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OINTMENT. Processed oil, usually perfumed, widely used in the ancient Near E.


History of usage.

It is impossible to determine when people first began to use ointments and cosmetics. Even in the earliest historical periods cosmetics and ointments were commonly used in ancient Egypt for hygienic and magico-religious purposes. The ancient Egyptians bathed frequently, followed by rubbing the body with oils and creams. All classes considered ointments a necessity, not a luxury; there is record of Egyp. workers going on strike because of lack of food and ointments.

Herodotus reported that the Scythians never bathed but plastered their bodies with a sweet smelling substance of thick consistency. The Homeric poems indicate that the Greeks used ointments early to protect the skin. Pliny credited the Persians with the earliest use of perfume; discovered by Alexander in the spoils taken from Darius, it soon was accepted by all classes of Greeks. Xenophon said Pers. queens squandered the tribute of entire towns on their ointments.

The Etruscans introduced Oriental perfumes in Italy, though the custom met with some resistance. In 189 b.c. the censors forbade the sale of unguenta exotica in Rome, but by the time of Seneca perfumes were commonly used in Rome.



Pliny said the recipe for unguents required two ingredients, “The juice and the solid part, the former of which usually consists of various sorts of oils and the latter of scented substances.” Olive oil was the most commonly used base of ointments in Israel. The Egyptians used balanos, radish, colocynth, sesame, bitter almond oils, and animal fats. The Babylonians used sesame oil and animal fats. Castor oil was used commonly by the poor. Fish oil, though known in Egypt and Mesopotamia, prob. was not used in cosmetics. To the oil various perfumes were added, such as bitter almonds, anise, cedar, cinnamon, ginger, heliotrope, peppermint, rose, sandal, etc. Song of Solomon and 4:10 refer to the fragrance of the ointments.


The knowledge of the techniques employed in making ointments is incomplete. Olive oil was used commonly as the base of ointments and perfumes because it did not evaporate or thicken readily. It was extracted from the olive berries by crushing with mortar and pestle, or with stones under a wooden lever fixed to a hole in the rock at one end and weighted by heavy stones at the other. After cooking, the unguent often was shaped into balls or cones as it solidified. In Egypt and Mesopotamia the unguent cookers were separate artisans, closely associated with barbers, pharmacists, physicians, and priests. They formed a guild in the days of Nehemiah, and there was a special street for unguent makers in ancient Jerusalem. In the days of Christ the preparation of ointments was hereditary in the Abtinas family. Syrian and Jewish ointments prob. were exported to the Greeks.

Containers for storage.

It was necessary to exercise great care in storing unguents and perfumes. They kept best in alabaster or lead boxes and were stored in the shade because sunshine was harmful to them. The general use of ointments gave rise to the manufacture of the many beautiful receptacles which have been found in Egypt and Pal. Alabaster was preferred by the Greeks and Romans; the Egyptians and Mesopotamians substituted less costly small glass jars and bottles. Vases have been found in tombs with the scent still clinging to them. The lids of the jars were sealed and the vessel, usually the neck, was broken to pour out the contents (cf. Mark 14:3).


Ointments were prized highly in ancient times. Hezekiah displayed them in his treasure house to the representatives of the king of Babylon (2 Kings 20:13). They were used for payment of tribute (Hos 12:1). Amos considered them evidence of luxurious living (Amos 6:6; cf. Eccl 7:1). The manufacture of ointments and perfumes was an important industry in ancient times as well as an important commodity in foreign trade. Judas complained that the ointment poured on Jesus’ feet might have been sold for a large sum of money (Matt 26:9).



In the ancient world the magico-religious use of cosmetics was prominent. Magical preparation and anointing of balsams were part of the stock in trade of Egyp. physicians. The Egyp. priests recited the proper incantations and blessed the unguents used. Traces of magico-religious use of cosmetics still are seen in the custom of primitive peoples of painting the body.



The use of cosmetics or oils for protection of the skin against the penetrating sun was essential in the Near E. The Egyptians made extensive use of unguents, creams, pomades, rouges, powders, eye paint, and nail paint. The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus (c. 1500 b.c.) gives the formula for an ointment guaranteed to make an old person young; another requiring the fat of the hippopotamus was a dandruff remedy. Pliny and Theophrastus wrote valuable essays concerning the manufacture of cosmetics in ancient times. See Cosmetics.


Medicine and religion were intimately associated in ancient times. Magical anointing was practiced by physicians in Egypt. Oil was used for medicinal purposes on wounds (Isa 1:6; Luke 10:34). Gilead was noted for a balm with medicinal value (Jer 8:22). The sick were anointed (James 5:14). Ointment was applied to the eyes (John 9:6; Rev 3:18).

Preparation for burial.

Ointments were used in embalming and wrapping the body (cf. Gen 50:2, 3, 26). They were bought to anoint the body of Jesus (Mark 16:1). Enormous sums of money were expended for perfuming the body of the deceased, a luxury condemned by Pliny.


Anointing by servants at festivities and dinners was common in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Pomades in the form of perfumed balls or cones were attached to the heads of guests. Clothing was sprinkled with fragrant water. Jesus rebuked Simon the Pharisee for failing to render the usual courtesy of anointing (Luke 7:46).



R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, III (1955), 1-49; M. S. and J. L. Miller, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1955), 204, 205; J. Gray, Archaeology and the Old Testament World (1962), 172.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

oint’-ment: The present use of the word "ointment" is to designate a thick unguent of buttery or tallow-like consistency. the King James Version in frequent instances translates shemen or meshach (see Ex 30:25) "ointment" where a perfumed oil seemed to be indicated. the American Standard Revised Version has consequently substituted the word "oil" in most of the passages. Merqachah is rendered "ointment" once in the Old Testament (Job 41:31 (Hebrew 41:23)). The well-known power of oils and fats to absorb odors was made use of by the ancient perfumers. The composition of the holy anointing oil used in the tabernacle worship is mentioned in Ex 30:23-25. Olive oil formed the base. This was scented with "flowing myrrh .... sweet cinnamon .... sweet calamus .... and .... cassia." The oil was probably mixed with the above ingredients added in a powdered form and heated until the oil had absorbed their odors and then allowed to stand until the insoluble matter settled, when the oil could be decanted. Olive oil, being a non-drying oil which does not thicken readily, yielded an ointment of oily consistency. This is indicated by Ps 133:2, where it says that the precious oil ran down on Aaron’s beard and on the collar of his outer garment. Anyone attempting to make the holy anointing oil would be cut off from his people (Ex 30:33). The scented oils or ointments were kept in jars or vials (not boxes) made of alabaster. These jars are frequently found as part of the equipment of ancient tombs.

The word translated "ointment" in the New Testament is muron, "myrrh." This would indicate that myrrh, an aromatic gum resin, was the substance commonly added to the oil to give it odor. In Lu 7:46 both kinds of oil are mentioned, and the verse might be paraphrased thus: My head with common oil thou didst not anoint; but she hath anointed my feet with costly scented oil.

For the uses of scented oils or ointments see Anointing; Oil.

James A. Patch