Sumerian Eye Makeup Prevented Conjunctivitis, the 'Evil Eye'

The Sumerian language has preserved a record of their battles against conjunctivitis, also known as 'pink eye', an eye condition which the Sumerians called igi-hulu, 'evil eye'.

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the mucous membrane that covers the eyeball, which can be brought on by bacteria, viruses, or inadvertent soap in the eye. You can read about this potentially dangerous condition here:

Holy Conjunctivitis! Pink Eye: The Real Evil Eye

There is a Sumerian expression that indicates that this condition had already become a subject of fear and superstition in Sumerian times.

igi-hul...dim2: to put the evil eye (on someone) ('eyes/face' + 'evil' + 'to fashion').

In most traditional cultures there is an extreme fear of the 'Evil Eye'. They recite incantations, give signs, and will do everything possible to avoid its fateful curse. You can read about this widespread superstition here:

What Lies behind the Concept of the Evil Eye

The germ theory of disease is not a natural or obvious idea for humans. The Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis, whose hospital experience forced him to assert that lack of cleanliness was causing new mothers to contract and die from puerperal fever, faced extreme opposition from his fellow doctors and surgeons. Students of medicine and the philosophy of science today read about and try to learn from the sad story of Ignaz Semmelweis.

The Sumerians were like many other peoples in having traditions about the medicinal use of different plants and herbs, some of which have antiseptic properties. These traditions are preserved in the vocabulary of their language. When Logogram Publishing publishes the English-Sumerian index to my Sumerian Lexicon (2006) book, it will be easier for researchers to look up what are these plants and herbs. But the Sumerian natural remedies were largely the same as are used today among the inhabitants of Iraq and Arabia. A good article about these traditional remedies appeared around the same time as my Sumerian Lexicon book:

Saudi Aramco World : Natural Remedies of Arabia

There has been great publicity regarding a recent analysis of Egyptian eye makeup and the effect of its lead content in killing bacteria. While there have been many speculative or strange reviews of this work by Paris-based analytical chemists Philippe Walter and Christian Amatore, here is one of the more reliable reviews:

Cleopatra's Eye Makeup Warded Off Infections?

The Sumerian vocabulary confirms that the practice of eye makeup originated for eye protection, not for cosmetic reasons. It also shows that the practice of applying protective eye makeup was not limited to the ancient Egyptians.

Here are two entries from my Sumerian Lexicon (2006) book:

šembi, šimbi: kohl, i.e., a cosmetic, mascara, or eye-protection paste originally made from charred frankincense resin and later from powdered antimony (stibium) or lead compounds (cf., šem-bi-zi-da, 'kohl'; šim, 'perfumed resin'; šim-gig, 'frankincense'; im-sig7-sig7, 'antimony paste').

šem-bi-zi-da: kohl; a paste originally made from charred frankincense resin and later from powdered antimony (stibium) or lead compounds; a darkening eye cosmetic with antibacterial properties - used as a protection against eye disease as well as giving relief from the glare of the sun ('kohl' + 'good; true' + nominative; Akk., guhlu, 'kohl' - cf., igi-hulu, 'evil-eye').

The etymology shows that Akkadian guhlu is a loanword from Sumerian, where it evolved through vowel harmony from the Sumerian term for 'evil-eye' into our word 'kohl'. Furthermore, according to Stephan Guth, Professor of Arabic at the University of Oslo, our word 'alcohol' "is derived from the Arabic al-kuhl, which means 'kohl'. When the Europeans became familiar with this substance in Andalusia, which was also used for medical purposes, they referred to it and gradually all other fine powders, and subsequently all kinds of volatile essences, as alcohol." So the etymology of 'alcohol' can now be traced through a circuitous path all the way back to ancient Sumerian igi-hulu, 'evil-eye'.

Frankincense resin has such strong antibiotic properties that the ancient Egyptians used its oil to clean the body and organs during mummification, helping to prevent putrefaction. A Google search for "charred frankincense" returns almost a thousand results. Frankincense, however, was rare and expensive, having to be imported from Arabia, which explains why the Sumerians learned to substitute powdered antimony or lead compounds for it in their eye makeup.

Copyright © 2010-2014 John Alan Halloran, Los Angeles, California. All Rights Reserved.
Last modified on January 27, 2014.