Assyrian Women, Fragrances, Beauty & Splendor
By: Jouliet Bet-Shlimon (Nineveh Volume 35, No. 3)
Publish Date: 12/1/2011
From the earliest times in ancient Mesopotamia, most women were trained from childhood for the traditional roles of wife, mother, and housekeeper. They learned how to grind grain, how to cook and make beverages, especially beer, and how to spin and weave material for clothing. If a woman worked outside of her home, her job usually grew out of her household tasks. She might sell the beer she brewed, or even become a tavern keeper. Childbearing and childcare roles led women to become midwives and also to create medicines that prevented pregnancy or produced abortions.
Women who came from a sector of society that could afford to have statues made, placed their likenesses in temple shrines. This was done so that their images would stand in constant prayer while they continued to go about their daily chores. The female worshipper statue wore a standard fashion of the time, a simple draped dress with her right shoulder bare and hair done up in elaborate braided coils. Women of royalty or the wives of men who had power and status acted as individuals outside the context of their families.
Assyrian women wore their hair shorter, braiding and binding them in a bun at the back. The care of the hair was of special importance. It was therefore continuously washed, anointed, combed and sometimes dyed. The hair was cut and thinned regularly, and the higher the person was on the social scale, the more frequently they went to the barber. These barbers usually traded in perfumes, practiced manicure and pedicure, and sometimes were called for medical functions. Hairdressers constituted an important and respected class, and were organized in a guild. They also performed needed medical functions in treating wounds and ailments.
The knowledge about perfume production comes from inscriptions on tablets discovered at the Ashurbanipal (668 – 627 BC) Library in Nineveh. Assyrian records in the second half of the 13th century BC contain recipes in the preparation of perfumes, as well as the ingredients and tools. A part of the marriage ceremonies have been de- scribed where the future husband poured perfume on the head of the bride. Henna, a paste made from the crushed leaves of the henna plant was also used to enhance women‘s appearance. It was applied to the skin, and when removed several hours later, left beautiful markings on the skin that faded naturally over one to three weeks. Henna is still used today by the Assyrians, in the Middle-East as part of the wedding celebration on the night of the wedding.
The trade in perfumes, ointments and spices was widely prevalent. In Assyrian records, perfumes and resins are mentioned; the text from the time of Tukulti- Ninurta II (890-884 BC) refers to balls of myrrh as part of the tribute brought to the Assyrian king. The trade in spices and perfumes is mentioned in the Bible as written in Genesis 37:25-26, "Camels carrying gum tragacanth and balm and myrrh". From the Bible, Egyptian and Assyrian sources, as well as from the words of classical authors, it appears that the center of the trade in aromatic resins and incense was located in the kingdoms of southern Arabia, and even as far as India, where some of these precious aromatic plants were grown: "Dealers from Sheba and Rammah dealt with you, offering the choicest spices..." (Ezekiel 27:22). The Nabateans functioned as the important middlemen in this trade; Palestine also served as a very important component, as the trade routes crisscrossed the country.
Men in ancient Assyria & Babylonia were also passionate, and cared about their appearance – they wore long beards. Assyrian kings were represented with braided hair and square beards made of a group of ring- lets. At that time, a shaved head and beard was a sign of disgrace.