In skimming the pages of any cultural history, one is bound to find some similarities among various peoples—for instance, the desire to be clean and sweet-smelling, coupled with the yen to be handsome or beautiful.
Come along as we catch some glimpses of beauty treatments and personal hygiene—ancient Near East style.
Start with the basics
Picture yourself in a home in some ancient village, looking into a lovely hand-woven basket. It contains an odd assortment to your eye. What do you suppose its contents are used for?
- Ashes of soda-yielding plants
- Pumice stone
If you answer that people from the ancient Near East use these in the act of personal bathing, you are correct. Cleanliness is a basic priority for many cultures, and particularly, among both Old and New Testament Israelites. It is especially imperative for them to be clean in preparation for the Sabbath.
Ashes of soda-yielding plants mixed with some kind of fat are used for washing one’s body. If a laborer (like a tanner) is especially dirty, he can use a pumice-stone as an abrasive, or natron (from the same root word which means “to froth”), the sodium carbonate imported from Egypt or Syria, to remove the grime. He might finish off by rubbing himself with the strongly scented herbs of rosemary and marjoram.
(However, if you happen to be, say a second-century Roman, bathing at a public bath house, you clean yourself by first covering your body with oil. Then you, or perhaps a servant, scrape off the oil with a special scraper called a strigil. It’s made from bone or metal—ouch!)
After women (and perhaps some men) bathe themselves, they apply creams to protect their skin against the harsh sun, and to counteract body odors. These emollients consist of oils from olives, almonds, gourds, various trees and plants, and animals or fish. Adding fragrances produced by expert craftsmen from “seeds, plant leaves, fruits, and flowers, especially roses, jasmines, mints, balsams, and cinnamon” makes this beauty treatment especially luxurious.
The nose test
Peering at the contents more closely, you spy a small jar of what appears to be a finely ground spice. Is it pepper? With a quick sniff you recognize it immediately—it’s licorice or anise. Do you wonder why this is included?
Toothbrushes or toothpaste have yet to be invented. The ancient Egyptians’ formula for dental hygiene consisted of powdered ashes of ox hooves, myrrh, powdered and burnt eggshells, and pumice. Over time, the peppery anise powder comes to be used as a breath freshener.
The Romans will soon step in with more refinements, adding abrasives such as crushed bones and oyster shells, to aid in cleaning debris from teeth. They also add powdered charcoal, powdered bark and more flavoring agents to improve the breath.
The “toothbrush” remains the same—one’s finger. (It is believed that the Chinese invented the toothbrush in 1498, using bristles from pig’s necks).
An ornate box sits near the basket. You lift its lid to find some combs, a mirror, and the following:
- Essential oils
- Gold dust
Puzzling? This is a do-it-yourself, or perhaps a commercial hair care kit (my term). The first three items are used in combination as precursors to our modern shampoo. The results, should you try the mixture, will rate a quick “thumbs down.” You will find it irritating to the eyes, difficult to wash out, leaving your hair dull and a little gummy. (In fact it has been only recently that science has developed sophisticated products to deal effectively with hair soil.)
Outside the box: historians on “hair”
Henri Daniel-Rops shares Josephus’ eye-witness commentary concerning some hair treatments of the day: “Depraved young men would sprinkle it [their hair] with gold dust to make it more brilliant,” and, “old bucks like Herod dyed it.”  In Jezebel’s time it was usual for women to cover their grey using Antioch-red or Alexandrian henna (p. 304). That custom found its way to the first century as well. “Both men and women dyed their hair. Men sometimes dyed it black, sometimes blonde. Women dyed their hair black, but especially auburn, and were at pains to cover grey hair.” Wigs were also worn by both sexes, although this style existed in the main within the ranks of the wealthy non-Jewish upper-class.
Taming their locks
Hair styles have been of significant importance to women (and men) throughout history. They not only enhance beauty but they say much about a woman’s social standing within her community.
Cultural historians note that first century hair styles included plaiting: “The women of Israel were very cleaver at plaiting their hair, adorning it and even curling it” (Daniel-Rops, page 304). Young women sometimes tied their hair back in a plain knot, and then ran a plait over the top of the head in the front. Roman women of the upper class often piled their hair high in elaborate styles. Bouquet writes, “Towards the end of the first century most wonderful structures came to be erected on the top of women’s heads” (p. 68).
These extravagant adornments were likely the genesis of calls for moderation and modesty found in 1 Timothy 2:9-10: “…. in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works;” and 1 Peter 3:3-4: “Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel —rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.”
An interesting bit of trivia concerns the first hairbrush: “Around 2500 B.C, ancient Egyptians used paintbrushes for grooming hair. Later, ancient Greeks and Romans used hairbrushes for removing lice and dirt. The first U.S. hairbrush patent was granted to Hugh Rock in 1854.”
Now is good!
While some things never seem change—i.e., the desire for beauty and cleanliness—regarding certain others, there is no comparison between then and now. I, for one, am quite happy with bars of soap manufactured to meet my skin’s particular needs, minty toothpaste applied on soft-bristled brushes, shampoos that clean, rinse out easily, and leave hair with a healthy shine, and, private baths.
I don’t mind glimpsing the past, but I surely wouldn’t want to stay there.
 Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, Henri Daniel-Rops (1961), p. 302.
 Holman Bible Dictionary “Cosmetics,” http://www.studylight.org/dic/hbd/view.cgi?number=T1424
 Daniel-Rops, p. 303.
 Everyday Life in New Testament Times, A.C. Bouquet (1953), p. 67.