To understand the pharaonic concept of beauty, it is useful to study the ancient Egyptian words for this concept. There are two adjectives that are used to describe beautiful things or people: ʿn and nfr. The former is written phonetically as: ayin + n + the determinative consisting of an eye adorned with cosmetics. There are two variations of this hieroglyph, the eye adorned with cosmetics on the lower lid and the eye enclosed within the hieroglyph for “land.” In Late Egyptian, there is even the noun ʿn(w)t, which is derived from the adjective.
The term nfr, usually rendered nefer in modern Egyptological works, is far more common than those mentioned above, and there are substantives and even verbs related to this adjective. The verbs derived from nfr include snfr, meaning “beautify or embellish.” The abstract concept of “beauty” may be indicated by either nfrw or nfr and the later bw nfr. There are also references describing a man or woman as a nfr or a nfrt, a term that seems to have more significance than simply designating a “beautiful person.” Since these terms refer to specific categories of individuals, they can reveal something of what the Egyptians regarded as beautiful. The young women called nfrwt are sometimes described as “never having been opened in childbirth” (as in the Westcar Papyrus). At Ramesses III's palace-temple of Medinet Habu, a list of captured foreigners includes a reference to nfrwt as a category between child and mature woman. Similarly, nfrw, the masculine version of the word, occurs in several instances when it obviously refers to “young men” or “young people.” In one instance, it can even be translated as “recruits.” In addition, certain cows are called the nfrwt.
Another method of approaching pharaonic concepts of beauty is to look at the various clichéd phrases or terms that include the adjective nfr. For example, the term imntt nfrt (“the Beautiful West”) occurs often in tombs and funerary texts to describe the city of the dead. The White Crown of Upper Egypt, called the ḥḏt is sometimes called the ḥḏt nfrt and occasionally even the nfrt. In addition, the king is often described as the nṯr nfr, an epithet which is usually translated as “the Good God,” although “the Beautiful God” is equally accurate. In a coregency, the term nṯr nfr is used to designate the younger ruler. The elder king is instead called the nṯr ʿʒ (“Great God”). Once again, nfr refers, if not to a young king, then to the younger of two. This attribute of youth or agelessness is an important component both of Egyptian aesthetics and of conceptions of divinity.
The apparent connections between youth and the descriptive term nfr may be an important clue to understanding the ancient concept of “beauty.” In Egyptian art, artists portray the ideal form as youthful and slim with narrow hips. (Anthropometric studies of pharaonic mummies have revealed that this is a fair representation of reality, at least in the case of Egyptian women. Their hip-to-shoulder proportions are not greatly different from those found on male Egyptian mummies.) Both sexes may be represented this way, yet representations of males are more likely to vary from this ideal. Age, in a representation of a woman, is depicted subtly: in a slightly drooping derriere, in subtly sagging breasts or pouching cheeks and, occasionally, in horizontal lines across the torso, indicating increasing weight. These subtle touches are usually detectable only by close examination and comparison of numerous representations. The most famous and explicit representation of youth and age in a woman's body is the depiction of the funerals of Nebamun and Ipuky, both of whom married the same woman. Since the two funerals are represented taking place simultaneously, the representations of the widow show her with bared breasts both firm and drooping and with a change in profile to suggest a sagging chin in the older version of the woman.
The same almost imperceptible clues may be used to suggest advancing age in the apparently ageless form of the ruler. For example, in studying numerous representations of Amenhotpe III and his family, it was discovered that the king's torso was depicted as being somewhat thicker than that of other men. At various periods of Egyptian history, however, wealthy tomb owners might wish to have themselves depicted as older men, to emphasize their sagacity. Tomb scenes might contain representations of aged courtiers, complete with toothless faces and heavy sagging bellies. In the Amarna period, bowing elderly court functionaries appear in many of the scenes behind the figures of the king and queen. Wrinkles, however, are rarely shown on either sex, and gray hair is hardly ever depicted. Egyptian medical documents such as the Ebers Papyrus contain “remedies” not only for wrinkles, but also for baldness and graying hair, showing that, in life as in art, the Egyptians tried to maintain the hallmarks of a youthful appearance: smooth skin and a full head of hair.
