‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts

Khalid Elhassan - May 31, 2024

Ancient Egyptians wore thick eyeliner in the belief that it had magical properties. It did not, but what it did have, unbeknownst to users, was medicinal properties that averted otherwise common pink eye infections. Ancient Scandinavians forged swords with the bones of animals, in the belief that it would imbue the blades with the spirit of wild beasts. It did no such thing. However, unbeknownst to the blacksmiths, the use of bones created a crude form of steel that significantly improved the blades. Below are twenty five things about those beliefs and other fascinating ancient world facts.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Ancient Egyptian eyeliner warded off pink eye. About Egypt

25. Ancient Egyptian “Magical” Eyeliner

Ancient Egyptians were susceptible to terrible cases of pink eye, or conjunctivitis – an inflammation of the white part of the eye. So they came up with an eyeliner that they believed was magical, infused with the blessings of Horus, the god of the sun, sky, and healing. A lot of mumbo jumbo and superstition went into the creation of the eyeliner, which modern research indicates was actually effective. Not because of any magical properties, but because the ancient Egyptians had stumbled upon a formula that worked against pink eye.

Ancient Egyptians, unaware of the risks of lead poisoning, featured lead prominently in many of their cosmetics. When it came to eyeliner, they went through a laborious process to synthesize various types of lead salts. Those salts had anti-microbial properties, and when applied in eyeliner form, prevented harmful bacteria from reaching the eyes. Moreover, precisely because lead is bad and our bodies know that it is bad, the application of lead eyeliner triggered an inflammatory response. It proved a hidden blessing, because the inflammation helped kill pink eye infections before they took root.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Scandinavian swords. Wikimedia

24. Ancient Scandinavians Stumbled Upon Steel Because of Superstition

Ancient Scandinavians’ only available iron was bog iron – an impure and soft metal. That put them at a disadvantage against neighbors armed and armored with better iron. However, Scandinavian religious beliefs led them, unwittingly, to forge an early version of steel swords. That gave them a literal edge over their opponents. Scandinavians believed that if they mixed the bones of killed animals with the iron used to forge swords, the resultant weapon would be imbued with the spirit – and strength – of the killed animal. That was superstitious mumbo jumbo, but the swords that emerged were pretty strong, nonetheless. The cause was not spirituality, but science.

Sacrificial bones combined with iron did not give swords spiritual powers. However, what Scandinavian smiths did not realize was that the bones, like any organic matter, contained carbon. Carbon mixed with iron produces a rudimentary form of steel. When they burned coal alongside their low quality bog iron, Scandinavian smiths unwittingly produced bone coal – similar to how burning wood produces charcoal. When modern researchers conducted experiments and mixed bone coal with bog iron to forge swords, they discovered that the process significantly improved the sword. Carbon from the bones penetrated up to three millimeters deep into the bog iron, and produced a significantly stronger weapon.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Romans vs Hannibal’s Carthaginians at the Battle of Zama. Ryomablood Deviant Art

23. The Ancient Romans Were a Stubborn Lot

Ancient Romans won their empire through military discipline, tenacity, and persistence in war. Not so much military genius: the Romans conquered many enemies who had great generals, such as the Carthaginians and the brilliant Hannibal. What set Rome apart was its exceptional ability to marshal its resources. It then went after its foes relentlessly, and kept at it stubbornly without cease or letup until the enemy was ground down into submission. An example was Rome’s systematic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, a process begun in 220 BC, and that lasted over two centuries until completed in 19 BC.

