The Beauty Secrets Of Women In Ancient Greece

charcoal - make up in ancient Greece

The price for beauty in ancient Greece

Ancient Greek women had Aphrodite as their beauty idol, the Goddess of love and beauty. And all ancient women and especially those living in Athens were obsessed with makeup and beautification secrets. 

Wealthy Athenian women had their personal makeup laboratory. Little bottles with perfumes and essences, pins, tweezers, combs, vases, wooden spatulas, spoons and mirrors that were filled with precious ingredients that made them look prettier. Other women bought all the necessary makeup products in the pharmacies of their time. The way we know this is that archaeologists found a precious rare balm made out of cinnabare – a rouge-type cosmetic – at the laboratory of philosopher Pyrron who specialized in pharmacology

RelatedAncient Greece Beauty – The Struggle Of Being Beautiful

goddess of beauty - Aphrodite
beauty ancient Greece close up photo of bust of Aphrodite - beauty in Ancient Greece
statue of Aphrodite or Venus in Latin in the Archaeological Museum of Greece - beauty in Ancient Greece

Their cleansing routine was part of a very demanding beauty schedule, that also included their clothing as well as their hair styling and the appliance of cosmetics to the face and body. The use of cosmetics like perfumes, balms, creams and essences was taught to them by the Egyptians and other people of Asia. 

During archaeological excavations in the Dion, Minoan and Mycenaean palaces, many objects dedicated to beautification were found. Those objects followed the owners to their last residence, as was the custom of the time to be buried with your most precious possessions. They are artefacts of great quality and aesthetic; masterpieces of micro sculpture that reveal their valuable content. Little glass bottles, vases for different creams, glass mirrors with gold, silver or elephantine handles, dyes into palettes and gold perones for mixing perfumes.

The Face

Pale skin was a sign of wealth for aristocratic and married women as they were obliged to stay at home taking care of their family. Tanned skin was for the slaves that worked all day out under the strong Greek sun.

Prostitute or not, the difference lies in the makeup! 

A natural-looking makeup for aristocratic women combined with carefully combed long hair was used to distinguish them from hetaires. Hetaires, were prostitutes, and they adopted a more extreme makeup look with intense eyeshadows, heavy lipsticks, rosy coloured cheeks, dyed hair and sexy outfits.  Although there are some cases were too much makeup, intense eyebrows and full lips on a woman was a symbol of religious and social status. A case in point, the wonderful frescos at the Cretan palace in Knossos depicting beautiful young Cretan women with charcoaled eyes and red lips. They were like goddesses on earth and used their makeup to distinguish themselves.

Whatever the styling and the demands it is true that ancient Greeks made the most out of ingredients found affluent in their natural environment in order to care for their face, hair and body. After all, the word cosmetic derives from the Greek word ‘Kosmetikos’ meaning the awareness of harmony, organisation and tranquillity.

Repurposing all everyday ingredients 

You may be surprised by how much in your cupboard can be used to paint your face! Powders and oils mixed with mineral or vegetal ingredients gave women of the time a long variety of makeup products to enhance the lines and the colour of their eyes, eyebrows, chicks and lips.

They used white lead or chalk for the face, and red from seaweed or red mineral soil for the chicks and the lips. They also used henna powder, juices from berries, charcoal pencils and the root of mallow vegetable. They enhanced their eyebrows with coal or grated antimony/stibium which is a grey metallic mineral. Their eyelashes were polished with a mix of egg white, ammonia and resin in various shades of white, red, black, green and blue. It is clear by now, that creativity was not an issue when it came to beauty! 

The Hair Styling

Haircare was a demanding ritual.  Women took care of the washing, oiling and styling of their hair with the help of their slaves and good friends. I am sure that the complicated hairstyles depicted in vases of the time inspire hairdressers all over the world till now. Ancient Greek women used to have long and thick hair. Women that were free citizens and not slaves did not prefer short haircuts as this was a sign of mourning or growing old. They made with their long hair complex braids and used hairgrips and hairbands to fix it in place Other hair styling as it is shown in artefacts suggests that they put oil in their hair and got it curly, probably with a special gadget made out of cane or a copper tube filled with hot ash.

