Cinders and ashes

Unrefined shea-butter

Unprepared, unrefined shea-butter

Refined shea-butter

Prepared shea-butter

Today I have prepared raw shea-butter for use. Raw, unrefined shea-butter is much cheaper than the prepared variety. It is very easy to prepare: place raw, unrefined shea-butter in a double-boiler (e.g. a glass in a pan of simmering water); leave the butter to melt; place in a big bowl; using a hand-held blender, blend until smooth and creamy; decant in a jar and let it cool down. Prepared shea-butter loses some of its properties but it is much more appetizing.

I want to share with you one of my favourite Greek cosmetic recipes. It comes from a collection of women’s remedies attributed to a certain Metrodora (if she ever existed, we know nothing about her).

To make the face bright: Berenice the queen of Egypt, nicknamed Cleopatra, used this. Having thrown the horn of a deer in a new vase, she roasted it in oven and, having removed it, she found it whitened; she crushed it with milk and anointed herself.

I just love this: the attribution to a queen Cleopatra (not the famous one, though); the deer antler; the fact that the recipe is phrased as if Cleopatra herself prepared this – simply delightful. Not that I ever intend to try this on myself. I don’t even know how I would get deer antlers. How much do I need anyway? And what type of milk should I use (cow’s; goat’s; ewe’s; ass’s)? As I was saying, ancient recipes do tend to be a bit difficult to follow. Then, I am not sure whether the consistency of this face cream would be very pleasant.

Burnt ingredients are regularly used in ancient cosmetology. Here is another example: again a recipe attributed to a Cleopatra (perhaps the famous one), but this time preserved in the writings of the famous physician Galen (second century CE). It is supposed to work against alopecia and in general to prevent baldness:

One part of burnt domestic mice, one part of burnt remnants of vine, one part of burnt horse teeth, one part of bear fat, one part of deer marrow, one part of reed bark. Pound them dry; then add a sufficient amount of honey until the thickness of the honey is appropriate; and then dissolve the fat and the marrow; knead and mix. Place the remedy in a copper box. Rub the alopecia until new hair grows back. Similarly, falling hair should be anointed everyday.

Lovely! I think the rationale here is to use the ‘fertilizing’ power of ashes. Ashes work wonders as soil fertilizers, they might also work as fertilizers of the scalp or skin. The ingredients that are burnt often have further connections to fertility: for instance, mice and deer were considered very fertile in the ancient world.

I stick to my ‘fertility’ explanation. There was, however, something I did not know until Friday: ashes can still be used in cosmetic making. You can make lye-water (which is used in soap-making) from wood-ash. Have a look at this: I guess one could also make lye-water from deer-antler ashes. But we should be careful not to draw too close a parallel between ancient and ‘modern’ uses of ashes in cosmetology: the Greeks did not use soap (they preferred oils) and there is no reference to filtering water (or any other liquid) in the recipes above.

Now you have read some of the recipes I study, you probably understand why I have been so reluctant to produce modern interpretations of ancient cosmetic products! On the other hand, I hope you see why I love this stuff so much.

This entry was posted in Cosmetics, History of medicine and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Cinders and ashes

  1. Juno says:

    Deer horn: try the local farmer’s market … and ass milk, surely!


  2. Pingback: Deer Oh Deer | Guerilla Archaeology

  3. Pingback: The Recipes of Cleopatra | The Recipes Project

  4. Pingback: The Recipes of Cleopatra | The Recipes Project

  5. SmilaZ says:

    Brilliant stuff. Well done. Cool and clever!
    Actually I googled in search of where to buy raw shea butter here in Berlin.
    PLEASE tell me if you have a clue.



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