Such tenacity gave rise to one of history’s most hardcore rejoinders, uttered in the Social War (91 – 88 BC) between Rome and her Italian allies. In that conflict Samnites, who had stubbornly fought the Romans before they were conquered centuries ago, seized and fortified the town of Nola. Around 91 BC, a Roman army was sent to take it back. A negotiated settlement was attempted, but the parties could not agree on terms. As the Romans left, the Samnite leader taunted them with the boast that Nola would never surrender. Its fortifications were too powerful to storm, and the defenders could withstand a siege because they had enough supplies for ten years. The Roman commander’s reply, as seen below, was epic.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Samnite warriors. Ancient Battles

22. A Chilling Comeback

Samnites were famously stubborn, and they seriously disliked the Romans. There was thus little reason to doubt that Nola’s Samnite defenders would continue to fight unless the Romans improved their terms. However, the Romans were even more stubborn. To the Samnite commander’s taunt that Nola had enough supplies for ten years, the Roman general replied: “then we shall take Nola in the eleventh year“. He meant it. The Roman general and future dictator Sulla was put in charge of the siege of Nola to keep it under tight siege. The Social War ended in 88 BC, and the siege of Nola went on.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
A Roman siege. World History Encyclopedia

Civil war broke out between Sulla and his rival, Marius. Sulla left a legion behind to continue the siege, and marched on Rome. Sulla chased Marius out of Italy and executed some of his followers, then headed east to fight a war against Pontus. The siege of Nola went on. The Marians came back, retook Rome, and executed an even bigger batch of Sullans before Marius dropped dead. The siege of Nola went on. Then Sulla came back, retook Rome, made himself dictator, and slaughtered thousands of Marians. Throughout, the siege of Nola, virtually forgotten by the outside world, went on. Finally, on the eleventh year of the siege, in 80 BC, Nola’s defenders ran out of supplies and were starved into surrender.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
An early Neolithic settlement. ResearchGate

21. Ancient Alcoholics Created Civilization?

For millions of years, ever since the first proto-humans came down from the trees and walked upright, our species has survived as hunter gatherers. Even after we evolved into Homo sapiens, we continued to collect our food from the abundance of nature as hunter gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years. Then, about twelve thousand years ago, some humans domesticated plants and animals, and switched from hunter gatherers to a settled life of farmers and agriculturalists. It caught on. Within a relatively short time in historic terms, most humans settled down and adopted agriculture. Hunter-gatherers were reduced to a tiny minority, banished to the least desirable lands. Why did the first farmers take up farming, though?

It was long assumed that bread was the cause. Some smart stone agers learned how to cultivate grains, and after a lot of experimentation, figured out how to grind them into flour, mix that into dough, and make bread. Bread was a miracle food: a complete meal in one tasty lump. On top of that, the grains from which bread was made could last for years after they were harvested. So people began to till, plant, and weed in an effort to grow enough to feed their group year-round. Grains can also be turned into beer. Some scholars argue that people first grew grain not because they wanted bread, but because they wanted booze. Is it possible that the roots of settlement and civilization lay in beer, not bread?

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Primitive Neolithic bread making. Fine Art America

20. Which Came First, Bread or Beer?

Long before we evolved into Homo sapiens, our distant proto-human ancestors had experienced the intoxicating effects of alcohol from fermented berries and grapes. Early humans probably climbed trees to pick berries, liked their sweet taste, and began to collect them. After a few days, fermentation kicked in, and juice at the bottom of any container that held the fermenting grapes or berries was transformed into a low alcohol content wine. Thus, humanity accidentally discovered how to make one of its favorite alcoholic beverages. Beer was also discovered accidentally.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Ancient beer drinkers. The Daily Mail

For generations, scholars have assumed a beer discovery timeline that began with the invention of agriculture, after which we settled down and began to grow grain crops. Then somewhere along the line, somebody noticed that if the sourdough starter used to make bread was left out for too long, it started to bubble, and produced an interesting liquid: beer. However, new archaeological discoveries have challenged that assumption, and gave rise to the Beer Before Bread hypothesis. As seen below, it argues that hunter gatherers brewed beer thousands of years before the transition to permanent agricultural settlements.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Stone Age people made beer in these rock mortars, discovered in Raqefet Cave. Wikimedia

