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The Cosmetic and Perfume Practices of the Ancient Egyptians: Part 2-The Ingredients

by Aimee Bova

reprinted at with permission by Copyright 1998 © NOT TO BE COPIED IN ANY MANNER OR MEDIUM TANGIBLE OR INTANGIBLE.



The plant materials used in Egyptian perfumery and cosmetics were varied and employed both native and non-native species. In this material we will focus on the herbs specificially used in the production of perfumes Royal couple in a gardenand cosmetics although, many of these plants were also used medicinally. As previously mentioned, many plant identifications are still up for debate. In most of these cases, it is not so much that the use of a particular botanical was doubted by Egyptologists as much as it was that the exact word or term used for it in ancient Egyptian writing has yet to be identified. Due to this, plants cited by one Egyptian scholar may well differ from those presented by another. The first listing of botanicals are those more widely used either because they were more accessible, or simply because they were more favored in the production of aromatics. The second list will relate other well know herbs that were perhaps more obscure or later imports, yet included in one formula or other. Following both plant listings is a review of the fats and oils used in ancient Egyptian preparations.

The Herbs

Popular Botanicals

Ash- (Fir Resin) (Abies Cilicica) The Egyptian word for this herb was also the same given to one of the "Seven Sacred Unguents" (Sefet Oil). Manniche says it is a resinous pine tree that grows in Lebanon as well as other eastern locales. It is distinct from another resin mentioned as "pine resin" (Pinus Spp.) whose kernals were frequently mentioned in Egyptian recipes. Both fir and pine varieties are similar to what we now know as the "Ash Tree". Unfortunately, I have see both types of trees called "Ash" and cannot cite exactly which Egyptologist is correct. I would presume both species could be considered a type of "Ash" although Manniche does specifically cite the Pinus spp. and not the Abies Cilicica above as the true "Ash Tree" as we know of it in the western world. Both exude a resinous substance used for its aroma and astringent qualites for perfumery and medicine.



Aromatic Reed- (Andropogon Schoenatus L. & spp.) A species recorded by Pliny and mentioned in Egytian writings. Due to the hieroglyphic representation and other materials regarding this plant its true identity is still up for debate. It had been used interchangeably with ginger by some scholars; yet others claim it to be Cymbopogon Citratus, what we know today as lemon grass. Its origin is India and it was well used in perfumery; its aroma has been likened to verbena as described by classical authors and it has also been referred to as "camel grass".

Balsam- (Commiphora Opobasamum & spp.) The buds and bark or twigs of this tree were used widely in ancient preparations of all kinds. Reminiscent of cypress and other firs, it was one of the popular imports from the Land of Punt. According to Dayagi-Mendeles, it was recorded that Queen Hapshetsut sent a royal expedition to Punt (16th century) to acquire seeds and seedlings to start a "garden" of Balsam in Egypt. Josephus wrote in his work "War...", "Antony gave Cleopatra the palm grove at Jericho in which the Balsam is produced." (Josephus, War, 1:361). Lise Manniche however states that the attempts at naturalizing this tree were likely unsuccessful in the Egyptian climate.

Bitter Almond- (Amugdalen Communis) Usually the fruit or "seed" was used of this Asian plant famed for its beautifying properties. Modern aromatherapists consider the oil of the bitter almond toxic as it contains prussic acid, but in ancient Egypt is was used widely in cosmetics and purportedly by Cleopatra VII in her youth preserving "amond milk".

Bdellium- (Commiphora Erythraea & C. Africana) Believed to have been imported from Punt it is in the myrrh family but stronger than myrhh. Later classical authors often used myrrh and bdellium interchangeably in some recipes.

