Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt: Hair and wigs
Head hair
Facial hair
Body hair
Hair problems
Wigs and hairpieces

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comb, hairpin, wig
Comb, hairpin and wig piece [1]
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Hair and wigs

Head hair

Barber Barber shaving the head of a soldier
Tomb of Userhat, 18th dynasty
Source: V. Easy

May my mother be my hairdresser, so as to do for me what is pleasant
The instruction of Ankhsheshonq [2]
   Fashions changed over the millennia. There were periods when the head was clean shaven, others when it was left to grow, cropped short or worn shoulder-long or even longer by both men and women. Priests are shown with cleanly shaved heads since the New Kingdom, but most people seem to have had some hair on their heads and taken good care of it, as the many remedies against hair loss or grey hair indicate.[3]
    Young girls often had pigtails while boys had shaved heads. Some, like the young Ramses II, had one braided lock worn on one side. New Kingdom: Royal child with braided side lock-

Royal child with side lock
New Kingdom
Source: Jon Bodsworth

During Ramesside times some priests wore a single braided sidelock tied into a tight spiral.[4]
 
    Teen-age girls and young women [5] wore their hair long enough to be able to braid it:
My heart thought of my love of you,
When half of my hair was braided;
Skull of Anhapu I came at a run to find you,
And neglected my hairdo.
Now if you let me braid my hair,
I shall be ready in a moment.
pHarris 500 [6]

Braided hair of Anhapu, New Kingdom.
The hair from an area of roughly 4 square centimetres was separated and plaited for a distance of about 0 m 03 cent., then divided into three (or more) wisps each of which was tightly plaited in the form of an ear of wheat. The common plait and the stalks of the "ears of wheat" were then thickly smeared with a paste, apparently a resinous material. [7]

    The impression their hair and other charms made on the young men spurred some to flights of poetic fancy:
Upright neck, shining breast,
Hair true lapis lazuli;
Arms surpassing gold,
Fingers like lotus buds.
Papyrus Chester Beatty I [8]
    Rich women used elaborately carved combs, hairpins, razors and hand held metal mirrors and curled their hair.

Facial hair

Old Kingdom: Rahotep sporting a moustache, 3rd dynasty; Source: Jon Bodsworth, excerpt Rahotep, excerpt
Old Kingdom
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth

    The men were generally clean shaven. Rahotep (picture on the left), a 3rd dynasty official, sporting a small moustache, was rather an exception, though moustaches were not as rare during the Old Kingdom as they were to become later on.
    The beard was apparently shaved off, but during the New Kingdom statues of high officials had chin beards,[9] which were somewhat shorter than the pharaonic beard. This mark of authority was so important that Queen Hatshepsut wore a false beard after becoming pharaoh.
    During the Middle and New Kingdoms the shaving was done with copper and bronze razors, metals not renowned for keeping a sharp edge, and shaving must have been somewhat of an ordeal. Only during the Late Dynastic Period did iron razors come into use.
 
    Many men entrusted themselves to professional barbers who plied their trade in public places.
The barber barbers till nightfall. He betakes himself to town, he sets himself up in his corner, he moves from street to street, looking for someone to barber.
The Satire of the Trades [10]

    The beards worn by the pharaohs including Queen Hatshepsut, were artificial and indicative of their status as kings.

Body hair

Depiction on the sarcophagus cover of Djedhor     It is unclear how widespread the practice of removing body hair was. Concerning the vast majority of the ancient Egyptian population practically nothing is known, and even among the upper classes records about body depilation are slim. Golden razors have been found in the tomb of Queen Hetepheres,[11] but, given the softness of the metal, it is doubtful they were used for shaving. Some depictions which show women naked or in diaphanous clothing suggest that they removed their pubic hair, others that they did not, but nothing is known about the artistic conventions of the day concerning body hair. There may also have been differences between social classes and between professions, and fashion may have changed over time.

Depiction of the goddess Nut raising the sun on a sarcophagus lid belonging to Djedhor.
Ptolemaic Period
Louvre Museum
Courtesy Jon Bodsworth
What seems to be pubic hair is showing through the diaphanous gown. No hair is shown in the armpits.