19. Turns Out We Brewed Beer Before We Backed Bread

Scholars have recently found evidence of an extensive beer brewing operation, dating back to 13,000 years ago, in Raqefet Cave near Haifa, Israel. As Professor Li Liu, the research team’s leader put it: “This accounts for the oldest record of man-made alcohol in the world“. The Natufians, the folk who brewed that beer, were hunter-gatherers and not settled farmers. Indeed, they brewed beer thousands of years before the earliest known permanent settlement, and long before most estimates of when bread was first made. That discovery supports the argument that beer, not bread, is what set the stage for civilization. People wanted to drink beer, and for that, they needed grain. In order to have a steady supply of grain for beer, they needed to settle down to tend their fields.

As such, beer was a major incentive for humans to settle down into permanent farming communities that gave rise to civilization. Indeed, love of booze might have been a key motivation for why hunter-gatherers settled down to farm, not just in the Middle East, but all over the world. The first cultivated crops, such as wheat and barley in the Middle East, or rice in the Yangtze River Valley, are great for alcoholic drinks, whether beer or rice wine. The desire to get drunk is an ancient behavior. People liked the psychoactive effects of getting sozzled: among other things, it relieved stress and anxiety. Also, drinking with strangers lowered inhibitions, reduced everybody’s ability to deliberately lie and deceive, and thus made people more trusting and trustworthy. That enhanced trust improved the ability to cooperate, and created – or strengthened – bonds with others.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
‘Saint Nicholas Saves Three Innocents From Death’, by Ilya Repin, 1888. Yorck Project

18. The Ancient OG Santa

The gift-giving Saint Nick, or Santa Claus, is a product of inputs from the folklore of various cultures. The biggest single figure behind Santa is probably Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari (270 – 342 AD). A popular saint of both the Western and Eastern churches, he was a generous man known for his gifts. He became associated with Christmas, and the tradition of gifts given that day. Nicholas was born into wealth, and used his riches to help those less fortunate. He traveled around, and went on pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. He also became associated with various good deeds, such as saving three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution.

Legend also attributed to him numerous miracles. He reportedly calmed the sea, chopped down a demonic tree, and resurrected three kids who had been murdered by a butcher and pickled in brine for sale as pork amidst a famine. No wonder he became the patron saint of children. Saint Nick was thus a good guy, and a worthy foundational figure upon whom to build the legend of the lovable Santa. However, Nicholas was not nice all the time. As seen below, if he disagreed with you, Saint Nick might beat you up to settle the debate.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
‘First Council of Nicea’, by V. Surikov, 1876. Wikimedia

17. Saint Nick, the Bully

Chaos ruled early Christianity, with little consensus about the new faith’s doctrine. In 325 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great convened bishops in Nicaea, in modern Turkey, to sort things out in what came to be known as the First Council of Nicaea. It settled some core issues, such as the divine nature of Jesus and his relationship to God, the first part of the Nicene Creed, and when to celebrate Easter. The debates were heated, though. They were not like Ivy League discussion panels, where violence is the last thing expected from nerdy professors in bowties and thick glasses. The Council of Nicaea’s participants could and did settle debates with their fists. Forget passive aggressive cutting remarks: early church fathers could pull out knives in the middle of discussions to literally cut each other.

Saint Nick was one of the bishops at Nicaea, where he settled a discussion with his fists. His victim was a priest named Arius, whose teachings had roiled Christianity and caused the convocation of the council in the first place. The controversy’s details seem esoteric and make little sense to modern ears, but they mattered a whole lot to people back then. Arius, who was accused of heresy, was invited by Emperor Constantine to defend his position. He got up and began to do so. His speech angered opponents, whose numbers included Nicholas – by then middle-aged, with a short fuse when it came to heresy. Saint Nick did a Will-Smith-at-the-Oscars, rose from his seat, rushed Arius, and interrupted his speech with a punch to the face. For that, the OG Santa was stripped of his bishopric, and imprisoned for a time.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Ancient Sumerian mushussu. Malveus

