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Cosmetic Accoutrements from Biblical Times

September 6, 2018

Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised(Proverbs 31:30 ESV)




Beautification techniques during biblical times included the use of cosmetics and perfumes as well as a variety of accessories such as palettes, application spatulas, spoons, sticks and mirrors.  The most commonly used cosmetics were ointments and perfumes, as well as black eye paint and henna, a reddish brown dye still popular today.  Biblical references imply knowledge and use of cosmetics (Job 42:14 and Song of Songs 1:14, 7:5).  Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians used kohl, white lead and facial rouge.  New Testament era historical sources attest to the use of facial powder and hair dye. While primarily the domain of the elites, use of cosmetics certainly spread to most peoples and groups, including Israelites, as objects recovered from various tombs attest.


Relevance to the Biblical Account


In the Bible, the use of immodest apparel and cosmetics appear in a negative light, symbolizing vanity and arrogance (Isaiah 3:16-26; Jeremiah 4:3).  Other biblical texts equate cosmetics with lewdness or harlotry; indicative of Israel’s continued unfaithfulness to God.  Ezekiel provides a typical example:  For them you bathed yourself, painted your eyes, and adorned yourself with ornaments(Ezekiel 23:40, cf., 16:10-12 ESV).  Potiphar’s wife undoubtedly used accoutrements similar to those in the Horn Museum collection in her futile attempt to seduce Joseph (Genesis 39) after his arrival in Egypt. Esther endured extensive beautification treatments over an entire year, including using cosmetics, before going as a concubine into King Ahasuerus(Esther 2:3-14).  In 2 Kings 9:30, Jezebel painted her eyes and adorned her head before facing Jehu’s wrath. Likewise, the New Testament (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:9; 1 Peter 3:3-4) discourages use of cosmetics in order to maintain modesty.


Physical Description


The bronze mirror, acquired from Mohammed Nasser of Beirut in 1970, is typical of the mirrors used by elites in biblical times.  The circular face of the mirror was originally highly polished in order to reflect the image of its user, albeit a bit dimly (e.g., Exodus 38:8).  The diameter of the mirror (70.0009) is 4 1/8 inches and the length, including the handle, is 6 ¾ inches.  Of the many parallels, two similar mirrors clad in wood frames shaped like table tennis paddles discovered in a Nahal Hever cave deep in the Judean desert by Yigael Yadin in 1960-61 (1971: 117-118, 155-158) are especially noteworthy.

The bronze vial (74.0441) is four inches in length and probably represents a kohl tube that once held ground stibnite.  When applied with a spatula or pointed pencil-shaped stick, this popular charcoal like substance served as mascara.  Professor Abraham Terian donated the vial to the Horn Museum in 1974.  The mirror and vial regrettably lack a clear provenance, but parallels are common.  For example, during clearance work in the casemate rooms at Masada, which served as makeshift living quarters for its Zealot defenders, excavators found a collection of remarkably preserved cosmetics.  Buried under piles of stone and other debris, these small caches included a palm frond basket, spatulas, palettes, eyeliner sticks, a mirror case and a comb and undoubtedly accompanied female Zealot family members to Masada and subsequently used during their six-year occupation of this fortress (AD 66-73; Yadin 1966: 145-149).  The Horn Museum collection includes bronze and iron kohl sticks or spoons from Tall Hisban, Tall Umayri and al-Dreijat in Jordan (70.0013; 71.0109; 71.0508; 73.0299; 73.0312; 73.0340; 74.0092; 74.0185; 76.0032; 76.0037; 76.0063; 76.0143; 76.0185; 76.0256; 76.0310; 76.0329; 84.0148; 87.0077; 89.0065; 89.0067; 89.0109; 89.0133; 92.0033; 98.0239).  The museum also possesses bronze and iron spatulas from Tall Hisban and Tall Umayri (68.0018; 71.0195; 71.0201; 71.0209; 71.0340; 71.0378; 73.0119; 73.0184; 84.0211; 86.0043; 89.0109), stone cosmetic palettes privately acquired (64.0101; 72.0085) as well as recovered from Tall Hisban, Tall Umayri and Tall Jalul (68.0045; 68.0197; 84.0102; 84.0132; 84.0234; 87.0044; 87.0236; 87.0255; 87.0303; 87.0321; 87.0364; 92.0050; 94.0042) and several mirrors (71.0215; 73.0293; 74.0210; 84.0220).




Bienkowski, Piotr

2000    Cosmetics.  P. 80 in Dictionary of the Ancient Near East.  Edited by Piotr Bienkowski                  and Alan Millard. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania.


Dayagi-Mendels, Michal

1997    Perfumes and Cosmetics of the Ancient World.  Israel Museum Catalogue                                  305.  Jerusalem: The Israel Museum.


Harrison, Roland K., and Yamauchi, Edwin M.

2014    Cosmetics.  Pp. 367-373 in Volume 1 (A-Da) of Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and                Post-Biblical Antiquity,edited by Edwin M. Yamauchi and Marvin R.                                             Wilson.  Peabody:  Hendrickson.


Jacob, Ronja

2011    Kosmetik im antiken Palästina.  Alter Orient und Altes Testament                                                389.  Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.


Manniche, Lise

1999    Sacred Luxuries:  Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient                                        Egypt.  Ithaca:  Cornell University.


Stewart, Susan

2007    Cosmetics and Perfumes in the Roman World. Stroud:  Tempus.


Yadin, Yigael

1966    Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand.  New York: Random House.

1971    Bar Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the last Jewish Revolt against              Imperial Rome.  London:  Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

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