Wooden fish-shaped cosmetic palette.
From the Naqada II Period (3500-3100BC), fish-shaped cosmetic palettes are found in tombs of the rich and poor, men and women. However, most of those in the Egypt Centre, such as this example, date to the New Kingdom, probably the 18th Dynasty (1550-1295 BC).
Most of these palettes seem to be in the shape of the bulti-fish. The bulti-fish, Tilapia nilotica, seems to have been a manifestation of the sun-god. This fish keeps the fertilised eggs in its mouth until they are fry and then spits them out. It therefore appears to be swallowing them and ‘giving birth’ to them and as such is a symbol of rebirth.
Why cosmetic palettes such as this should be in the shape of such a fish is not entirely known. Most are from burial or temple contexts. It could be that such palettes were made for rituals such as anointing a statue or may be connected with a funeral. In either case rebirth symbolism would be apposite. Eye-paints and ointment were essential to resurrection. Before appearing in the ‘Hall of Justice’ the individual had to purify her/himself, dress in white clothing, make up their eyes and anoint themselves. Applying eye-paint also seems to have been part of everyday cult rituals. Depictions of cows destined for ritual slaughter are sometimes shown wearing eye-paint!
According to Brewer and Friedman (1989, 9) the bulti-fish is mentioned in medical papyri as an ingredient for the preparation of a salve. As well as being used for decorative effect, eye-makeup perhaps protected the eyes from the bright sun and acted as a natural disinfectant.
Another reason for the use of the fish in cosmetic containers is that one of the names for the bulti was ‘wadj’ meaning ‘green and youthful’. It is also the name given to the green eye paint.
The fish is also used as an amulet.
Brewer, D.J. and Friedman, R.F. Fish and Fishing in Ancient Egypt. Warminster.
Delanges, E. 1993. Rites et beauté: objets de toilette égyptiens. Paris.
Frédéricq, M. 1927. “The Ointment Spoons in the Egyptian Section of the British Museum”, in Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 13, 11, pl. 4.
Kozloff, A.P. and Bryan, B.M. and Berman, L.M. 1993. Egypt’s Dazzling Sun. Amenhotep III and his World. Cleveland: the Cleveland Museum of Art,
Peck, W.H. 1982. Spoons and Dishes. In Brovarski et al. (ed.) Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom. Boston.