Persian Beauty Rituals & Fairytales

Feeroozeh_golmohammadi

Every couple of weeks, I devote an evening to beauty rituals. They are not fancy, nor do they require an appointment at a spa for an expensive treatment, but my evenings of beauty, as I’ve taken to calling them, are just as satisfying. I make a sugar and lemon juice scrub, a yogurt and rosewater mask and a colorless henna treatment that leaves a sweet leathery scent on my hair and everything else it touches. Sometimes I listen to music as I wait for my treatments to work their magic, sometimes I read, but most often, I simply lie down and fall into a daydream.

As I carefully apply the sticky brown paste to each lock, I remember my mother and aunts sharing their beauty secrets and relationship advice as they painted their nails, mashed strawberries for a gentle facial scrub or applied a chamomile and egg yolk mask to enhance blonde highlights in their hair. The taste of strawberry as it dripped from my cheeks and the stickiness of honey on my fingertips is how I remember those long summer evenings. I hope that when I have a daughter, she will instinctively know, just as I now know, how long one needs to rub honey into the skin to make it glowing and how to listen to a story of heartbreak before offering words of support.

Since I have quite a collection of beauty recipes, I find it fascinating how other women make themselves beautiful. In previous posts on this subject, I shared the sacrifices of women in the 13th century Arabia for their beauty, the game of flirtation in medieval India and the perfume secrets of the Nauru islanders. In this article, I am offering an excerpt from Persian folklore. In a tale about a woman who fell in love with Amu Norouz (Uncle New Day,) beauty rituals are explained in some detail. It is a bittersweet love story, which tells how every first day of spring, in anticipation of meeting the object of her dreams, the woman would dress up, perfume herself and set the table with delicacies, only to fall asleep just as he arrives.

“Every year, on the very first day of spring, she would wake up early, neatly fold her mattress and blankets and …clean the house from ceiling to the floor. After sweeping the yard, splashing fresh water on the ground, she would take a bath and groom herself. Then she would apply henna on her hands and legs and do the haft ghalam makeup (literally, seven items, a phrase which connotes a combination of many diverse things. Numbers 3, 7 and 40 are significant numbers in Persian traditions), from drawing lines and putting a small khaal (literally, mole, making beauty spots) on her face to applying kohl and blush. Wearing a richly pleated shaliteh (loose skirt worn on pants which became a fashion trend during the Qajar period) over a red tonbaan (pants, an outfit in old Iran) she would perfume her hair and face with musk and amber.

Then she would bring the best of her Persian carpets and spread them on the veranda which faced the pool and its fountains along the small garden which was abundantly blessed with many colorful flowers and fruit bearing trees that were now full of spring blossoms. On a beautiful and sparkling tray, she would then place the delicacies : seer (garlic), serkeh (vinegar), somaagh (Sumac fruit or powder), senjed (dried oleaster fruit), seeb (apple), sabzeh (wheat, barley or lentil sprouts) and samanu (sweet pudding made from wheat germ).

On another tray, she would then arrange seven types of dried fruits, noghl (a traditional Persian confection, sugar coated almonds) and nabaat (saffron rock candy). Then she would light up the manghal (traditional Persian charcoal pan) and set the hooka right next to it, although she would not light it. She would then fix her eyes on the road, awaiting the arrival of [her beloved].”

From Masnavi in Prose by Dr. Mahmoud Fotouhi, translation from Persian by Maryam Ala Amjadi, published in Tehran Times.

Proposal, a painting by Feeroozeh Golmohammadi. Golmohammadi draws from Persian literature, folklore and mythology to capture her vivid and striking images of women.

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27 Comments

  • Suzanna: A wonderful post, and I love that there is a relationship between the beauty rituals in all of their sticky, honeyed glory and the treats set out for the Persian suitor.

    One of the best homespun beauty treatments is olive oil. The trick is not to wash it off following an application but to rinse it gently and then pat the skin dry. February 21, 2012 at 9:29am Reply

  • Ines: What a lovely post! 🙂
    Did I miss it or was there a post on your beauty secrets – the recipes you apply to yourself (I’m particularly interested in the honey…)? February 21, 2012 at 9:57am Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, I am glad to share them! I have copious handwritten notes, which I have been copying down from various books and magazines ever since I was a child. I even have my great grandmother’s notebooks full of beauty recipes.

