In films and history books, the ancient Egyptians are portrayed as athletic Adonises. Royals were shown to have almost unimaginable beauty, with rumors of Cleopatra’s tantalizing scent lasting through the centuries. But actually, ancient Egyptians were gross. Like, really gross.
Of course, this was a civilization that was extremely advanced and had an impressive understanding of how the world worked. So keep this in mind as you read about the… um… unique methods they used to alleviate their own problems. You won’t find this information in most history books.
1. First off, lice was a major issue. It was such a large problem that most ancient Egyptians decided to shave their heads instead of dealing with the pesky vermin. Even the tombs were filled with lice (so you couldn’t even escape them in the afterlife).
2. Most of the men preferred to shave themselves from head to toe. Women normally wore a wig that could be easily exchanged when it became too invested with lice. Lovely. There was probably a whole pile of these nasty lice wigs sitting around somewhere.
3. One activity that ancient Egyptian men enjoyed was flashing women as they sailed past them. This was a part of a religious festival. They’d take the entire family and head to Bubastis for the celebration with a huge crowd of people.
4. Along the way, men would flash the pretty girls they saw. They hoped the women would jump in the water and swim after them because they were so impressed with their “display.” It’s so weird historians generally leave that out when they write about this civilization.
5. Speaking of lovely displays, when King Tutankhamen’s tomb was uncovered, historians were stunned: so many mysteries of the ancient Egyptians were unlocked. They also realized the king was buried in a, um, state of arousal.
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6. And oddly, King Tut is so far the other pharaoh with this added flair. There’s a theory that the phallus isn’t even his! Some scholars suspect that Tut’s member was replaced with a more aesthetically pleasing specimen instead.
7. Women were left wanting for contraception options in ancient Egypt. Some chose to mix honey with certain herbs and other ingredients, and others were partial to using crocodile poop and leaves. The mixture was then inserted into a women’s birth canal to prevent pregnancy. Gross.
8. Men even used birth control. Theirs consisted of taking an onion, juicing it, and then rubbing it on their parts before sex. Once again, not sure why this was left out of history books. Who wouldn’t be ready to go after this?
9. Another issue in ancient Egypt was necrophilia. This was the fate that awaited powerful or beautiful women when they passed away. Embalmers had been caught in the act by their employees, so this wasn’t just a nasty rumor. Officials came up with a solution.
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10. To fight this deplorable practice, women were left to rot for a few days in the hot Egyptian sun before they were sent to the embalmer. Problem solved.
11. Remember that picture you had of ancient Egyptians at the beginning of this article? It turns out that the supposedly gorgeous, slim royalty that was being portrayed in these historical images forced their artists to draw them in a conventionally beautiful way.
12. Because the pharaohs and their relatives were actually obese and extremely unhealthy. Each day they would scarf down wine, cakes, fatty meats and a host of other artery-clogging food. This was such an issue that ancient doctors were already warning people about the health concerns related to being this overweight.
Huckleberry Films / YouTube
13. Even though the royals spent much of their time eating, they were still very concerned with their weight. To fight this, they would clear out three days of the month and take a castor oil laxative. This was something literally on their calendar to do.
14. After ingesting the oil, they would spend the entire day on the toilet. When Egyptians were done ridding themselves of every ounce of liquid in their bodies, they would clean up the mess by hand. Another gem for the history books.
15. Fun fact: the ancient Egyptian word for proctologist was “shepherd of the anus,” which does make the job sound more pleasant. At this point in time, proctologists mainly just gave people enemas. And their customers were huge, huge fans of the procedure.
16. Egyptians had a holy connection to enemas. They told a story of the god Thoth developing enemas and then sharing that sacred knowledge with humanity. Thoth seems like an okay guy.
17. Meanwhile, Ancient Egyptian doctors had few very unique ways to test a woman’s fertility. One was by covering a female’s entire body with oil and then having her lay down overnight. If she looked fresh the next morning, she was ready to go. And if not, she wasn’t fertile yet.
18. Doctors would also try putting some garlic or onion inside a woman overnight. He’d smell her breath the next morning, and if he could smell the onion or garlic, she was fertile.
19. Another condition ancient Egyptians were prone to was schistosomiasis. This made people feel feverish and pee blood. But, because it was so nasty everywhere, people just kept getting this disease.
20. In a similar vein, schistosomiasis was so common that men thought they were experiencing periods, like women. It was seen as a good thing to pee blood, as it apparently showed fertility in men. But as gross as Egyptians were, they weren’t alone.