    In the sixth century BCE at least, priests seem to have shaved their entire body as part of their ritual cleansing. The reason generally given for this by historians is, following Herodotus, the prevention of lice:
The priests shave their whole body every other day, that no lice or other impure thing may adhere to them when they are engaged in the service of the gods.
Herodotus, Euterpe, Histories 2.37
translated by George Rawlinson. Project Gutenberg
    For body epilation a mixtures of crushed bird bones, oil, sycamore juice, and gum, or like concoctions were heated and applied to the skin.[12] After cooling the hardened layer was then presumably pulled off, removing the hair glued to it. Metal tweezers, with which they could have pulled out unwanted hair, were known since the Early Dynastic Period.[13]

Hair problems

    Grey hair was hidden by the application of henna since the middle of the 4th millennium BCE at least. Sometimes it was tinted with an ointment containing the astringent juniper-berries and two other, unidentified plants which supplied the colouring agent. But magic was also tried: blood of a black ox, the ground black horn of a gazelle or putrid donkey's liver were hoped to prevent greying [14].
    One should think that in a society were people often had clean shaved heads baldness would not be much of a problem, but it seems some disliked losing their hair and combatted it by applying oils and fats or placing chopped lettuce leaves on their skin.
Remedy for making hair grow
1
apnn.t worm, make into a pastille for rubbing in and put on the fire. After it has boiled it shall be immersed in lard. Rub in quite frequently.
Hearst Papyrus No.144 [15]

Wigs and hairpieces

Wig, Mentuhotep, Deir el Bahri (Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh Wig
Middle Kingdom, Deir el Bahri
Source: Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh

    Wigs were worn by both men and women and were made of human hair, later of date palm fibres, which were curled and their shape preserved by waxing. They were worn on religious grounds, because they were fashionable or occasionally as a hair substitute hiding natural baldness for which there were a number of remedies. Often they were Hairpiece perfumed and their style and length were subject to the changing fashions, men occasionally wearing very long and women short cropped hair [16].

Mummy of New Kingdom female (possible queen Nefertari).
The woman had been going bald and plaits made of human hair were tied to strands of her remaining hair.[17]

    Hair pieces were also worn at times to hide deficiencies, even, or perhaps above all, in death when making a good impression seems to have counted more than anything else.
 

Footnotes:
 
Wb. refers to A. Erman, H. Grapow, Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache, 13 volumes, 19261963
 
[1] Source: Rosicrucian Order website
[2] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.167
[3] Adolf Erman, Aegypten und ägyptisches Leben im Altertum, Laupp, Tübingen 1885, p.302
[4] David P. Silverman, Edward Brovarski, Searching for ancient Egypt: art, architecture, and artifacts from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cornell University Press, 1997, p.247
[5] In the tale of The Two Brothers, Anpu and Bata, the younger brother returned home to fetch seed grain:
His young brother found the wife of his elder brother seated braiding her hair.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.204
[6] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.191
[7] G. Elliot Smith, Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du musée du Caire, 1912, plate IV
[8] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.2, p.182
[9] Edna R. Russmann, Thomas Garnet Henry James, Eternal Egypt: masterworks of ancient art from the British Museum, University of California Press, 2001, p.124
[10] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.186
[11] Virginia Sarah Smith, Clean: a history of personal hygiene and purity, Oxford World's Classics, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp.66f.
[12] Papyrus Ebers (No.447) and the Hearst Papyrus have a few such recipes:
Remedy for removing hairs from any body parts
Boiled bones of the gbg bird, fly dirt, lard, sycamore milk, gum, a lump of salt. Warm. Apply.
Hearst Papyrus No.155
After W.Wreszinski ed., Der Londoner Medizinische Papyrus und der Papyrus Hearst, Leipzig 1912
[14] The Hearst papyrus has three recipes for preventing greying, two of which would have appealed only to the desperate vain:
Remedy for preventing the greying of the hair
Fruit from the
wan tree, Dsr.t plant, Hs fruit from the jmA tree. Pulverize finely, mix with 1 finger full of lard. Make into a lump (?), wrap in a fine cloth, .... in a vessel on the fire until boiling point, mix with fat. Rub in.
 
The same
Donkey liver, leave in a pot until it is rotten. Cooked, put in lard. Rub in.
 
The same
Cook a mouse, put in lard until it has rotted. As above.
Hearst Papyrus Nos. 147-149
After W.Wreszinski ed., Der Londoner Medizinische Papyrus und der Papyrus Hearst, Leipzig 1912
[15] After W.Wreszinski ed., Der Londoner Medizinische Papyrus und der Papyrus Hearst, Leipzig 1912
[16] Egypt Revealed: Ancient Egyptians Wore Wigs, accessed at http://www.egyptrevealed.com/052900-wigs.shtml
[17] G. Elliot Smith, Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du musée du Caire, 1912, plate VII

 

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Offsite links (Opening a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites

 

-[13] Petrie Museum website: UC40555 - Copper tweezers, Early Dynastic Period
-Wig of human hair , 18th dynasty (British Museum)
-Combs (Brian Yare's website)
 

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© November 2009
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