Cassia- (Cinnamomum Cassia) Often confused with cinnamon and in the same family. However, the whole cassia plant exudes the cinnamon like aroma unlike true "cinnamon" from which most of the aroma is found in the bark and in certain periods of growth, the leaves as well. (Author's Note: Today, cassia has been found to be photoxic in essential oil form by some modern day aromatherapists. As one who researches, uses and recreates ancient formulas I have found that its reputation of phototoxicity occurs only in highly sensitive people or, if used in great quantity in undiluted form. In this regard, the subject of "toxicity" is relative and could thus apply to many other botanicals as well.) Cinnamon- (Cinnamomum Zeylanicum & spp.) Originated in Ceylon, Sudan, China and found in many other far eastern countries. As mentioned above, cinnamon and cassia are often confused. Ancient classical sources claim that in fact, both herbs derived from a single plant (I feel this is very likely myself). In Pliny's writings two varieties of cinnamon were mentioned; one black and one white with black cinnamon considered the greater of the two for perfumery purposes. Most cinnamon oil was made from the aromatic bark but another oil is now made from the leaves of the plant once they reach a certain age and are no longer green. Apparently, the theory that cinnamon is only aromatic in the bark no longer applies with the onset of the aging of the plant itself.

Cyperus- (Cyperus Rotundus & spp.) Originated in North Africa as well as areas of the meditarranean. Pliny reported it as a reed similar to the common reed and it has also been interchanged with another similar species called "Privet" (Ligustrum Vulgare), a more modern alternative. Cyprus in ancient Egyptian formulas was used to render animal fats less odorous for perfume compositions and was one of the ingredients in the famous "Kyphi" perfume. It was also used as a thickening agent.

Date Palm- (Phoenix dactylifera;?) The fruit of this plant was used more to make a wine that was often called for to render animal fats of their strong odour. Date palm wine was also included in mummification practice and medicinal unguents.

Francincense- (Boswellia spp. & Commiphera spp.) Frankincese was one of the herbs extensively used that was not native to Egypt but imported from Punt. It also grows in southern Arabia. The resin exudate was collected and dried and was used in perfume compositions as well as for ritual temple burning. It is not only renowned for its exotic musky aroma for but also for its skin healing qualities and was included in some of the sacred unguent recipes along with myrhh.

Galbanum- (Ferula Galbaniflua; F. Rubri Caulis; F. Ceraophylla) A resinous exudate used for it fixitive qualities as well as its heavy aroma. Another ingredient used in the "Kyphi" perfume.

Gum Benzoin- (Styrax Benzoin) A common fixative in perfumery historically, yet thus far has been not been authoratatively recognized as part of the Egyptian perfumery herbs although "gum resins" in general are mentioned. It originates from Sumatra and is a resinous exudate. It has been used interchangeably with the terms "benzoin", "styrax" "liquid storax" and "liquidamber". It is not the same exact shrub from which liquidamber (Liquidamber Orientalis, and L. Styracifula) is obtained actually although both species produce gum resins which are harvested even today. Further, to be specific it is styrax officinalis which yeilds storax or "styrax" and styrax benzoin which yields "benzoin" precisely. The leaf portion of styrax officinalis we know today as "chaparral".

Henna- (Lawsonia Inermis) Used extensively throughout the east for medicines, cosmetics, and fabric dye in addition to perfumery. Dayagi-Mendeles states it is also called Alkanet however, as found in Manniche's work (15), the alkanet or Al-Khanna herb and Henna are two distinct plants. (See Alkanet below.) The henna plant is native to egypt and a beautiful perfume oil is made from its white flowers (now called "Mehndi") which in ancient Egypt was called Cyprinum oil. The earliest use of henna in topical cosmetics like hair and nail dye dates to about 3500 B.C.E.

Iris- (Iris Florentine L.; Iris Germanica L.; Iris Pallida) Often confused with orris root or "sweet flag" which it is not although related. The tuber has been used for perfumery historically but it has never been identified in Egyptian writings although it was recorded by Theophrastus as an herb that was possibly used in Egypt.

Juniper- (Juniperus spp.) A fragrant wood and one of the ingredients used in kyphi among other perfumes. Both the berries and wood were used in incense. Juniper was also used in mummification as well as medicinally.

Ladanum- (Labdanum, Laudanum) (Costus Ladaniferus) A resinous exudate. Often made into incense cakes for temple offerings as well as used as a fixative in perfumes. Possesses a heavy musk like odour.

Lily- (Lilium Candidum) Often associated feminine Egyptian deities it is a bulb which has its origin in the middle east. Lily oil was used extensively in perfumery particularly among the aristocracy. It has been rumoured that it was with lily oil that Cleopatra VII anointed the sails of her ships as they sailed down the Nile river.