16. The Ancient Origins of Dragon Lore

Dragon mythology has existed since ancient times in vastly different cultures, thousands of years and thousands of miles apart. A common theme is a dangerous beast that poses a deadly peril, until a heroic figure slays it and saves the day. Dragons and dragon-like huge serpents appear in the mythology of many cultures around the world. The Hebrew Bible has the Leviathan; Norse mythology has the beast from Beowulf; Albanians have wyverns and pythons; the French have the Grand’ Goule; and the ancient Greeks had the Hydra. In non-Western lore, Hindus have the Vritra; ancient Egyptians had Apep; and Mesopotamians had mushussu.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Saint George slaying a dragon. K-Pics

The hero and monster theme – an archetype that symbolizes the eternal war between good and evil – is prominent in dragon lore. The tales depict a scary reptilian creature that menaces people. It might fly and breathe fire, or slither and spew poison. Eventually, after a nice buildup that heightens the drama and narrative tension, a bigger than life hero or a god makes an entrance, challenges the beast, slays it, and sets things right. So, what are the origins of dragon lore?

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
A samotherium skull. Wikimedia

15. From Dinosaur Fossils to Dragon Myths

Dragon mythology might have originated with ancient discoveries of dinosaur fossils and those of huge extinct mammals. Take how the ancient Greeks depicted the Monster of Troy in vases and other artwork. It resembles a Samotherium, an extinct giraffe whose fossils are common in the Mediterranean. In parts of China where fossils of large extinct creatures are readily found, they are described as “dragon bones”. Similarly, dragons in northern Indian lore closely resemble the extinct animals that left giant fossils strewn across the foothills of the Himalayas.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
A dragon, as depicted in Game of Thrones. HBO

Some scholars go farther yet in time, and argue that the origin of dragon lore is baked into us, from before we had even evolved into humans. Humans have an instinctive fear of snakes that originated with our ape ancestors millions of years ago. Snakes posed an especially high danger, and the peril was greatest for children. Evolution instilled in us so much fear of snakes, that children today, even in places that have no snakes, instinctively fear them. Such primal fears of snakes might have given rise to dragon lore. The theory is supported by the fact that the earliest known dragon tales depict them as snake-like.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Ancient busts of Antinous, left, and Hadrian. Pinterest

14. Ancient Mixed Attitudes Towards Homosexuality

In ancient Greece and Rome, some homosexual relationships between men were accepted, or at least tolerated. However, the Greco-Romans were not tolerant of homosexuality in its entirety, as the term is commonly understood in the modern world. Sex between men did not carry much of a stigma in of itself – at least not for the top, or the one who penetrated. Exclusive bottoms – the ones penetrated – were often reviled, though. Effeminate behavior on the part of men jeopardized their social standing. Men could engage in homosexual sex, and still be respected so long as they were tough and manly. Effeminate gay men, however, were despised.

Many Roman emperors engaged in homosexual relations with other men, and their standing suffered no damage. Most famously, Emperor Hadrian. He was so passionate about a young gay lover, Antinous, that he had him made into a god after his accidental death. However, such emperors were all tops, and did not engage in effeminate behavior. Heliogabalus was the only emperor who broke that taboo, was open about his role as a bottom, and engaged in openly effeminate behavior. He was widely reviled, and came to grief as a result: his reign ended with his brutal murder, after which his body was thrown into a river and his memory was condemned.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
The Sacred Band of Thebes. Legacy Project Chicago

13. When Homosexual Didn’t Mean Effeminate

Ancient Greek city state armies were composed of citizen soldiers who pursued daily civilian pursuits, and took up arms in times of war. The Spartans, however, had a system whereby most work was done by state slaves. That freed Sparta’s citizens – about a tenth of the population – to dedicate themselves full time to military training. The result was an elite Spartan phalanx, unmatched anywhere in the world for discipline and toughness. So Thebes faced a daunting task when it went to war against Sparta in the fourth century BC.

