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In ancient Egypt, much attention was given to one’s appearance. Men and women both, whose economic status permitted it, applied fragrant ointments to their skin. But what did perfume mean for this ancient civilization? How did they prepare these essences? What uses did they have? What aromas were the most-used? Let’s discover the history of perfume in ancient Egypt.
For the Egyptians, something’s aroma had a lot to do with its divine essence, so when they applied a flower’s essence to their skin, they were putting something sacred on their skin; something which gave them a special power. Such was the Egyptians’ respect for perfumes that they had a god of perfumes called Nefertem, “guardian and protector of the makers of perfumes and oils, protector and god of the sacred lotus flower. Osiris is the body of the plants, and Nefertem is their soul.”
The manner in which they prepared perfumes has no similarity to modern methods. In modern times distillation is used and perfumes are more watery, lighter in both texture and aroma. In ancient Egypt the aromatic substance was burned over a low fire along with oils or resins. In that way an oil was obtained that had the aroma of that plant or flower. Because of this process, these perfumes were greasy, more intense, lasted a long time and were able to be preserved remarkably well.
The use of perfume was somewhat elitist. The people who had a high level of buying power could use it on a daily basis. Women bathed in essences and applied aromatic oils to their skins repeatedly, day after day, to the point of eliminating any body odour. And we can’t forgot the aphrodisiac and erotic power that perfumes had for them.
Since perfumes were considered divine, it was essential to arrive at a religious festival well-perfumed in order to draw the attention of the gods. In the images that we have of the time-period, we can see women with the lotus flower on their noses or with incense cones on their heads. Aromatic oils were also used in the mummification process and bottles of perfume have been found in many tombs.
It appears that the most frequently-used was the perfume of the lotus flower. This flower was abundant in the Nile; a delicate flower with regenerative and erotic connotations that appears many times in the pictorial history of the Egyptians.
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Next up in our blog: The history of perfume in ancient Greece.