The Greeks may have been worse, as they wiped their butts with stones! Without any toilet paper the Greeks wiped with smooth pebble, which were difficult to come by. In a pinch, shattered pieces of pottery were used. Some even etched the pieces with their enemies’ names. Totally worth the hemorrhoids.
2. Working out was a naked activity: Gymnasium actually derives from a Greek word that meant “school for naked exercise.” Spotting someone on the bench press might have made for an awkward conversation.
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3. Your doctor would taste your body fluids: The Ancient Greeks believed every bodily fluid had a specific taste. To diagnose illness, they’d take a sample of your phlegm, vomit, or excrement and have a sip. The question is: Who would diagnose these poor doctors?
4. Women’s hygiene was nasty: Apparently, the Greeks never philosophized about safe feminine health practices. Instead, they viewed women as “pure” creatures with an aversion to the disgusting. To ward off disease, women were instructed to drink and be covered in the dung of cows and mules. Ever think you’d miss a pap smear?
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5. Feces was used for skin care: Women with illnesses weren’t the only ones covered in excrement. If you needed a little pick-me-up, you could head down to the nearest farm and find some fresh dung to sink your face into. Oh, what we do for beauty.
6. Squat and sneeze was their birth control: Women in Ancient Greece were instructed to prevent pregnancy by rubbing oils on their private parts. When that didn’t work, they were told to squat down and sneeze the pregnancy away. Unfortunately, this method only lead to babies named Gesundheit.
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7. They shared bath water: Clean water is a commodity, and it was no different in Ancient Greece. Public bathing was a common practice even among wealthy citizens. They’d stew themselves in strangers’ fluids without even rinsing after. Not exactly the spa treatment.
8. Urine was used as mouthwash: If alcohol can kill bacteria, why not the ammonia in urine? Some Ancient Greeks would rinse with human urine on a daily basis. Apparently, they thought it could make their teeth less yellow. Go figure. We’ll stick with Listerine.
9. “Bad blood” was drained from the body: This process, called “bloodletting,” was said to release illnesses from the body. A doctor would make an incision and let the affected blood leak out slowly. For serious afflictions, they’d resort to leeches. Ironically, this lead to further death.
10. Greeks invented the vulgar “middle finger”: Thank the Ancient Greeks next time you accidentally cut someone off in traffic. They gave meaning to the gesture — which was meant to be phallic — back in 4th-century B.C.
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11. Athlete’s sweat was sold to the wealthy: Suffering from aches and pains? Try athlete sweat! Athletes would oil themselves up, get covered in dirt, and let the gunk on their bodies be collected for sale. The rich would lather themselves up in this body mud and wait for the “magic” to kick in.
12. Going hairless meant serious pain: Smooth skin was expected in Ancient Greece, though there were no razors to purchase. Men and women would pluck hairs one-by-one until they were presentable. For a fast shave, they’d simply burn the hair from their bodies. Make a mistake, and you wouldn’t be looking too hot.
13. Lesbians were, uh, anatomically misunderstood: Love between two women was, and continues to be, somewhat of a mystery to many cultures. This included the Ancient Greeks, who could only fathom that lesbians had “female penises.” Sex without a penis? Who could imagine that?
Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene
14. They had phallic parades: To honor Dionysus, the god of wine, crowds of people would celebrate on the streets by waving around giant, homemade phalluses. The jokes and obscenities they’d yell eventually morphed into large-scale productions, paving the way for early comedic theater.
15. Wool clothing was common: Poorer Greeks were limited to shirts and pants made of cheap materials, like wool. Not only were these garments itchy and hot, but were also a breeding ground for bugs and lice. Without washing machines, you could expect to live in filth every day of the week.
16. They also wiped their butts with sponges on sticks: These sticks were kept in buckets of water for reuse, even in public. This led to the phrase, “Grabbing the wrong end of the stick.” Makes sense now, doesn’t it?
17. Newborn babies were dunked in wine to test for weakness: Just because you’re a baby doesn’t mean you get a free pass. In Ancient Greece, some babies were tossed into buckets of wine to test their strength and durability. Think you’d have made the cut?
18. Roosters were exchanged for sex: Older men in Ancient Greece took young boys as lovers, and a rooster was an indication of a man’s affection. However, this affection would disappear once a young man grew facial hair. He was then expected to bring his own boy home to roost.
