Canonical beauty: Ancient Egypt




Canonical beauty: Ancient Egypt



3100-2950 B.C. – Late Predynastic Period

2950-2575 B.C. – The Early Dynastic Period (1st-3rd Dynasties)

2575-2150 B.C. – The Old Kingdom (4th-8th Dynasties)

2125-1975 B.C. – The 1st Intermediate Period (9th-11th Dynasties)

1975-1640 B.C. – The Middle Kingdom (11th-14th Dynasties)

1630- 1520 B.C. – The 2nd Intermediate Period (15th-17th Dynasties)

1539-1075 B.C. – The New Kingdom (18th-20th Dynasties)

1075-715 B.C. – The 3rd Intermediate Period (21st-25th Dynasties)

715-332 B.C. – The Late Period (20th-30th Dynasties, 2nd Persian Period)

332 B.C.-395 A.D. – Greco-Roman Period (Macedonians, Ptolemies, and Romans)

When we speak about canons and something what is canonical, the very first thing to come to one’s mind is Ancient Egypt. Exactly there the canons were specified and followed, their shaped works of art, symbolizing the continuity from the great rulers of the past.

The idea of beauty itself had a huge influence on the whole culture: in ancient Egyptian beautiful things or people were described using the adjective “N” or “nfr”, same syllables one can find in many words such as teenager (male – “nfrw”, a virgin young woman – “nfrwt”). However, we shall keep in mind that the perception of beauty in Ancient Egypt was completely different from the one we share now. Moreover, hardly could we accurately restore it: not only we are separated from Egyptians by more than 1600 years, the nation itself does not exist anymore for a long time. All we have left are astonishing works of art and discovered texts, which we can read thanks to Jean-François Champollion, who was, by the way, a very interesting person himself. Surprisingly, even if we do not know much about the Egyptian culture or the original meaning of the beauty for them, what we know shapes our definition, too.


One of the main “components” of the beauty was (and still is) youth. In almost all the works of art you could not see any wrinkle or a sign of aging. In the Ebers Papyrus, which is one of the most important papyruses in Ancient Egypt, which contains medical knowledge, we could find herbal remedies not only for wrinkles, but also for baldness and graying hair. The importance of youth was highlightened by Heb Sed festival which was held in order to rejuvenate the pharaoh’s strength and probably have been instituted to replace a ritual of murdering a pharaoh who was unable to continue to rule effectively because of age or condition. Not much has changed as we still perceive youth as synonym of beauty, women and men all around the world are trying to look young and to be full of energy.


Huge attention among Egyptians was paid to how they smelled, which is not surprising in a warm climate. Scent is the one of the most important elements in the erotic texts written in Ancient Egypt. For example, a male 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. Scents play an important role in telling the autobiography of pharaohs (partly mythological, of course). In order to demonstrate this point we shall refer to autobiography of Hatshepsut, who was the second historically confirmed female pharaoh and reigned longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. According to Egyptologist James Henry Breasted she is also known as “the first great woman in history of whom we are informed.” At Deir-el-Bahri Hatshepsut tells us the story of her conception, according to which her mother is awakened by the divine fragrance of the god Amun when he appears in her bedroom. It seems clear that in Ancient Egypt there was a straight connection between divine beauty and captivating smell. This connection, slightly changed, however, still persists.


Thanks to many observations and studies we know nowadays that in our brain there is a connection between symmetry and beauty as we subconsciously conceive symmetrical face as the beautiful one. This connection was reflected in Egyptian art as the masters tried to make the portraits of people as symmetrical as possible, adding to idealization of them.


It is well known that many beauty products were invented and widely used in Ancient Egypt. Among them red ochre for lips (forerunner of modern lipstick), cohl for eyes (forerunner of eyeliners) or burnt almonds which were used to tint the brows. Nowadays such makeup could be perceived as seductive, but in Ancient Egypt it was mostly a necessity, which protected the person from bright sun and sand. Elaborate wigs reduced the risk of lice and protected from the sunstroke and overheating. The perception of cosmetics has greatly changed: we use it mostly in order to beautify ourselves even if the usage of beauty products is not necessity justified: for example, wearing concealer in a warm day instead of sunscreen.

Gender difference

Unlike in the Prehistoric era, there is no emphasis on breasts or hips in women’s depictions. Quite the opposite: they look very much alike men and are built in a similar way: narrow hips, almost flat chest (this could be seen as a result of K-strategy). However, they are distinguishable as women have very light skin color, resembling pale gold and the men usually have the opposite reddish-brown tone. It could be explained by determination of roles and perception of both sexes in the Egyptian society. Like in many others cultures, women were associated with softness and effeminacy, which are incompatible with hard work under the sunrays, what was the privilege of the men, demonstrating their strength and masculinity.

After discussing the main “components” of beauty in Egyptians’ perception, let’s pay attention to the two main well-known nowadays “beauties” of Ancient Egypt: Nefertiti and Cleopatra.



Bust of Nefertiti and all her portraits were created during the reign of her husband – Akhenaten, which is, probably, the most revolutionary time in both politics and art in the whole history of Ancient Egypt. Akhenaten made huge changes in Egyptian society concerning religion, which was central to all the aspects of life in Ancient Egypt. The whole concept of beauty during that time has changed, canons of art were almost destroyed. Usually Egyptian art is marked by its geometrical forms, immobility and total restraint. Art of Amarna period is completely different: soft and intimate, very humane and sincere.

comp1.1    comp 1.2

Comp. 2

Comparison: Akhenaten (Cairo Museum) and Statue of Thutmosis III at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The concept of feminine beauty has changed, too. For example, deformed skulls were regarded as sign of beauty.



Daughters of pharaoh Akhenaten

The proportions of Nefertiti’s face are distorted, too, in an attempt to create an impressive appearance of the queen. We shall keep in mind the circumstances in which this bust was discovered as it resulted in its fame. The bust was unveiled in Berlin in 1923, what was crucial to its reception: not only ‘Egyptomania’ was in the air, but also Nefertiti’s angular, geometric appearance chimed with fashionable taste of the art deco. Thanks to the fuss made in mass media, she became a star and beauty ideal.


Ever since antiquity, Cleopatra has been known as a woman of unimaginable beauty. In fact, if we refer to her lifetime portraits on coins (which were also partly idealized, of course), we would discover that Cleopatra had a big nose, a protruding chin, and wrinkles, which were hardly components of “beauty” even then. We may find description of her in Plutarch’s works, who has never met her and tells us that her beauty was in her vivacity and her voice, and not in her appearance.


Bust believed to be of Cleopatra VII, Altes Museum, Berlin

Il 3

A tetradrachm of Cleopatra VII, Syria mint

We must admit that Cleopatra was very clever, what resulted in seduction of two well-known Roman rulers: Caesar and Mark Anthony, who postponed the conquest of Egypt. However, we can hardly talk about her as an Egyptian: she reigned during the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was Greek and Greek was her native language. We shall point out that she made attempts to learn Egyptian and represented herself as the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis. That made her, probably, the most Egyptian ruler in the whole Ptolemaic dynasty. It may have been caused by her (and Egypt) opposition to Rome, the culture of which mostly originated from Ancient Greece.

I love Cleopatra case in light of this article for one simple reason: her example proves us that being smart is more important than being beautiful. Even if you are not pretty by nature, if you are smart, you could become one of the most beautiful woman in the whole history, inspiring thousands of great people and William Shakespeare among them.


Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.