    Honey is great if you have non-sensitive skin. Wash your face, dry it, but leave it slightly damp. Take a spoonful of honey into your palm and apply it delicately with your fingertips, avoiding the under-eye area. Rub the honey into the skin very gently and leave for a couple of minutes before washing it off with warm water. February 21, 2012 at 10:12am Reply

  • Victoria: When I dance and wear heavy pancake makeup, olive oil is my favorite trick to remove all traces of it. I follow it up with my regular cleanser, but nothing works better! Not even an expensive makeup remover! February 21, 2012 at 10:15am Reply

  • minette: yes, more recipes would be welcomed! i tried a honey and yogurt mask a while back, and my skin turned very red while it was on – it seemed to activate the blood flow – but it calmed down once i washed off the mask. wasn’t sure if it was the honey or the yogurt that made me red, and haven’t tried it since! my skin was glowing afterward, though, so i might be tempted to try another mask!

    oh, and i can totally see why she fell asleep – that is a lot to do in one day! he should’ve been there to help. at least with the carpets. 🙂 February 21, 2012 at 3:03pm Reply

  • Undina: It’s a beautiful post but while reading about all those elaborate preparations I keep wondering: what does “[her beloved]” bring to the table (literally and not)?

    I can’t bring myself to using fruits, honey or any other sticky substances on my face. So I’ll probably just keep doing everything with commercial products. But as a nostalgic reminder of my childhood I like reading about all those folk beauty secrets. February 21, 2012 at 3:19pm Reply

  • Victoria: It is actually not that one sided! He brings spring and a new year. He just does not have the heart to wake her! The story itself symbolizes the elusive moments, the start of the year, the hope that springs eternal–that’s how I read it. You can read the whole thing by following the link at the bottom. It reminded me of the old Slavic legends on how the seasons were created. February 21, 2012 at 3:34pm Reply

  • Victoria: If your skin turned red, it is not a good sign. Honey can be irritating, so it is best to do a patch test first. Yogurt is wonderful though. If you skin is not dry, you can use a non-fat variety, but be sure that it does not have any additives. In India, yogurt is often mixed with chickpea flour for a mask, and I can testify that it works even better to make skin soft and glowing. February 21, 2012 at 3:38pm Reply

  • Andrea: I loved this post and read it to my daughter before sending it along to my mother! We come from a long line of ladies who love to do special treatments- as our cabinets can attest! Thank you so much for your wonderful folk story… I love learning about stories and customs in other lands. My very favorite Persian story of beauty treatments actually comes from the Bible: In the book of Esther, she has to endure (!) 12 months of beauty treatments… Six months with oil of myrrh and six months of special perfumes and ointments, spices and cosmetics. Talk about a spa! Thank you so much, V, for continually enriching our lives with your picturesque writing and knowledge. February 21, 2012 at 9:13pm Reply

  • Katherine: I love this post! Your descriptions are beautiful. I can’t wait to read the links to your other posts on the history of beauty. Thank you! February 21, 2012 at 9:20pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you for your kind words. I’m so glad that this post resonated with you. Isn’t it such a pleasure to make your own potion? I feel that two strawberries and a spoonful of yogurt do more for me than a $200 face cream. Also, the process of taking time to do it, to slow down is very important.

    Off to look through the Book of Esther! I remember lots of perfumed references in the Song of Solomon, “and my hands dripped with perfume. My fingers dripped with lovely myrrh as I pulled back the bolt.” February 21, 2012 at 10:39pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Katherine! I love making these kind of discoveries. February 21, 2012 at 10:40pm Reply

  • Musette: Such a beautiful story! And a lovely post. I’m going to go wash my face and do a lemon juice/sugar scrub. I love that!

    xoxoxoxoA February 21, 2012 at 10:48pm Reply

  • behemot: Wonderful story! I still remember applying henna to my hair in old times when I lived in Poland. My 2 best friends and I were meeting at my place ( we were really young) to do our “henna thing”. We were also doing a hair mask ( 1 egg yolk mixed with a spoon of olive oil and lemon juice. Surprisingly , the mask worked so well I am sometimes to do it again, despite of many technologically advanced treatments available nowadays…
    My daughter was born much later and never experienced our beauty sessions, however, she had a chance to listen to many “serious” relationship and beauty discussion between me and my close friends. Now , she is a person who listens to all her friends’ problems, but she does not complain about it, she actually finds it a very valuable experience.
    Same with cooking and household chores. I never made her to do too much , but she was always watching and when the time came, she was able to cook a great meal for us…and take a good care of herself. February 21, 2012 at 11:17pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Anita! Hope that you enjoy your evening of beauty too. 🙂 February 22, 2012 at 8:27am Reply

  • Victoria: You seem to have such a wonderful relationship with your daughter! I love the little bits that you share about her discovering perfume or finding a signature scent. It always makes me smile. In our family, we have a very strong bond, so your stories remind me of my mom and my aunts and us kids.

