.

Makeup had an aesthetic purpose, but it also had spiritual and practical purposes; makeup was all things to all people, and indeed was worn by everyone, regardless of gender or class. Egyptians even applied makeup to statues of gods and goddesses.


Think of Ancient Egyptian beauty and you probably think of extended eyeliner and lashings of blue and gold. But eye makeup for the Ancient Egyptians was much more than a case of looking Ra-vishing (unapologetic).

So important was eye makeup that it was believed one could only reach the afterlife with immaculate liner.

"Before presenting himself at the Hall of Justice, the deceased must purify himself, dress in white garments, make up his eyes and anoint himself. Only then may he enter the realm of Osiris." - The Book of the Dead

The eyes had hoooooj spiritual importance. The almond shape we see in lots of Egyptian art is reminiscent of the shape of a falcon’s eye. The reason this shape was replicated is due to Horus, the falcon sky god.

Story time!

Set, god of the desert, gouged out Horus’s left eye in a fight for kingship after Osiris died. The eye grew back and Horus offered it to his pa, Osiris, thinking it might restore him to life. In this way, the eye became a symbol of life and protection, and the wearing of Horus-esque eye makeup was like a sort of cosmetic amulet, an "evil eye" to ward off bad spirits and keep the wearer safe. (Fun fact: the ancient word for "eye palette" is thought to come from the word for "protection.")

What’s even more interesting (I think!) is how the Egyptians thought this protective potency manifested. They believed that their eye makeup:

  • shielded their eyes from desert glare
  • warded off insects (kohl is a natural fly deterrent)
  • protected against eye diseases (the medical papyri frequently prescribe makeup for complaints of the eye, which were common when the Nile was flooded; it’s true that lead sulphide in kohl is a natural disinfectant.)

Pretty amazing huh? And what did they actually do to get these magic eyes?

Well, the Egyptians used any combination of black galena (kohl), and green eye paint, made of malachite. The colour green symbolised health and joy, and eternal paradise was sometimes called the "field of malachite." The Egyptian word for green (Wadj) means "to bloom," and fertility gods are depicted with green skin.

In recognition of the synchronicity of growth and decay, green was also associated with death and resurrection. During mummification, the heart was left in the body and a green heart scarab was placed over it for protection.


To protect myself from the blazing sun of North London, and so that, when my time comes, I can get into paradise, I’m going to recreate the Ancient Egyptian eye.

I’ll be using modern products, as I don’t have a way to get my grubby mitts on Egyptian galena and malachite, but I will be sticking closely to the shape of the eye of Horus, for I am a nerd.

Step 1. Start with a naked face. Like this one:

Step 2. Put on some eye primer. Your eyes are gonna need it.

I really like Avon's. I find it’s just the right consistency and colour, and really increases the time my makeup lasts (which is especially important when you’re doing makeup for the eternal afterlife).

Step 3. Build your brows up. This is important in terms of giving you a frame when doing the rest of the eye makeup. I used Rimmel Professional Eyebrow Pencil in Black Brown.

Step 4. Put some blue/green eyeshadow all over the lid, right up to the brow. I used a cream followed by a powder: Maybelline Color Tattoo in Turquoise Forever and then a turquoise shade from MUA’s 12 Shade Poptastic Palette.

Step 5. Using a black liquid or gel eyeliner (I used Maybelline), line your eyes as normal, but then take your line right into the inner tear duct, and dip it down a little so you look like Horus. Then extend the liner from the outer corner of your eye to the outer corner of your eyebrow using the edge of your shadow as a guide.

If you like, draw another line out slightly lower down, so that you can join the two and fill in the little triangle with some gold eyeshadow if you feel so inclined.

I wanted "the full Horus" (see earlier picture) so I added in the pattern beneath the eye too.


The Egyptians were hot on skincare, and knew the damage the sun could do. They found that the application of oils (in particular moringa, castor and sesame) softened their skin and kept them looking youthful.

Looking young till your dying day was a) not-that-hard when life expectancy was 40, and b) crucial, if you expected the gods to resurrect you. You had to look fresh enough to be given another go.

Creams and oils were so important that they were even given as wages sometimes. Burns were concealed with an ointment of red ochre, kohl and sycamore juice, and honey was used as a multipurpose healing trick.

Henna was used to stain lips and cheeks, paint nails and dye hair. The earliest historical evidence of henna is the traces found on the nails of mummies. Henna was also used for tattoos, which were considered erotic. Mummies of dancers from the Middle Kingdom have geometric designs, and in the New Kingdom, tattoos of the god Bes (protector of pregnant women and families) were found on the thighs of dancers and servant girls.


The higher your status, the more likely it was that you’d shave your entire head and body to lower risk of lice infestation. Only commoners kept their hair.

That’s not to say that Egyptians liked the look of a bald head. Anyone who was anyone had a wig. They were made from human and animal hair, combined with plant fibres, and came in many colours including blue, green and gold, although black was most popular. They were usually divided into three sections, two on either side and one down the back.

Wigs were scented with perfumes, and for special occasions, women would wear cones on top of them, carrying incense. The wig could also be raised on small pads to allow the scalp to stay cool. Women who were attached to their own hair were advised that at least they should enhance its shine by rubbing in a concoction of oil and the boiled blood of a black cat or bull.

Wigs were often styled with beeswax. Fascinatingly, Egyptologists at the University of Manchester, UK, have discovered "hair gel" at a burial site at the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt: a substance containing palmitic and stearic acid. The same archaeologists discovered what they believed to be "curling tongs" next to the bodies. They imagine that these instruments were used to manipulate the hair while the gel was used to set it.

Well, chaps, there are so many other wonderful things I could tell you about the Egyptians. Jeez, I haven’t even mentioned perfume! Perfume was incredibly important (all Egyptian words for enjoyment include the nose hierolyph). But, alas, it would take me another 5000 years to do justice to more.

So I’m off to watch Stargate.