We’ve been able to analyze what the Egyptians’ kohl was made from, and we can imagine (and easily re-create, should we wish to) the distinctive style in which they used it. But why did they define their eyes in the first place? There are two main theories. The first and increasingly popular theory is that the makeup used was medicinal and protected the eyes against infection and strong sunlight. If you consider that the majority of ancient Egyptians lived in arid, dust-ridden deserts or swampy marshes around the Nile, then it’s clear that the need to protect their skin and especially the delicate skin around the eyes would have been great. Various medical texts that have been unearthed contain prescriptions for curing eye diseases such as trachoma and conjunctivitis that were prevalent in Egypt and other arid countries such as Persia. They also give detailed recipes for remedies for the eyelid, iris, and cornea. The Ebers Papyrus, one of the most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt and one of the oldest known medical works, written around 1550 BC, contains over one hundred recipes in which green malachite and black galena (in addition to red ochre, lapis lazuli, and some unidentified minerals) figure prominently. Mesdemet was also prescribed for eye ailments, which further backs up the theory that the daily ritual of applying kohl was meant to protect as well as decorate the eyes. In 2010, highly compelling evidence that kohl was effective in preventing eye infections came from French scientists Philippe Walter and Christian Amatore, who, along with a team of researchers from the Laboratoire de Recherche des Musees de France and L’Oreal-Recherche, analyzed fifty-two samples of Egyptian cosmetics from the Louvre. In the makeup tested, they found four different lead-based substances that would have boosted the production of nitric oxide which plays a key role in fighting disease by more than 200 percent in human skin cells. Bacterial eye infections were (and still are) a serious problem in the marshy areas around the Nile during flooding, and the scientists believe that the ancient Egyptians may have deliberately used lead-based cosmetics to help prevent or treat eye disease. What’s more, two of the compounds they found are not naturally occurring, so they must have been produced by ancient Egyptian chemists. 4
In the second theory, kohl is thought to have been a status symbol and to have had spiritual and ritualistic significance. Historians and anthropologists have repeatedly linked the kohl-blackened eyes seen in Egyptian art to Horus, an ancient god with many associations, but most often depicted as a falcon. The Eye of Horus known as wedjat was used as a symbol of protection. The symbol of the eye is heavily outlined, so it’s easy to see why the connection has been made. Another spiritual association is the link between the goddess Hathor and malachite; perhaps, for Egyptian women, applying the powder to one’s eyes was to share in something of the essence of Hathor herself.
Black eye makeup is so popular today that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t used.
Women in ancient Greece used burnt cork and soot to fill in their eyebrows, which were considered most beautiful when they connected across the bridge of the nose.
“Black is boundless, the imagination races in the dark.