Modern Minoan Paganism: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

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Minoan Cosmetics: Do It Yourself!

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Many people in the ancient world used cosmetics: lotions, oils, and creams to moisturize the skin; perfumed oils for their scent; and color cosmetics (makeup) for lips, cheeks, and eyes. You’ve probably seen the colorful images of the ancient Egyptians with their black eyeliner, and they weren’t alone in wanting a little personal adornment. The Minoans were no different. Residues found in containers from a number of ancient sites in Crete give us an intimate look into the personal habits of the Minoans and can allow us to make our own cosmetics in very much the same way as they did.

If you have a chance to visit one of the museums that house Minoan artifacts, you’ll find a number of pottery and stone cosmetics containers listed as containing residues. These include the Heraklion Archaeological Museum and the Archaeological Museum of Rethymno in Crete; the British Museum; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are probably others as well. So let’s get on with the details and recipes, shall we?

Please note: It’s possible to have an allergic reaction to pretty much anything, including all-natural cosmetics. It’s a good idea to test any new substance on a thumb-sized spot on the inside of your forearm – apply and leave overnight – before trying it out on your face or any larger area of your body. Also, beware that many of these types of cosmetics are likely to stain your skin for days (ask me how I know this).

Beeswax and olive oil are the base ingredients for ointments and salves going back to ancient times, and plain olive oil is the base for most ancient cosmetics, though almond and sesame oil were also used. In addition to the pigments added for color, people would steep herbs in the oil for medicinal purposes or to add fragrance. Many people made their own cosmetics at home, using ingredients they grew themselves or purchased, but finished cosmetics were also available in the marketplace, as were many different kinds of beautiful pottery and stone containers to hold these substances.

One item people didn’t make at home was essential oil. There is evidence from several locations on Crete that the ancient Minoans distilled the essential oils of a number of different plants. This is a fairly advanced process, so the fact that these people were doing it several thousand years ago says something about their culture, I think.

What sorts of ingredients did they use and what kinds of cosmetics did they make? One thing we know they made is camphorated oil, like a gentle version of Vick’s salve or Tiger Balm. Steeping herbs such as laurel, sage, rosemary, or lavender in olive oil will give it something of a camphorated scent, but the Minoans also added essential oils to theirs for a bigger kick. The plain oil is good for massage but beeswax can be added to make a salve as well (see recipes below).

In terms of makeup – the ancient versions of lipstick, foundation, eye shadow, and rouge – the ancients used a variety of substances, some of which aren’t actually safe to use on the skin, but they didn’t know that back then. For instance, the black eyeliner (kohl) that was used throughout the ancient Mediterranean world was usually made from finely-ground stibnite (a sulfide of antimony) or galena (a lead sulfide) mixed with olive oil. Not the kind of thing you really want soaking into your skin. A safer, historically-accurate alternative would be to burn frankincense or myrrh resin or shelled almonds down until they’re fully charred, then grind up the remaining substance fine (use a spice grinder) and mix it with olive oil. It’s also possible to use wood ashes to make kohl, but don’t use the ash from barbecue charcoal, since it contains dangerous additives.

If you want to try this out yourself, add the olive oil to the ashes a drop or two at a time, stirring well, until you have a spreadable paste. You want it just thin enough to spread with a brush or your finger. Like other people from their time period, the Minoans used narrow sticks or pieces of reed to apply their eyeliner, so if you’d like to try it their way, I recommend the kind of ‘orange stick’ that’s found in manicure sets for pushing up your cuticles. The ash/char could also be used in its powdered form, without added oil, to darken the eyebrows – simply apply with a small brush.

If you’d like a little lip or cheek color, there are several possibilities. I don’t recommend using minium, which is a naturally-occurring form of lead tetroxide that happens to be bright red. The juice of many kinds of edible red and purple berries will work nicely for staining the lips and cheeks (and clothing – oops!) and has been a mainstay of homemade cosmetics for millennia. Some possibilities that would have been available to the ancient Minoans include myrtle berries and pomegranate seeds, both of which have symbolic meanings associated with Minoan goddesses.

If you want something a little fancier for lipstick and rouge, you could use powdered alkanet root, available from herbal and natural dye suppliers. It’s a native Mediterranean plant. You could steep the powder in oil (the oil will turn red) and then use the oil to make a salve that would serve as a natural lip gloss and rouge (see recipes below). It’s also possible to use henna to stain the lips, though it’s not likely the Minoans used it that way – it’s difficult to get it to stay on long enough to stain the skin well. But if the artwork is any indication, they did use henna to stain their fingernails and fingertips.