Blond hair was also a symbol of pure beauty in ancient Greece and as Greek people were not blond, they invented various ways to do so. Men, especially, used natural ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice and saffron to achieve a lighter hair colour. They wanted to take after blond-haired Achilles and other famous heroes of Greek mythology. That is why Aristophanes in one of his plays criticizes a woman by saying “You became black like the elixir that Lysicrates uses to dye his hair”. Thankfully, such antiquated notions of beauty are no longer present in Greek life. We know that the ancient Greeks also enjoyed red hair as a sign of wealth, but have yet to discover how they achieved it.

The Body

Hair Removal Did Not Begin in Modern Years 

Women of Classical Greece used to meticulously remove the hair from their body. They used their oil lamps to burn the longer hair, a scene that has been eloquently described by Praxagora in Ecclesiazusae (The Assemblywomen) of Aristophanes when she addresses her own oil lamp: “Only you are enlightening the secret spots of our thighs, burning the hair that blossoms there”.

Thinner body fluff was most of the times removed with razors made out of copper or obsidian lamina or with tweezers and special creams. Some depictions on ancient vases confirm that hair removal to some women was an integral part of their routine. However, it was not only wealthy aristocrats that favoured hair removal. Slaves, especially those that originated from Thrace that we also know were the best wet nurses of the time, had hair-free bodies embellished with tattoos.

Beauty Ancient Greece – The basic products we can still use today

The most common materials and products that they used as a basis for their make-up which are still used in our cosmetics nowadays were: olive oil, honey and beeswax.

beauty in ancient Greece - olive oil
- honey
beeswax -

Olive Oil

The golden juice from the olive has been used since ancient times for so many reasons. Cooking, lighting, medicine and of course in makeup remedies. Olive oil has been known since the Minoan era from the signs of Linear B where we can read that olive oil was used for cosmetics and was of excellent quality and often perfumed with herbs.

Hair treatments with olive oil were also common at this time. Women coated their hair with oil to nourish, comb and shine it. In Crete they made a lotion out of olive oil and laurel pits for strong black hair. In Thrace, Northern Greece they took care of their cracked hands by applying a generous portion of this precious oil. 

RelatedA Brief History Of The Olive Tree

Honey

The beautifying properties of honey have been discovered and used since antiquity. Honey was food, cult offer and basic ingredient for medicines, ointments, makeup products, as well as a precious merchandise object.

Legendary Queen of Egypt Cleopatra that was of Greek origin, was also famous for her outstanding beauty and perfect skin complexion. She used to have a daily bath in a mixture of honey and donkey milk to keep her skin soft and smooth. 

fruits and herbs as make up in Ancient Greece
charcoal - make up in ancient Greece
milk as make up in ancient greece

Milk

It was not only Cleopatra but several ladies of the aristocracy that used donkey milk as it was considered to help the skin look paler. Some women didn’t even hesitate to use crocodilea, the crocodile’s excreta ! (it sounds disgusting I know). The price for beauty in ancient Greece or the rest of the world can often shock us! The men used to criticize and denounce such a practice.

Charcoal

Greek women loved an intense eyelook just as much as we do. They darkened their eyelashes with a powder from charcoal that gave a thick and dark shape to their eyebrows and connected the ‘unibrow’ as we call it characteristically. 

Herbs, Fruits and Flowers

Chamomile, lemon, anemone, berries and everything that could be found in the nature was tested and used for makeup. Chamomile and lemon for lightening the hair, burries for creating lipstick and blushes, and powders of flowers and minerals for making dyes for eyelashes. The variety of makeup products was extremely huge.

The Mirror

The mirror was an important instrument of the make-up ritual just as much as the cosmetics containers. It was a piece of art on its own with a grip made of elephantine, wood or silver according the social status of the owner. But mirrors were mostly used by women. Although Greek men also took care of their body and their appearance, they admired their reflection in the mirror only at the barber shop when they had to approve the haircut. The philhellene historian Jean Pierre Vernant explains that the Greeks avoided looking  at themselves in the mirror for fear of losing themselves as Narcissus did in the well-known myth.

Countless aspects of beauty, National Archaeological Museum

For those of you that will be in Athens until the end of December 2019, there is a wonderful periodical exhibition at the National Archaeological Museum that showcases objects of beauty and esthetics from antiquity. The exhibition is entitled ‘Countless Aspects of Beauty’ and showcases the museum’s impressive collections on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. There are so many interesting pieces of art that explain the perception of beauty through ancient times. It’s so worth visiting it. Don’t miss it.

  • Are there any beauty secrets from ancient Greece you would still use today? Share with us in the comments below! 

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