Painting their Eyes

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 16 2021
Look Painting their Eyes

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

Today makeup is mainly popular among women. Men hardly wear notable makeup. However, in the past, men and women, adults and children, all have used makeup. Although the purpose of makeup has changed now, in the past it was not merely to enhance one’s appearance; they had a religious and spiritual value too. 

Like many other fashion trends, attire, and human creations, makeup too was a result of humans’ response to their natural environments. It may also have been a result of their adaptation to the natural surroundings. As human ancestors progressed with civilisation, religions and cultures evolved into complex systems. In this process, makeup had its own unique evolution, throughout the globe. 

Among the many types of makeup, eye makeup is prominent. Since prehistoric times, our ancestors gave significance to eye makeup for many reasons. Eyes are considered the window to one’s soul and as well as a powerful way to communicate oneself. Also, they are sensitive hence require more protection. Hence, eye makeup evolved as a practice that had religious, medicinal, and cultural values. 

Why did our ancestors use eye makeup?

Our prehistoric human ancestors had the habit of decorating and painting their bodies with natural ingredients and various objects such as face and body paint or makeup, textile or clothes, and jewellery. They painted the bodies, especially their faces, imitating various colourful animals they would encounter. They would mostly imitate colourful birds. 

This practice had many purposes. One was to camouflage themselves and the other was to enhance their fearful appearance while hunting. This also became a practice in religious rituals. Masks, clothes, and accessories that imitate animals and mythological beings became a way to get closer to the unseen world and to add a powerful, fearful, and divine appearance. This was the whole purpose of makeup used in ancient times. Makeup also had medicinal purposes; especially eye makeup. 

History of eye makeup, in the Nile valley...

The oldest known evidence of eye makeup is from the Nile valley, and then from parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. 

According to archaeological evidence, the ancient Egyptians greatly used eye makeup and many other sorts of makeup. Ancient Egyptian paintings and sculptures suggest that they used to paint their eyes in a distinctive style. Their history of makeup goes back to as early as 4000 BCE. Archaeologists believe that they painted their eyes for two main reasons. One was to please their gods by appearing beautiful in front of their gods. Another reason was, as they lived in a hot climate, they put a heavy thick layer of kohl, which was medicinal, around their eyes. This was to keep their eyes cool and to protect them from bacteria and dust. Modern studies say that the ancient kohl used by the Egyptians was known to be antibacterial. 

Kohl used by ancient Egyptians was made of a mixture of burnt almonds, oxidised copper, copper ores, lead, ash, and others. Archaeologists believe that this herbal mixture of kohl was in use since the year 3000 BCE. 

It was not only the royals and elites who used makeup, both men and women also wore eye makeup. There is archaeological evidence of kohl containers, eyeliner applying brushes, and remains of kohl, in many parts of Egypt. Kohl was considered a must and greatly important, that they even placed kohl and relevant instruments in tombs and pyramids, to be used by the dead in their afterlife. 

Daniel Delis Hill’s History of World Costume and Fashion (2011) says, “Cosmetics were worn by both women and men, most especially for enhancing the eyes and as protection from the glare of the sun. Eyeliner was made of powdered black kohl, an ore of lead, and eye shadows were created by pulverised minerals such as malachite, lapis lazuli, or turquoise.” 

In The History of Makeup: Classic Beauty (2011), Gabriela Hernandez explains the use of eye makeup by ancient Egyptians as below;

“The toilette box of a wealthy Egyptian woman often contained pumice stones, eye paint applicators, mineral powder, palettes to mix colours, and containers of coloured powder. These included the green mineral malachite, red ochre used as a rouge and lip colorant and black powder eyeliner known as kohl made from soot, galena, and other ingredients.” 

This heavy thick black eye makeup also was supposed to ward off evil eyes. Kohl was also associated with popular Egyptian deities such as Horus, Ra, and Hathor. Therefore, wearing kohl was on one hand, a homage to gods, and on the second hand, it was based on a belief among them, that kohl had magical powers to protect them from diseases and ward off evil eyes. This belief about kohl’s ability to protect them from diseases is actually proven now through modern research.

Modern research on ancient kohl

One may question how kohl protected Egyptians from many diseases and why the lead wasn’t harmful? Let us find out answers to this. 

The Nile valley was warm and arid. It was extremely dusty and the sand was harmful for people’s eyes. There were insects and bacteria that resulted after the flooding of the Nile. All these caused diseases for the eyes of its inhabitants. 

Ancient kohl contained many ingredients including herbs and minerals. It is proven that Zinc oxide is a strong natural sun block, neem has astringent and antibacterial properties, and antiviral, fennel, and saffron were used to fight many eye diseases. Ingredients such as chaksu and precious gems, were also believed to improve sight. 

Modern biochemical studies have revealed that this kohl mixture triggers an overproduction of nitrogen monoxide, which stimulates nonspecific immunological defences, and based on this study, scientists say that wearing kohl by Egyptians made their eyes resistant to bacterial infections because of the spontaneous response of immune cells. The kohl also provided protection for them from the harsh desert sun glare and harmful UV rays.

What did the western world think about eye makeup?

However, Romans did not look at eye makeup as the Egyptians did. Although the Romans did use beauty products such as soap, deodorant, oils, moisturisers and believed in hair removal, they actually looked down upon eye makeup. 

It was not a religious practice among them to paint their eyes. Ancient Romans believed in natural beauty rather than enhanced beauty by cosmetics. 

The use of makeup was actually associated with sex workers and considered a sign of bad character and shamelessness. Ancient Roman arts reveal that their women appeared to be simple and pale. Roman poetry reveals that generally, they believed that women who painted their faces and wore eye makeup were usually looked down upon. 

In Asia and Sri Lanka

In ancient China, women painted their faces in white and made their cheeks pink, and coloured their lips red. But these practices were limited to the royals, the elite and dancing girls or sex workers. Eye makeup was not a prominent thing in this part of the ancient world. 

But in places where the Indian civilisation spread, Africa and the Middle East, people use eye makeup for religious, medicinal, and fashion purposes, from ancient times to today. Today this has become a cultural practice. 

In ancient Indian arts, women are seen to be decorated with heavy lines of kohl or kajal. Kohl painted eyes were considered a sign of feminine beauty in India. In Sri Lanka too, ancient paintings suggest that women had painted their eyes. This eye makeup of Sri Lanka is referred to as anjana or andun in poems and local references. But this was not as prominent as what the ancient Egyptians did. 

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 16 2021

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