Fortunately for the Thebans, they had creative military commanders such as Pelopidas (died 364 BC) and Epaminondas (died 362 BC). They adopted innovative tactics that allowed the Thebans to overcome the Spartans’ advantages, such as at the Battle of Leuctra, 371 BC. There, although outnumbered by the Spartans, Epaminondas stacked the left flank of the Theban phalanx fifty men deep. With that great mass, he achieved local superiority against the Spartan right flank, formed in a standard depth of eight to twelve men, and shattered it. The Theban advance was spearheaded by the Sacred Band, an elite unit composed of 150 pairs of gay lovers.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
The Lion of Charonea. K-Pics

12. A Badass Ancient Gay Group of Warriors

The Sacred Band of Thebes was formed sometime around 379 BC. It was reasoned that gay couples in an elite military unit would be devoted to each other, and would fight ferociously to protect their lovers and avoid dishonor or cowardice in their presence. They were spread out along the front ranks of the phalanx, or concentrated into a shock unit. The Sacred Band lived up to expectations, and spearheaded a series of Theban victories that shattered Sparta’s power and the myth of Spartan invincibility. For decades, Thebes’ gay warriors were acknowledged as ancient Greece’s most elite fighters. Their run of victories finally ended at the Battle of Chaeronea, 338. There, Thebes was decisively defeated by Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander.

The Sacred Band stayed true to its fierce reputation, refused to surrender, and fought to the last man until all its members were killed. The Thebans eventually erected a statue of a huge lion, nearly thirteen feet tall, at Chaeronea to honor their fallen heroes. Its presence was attested to by various ancient historians, but then it vanished. It was eventually rediscovered, broken and buried near the village of Chaeronea, in the nineteenth century. Further excavations revealed that the monument stood at the edge of an enclosure, in which were buried the bodies of 254 men, laid out neatly in seven rows. They were the remains of Thebes’ Sacred Band. The statue was eventually pieced back together in 1902, and today, the Lion of Chaeronea can be seen near the site of the heroic last stand of the ancient world’s famous gay unit.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Ancient Greece had few trolls worse than Hipponax of Ephesus. Wikimedia

11. Ancient Greek Humor Could Get Cruel

Boupalus was a famous ancient Greek sculptor.Centuries after his death, the Emperor Augustus had his agents scour the Greek world for statues by Boupalus, which he used to decorate the Temple of Apollo in Rome. In addition to being a great sculptor, Boupalus was a great troll, who unfortunately clashed with an even bigger troll. His adversary, Hipponax of Ephesus, was a poet whose bread and butter seems to have been acerbic lines such as “There are two days when a woman is a pleasure: the day one marries her and the day one carries out her dead body“, and diss poetry. In addition to an ugly personality, Hipponax had a gargoyle face to match. The beef started when Hipponax sought to marry Boupalus’ daughter, only for her father to reject him.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Few ancient Greeks got trolled worse than Boupalus, depicted here with his brother Athenis. Pinterest

That probably spared the girl from a life with somebody who was, by all reports, as ugly on the inside as he was on the outside. Boupalus then rubbed salt in the wound, and caricatured the unsightly Hipponax in some of his sculptures. Hipponax responded with rhymes that accused Boupalus of being a literal motherfu*ker. He then went into graphic details about the carnal acts that the sculptor supposedly engaged in with his mother. Boupalus was subjected to intense public mockery as a result, and unable to stand it, he hanged himself. His fate became a byword among the Greeks, as illustrated by a line from ancient Athenian comic playwright Aristophanes: “Someone ought to give them a Boupalus or two on the jaw—that might shut them up for a bit“.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
An East Asian mermaid. Royal Museums Greenwich

