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Holman Bible Dictionary

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Materials used for personal care and beautification. In the Ancient Near East, cosmetics were used by both men and women. Men primarily made use of oil, rubbing it into the hair of the head and the beard (Psalm 133:2; Ecclesiastes 9:8 ). Women used cosmetic preparations which included eye paint, powders, rouge, ointments for the body, and perfumes. There are only limited references made to cosmetics in the Bible.

Utensils, Colors, and Manufacture of Cosmetics Cosmetic utensils of glass, wood, and bone have been found in archeological excavations in Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. In Ur, utensils have been discovered dated as early as 2500 B.C. In Egypt, a scene on a sarcophagus dated about 2000 B.C. depicts a woman holding a mirror. In Palestine, most frequently uncovered are limestone bowls or palettes. These are ordinarily in the form of small bowls, about four inches in diameter, with flat bases and a small shallow hole in the center. The wide rim was usually decorated with incised geometric designs. They were used to prepare colors for making up the face. Mixing was done by means of bone spatulas or small pestles. Possibly imported from Syria, the palettes were common in the northern part of Palestine from about 1000 B.C. on.

Other paraphernalia uncovered include small glass vials and small pottery juglets used as perfume containers, alabaster jars used for ointments, ivory flasks, cosmetic burners, and perfume boxes such as that mentioned in Isaiah 3:20 . Ivory combs, bronze mirrors, hairpins, kohl sticks, unguent spoons, and tweezers also were used by women in biblical times. In the excavations at Lachish, an object was discovered which appears to be a curling iron and is dated about 1400 B.C. In the Cave of Letters, one of the hiding places of some rebels of the Bar Kochba War (A.D. 132-135), a woman's possessions found included a mirror and cosmetic utensils of glass, wood, and bone.

The colors for cosmetic preparations came from various minerals. Red ocher was used for lip color. White was obtained from lead carbonate. Green eyelid coloring was derived from turquoise or malachite, and black was often made from lead sulphate. Kohl or manganese was used for outlining of the eyes. Colors were also produced from ivories, bitumen, and burned woods.

Expert craftsmen made the cosmetics. They imported many of the raw ingredients, especially from India and Arabia. Oils for the skin creams were extracted from olives, almonds, gourds, other trees and plants, and animal and fish fats. Fragrances came from seeds, plant leaves, fruits, and flowers, especially roses, jasmines, mints, balsams, and cinnamon.

Eye Paint Women used paint to enhance their eyes and make the eyes appear larger (Jeremiah 4:30 NAS). There may also have been some medicinal value by preventing dryness of the skin of the eyelid or discouraging disease-carrying flies. However, biblical references often seem to associate the practice of painting the eyes with women of questionable reputation ( 2 Kings 9:30; Ezekiel 23:40 ).

Dry powders for eye-coloring were stored in pouches, reeds, reed-like tubes of stone, or small jars. The reference to Job's daughter, “Keren-happuch” (horn of antimony or eye-paint, Job 42:14 ), indicates the powders were also carried in horns. The powders were mixed with water or gum and applied to the eyelids with small rods made of ivory, wood, or metal. Egyptian women favored the colors of black and green, painting the upper eyelid black and the lower one green. Mesopotamian women preferred yellows and reds. Heavy black lines were traced around the eyes to make them appear more almond-shaped.

Ointments and Perfumes Creams, ointments, and perfumes were especially important in the hot Near Eastern climate. Creams protected the skin against the heat of the sun and counteracted body odors. Ointments were applied to the head (Matthew 6:17 ) or to the whole body (Ruth 3:3 ) as part of hygienic cleansing. They were considered part of the beautification process (Esther 2:12 ). Anointing one's head with oil was a sign of gladness (Psalm 45:7 ). In worship services, anointing was a special part of consecration (Exodus 30:30-32 ). The formula was given by God and was a priestly secret (Exodus 30:22-38 ). Ointments were used by prophets in anointing new kings. Elijah anointed Jehu (2 Kings 9:3 ), and Jehoiada anointed Joash (2 Kings 11:12 ). In New Testament times a good host displayed hospitality by anointing guests with ointments (Luke 7:37-50 ). Ointment was sometimes used to anoint the sick (James 5:14 ). Perfumed ointments were part of the preparation for burial (Mark 14:8; Luke 23:56 ).

The use of perfume is an ancient practice. The first recorded mention is on the fifteenth century B.C. tomb of Queen Hatshepsut who had sent an expedition to the land of Punt to fetch frankincense. Herodotus (450 B.C.) mentioned Arabia's aromatics. To the Magi who bore gifts to the Christ child, the offering of frankincense symbolized divinity.

Perfumes mentioned in the Bible include aloes (Numbers 24:6 ); balm (Ezekiel 27:17 ); cinnamon (Proverbs 7:17 ); frankincense (Isaiah 43:23; Matthew 2:11 ); myrrh (Song of Song of Solomon 5:5; Matthew 2:11 ); and spikenard (John 12:3 ). The perfumes were derived from the sap or gum of the tree (frankincense, myrrh), the root (spikenard), or the bark (cinnamon). They were often quite expensive and imported from Arabia (frankincense, myrrh), India (aloes, spikenard, and Ceylon (cinnamon).

The perfumes could be produced as a dry powder and kept in perfume boxes (Isaiah 3:20 ), or as an ointment and kept in alabaster jars, such as the spikenard with which Mary anointed Jesus (John 12:3 ). They could also be obtained in the natural form as gum or pellets of resin. In this form, they were placed in cosmetic burners and the resin burned. In close or confined quarters, the resulting incense-smoke would act as a fumigation for both the body and the clothes, such as that which seems to be described in the beautification process noted in Esther 2:12 . See Perfumes; Anointing; Eye-paint; Trade Routes.

Darlene R. Gautsch

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Cosmetics'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​c/cosmetics.html. 1991.
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