Other than the attributes of youth, however, the precise elements that made for a physically beautiful individual are more difficult to define. In the love poetry and in hymns to Hathor, goddess of beauty, some sense of what was considered physically beautiful in people may be found. In many poems, Hathor is described as “golden,” and this may well be a reference to her complexion. In the eighteenth dynasty tomb of May at Thebes, it is said that her face “gleams,” a reference to her solar connections.
The poet of Papyrus Chester Beatty I lists his mortal beloved's enticements rather explicitly: her scent, her hair, her eyes, and her buttocks. Another poem from the same papyrus speaks more romantically of the object of affection, describing her as “bright” of skin, her arm “more brilliant than gold,” long-necked and “white-breasted,” hair of “genuine lapis lazuli,” and fingers like lotus blooms, and it also mentions her beautiful thighs and heavy buttocks. This paragon's other attractions are her swift walk, sweet voice, and knowledge of when to stop talking. In addition to scent, color is also an important element in other erotic poetry where the lover might desire to see the color of all his beloved's limbs or say that she showed him the “color” of her embrace. In a hymn of the twenty-fifth dynasty (recorded on stela Louvre C100), there is a description of the priestess Mutirdis, who has locks of hair black as night and dark as “wine-grapes,” “brilliant” arms, firm breasts, and a complexion “like jasper.”
References to male beauty are not as common, although beauty is an important factor in the story often called the Blinding of Truth by Falsehood. In this story, a woman desires Truth, a man more handsome than anyone else in the country; she bears his child, who looks like a young god. According to the texts left by Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, when the god Amun appears in the bedroom of Queen Ahmes, mother of Hatshepsut, Ahmes is awakened by his divine fragrance, a perfume that permeates the whole palace as they make love. Hatshepsut, the god-king, is described there as appearing before her subjects with skin like electrum (a light yellow gold-silver alloy) and smelling like all the perfumes of Punt. A sweet scent is indissolubly connected in the Egyptian mind with divine beauty.
Quite often the elements that constitute beauty in people are described indirectly, by analogy or simile. In a poem from Papyrus Harris 500, written around 500 BCE, the female narrator describes herself as being like a field planted with sweet-smelling herbs, much as the male protagonist of Cairo Vase 25218 says that he feels immersed in perfume when he embraces his beloved, as if he were in the land of incense. As is the case with gods, a lover's scent is part of his or her attraction. The narrator of Cairo Vase 25218 also claims to be drunk “without beer” when he kisses her. The female narrator of the Papyrus Harris 500 poem compares her beloved's voice to pomegranate wine, recalling the pomegranate tree mentioned in the poem of Papyrus Turin 1966. This amazing talking tree compares the beloved's teeth to pomegranate seeds and her breasts to the whole fruit. While it is easy to see why breasts might be compared to the fruit, it is less obvious why a beautiful woman's teeth would be like the seeds of the fruit, unless in reference to their evenness and size.
It is not only people who may be described as “beautiful.” In Papyrus Turin 1966, a sycomore fig is described as being beautiful. It has leaves greener than turquoise, branches like faience, wood the color of feldspar, and fruits as red as jasper. The beautiful jewel-like colors of the tree are an integral part of its beauty. Color is also important in nonliterary representations of ideal form. Men, for example, are almost universally depicted with red or red-brown skins. Women are shown with paler skins, although the color used by the artist varies over time: pinkish white in the Old Kingdom; yellow in the Middle Kingdom and the early New Kingdom, and shades of pink or pale orange in the later New Kingdom. (One early representation of women with pink skins is from the funerary temple of Montuhotep I at Deir el-Bahri, where his minor wives are depicted with this complexion.) Goddesses retain a yellow or “golden” complexion throughout the New Kingdom, and an effort is made to distinguish between the complexions of deities and mortals. Egyptian women are rarely depicted with the darker skin tones of a male, although in the Amarna period both sexes are occasionally depicted with the same reddish skin. The symbolism of these color variations has been explained in various ways. For example, it has been stated that upper-class women remained indoors to work, while men were out in the sun, so that a lighter-skinned woman appeared more aristocratic. Certainly, when men are depicted with newly shaved heads, their scalps are shown paler than the rest of their skin. Elderly men were occasionally shown with pale skin. Although the association of light-colored skin with lack of sun may have been to some extent true, no doubt these colors also had symbolic meaning. Red is the color of blood and heat and represents the active principle. The use of other colors for female skin tones is perhaps suggestive of youthfulness or immortality. Yellow in particular, which is used throughout Egyptian history for the skin tones of goddesses, suggests the warm gleam of gold. The love poems in speaking eloquently of the “gleaming” skin of the love object echo this idea. White, which is also occasionally used, is in some contexts interchangeable with yellow, especially in the context of solar imagery.