10. The Ancient Origins of These Magical Sea Creatures

Sea creatures that are part human and part fish have long existed in the mythology of many cultures. One of the earliest mermaid legends, from around 1000 BC, is about a Syrian goddess who dove into the bottom of a lake to become a fish. Her divine beauty could not be erased, however, and only her bottom half was transformed. Sub-Saharan Africa has tales of the Mami Wata, benevolent water creatures that ward off evil and offer wisdom and beauty. In East Asian lore, mermaids were the wives of sea dragons. In Western mythology, mermaids have human torsos and fish tail, and often possess prophetic and supernatural powers.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
The Little Mermaid. Pinterest

The depiction of mermaids in Western cultures as beautiful creatures who sometimes seduce humans with song goes back to ancient Greek sirens. Ancient Greek sirens were half bird, but in the Christian era, they came to be depicted as half fish. Western mermaid folktales often revolve around their marriage to humans, usually after a man steals and hides something she values. She stays with him so long as the object is hidden, but immediately returns to the sea if she finds it. Other human-mermaid marriage stories revolve around the fulfillment of certain conditions, with the marriage’s termination and the mermaid’s return to the sea if the conditions are broken.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
A rusalka. Blended Art

9. Mermaids in Original Mythology Were Scary

Nowadays, thanks in no small part to Hans Christian Andersen’s highly influential The Little Mermaid story, we are accustomed to the notion of mostly kindly mermaids. In times past, however, mermaid mythology did not always depict those supernatural creatures as benign. Even if they brought gifts, there was often a catch involved, and the gift’s recipient suffered some misfortune. In other tales, the mere sighting of a mermaid could be bad news, and herald things like storms, floods, and shipwrecks.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Medieval depiction of mermaids, whose song lulled people to sleep and caused them to shipwreck. Oxford University Bodleian Library

In medieval mythology, mermaids were like the ancient Greek sirens that seduced sailors to their doom with songs. They were often symbols of the dangerous temptations embodied by women, such as the Lorelei of the Rhine River, who lured mortals to their death by drowning. Other lore, such as that of Slavic rusalkas, has them seductively call out to young men, to entice them into the water in order to drown them. Some even pose as drowning women, in order to kill would-be chivalrous men who get into the water to rescue them.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Ancient Egyptian women used wheat and barley to determine pregnancy. Short History

8. Ancient Egyptian Pregnancy Tests

In ancient Egypt, long before modern medicine or even the concept of medicine as a professional discipline existed, people did not fully understand why some women got pregnant while others did not. They also had no way to predict pregnancy, or to tell the gender of a fetus in a woman’s womb. That did not stop some ancient physicians – whether they were charlatans or whether they simply acted on a sincerely held but mistaken belief – from taking a stab at it.

Surprisingly, some of those attempts actually worked. One of the earliest written records of a pregnancy test is found in an ancient Egyptian papyrus that dates from around 1350 BC. It called for a woman who might be pregnant to urinate on barley and wheat seeds over the course of several days. As the test put it: “If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all“. As seen below, it was not just innocent ancient gibberish: the test had some substance to it.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Ancient Egyptians were on to something with their pee-on-barley-and-wheat pregnancy test. Science in the News

7. The Ancient Egyptians Were Actually On to Something With This Pregnancy Test

When the ancient Egyptian pee-on-wheat-and-barley pregnancy test was subjected to scientific examination via modern methodology in 1963, it turned out that there was actually something to it. To be sure, the test did not accurately predict whether the fetus was male or female. However, it did not do too badly when it came to the detection of whether a woman was pregnant or not. Seventy percent of the time, the urine of pregnant women actually promoted growth in wheat and barley. The urine of non-pregnant women (and men) did not have a positive impact on the plants’ growth.