Lotus- (Nymphaea Lotus & Nymphaea Cerulea) An aquatic water lily both the blue and white lotus were well used throughout Egypt for its religious significance as well as its haunting fragrance. It was a common temple offering and associated with creative principles and immortality. Egyptian priestesses commonly wore lotus perfume and it was also considered to be an aprhrodisiac.

Marjoram- (Majorna Hortensis & Origanum Majorana) Sacred to the Egyptian crocodile God, Sobek, marjoram was the main ingredient in the famous "Sampsuchinon" oil. It originated in the middle east and the leaf as well as the flowering tops were used. It is strongly antibacterial and was used in medicinal unguents as well as perfumery. It was believed to confer longevity on those who applied the majorum perfume regularly

Myrhh- (Commiphora Mirha) Originates from Arabia, Ethiopia as well as parts of Egypt it was a mainstay in ancient Egyptian society for ritual, beauty and medicines. The favored reddish brown "tears" were obtained from the bark of the plant and were often referred to in Egyptian writings as "the tears of Horus". Myrhh is a resin exudate like francincense and was also used in mummification.

Myrtle- (Myrtus Communis L.) A fragrant green shrub native to the Mediterranean used for perfumery, adorments and in cooking. Manniche states that a common infusion of myrtle in olive oil was used as a perfume on its own, also, it was used for fumigatory purposes as well as medicinally.

Nard or "Spikenard"- (Nardostachys Jatamansi) This enigmatic plant mentioned in the Bible originates from Syria, India and parts of the Mediterranean. A member of the valerian family, it was mentioned in later classical sources but not specifically "identified" in the Egyptian repetoire of perfumery plants (although the reference of "Nard" itself is acknowledged). Several plants have been referred to by the name "Nard" or "Spikenard" and it remains a mystery as to precisely which botanical is the true "Nard" so often mentioned throughout many ancient eastern writings. As it stands we accept it to be the species (Nardostachys Jatamansi) as given above.

Opopanax- (Opopanax Chironium K.; -Opopanax Hispidus ? ) A rather obscure resin that was part of some of the perfume potions made by the Egyptians. Its origins are Syria and Africa and it is obtained today from Commiphor Erytrea a variety related to the more ancient one noted above. Similar to vetivert it has also been called "costgrass".

Pistacia- (Pistacia Terebinthus L.) Also called "terebinth" and "gum mastic" or just "mastic" it was imported from Punt and used in perfumes, medicines and wine production.

Saffron- (Crocus Sativus L.) A typical crocus flower from which the red stamens are used often in culinary dishes but that also produces an interestng scent as well in perfumery. Originated in Lycia, Cyrenaica, and Silicia.

Other Herbs

Acacia- (Acacia Nilotica?) Acacia also called Egpytian acacia grows naturally in Egypt and was used mostly for medicinal preparations. However, the wood of this tree was said to possess magical properties and was possibly used for ritual burning. Alkanet (Al-Khanna)- (Alkanna Tinctoria) It is a plant with a thick purplish bark like root and often used for dying textiles as well as candles and according to Theophrastus, also for coloring perfumes and unguent cones a characteristic red hue. It has been confused with henna (see above) but is its own distinct variety of plant. In Egypt is was called the "blood tree".

Aniseed- (Pimpinella Anisum L.) Believed to have originated in Asia Minor it was native to Egypt and was most often used in medical preperations. A strong oil is made from the seeds pungent odour that may have been included in some perfumery preparations although little evidence supports this.

Artemisia- (Artemisia Arbrotanum L. & Artemisia Absinthium) Dayagi-Mendeles cites the arbrotanum variety and describes it as similar to wormwood with a penetrating scent. Manniche however cites the absinthium type used later in Europe for a famous liquor referred to as the "Green Fairy" called "Absinthe". The absinthium variety has been long reputed to have magical properties, but in ancient Egypt it was used mostly for its medicinal qualities. Today it is known as wormwood from which an essential oil is made and available on the market.

Cardomom- (Elleteria Cardomomum) The pods or seeds were included in later versions of the famous Egyptian "Kyphi Ointment" by Greek and Roman authors, but its actual identification has yet to be found in Egyptian writings specifically. There is no doubt that cardomom was likely included somewhere in Egyptian perfumery particularly with the growing spice industry in later dynastic periods.