    The egg yolk mask works really well! My hair stylist even recommends it over the branded products he is paid to sell. February 22, 2012 at 8:36am Reply

  • Ines: Thank you!
    I will definitely try this. Only my cheeks are a bit sensitive but I don’t think honey should be too much for it. February 22, 2012 at 9:28am Reply

  • Victoria: You can do a patch test first. My cheeks are also a bit sensitive, so I do my honey exfoliation only once a month, not every week. It does not irritate my skin. February 22, 2012 at 9:38am Reply

  • Judith: Andrea – I am studying Esther right now, and you are absolutely correct! You’ve done your homework, good for you, but you forgot to mention that she consequently won a beauty contest! The old, natural ingredients are always the best; they ‘ve withstood the test of time. February 23, 2012 at 5:15pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thanks to you and Andrea for bring up the book of Esther. I’m reading it right now and enjoying the beautiful passages.

    Every day I learn something new thanks to all of you! February 23, 2012 at 5:34pm Reply

  • Beth_goldman: Hi Victoria!

    I absolutely loved reading this post! I would love to try your recipes for the beauty treatments you mentioned above! They sound wonderful. February 24, 2012 at 7:16pm Reply

  • Victoria: Beth, I'm glad to hear that you liked it. Hope that you enjoy some of those treatments. They are easy to make and very pleasant to use. The sugar and lemon juice body scrub is one of my favorites. February 24, 2012 at 7:34pm Reply

  • Yulya: Victoria, a lovely story, as always!

    I agree with you about using olive oil. I also use it as a makeup remover. It works better if it is slightly warmed up. One of the very old beauty secrets is to warm a spoon, dip it into the olive oil and gently massage your face with it (very gently, no pressure!) for about 10-15 minutes. I also use coffee ice cubes to massage my face in the morning (wakes up the dull skin). You can also use green tea or other herbs. Once applied, do not remove the liquid from your face, let it dry down. Warning – coffee can stain your clothes, if it gets on them! I also use cocoa butter for my face and shea butter for dry areas of my body. Shea butter also helps with burns and sunburns. Well, my five cents for today! Thank you February 27, 2012 at 3:18pm Reply

  • NATIVIDAD MASCARENAS-GALLEGOS: I am honored to have tapped onto your Site as my grandmother was a Medicine Woman. I am Spanish/Indian Decent and a few you speak of I learned from my grandmother but there are others that I did not know about and it brings so much excitement and joy for a couple of reasons, One, l love your informative Site, Two, the new ideas you have shared freely tells me a lot about who you are, (You have a very kind Spirit) my friend and Three, you brought back so many wonderful memories of my days spent with my grandmother, “The famous Medicine Woman!” It brought me back to those very moment of when she was teaching me all about the Pro’s and Con’s of using all the Herbal Medicines and the many, many uses!
    Thank you for that as I will never forget!
    From a new, committed fan and most important, “Friend!” May 18, 2012 at 9:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for your kind words! I hope that you can share some of the recipes your grandmother taught you. My grandmother also knew quite a bit about the herbal medicine, and I still remember gathering various plants with her. May 19, 2012 at 10:25am Reply

  • Viviana: I happened upon your site while researching Persian beauty secrets…since I prefer using natural and organic ingredients found in our kitchen rather than commercial cosmetics and creams loaded with unnatural ingredients.
    Thank you Victoria !!!

    I have a special request… I love the recipe section and wondered if you could create a category for your Persian beauty secrets… since they are made from foods in our kitchen ! Just a thought… Thank you again for a lovely blog and enchanting story. October 29, 2012 at 8:38am Reply

    • Victoria: You’re most welcome, Viviana. I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed this article. Right now you can click on the beauty rituals tag and read the articles that fall into this category:
      http://boisdejasmin.com/tag/beauty-rituals-2

      I will definitely add a separate section in the future if I have more posts on this topic. I also love natural skincare, and homemade treatments are among my favorites. October 29, 2012 at 12:40pm Reply

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