It was the earliest known example of a pregnancy test based on something unique in the urine of pregnant women. Scholars identified this test as the first recorded in history to work along the lines of modern pregnancy tests that work by identifying something in the urine of pregnant women that is not present in the urine or those who are not with child. The elevated levels of estrogen in pregnant women’s urine might have been the key to the ancient Egyptian test’s success.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Ancient Egyptians swore by the garlic pregnancy test. Web MD

6. On the Other Hand, Ancient Egyptians Were Far Off the Mark With This Weird Garlic Pregnancy Test

Another ancient Egyptian pregnancy test, although one that was less successful than the pee-on-barley-and-wheat test, had to do with garlic. Ancient Egyptian women who might be pregnant placed a clove of raw garlic next to their cervix when they went to bed at night. When they woke up the next morning, if the sulfuric taste of garlic had migrated to their mouth, they were thought to be pregnant. Unfortunately, no modern scientific research has supported the effectiveness of the garlic pregnancy test.

Ancient Egyptian men also had a special use for garlic. The Greek philosopher Charmidas wrote that Egyptian husbands chewed garlic cloves on their way home from their mistresses. That way, their wives would not suspect that anybody would have been kissing them with such bad breath. Ancient Egyptians were not alone in their belief in the effectiveness of garlic. Other ancient cultures ascribed various medicinal properties to garlic, from headache relief to rabies cure. The Roman naturalist Pliny thought garlic could sap a magnet’s power, while Roman legionaries were fed garlic in the belief that it would give them courage. Either that, or repel the enemy with their horrible garlic breath.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Building the Great Pyramids of Giza. All Posters

5. Ancient Pyramid Builders Were Highly Valued Workers, Not Slaves

Around six and a half million tons of stone, in blocks as heavy as nine tons, were required to build the Great Pyramid of Giza. All with manual labor, using little more than ropes and wood. Was it slave labor? The Old Testament’s portrayal of the Hebrews’ forced labor for Pharaoh popularized the notion that slave labor was widespread in ancient Egypt. Writers such as Herodotus and subsequent historians, fiction, as well as film in the modern era, further cemented the perception that ancient Egyptians used slave labor for their great construction projects. Despite graffiti inside the Great Pyramids suggesting paid laborers, made by the workers who built the monuments, the notion that slaves built the pyramids became entrenched in popular imagination. We now know that notion is wrong.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Artifacts from a tomb of the pyramid builders. The Independent

In 1977, archaeologists discovered the city of the Great Pyramids’ builders, and excavations demonstrated that the builders were not slaves. In 2010, the tombs of the Great Pyramids’ builders were unearthed, and their contents conclusively debunked the notion that the edifices had been built by slave labor. The modest tombs held the perfectly preserved skeletons of about a dozen pyramid workers. They showed that their occupants were paid laborers, not slaves. The builders hailed from poor families from all over Egypt, and were not only paid for their work, but were so respected for that work that those who died during construction were honored by burial near the tombs of the sacred pharaohs. The proximity to the sacred sites, and the care taken to prepare their bodies for their journeys to the afterlife, disprove the notion that the builders were slaves. Slaves would never have been extended such honors.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Han Dynasty women. Fem World

4. Ancient Imperial Chinese Depravity

Ancient Chinese Emperor Jing of Han (reigned 157 BC – 141 BC) crushed feudal aristocrats who tried to run their fiefdoms as independent realms, and consolidated imperial control of China. All in all, his reign was a good one, and he governed with a light hand. Jing lowered taxes, lifted other burdens from commoners, and paved the way for the Han Dynasty to reach a pinnacle under his successors. In his own household, however, Jing raised some depraved monsters. First of those was Prince Tuan, who had some serious sexual hangups. That was a problem, because one of the main tasks of a royal prince was to sire sons, and so ensure the continuity of the dynasty.