For a little more color, you’ll have to go to a little more expense. You’ll need some malachite or lapis lazuli – semiprecious stones – ground to a fine powder. You can apply this directly to the eyelids as a powdered eye shadow or mix it with olive or almond oil for a creamy version.

There is some evidence that the Minoans, like other ancient people around the Mediterranean and in Mesopotamia, combined beeswax with various resins (frankincense, myrrh, copal, terebinth) and used the mixture as a sort of ‘setting lotion’ for their hair. It would have smelled lovely and would have had a texture similar to modern styling waxes.

One cosmetic substance the Minoans used that was every bit as expensive back then as it is now is orris root. Residues in containers have shown us that the Minoans distilled the essential oil, sometimes called orris butter, to use in perfumes and cosmetics. In the modern world, orris root powder has long been used as a scent and preservative in potpourri mixtures, but we don’t know whether the Minoans used it that way.

Here are some basic recipes for herbal oil and salve that I’ve used for years. The Minoans would have made these at home and experimented with whatever they had available to make their own cosmetics. It’s a pretty sure bet they traded recipes, too (or sometimes kept them desperately secret to cut down on the competition!).

 

Herbal Oil Infusion

Olive, almond, or raw (unroasted) sesame oil: 2 ounces (60 ml)

Herbs: 2 teaspoons dried or 4 teaspoons fresh

Small pan to heat the oil in

Glass or crockery jar with lid (canning jars work well for this)

For camphorated oil, choose one or more of the following: bay laurel, rosemary, sage, mint, myrtle leaf, pine/fir needles

For perfumed or scented oil, choose from the following: lavender, anise, fennel, chamomile, rose, carnation

For colored oil, choose from the following: alkanet root (red), saffron (yellow)

For cosmetics, you’ll only need a small quantity of oil and herbs. The more herbs you use, the stronger the scent will be. Go easy if you’re going to be using the oil on your face, either plain or as an ingredient in homemade makeup, since stronger infusions can be irritating to the skin. Use more herbs if you want to use the infused oil as a base for solid perfume. You can double or triple the recipe if you want to make a natural massage oil or use it as an ingredient in larger quantities of salve.

To make the infusion, heat the oil gently over low heat in the pan until it is very warm to the touch. Place the herbs in the jar and pour the oil over them. Stir to release any air bubbles. Put the lid on the jar and store it away from heat and light. Check daily and strain out the herbs when the oil is as strong as you would like, but no longer than 1 week for fresh herbs or 2 weeks for dried. Use plain as a massage or moisturizing oil or as an ingredient in the recipe below, or mix with colored powders for makeup.

 

Beeswax Salve or Solid Perfume

Olive, almond, or raw (unroasted) sesame oil, plain or infused: ¾ cup (180 ml)

Beeswax, chopped or grated: 1 ounce by weight (30 grams)

Pan to heat the ingredients in

Jar with lid for storage

In a pan, heat the oil and beeswax together gently over low heat until the beeswax is completely melted. Stir well. If you want to make a colored makeup with the salve as a base, add your color powder now and stir it in well. Pour the mixture into a jar and allow it to cool completely before putting the lid on. For use as a solid perfume, you could add a few drops of natural essential oil for stronger fragrance. If you want a stiffer finished product, perhaps to use as a lipstick or lip balm, simply add a little more beeswax, up to another ½ ounce (15 grams).

I hope you enjoy experimenting with these recipes. I’m sure there are other ingredients the Minoans used that we simply don’t know about because we haven’t happened upon the residue in a container somewhere. So feel free to expand your experiments to include any oil or herb that was known in the ancient Mediterranean world (grapeseed oil comes to mind here). Have fun!

In the name of the Bee -
And of the Butterfly -
And of the Breeze - Amen!

 

References:

A History of Cosmetics from Ancient Times http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/Ancient-history-cosmetics

Handmade Cosmetics in Ancient Times http://allnaturalbeauty.us/ani8.htm

Herbs for Health and Beauty in Minoan Crete of 2000 BC http://www.explorecrete.com/archaeology/minoan-herbs.html

Latsis Foundation Guide to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion http://www.latsis-foundation.org/eng/electronic-library/the-museum-cycle/the-archaeological-museum-of-herakleion

 

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Laura Perry is an artist, writer, and the founder and facilitator of Modern Minoan Paganism. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of hers since a fateful art history class introduced her to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. Her first book was published in 2001; one of her most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. She has also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When she's not busy drawing and writing, you can find her in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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