Dyers Chamomile- (Anthemis Tinctoria L.) Erroneously Roman or German chamomile is cited as the variety used in ancient Egyptian preparations but none of the authorities I have referenced states so. It was the yellow or "Dyer's" chamomile accepted as the variety referred to ancient Egyptian writings. The flowers of this plant were similarly used like the more known varieties for dyeing purposes. The flowers were included in the garland used to adorn Tutankhamun's mummy and, it is believed that they also were aligned spiritually with the Egyptian sun God Re.

Cinnibar (Cinnibari)- (Petrocarpus Draco; Petrocarpus Sanalinus) Today known as "dragons's blood" it is not be confused with vermillion or the mercury ore used in jewelry. The plant exudes a resin used for fumigatory purposes and it possesses fixative qualities.

Coriander- (Coriandrum Sativum L.) Used in many medicinal preperations it was also used as an offering in the temple of the Gods. Traces of it have been found in the tomb of Tutankhamun and, it is widely known in modern times as a culinary spice.

Cumin- (Cumin Cyminum L.) Native to Egypt this herb was used for flavoring as well as perfumery. It was purportedly an aid for conception in women and in a famous headache unguent referred to by both Manniche and Dayagi-Mendeles that was included in addition to cumin, myrhh, juniper berries, moringa oil and lotus along with two other unidentified plants.

Fir Resin- (See Ash above)

Ginger- (Zingibar Officinalis) Although not referenced by Manniche in early dynastic periods, it was mentioned by Dayagi-Mendeles as possibly a component in certain recipes as it is one of the interpretations of the word "aromatic reed" by some scholars.

Laurel- (?) There are many varieties of laurel and I have no authoritative version to cite the specific variety that may have been used by the Egyptians. Laurel however in later Roman periods was a tree whose leaves were used for rituals and adornment. In several Roman renditions of the Egyptian potion called "Tiryac", laurel was added as an ingredient.

Malobrathrum- (Cinnamomum ?) Considered a variety of the Cinnamoma species and has been etymologically interpreted by some ancient sources to be "spikenard", which it is not as well as another herb "Florium Indicum". It is authoritatively accepted as a wild species of Cinnamomum indigenous to India which is still used to this day medicinally. It is included as it was mentioned in Dyagi-Medeles'text on Egyptian aromatics and one which he states is native to Egypt. (4)

Melilot- (Melilot Officinalis) Also known as yellow sweet clover it contains coumarin and is included in assorted culinary and other fragrant preparations.

Mint- (Mentha Spp.) Used in ornamentation and included in some Kyphi recipes. According to Manniche Pliny cited at least four varieties of mint that could have been likely used in Egyptian aromatic formulas as well as later Roman versions.

Rose- (Rosa Gallica; Rosa Ricardii) It has been confirmed as a flower used in ancient times by many cultures and is believed to have originated in Persia from which it then spread across Mesapotamia. Although both of the above varieties have been identified in Egyptian ancient remains, the "ricardii" type is apparently now extinct. Dayagi-Mendeles also cites another "damascena" variety that was likely more of a Roman botanical than that used by the Egyptians. The simplest use of the fragrant petals according to Manniche is that of "oil of roses" which is a basic infusion of the flower in oil. Later classical sources added other ingredients to the unadorned Egyptian perfume oil like alkanet which rendered the resulting perfume a more "rose" color.

Rosewood- (Ligni Rhodii; Convulvus Scoparius) Dyagi-Mendeles refers to it in his text but I cannot find it specifically mentioned elsewhere regarding ancient Egyptian perfumery. The wood of the tree is used to produce a sort of cross between rose and hemlock scent (in my opinion) but I say this based upon the varieties of rosewood I myself have used which may not be the same as those used in ancient times.


The Oils

An array of vegetable based oils was employed for the production of perfume in Cosmetics vesselancient Egypt. Some are no longer in use today, and others are now well known in the modern world. According to Joan Fletcher (5), the selection of oils used for preparations was primarily based upon what one could afford and avail themselves of. Obviously, Egyptian royalty received preparations made of only the very finest of ingredients; while a commoner was left to use whatever was more readily available and affordable. Typically, oils were used mainly for unguents, perfume oils, and medicinal remedies thereof. Almond Oil- Pressed from the seed or "fruit" of Prunis Dulcis and Prunus Anygdalus; that is the almond tree. Bitter almond oil was widely used in Egypt but today, the sweet almond oil is the common type found in modern preparations as well as for aromatherapy. Almond oil was noted for its skin preserving quality.

