Egypt's Hairy History

By Rachael Funk

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Good hygiene was essential

The Greek historian and storyteller Herodotus noted that Egyptians bathed several times a day, to the point where they “set cleanness above seemliness.” This behavior was considered excessive by surrounding cultures such as the ancient Romans, who thought a lack of body hair was a deformity. Though it is not known for certain how widespread hair removal was beyond the upper-class in ancient Egypt, we do know it was practiced commonly enough to have made its mark on history.

Lice was a problem

It is speculated heads were shaved to avoid issues with lice, as well as to help relieve the heat of the climate. Priests were required to keep their entire bodies clean-shaven, including eyebrows and lashes, in order to avoid lice and other forms of uncleanliness. Every third day, they would undergo hair removal procedures to ensure they were hygienic enough to perform rituals.

Barbers were highly respected

The wealthiest Egyptians would keep a barber on their household staff in order to maintain daily hair care practices. If they were not rich enough to have a personal barber on staff, they could visit a local barber, who usually could be found on a particular street in town shaving their clients with razors and pumice stones, then massaging perfumed oils and lotion into their skin.

Hairstyles varied based on age, gender, and social class

With all of the options for hair maintenance, there were rules about who could wear what styles. For instance, a slave would be prohibited from wearing the styles a free person could wear and the lower class could never enjoy the same styles as the upper class. Children generally sported shaved heads with one lock of long hair on the side to signify their childhood.

As they grew older, boys would shave their heads and girls would generally wear their hair in plaits or ponytails. Men also commonly wore their hair short, either cropped behind their ears or in curls covering their ears. Women’s natural hairstyles varied from wearing it long and smooth or in a natural wave to shin-length bobs.

Shaving wasn’t the only method of hair removal

Though razors have been found buried with people in tombs, there is evidence to show metal tweezers were used as far back as the Early Dynastic Period. Waxing was also possible, using mixtures such as crushed bird bones, oil, sycamore juice, and gum, which was heated and applied to the skin. After the mixture cooled and hardened, it was probably yanked off, along with the hair glued to it. Ancient Egyptians also utilized pumice stones, hair removal creams, and even resorted to magic to deal with their hair.

Hair growth remedies were multifarious

There was a big difference between shaving your head to wear a wig and going bald. Bald on purpose? Cool. Bald on accident? Not so cool. In order to try to stimulate hair regrowth, several concoctions were suggested. According to the Ebers Papyrus, which dates back to 1550 B.C., suggested cures include mixing fats from a hippo, crocodile, tomcat, snake, and ibex; a porcupine boiled in water and left on the scalp for four days; and the leg of a female greyhound cooked in oil alongside a donkey’s hoof. On a more animal-friendly note, fir oil, rosemary oil, almond oil, and castor oil were also used to try to encourage hair growth.

The popularity of wigs was not exclusive to ancient Egypt. In fact, they were also commonly worn in Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece and Persia. Egyptians did, however, perfect the art of wig making. The most expensive wigs were worn by royalty and carefully made from human hair to look like their own. Cheap wigs were made of vegetable fiber, sheep’s wool, or other animal hair.

Wig upkeep was a must

Emollients and oils made from vegetables and animal fats were used to meticulously care for wigs in order to make them last longer. Wigs were scented with petals or wood chips such as cinnamon and kept in boxes or on stands when not in use. The belief that wigs were needed in the Afterlife was also prevalent, so the dead were commonly buried with wigs in their tombs.

Ancient Egyptians had hair dye

It is estimated that as early as 3400 B.C., Egyptians were using henna to cover greys. Sometimes, the henna was tinted with juniper berries and other plants to change the color from red. Some people even resorted to magic to try to maintain their hair pigment; the blood of a black ox, the ground black horn of a gazelle, or a rancid donkey liver were all thought to be keys to keeping hair color.

They also used hair extensions

In addition to wigs, individual braids were used to create the illusion of thicker, longer hair. A man buried at el-Mustagidda was discovered to have artificially lengthened his hair by braiding in human hair with thread. A soldier of Mentuhotep II was found in a mass grave wearing short, curled extensions along with his real hair. Based on the conditions of his burial, it stands to reason this is how he wore his hair in life, and the false hair was not added post-mortem.

Facial hair was a mark of authority

Men were generally clean shaven, but mustaches were not unheard of in the Old Kingdom. Beards were usually shaved off, but in the New Kingdom, high officials were portrayed to wear small beards, decidedly shorter than the pharaonic beard. The beards worn by the pharaohs (including Queen Hatshepsut) seem to have been artificial and were used to display their status as kings.

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