Egypt: Ancient Egyptian Beauty - Medical Plant

Ancient Egyptian Beauty

"The Beginning of the Book of Making an Old Man into a Young Man. . ."

Ancient Egypt's perfumes, unguents and cosmetic preparations were famed for their exotic ingredients. Spikenard, myrrh, and galbanum: these fragrances remain as rare and precious as they were thousands of years ago. Other ingredients, such as lotuses, roses, and geraniums, although somewhat less rare, retain their aura of luxury.

Yet, not all of ancient Egypt's prized botanicals were so rare. One in particular, a modest, inexpensive, unobtrusive plant maintains its magical reputation even today. Fenugreek's Latin designation, Trigonella foenum-graecum, ("Greek hay") refers to its historical use as horse fodder. The plant was mixed with lesser-quality hay to make it more appetizing and appealing to the horses. Of particular interest to humans were the seeds of the fenugreek plant.

One of the oldest medicinal plants, fenugreek's earliest recorded use dates back to the ancient Egyptians. Both Hippocrates and Pliny also refer to the herb. Remains have been found in Egypt from as early as 3000BCE. Fenugreek seeds were found in Tutankhamun's tomb. Unlike the more exotic botanicals, fenugreek, indigenous to the Mediterranean region, was easily available. An ancient remedy for bronchial infections and tuberculosis, a poultice of the pulverized seeds was used to treat cuts, wounds, sores, skin irritations and swollen glands. For cosmetic purposes, fenugreek has a reputation as a skin softener and in Western herbalist teaching is often a component of soothing facial masks. Pliny includes it as a supplemental ingredient in Myrtinum (myrtle unguent), among the most popular Egyptian unguents of his time.

Fenugreek is still common throughout Egypt and the Middle East. More widely known by its modern Arabic name, hilbeh, it remains a popular food. The eponymous dip, hilbeh, is a staple of Yemenite cuisine. Many ancient Yemenites attribute their longevity to its consumption. In modern Egypt, the seeds are added to bread and the sprouted seeds included in salads. Still a component of Egyptian folk medicine, fenugreek seeds are soaked, sprouted then taken to soothe fevers and stomach disorders.

Yet, beyond the culinary and the mild medicinal uses, this seemingly lowly herb also bears something of a super-natural reputation, transcending the boundaries between magic, medicine and cosmetics. Fenugreek's key word is "increase." A tea made from the seeds is a staple recipe for increasing mother's milk. It also has a reputation for stimulating breast growth: smaller-breasted Turkish harem women were said to bathe their breasts in fenugreek seed water, although whether the results were consistently satisfactory is unknown. Fenugreek, despite its bitter taste, has both an ancient and modern reputation as an aphrodisiac. In folkloric use, fenugreek has been relied upon to increase a family's fortunes. The seeds added to water and then sprinkled throughout the home are reputed to increase cash flow. Another old money spell suggests daily adding fenugreek seeds to a jar. When the jar is full, it is tightly capped and buried in Earth for safekeeping.

Another ancient preparation skirts the border between a magic potion and cosmetic preparation. Fenugreek is believed to be the sole ingredient of an ancient oil reputed to transform "an old man into a young man." If the ingredient was simple, preparations for the ancient formula were quite complex. Two sacks stuffed with fenugreek plants were required. These must then be "broken up" and left in the sun to dry. When completely dry, they must be threshed, winnowed and finally divided into two piles: seeds and pods. Equal quantities of these were then combined, mixed with some water, kneaded into what is translated as a "dough" and then boiled in a pot of water. (With customary ancient attention to detail, the old formula specifies that it be a clean pot.) The boiling process is finished when the water has completed evaporated and the botanic material is completely dried out. It is then cooled, once again placed in a pot and repeatedly washed in river water, until that water reveals no bitter taste. Once again the material is to be dried in the sun, then ground on a millstone. Again the remains are steeped in water and formed into a "soft dough." This is then placed within a pot and gently and slowly simmered over a fire. The product is ready when oil begins to rise to the surface. This oil is the final magic unguent. It is skimmed from the surface with a spoon and strained into a stone jar lined with clay. According to the old papyrus, rubbing the body with this unguent leaves the skin beautiful and without blemishes. (As this is the promised result, presumably the stimulation of youth is in appearance, rather than vigor or attitude. As the Egyptians, like ourselves, seemed to have a horror of wrinkles, looking young may have been considered more important than feeling young.)

Unlike some other venerable formulae, which recommend such beauty products as crocodile's dung or lion's milk, this old potion is theoretically possible to re-create, should one have a supply of fresh fenugreek and the time and patience of the ancients. I suppose if one truly wishes to rely upon the youth-stimulating properties, it may be necessary to follow the formula exactly. However, if one merely wants to avail oneself of fenugreek's skin-softening properties while basking in the aura of the ancients, quicker, easier versions can be created.

Unlike our ancient friends, who had to thresh and winnow for themselves, you can find dried fenugreek seeds in the spice aisle of a good supermarket or Middle-Eastern market. How much of the potency of the old formula derives from the seeds and how much from the pods, Nile River water and clay may be impossible to determine. The only part of the fenugreek plant that is readily available commercially is the seeds. The river water was probably believed to carry some magical power and even today, bentonite and other clays are a fixture of facial masks. Be that as it may, another product beloved of the ancient Egyptians can be substituted: oil. The ancient Egyptians loved good quality vegetable oil. Unlike fenugreek, oil could be expensive. On the other hand, today the time and effort required by the old spell is a priceless luxury for many. Fine quality oils, the envy of the ancients, on the other hand, are readily available. Vegetable oils, mainly derived from seeds and fruits, also have specific therapeutic benefits. So the key is to carefully choose a vegetable oil that complements fenugreek's cosmetic powers while maintaining something of an ancient Egyptian aura.

Which oil to choose? The ancient Egyptians would have desired balanos oil. It was considered their finest cosmetic oil, a component of many preparations and unguents. This oil was derived from the fruit of a thorny tree, Balanites aegyptiaca, once common in the Nile Valley, but now rare.

To the best of my knowledge, this oil is not commercially available. (If anyone knows differently, please let me know!) Their second choice would have been behen oil, also known as ben oil, oil deriving from the nuts of the Moringa or horseradish tree. Particularly favored for cosmetic and fragrance preparations as it has only a very slight and pleasing aroma plus a long shelf life, it is believed beneficial for the complexion, particularly for dry and/or aging skin. This ancient oil remains available although the intrepid shopper may have to order it from India. (A source follows at the end of the article.) Another choice, more easily obtained would be sweet almond oil. The Egyptians did have a version of almond oil, although it is believed to have derived from a different species than the one commonly available from aromatherapy supply houses.

Quick Fix Fenugreek Youth Serum

One teaspoon dried fenugreek seeds

One quarter cup vegetable oil (ben or sweet almond suggested)

Crush the seeds lightly in a mortar and pestle and add them to the oil. Allow them to soak for half an hour. Strain the seeds from the oil. Gently massage the oil into your skin, while thinking "youthful" thoughts and hope for the best!

Kodis Herb Company has a lovely ben oil from their moringa trees. (Tree seeds also available for sale.) They may be contacted via e-mail at or

Information on fenugreek's (and many other plants) ancient medicinal and cosmetic uses may be found in Lise Manniche's An Ancient Egyptian Herbal (University of Texas Press, 1999)

Information on fenugreek's (and many other plants) magical uses may be found in Judika Illes' forthcoming Earth Mother

Magic: Ancient Spells for Modern Belles (Fair Winds Press, 2001)