To the ancient Egyptians, beauty in human and nonhuman context may also have included symmetry as a necessary component. For example, in art and architecture the Egyptians favored the rectilinear geometric outline over the curved. Thus, the ideal male body may be summarized as being bounded by two triangles: the torso, consisting of broad shoulders exaggerated in two-dimensional images by frontal positioning and narrow waist, shown in three-quarter view; and the striding legs. The bodies of women were tailored to fit within a long rectangle, their shoulders narrower than the male's shoulders and the feet together or with one slightly advanced. Only in the Amarna period does the ideal body (i.e., that of the king) greatly depart from the previous athletic norm, when Akhenaten's art forms are as unconventional as his religious reforms. Whatever the reason for that pharaoh's elongated representation (Frohlich's and Marfan's syndromes have both been suggested)—his narrow shoulders, large drooping belly, massive thighs, and thin extremities seem far from the geometric perfection of the traditional royal male. His body shape is transferred almost exactly to the figure of his wife Nefertiti, in slightly less extreme form to their daughters, and occasionally in modified form to their subjects. It begets a new style and, in this case, the usual rules of determining beauty may be said to be reversed: instead of the pharaoh's body being depicted according the slim and athletic ideal of male beauty, his corporeal form is represented as the acme of perfection. Although it is often stated that all Egyptian rulers provided a model of perfect human form for their artists, still they are represented with more or less uniform bodies, with only minor variations; if the actual appearance of the royal body were truly the model by which beauty were determined, over the course of three thousand years, there would be skinny and fat pharaohs, heavily muscled and knock-kneed pharaohs, and more courtiers who resembled them.
Among the elite who commissioned tombs, variations from the fashionable form of the time were slight, and drastic departures from the slim, youthful, and healthy “norm” are seen primarily in those of lower status. For example, pattern baldness and hernia are depicted in representations of herdsmen and other lower class males. Yet for women, age and obesity are rarely represented. A representation from Deir el-Bahri of a woman involved in the making of cloth shows someone who does not have the “ideal” shape given to the noblewomen. The most famous example of a deviation from the norm is the “Queen of Punt,” who is met by Hatshepsut's expedition to the country. She is depicted as a massive, apparently obese woman, with sagging arms and a sway back. For the interpretation, the question remains, however: Is the queen the ideal of beauty in her own country, a caricature of a foreign type, or merely an artist's observation of an obvious pathology?
In the literature of ancient Egypt, the effect of beauty, and especially of beautiful women, on the story is considerable. In the Westcar Papyrus, which contains the legends of great magicians told to King Khufu by his own sorcerer, an episode motivated by the wishes of a scantily clad nfrt is recounted. King Sneferu has asked that he be rowed in his pleasure-boat by a crew of nubile young women dressed in fishnets and jewelry. One young oars-woman loses her amulet and refuses to go any farther until it is recovered, a task that the great sorcerer accomplishes by parting the waters of the lake. The effect of this young woman is benign compared to the destruction wrought by a beautiful wraith called Tabubu in the Setna Khaemwase Cycle. She convinces the protagonist to give over his house and property to her, to force his children to accede to the transaction and, finally, persuades him to have his children killed and their bodies thrown to the scavengers. Interestingly, although she is described as “beautiful, without compare,” Tabubu's physical appearance is never described in specific. Similarly, in the Story of the Two Brothers, Bata is given a beautiful wife. Although most aspects of her appearance are not described, the scent of her hair is so entrancing that a pharaoh falls in love with her. Like Tabubu, she is evil and conspires to kill her husband after she has left him. Despite these examples, “beauty” was a much-valued quality in the literature of the pharaonic world, associated with the good and the pure, as well as the desirable.
- Arnold, Dorothea. The Royal Women of Amarna. New York, 1996.
- Robins, G. Women in Ancient Egypt. London, 1993.
- Rosalind, M., and Jac J. Janssen. Getting Old in Ancient Egypt. London, 1996.
- Wilkinson, Richard. Reading Egyptian Art. London, 1992.
- Wilkinson, Richard. Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art. London, 1994.