Archaeological Museum of Paestum
19. Zombies were a thing: Greeks feared an uprising of the dead. To stop selected bodies from coming back as “revenants,” Greeks chopped off their limbs and used heavy stones to keep them six feet under.
20. Women were seen as property: In the ancient world, women were seen as the property of their father or husband, so rape was a violation of ownership, not of the woman herself. Not exactly the beacon of women’s rights.
21. Slaves wore chastity belts: To prevent sexual excitement, slaves were made to wear painful metal rings on their private parts. This horrific act is called “infibulation” and exists in many cultures for both men and women. For “problematic” slaves, complete mutilation was often on the table.
Even as Greek dominance gave way to the Roman Empire, everyday life didn’t get much cleaner. Diaries kept by a passionate Roman foodie name Apicius detailed some of the utterly bonkers recipes that were considered the best eats across the Empire. It reads more like magic potion ingredients than a cookbook.
There were meals that sounded particularly witchy, like spayed sow’s womb, paunch of a suckling pig, and stuffed dormouse casserole. But the Romans experimented with eating pretty much any animal you can think of: parrots, peacocks, dolphins, and giraffes.
Flickr / Sharmzpad
On recovered Roman shipwrecks, archaeologists found jars of a popular condiment called garum. This sun-fermented fish sauce was often sopped up with bread but was also loaded with parasitic tapeworm eggs. No thanks!
Hakai Magazine / Alastair Bland
Etiquette standards were nonexistent in Ancient Rome. Dinner party guests simply disposed of their cleaned animal bones by tossing them willy nilly onto the floor. Later, slaves were ordered to clean the mulch of food scraps that had collected.
Since sitting down for lunch was gambling with parasites and bacteria, it follows suit that Roman medicinal practices were not even close to as sterile as contemporary medicine. Animal and human excrement were used topically and orally for cures and holistic treatments.
Wikicommons / Giorgio Sommer / Naples National Archaeological Museum
Roman medicine shifted the medical standard from largely supernatural to focused on balancing the four humors of the body: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Bloodletting was popular just for the heck of restoring equilibrium.
Newswise / University of Michigan / Robert A. Thom
Studying fossilized Roman fecal matter revealed a wide variety of infections and parasites commonly borne out of poor hygiene and sanitary conditions, dysentery and roundworm among them, which experts say has something to do with a common farming practice of the time.
Newsweek / Wikicommons
The filthiness of human waste just wasn’t a blip on ancient Roman radar. They viewed excrement as a natural resource, spreading it as fertilizer for crops, fulfilling a toxic and nightmarish cycle when they tucked in to eat their yield.
Flickr / Nedra
Urine proved useful as laundry detergent. It was the job of a fuller to leave out and collect jugs of urine on the street to wash clothes in it since the ammonia worked to remove stains.
Toilet paper shortages were a non-issue back in Ancient Rome. To clean their keisters, they reached for a sponge on a stick called a xylospongium. Bathrooms consisted of a bench with holes, reminiscent of an outhouse.
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There’s an obvious red flag to this scenario. A sponge on a stick probably worked well enough, sure. Until you factor in the fact that xylospongium were shared amongst many people, and who can say if they were cleaned.
Wikicommons / D. Herdemerten
Nobody gave ancient Romans the memo that public nudity was lewd. They treated stone walls of public spaces like personal Craigslist ads. People carved out sexually explicit images and propositions as jokes, and also because they was supposed to boost virility.
Telegraph / Allstar / Cinetext / Python
On an ethical note, many Roman practices were indisputably messed up. Marriage, for example, was forced on girls as young as 12 years old, and that was the age restriction imposed by law.
Art Net / Emilio Vasarri
Of course, it wasn’t much easier for Roman boys. The raucous lifestyles of emperors are fairly well known, and the grim tone of their parties revolved around using minors as their sexual tools.
Rome / HBO
Charges of incest reached all the way to the top, most famously with Emperor Caligula. He was accused of having affairs with several of his sisters, and later publicly claimed his mother Agrippina was born of an incestuous relationship.
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Committing a crime in ancient Rome was risking the most gruesome punishment imaginable. Their torture was creative — they fed the guilty to wild animals and buried alive disgraced Vestal Virgins — but the worst was saved for people who committed the most heinous acts.
Wikicommons / Antoine Wiertz
Sinister minds developed what they felt was an appropriate punishment for people who murdered their fathers, which involved putting the convicted in a bag with a reactive animal like a snake, rooster, or monkey, and tossing them into the Tiber River.
