Navigating the high seas

This week I interrupt my series on the history of breastfeeding to describe my most daring experiment with ancient cosmetics yet. How fitting then that the recipe I attempted to recreate is attributed to a certain Pelagia, whose name evokes the high seas? The recipe is preserved in Aetius of Amida (sixth century AD) and has the particularity of including Gallic soap (see here for more details):

Soap the Patrician Pelagia used to make her face shine: Gallic soap, 6 ounces; starch, 1½ ounce; white lead, 1½ ounce; mastic, ½ ounce; deer marrow, 1 ounce; white native sodium carbonate, 4 pastilles; white wax, 3 ounces. Soak the soap beforehand in water in a small jar (angeion) for five days, changing the rain water every day and filtering the soap. After that, on the sixth day, put the soap in a new cooking pot (chytra) with the rain water; place on coals, on a low heat, until the soap has melted. Then sprinkle with the wax and the marrow, and when they are dissolved, take the frying pan (lopas) and stir well with a spittle (spathē) and sprinkle the mastic and the starch, ground beforehand. Then add the white lead (ground beforehand in some water) in a small dish (conchon) and beat up with the hand vigorously. Then place in a new jar (angeion) and use generously. [Aetius 8.6]

This recipe is fascinating for a variety of reasons. I have touched upon the attribution to Pelagia before, and will discuss this further on the Recipes Project. It is also noteworthy because, unlike so many other ancient recipes, it gives long instructions on how to prepare this soap. These, however, somehow lack the clarity we expect as modern readers. To borrow the expression of Helen King, this is no ‘painting by number’. Finally, this recipe mentions several different types of cooking implements, again a relatively rare feature in ancient pharmacological writings.

Before I could start recreating this soap, I had to source my ingredients. Even with Google, Amazon, Paypal and all the other modern electronic tools available, I had quite a hard time doing this. There were also some ingredients which, for safety reasons or for reasons of taste, I could not include here.

1) Gallic soap: This would be tallow soap. I could have made my own, but that will be for another time. Instead I found a company called ‘tallowskincare’ (based in Australia – hooray for our global village) producing traditional tallow products. The soap I ordered was made with beef tallow and not with the goat tallow which, according to Pliny, produced the best Gallic soap.
2) Starch: I used corn-flour, which would not have been available in antiquity, but this is what I had at hand. Pliny the Elder (first century CE) describes the process of starch extraction from wheat in his Natural History (13.17).
3) White lead: this was commonly used in the ancient world to whiten women’s skin. It is highly toxic, and I would not get it anywhere near my skin. Instead I used zinc oxide, which is non-toxic (although it should not be inhaled); has a whitening effect; features in modern cosmetics; but was also an ingredient in ancient preparations (see here for more detail).
4) Deer marrow: I did buy a venison joint and was planning on using the marrow, but somehow chickened out of that. Was I to use it cooked or raw? I decided it would be safer to do deal with deer marrow in a more controlled lab environment (which I am planning to do in the future). I thought of alternatives: I needed something buttery, preferably animal. Cow’s milk butter might have done the trick, but again, that did not really appeal. So I went for one of my favourite butters: cocoa butter. Again, this does compromise the authenticity of my concoction, as there was no cocoa in antiquity (how did they cope – poor Greeks and Romans), but it did improve the smell of the preparation.
5) Native sodium carbonate: this is natron, which the Egyptians used in the process of mummification. That ingredient might be sourceable today, but it might be quite expensive. Instead I used common bicarbonate of soda. Pelagia’s recipe recommends four pastilles – most certainly the format in which this product was imported. I decided to use four half-teaspoons. Bicarbonate of soda is used in some modern cosmetics.
6) Mastic: this is Chian mastic, the gum produced by the mastic lentisk. Interestingly, the association of Chian mastic producers mentions Pelagia’s recipe on their website. Unfortunately, I could not get proper mastic on time, and decided to use gum Arabic instead. Such gums are used in modern cosmetics and cooking as emulsifying agents.
7) White wax: I used white beeswax, which was available in antiquity.

Although I had to make many substitutions, I believe my preparation bears some similarity to the original recipe – I substituted like for like. The ancients often had to do this too, as is testified by the numerous lists of substitute ingredients that have been preserved. Let’s recapitulate:

– Tallow soap: 6 ounces
– Corn-flour: 1 ½ ounce
– Zinc oxide 1 ½ ounce
– Gum Arabic: ½ ounce
– Cocoa butter: 1 ounce
– Bicarbonate of soda: 4 half teaspoons
– Beeswax: 3 ounces

The ingredients for Pelagia's soap

The ingredients for Pelagia’s soap

I did not soak my soap for five days. I contented myself with a night. This was probably a mistake, as it took me forever to dissolve the soap in the double-boiler. I had to add water a few times, as the preparation became extremely thick. However, I feared that, in a household with two children, the bowl with my soaking soap would have ended up on the floor at some point.


Mixing the preparation. It looks like shaving foam!

Mixing the preparation. It looks like shaving foam!

I found the smell of the melting tallow soap rather unpleasant, but I also felt I could grow accustomed to it. Once the soap, beeswax and cocoa butter had melted, I removed from the heat and added the gum Arabic, the cornstarch, and the zinc oxide diluted in a small amount of water. Finally I mixed the preparation vigourously.

The final product was white, thick and had the consistency of shaving cream. I was amazed at the emulsifying effect of the gum Arabic. Once the preparation had rested for a while, it had a consistency somewhere between shaving foam and marshmallow. I guess my gum was slightly too strong for the present purpose. The smell was not particularly pleasant so I added some geranium and orange essential oils.

Pelagia's soap

Pelagia’s soap

I did not dare put this on my face, even though the consistency was rather pleasant. This cream would most certainly have had the effect to make the face ‘shine’ white. It would have been the equivalent of a modern foundation cream, only much thicker and much whiter.

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4 Responses to Navigating the high seas

  1. Emma says:

    ça ressemble effectivement beaucoup à du marshmallow! Très étrange…


  2. Pingback: Because she is worth it | The Recipes Project

  3. Pingback: Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: Beauty Is Not In The Eye Of The Beholder | Darwin's beard

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