Balanos Oil- Obtained from Balanites Aegyptiaca. Although not suitable for ingestion it was prized for its use in perfumery according to classical sources. At one time this species grew abundantly in Egypt but today is rarely found.

Colocynth Oil- A golden coloured oil from Citrillus Colocynthus, it was found to be in use in Predynastic periods. It was native to Egypt and Manniche states that the dried fruit from which this is oil was made is toxic in large quantities.

Lettuce Oil- Lactuca Sativa L. seeds were used to make this oil that was employed in medicinal treatments and as a hair restorant. The leaves were also eaten and the plant itself was sacred to the fertility god Min in ancient Egypt.

Moringa Oil- Moringa Ptery Gosperma; Moringa Aptera kernals produced moringa oil widely used in medicinal preparations as well as cosmetics and in cooking. Later in European writings it is often referred to as "Ben Oil".

Olive Oil- An oil made from Olea Europaea L. that was believed to have been introduced in Egypt in its later periods. It became a main oil for herbal infusions and unguents. Many varieties of olive oil are well known today and used in all sorts of recipes both cosmetic and culinary worldwide.

Omphacium- This oil was made from green olives and referred to by Greek and Roman authors as one produced in Egypt during in later Dynasties. It was peculiar in that it was made from unripe olives, particularly those harvested in August. The oil was manufactured by a process of grinding, pressing and then filtering the unripened olives which resulted in a dark, almost black coloured oil that was used for both cosmetic and medicinal applications. (6)

Poppy Oil- The pale yellow oil obtained from the seed of Papaver Somniferum, the opium variety of poppy cultivated in Egyptian gardens. The oil had sedative properties due to the presence of morphine inherent in the unripe seed pod itself. Used more medicinally than for perfumery.

Radish Oil- Obtained from the seeds of Raphanus Sativus L. and was used for anointing, cooking, and medicines.

Safflower Oil- Obtained from Carthamus Tinctorius L. it was used mainly for cooking but also in some medicinal preparations. It is still used today in both east and west in the same manner.

Sesame Oil- A prized oil from the seeds of Sesamum Indicum that was pricier than some of the other oils mentioned during ancient times. It was noted for its skin preserving benefits, as it still is today, and was used in unguents, cooking and also as a lamp oil.

Tiger Nut Oil- A prized oil obtained from Cyperus Esculentus it is less common in modern times. The oil was extracted from the edible "tiger nuts" of the cyperus plant and it was possibly used in perfumery according to some sources.


Most fats used in ancient Egyptian cosmetic preparations as far as is known were animal fats obtained from camel, geese and sheep- all readily available in ancient times. Other animal fats used came from ox, donkey, water fowl, tiger, snake, lion and crocodile among others. It is believed by some authorities that the Egyptians used these more exotic animals partly in the hopes that the animal's characteristics would be present in the fat and lend the desired quality to the one seeking remedy.

Many animal fats and even some of the vegetable oils were rendered with sweet wine or other alcohol to help eliminate any overpowering aroma. Particulary in regards to perfume making the method of rendering fats with wine was practiced so that there would be no undesirable odour to interfere with the resulting aromatic product.

Dioscorides Recipe For Rendering Animal Fats of Strong Odours (7)

Take a pound of bruised aspalathus (identified as Cytisus Lanigerus, Genista Acanthoclada, and Calcycotome Villosa). Steep this overnight in old wine. Strain out the herb and place in a pot with the animal fat plus three more pints of wine. Boil all together and when the fat has absorbed the wine, allow the whole mixture to cool. Once cooled, the fat rises to the top. Skim the fat off and store. To make an even sweeter scent add an ounce of myrhh infused in wine to the rendered fat. -Dioscorides II. 91 (*Original directions revised slightly for clarity by the editor.)

As you will see there are many other ingredients not mentioned in the preceding material that may be called for in some of the following recipes; for example, minerals, wine and beeswax. As these items are fairly self explanatory and / or only called for occasionally, they have been not given specific address here.

Go To Part 3- The Recipes

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