Gladiator / Scott Free Productions
Life for the average ancient Roman was regularly anticipating brutality. No one was safe from the wrath of the soldiers conquering cities; innocent civilians, women, and children — all were slaughtered by the thousands. Entire cities burned to ash.
While they definitely took a major leap forward with public health initiatives like aqueducts and bathhouses, none of these would pass the most lenient of health inspections. The olive oil they slathered on every bather, as well as their dead skin scrapers, were perpetually reused.
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After thousands of years of modernization, development, and societal growth, we still had miles to go in terms of proper hygiene. Looking back at the health habits of the American colonists, it’s shocking how much cleanliness standards changed in only a few hundred years.
YouTube / The Crucible / Twentieth Century Fox
Though keeping oneself clean is common practice in our day, hygiene was a somewhat controversial topic in the 18th century. Some doctors actually advocated against bathing regularly, as they believed the body’s oils were essential to good health.
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Religion and cleanliness also went hand in hand, as filth and dirt were often equated with sin and the devil. Morality came into play as well, as those who were clean were looked at as less likely to commit wrongdoings.
While most rinsed their hands and faces each morning, full-body baths were uncommon among most men, women, and children. Infants, however, were bathed regularly, though this was more so in an effort to “harden” them than to clean them.
In some cases, women actually preferred not to bathe and used their uncleanliness as a means of self defense. Using their body odor, they hoped to repel the unwanted advances of overly persistent men.
Another deterrent to bathing was the size of most wash basins, as only the extraordinarily wealthy could afford bathtubs large enough to hold an adult. Freshwater bodies like lakes served as basins of a sort for lower-class men, yet soap was rarely brought along.
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This was because lye soap — made from a mixture of animal fat, lye, and ash — was difficult to make and incredibly harsh on skin. Instead, this soap was used to wash clothing and dishes.
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Yet not all clothes were washed equally, as the process of drawing water, heating it, cleaning the clothes, and wringing them out to dry was a strenuous one. Therefore, only the dirtiest clothes — aprons, underwear, diapers, and the like — were cleaned.
Unfortunately, this meant that most blankets and bedsheets went unwashed, leading to frequent bug infestations. Fleas, cockroaches, and mosquitos were prevalent, and some even resorted to sleeping beside campfires to keep the bugs at bay.
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Lice were also a frequent nuisance, especially when it came to the powdered wigs that most upper-class colonists wore. Despite most men and women shaving their heads to prevent the bugs from nesting, their wigs served as the perfect place for lice to settle in.
Washing the wigs did little to rid them of infestation, leading colonists to coat them in bergamot, bay leaves, and other repellents to keep the bugs away. Unfortunately, the rich pomades used to style the wigs only served as a magnet for hungry lice.
Roy and Dolores Kelley / Flickr
George Washington wrote often about his experiences with such “vermin” and mandated that soldiers wash their shirts weekly and their hands and face daily during wartime. Close-quarter camps served as breeding grounds for parasites and disease, especially the deadly smallpox.
To keep camps in order, “camp followers” traveled alongside the military and tended to their sanitary needs. These individuals — who were mostly women and slaves — ensured that the soldiers’ meals were properly prepared and washed their uniforms as needed.
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When a man needed a shave he visited a barber, who was typically a highly skilled man of color. Women, on the other hand, didn’t shave at all, as common conventions dictated that they show very little skin.
For those women that did seek to remove hair, plucking was a standard option (Eyebrows won’t tweeze themselves!). Eighteenth-century medical journals suggest that depilatory creams — some of which utilized limestone and arsenic — were also used.
Dental care was also somewhat of a mismanaged science, as most people had little concern for the health of their mouth. When toothaches did arise, remedies like chamomile, alcohol, and opium were used to dull the pain.
Cup & Leaf
In most cases an extraction was required, though taking a trip to the dentist wasn’t an option back then. Instead, sufferers visited their local surgeon, apothecary, barber, or even blacksmith to have a tooth pulled.
For those that were conscious of their oral health, metal tooth pickers were available for purchase. Unfortunately, these instruments were also used for a variety of other unsavory tasks, including picking the nails and scooping wax from the ears.
On another level of unsavory, outhouses — or, more specifically, covered holes in the ground — served as bathrooms for most colonists. Chamberpots were also used, their contents simply dumped out the window once full.
Not only were these practices unsanitary, but they also posed serious health risks. Feces and other contaminants would typically seep into the groundwater or runoff into streams and lakes, leading to high levels of contamination.
This, perhaps, is why disease was so widespread within the colonies. Cholera, typhoid fever, and influenza were extremely prevalent, and dysentery — commonly known as the “bloody flux” — ravaged the population.
Believe it or not, health practices back in Medieval times were actually much worse than these. During this time, heating water for a single bath took so long that families would actually share used bathwater. Let’s hope they only shared their baths with other people…
2. Baldness Cures: Balding men of the Renaissance were convinced that rubbing a combination of chicken poop and potassium on their heads would help their hair grow back. Did it work? Judging by what Shakespeare looked like in his later years, the answer is a resounding “no”.
Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr
3. Cough Remedies: Have a tickle in your throat? Doctors once believed that combining one pound of slimy snails and one pound of sugar would create a syrup perfect for coating the throat and curing coughs. Just make sure they don’t get on your face…
4. Contraception: Ancient Egyptian women once used crocodile dung as birth control. Molding the dung into the form of a pessary, they believed that the excrement was thick enough to prevent pregnancy.
5. Makeup: When paleness was once seen as the ideal skin tone, chalk became the primary means of whiting the face. Not only did women smear chalk powder on their face, but they also ate it as well, making them so sick that they’d turn pale as a result.
6. Feminine Products: The invention of tampons and most feminine products are relatively modern, so women of the past had to make do with whatever they had lying around. That included clumps of moss, torn right out of the forest floor!
7. Dental Health: During the Elizabethan era, sugar was only available to the upper echelon of society. Therefore, sugar-rotted teeth were considered a symbol of wealth, and peasants would even go as far as faking the disease just to look richer.
8. Birth Control: Before the days of pills and injections, women drank all kinds of concoctions to prevent pregnancy. The grossest of them all was a tea from Canada made entirely from the genitals of male beavers.
9. Fashion: Why buy another outfit when the one you’re wearing fits just fine? This was the logic of many families before the 19th century when most people had an average of four pairs of clothing to their name—one for each season.
10. Dentures: Back before false teeth were invented, those looking for a new set of pearly whites had to get them from the only people willing to give them up: the dead. In fact, many dentures during the time were constructed from the teeth of dead soldiers.
11. Flowers: These petaled beauties certainly aren’t gross, but some of the things they were once used for definitely are. In the times where people didn’t bathe much, flowers were always kept on hand to mask the stench of body odor.
Clemens v. Vogelsang / Flickr
12. Medicine: In the days before their deaths, 16th-century Arabic men ate nothing but honey and were then buried in coffins full of honey after passing. The corpse was dug up several weeks later and pieces of the body were eaten as a miracle cure.
13. Laundry Day: Before we had OxiClean and Tide, we had urine, which is sterile and contains ammonia. Not only did people once wash their clothes with urine, but they also used it as mouthwash, too.
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14. Labor Aides: No epidurals here, just more animal dung. During labor, Medieval women were given eagle poop mixed with oil and vinegar in order to ease the pain of childbirth.
15. Surgery: Germs weren’t a thing until the mid-1800s, so none of the surgical equipment used by doctors before then was ever sterilized. Maybe getting a checkup back then wasn’t such a good idea after all…
16. Dental Hygiene: Toothpaste is another modern invention, and in the days before straight baking soda was introduced as a dental hygiene product, people would often use burnt herbs like rosemary and mint to brush their teeth. That’s better than the Romans, who reportedly brushed their teeth with mouse brains.
17. Dieting: Why watch your diet when you can eat anything you want and not gain a pound? That was the pitch by quack doctors of the early 20th century when they pushed tapeworms as weight-loss supplements.
18. Toilet Paper: Just kidding! There wasn’t any. That’s why when nature came calling, people would use things like leaves, rags, a wet cloth on a stick, or even their own hand to get the job done.
Huong Chi / Flickr
19. Feminine Hygiene: You’ve heard of Lysol as a kitchen cleaner, but Lysol as a feminine product? Before it found its way under every kitchen sink in America, Lysol was initially marketed as a way to “keep women fresh”.
20. Cleaning Solutions: Forget everything you know about mopping the floor because ancient Egyptians once used the powdered remains of mummies to clean their homes. They also used the powder as a cure-all, rubbing it on their skin and ingesting it in large doses.