Prince Tuan could not get it up with his wives and concubines. Contemporary texts stated that he suffered a “withering of his potency”. Tuan became physically ill whenever he had to approach a woman. The man was gay, but he nonetheless had an obligation to impregnate his women and continue the imperial line. The tensions eventually got too much, and got to him. He had a boy lover, but his lover was bisexual and also liked the ladies – particularly Prince Tuan’s ladies of the harem, whose needs the prince did not satisfy. When Tuan found out that his boy lover was also loving his harem ladies, he failed to see it as a win-win that relieved him of a task he neither wanted to nor could perform. Instead, he strangled his lover to death with his bare hands.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Emperor Jing of Han. Geni

3. An Emperor’s Degenerate Sons

Prince Chu, Prince Tuan’s brother, was worse. He once had one of his concubines whipped, then personally chopped off her head. He had another concubine tortured with red hot irons. Chu’s wife accused one of his concubines of infidelity. So he had the accused whipped, then gathered the rest of his harem and made them burn her with hot needles. Horrible as they were, though, princes Tuan and Chu were kittens compared to their brother, Prince Chien, a completely sadistic monster. Unlike his brother Tuan, who did not like the ladies and felt sick looking at them, Chien liked the ladies – in a variety of sick ways, to their detriment and misfortune. Chien carried on incestuous relationships with his own sisters, and forced himself on some of them when they did not willingly submit to his advances.

Chien also liked to torment them the wives and concubines in his harem. Some of the harem women who displeased him, he forced to sit naked in trees for days on end. Others, he forced keep time to a drum all day long. Others, he simply starved to death. Chien also liked to drown young boys and girls in a palace lake, as their desperate thrashings amused and aroused him. Princes Tuan, Chu, and Chien were not the only degenerates in that family, and ancient Chinese sources hold that quite a few of Emperor Jing’s other relatives were also sick sadists. Per contemporary sources, male members of the imperial family routinely had incest with their sisters and other female relatives, and often assaulted any married woman that caught their eye.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Ancient Egyptians swore by the healing properties of gazelle poop. Imgur

2. Dung as Medicine in the Ancient World

Most of us can agree that poop is disgusting. However, it is widely available, and at some point, some people figured that it might be useful as medicine. Whether for better or for worse, the exact details of how somebody first arrived at that brainstorm are lost in the mists of history. There probably was an interesting tale involved. However it came about, by the time civilization arose, poo was often prescribed to treat a variety of illnesses and assorted maladies.

Ancient Egyptians, for example, swore by the healing properties of gazelle, dog, donkey, and fly dung, and the ability of those creatures’ droppings to ward off evil spirits. They also used animal dung to heal their wounds. On the one hand, that might have caused tetanus and other infections on occasion, especially when poo was applied to open cuts. On the other hand, the microflora in some animal dung contains antibiotics, so the remedy might actually have worked every now and then. At least enough times to keep alive the belief in the medicinal benefits of poop.

‘Magic’ Eyeliner, and Other Fascinating Ancient Beliefs and Facts
Ancient physicians thought crocodile poop was a great contraceptive. iSafari

1. The Medicinal Properties of Fly Poop and Crocodile Dung

Some interesting questions arise from the use of fly poo as medicine. Not just about its effectiveness, if it actually was effective. The more fascinating question is just how did people back then, long before microscopes were invented, even manage to spot, let alone gather, tiny fly turds? However they went about the collection of fly poop, Egyptian doctors had a good reputation in the ancient world. As a result, many contemporary cultures looked up and tried to emulate Egyptian medical practices.

One civilization that borrowed a lot from the Egyptians were the ancient Greeks. Those borrowed things included a medical prescription that used crocodile dung as birth control. Ancient Greek women believed that crocodile poo inserted into their vaginas would serve as a powerful contraceptive. It might have even worked. At least in the sense that to encounter a vagina full of or smelling like crocodile poop might have been such a huge turn off, that it eliminated any desire for sexual intercourse in the first place.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading


American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Jan., 1981) – The Annihilation of the Sacred Band at Chaeronea

Aquamermaid – 21 Facts About Mermaids

Atlantic, The, October 30th, 2015 – Where Magic Meets Science

BBC – The Weird History of Contraception

Big Think – Vikings Unwittingly Made Their Blades Stronger by Trying to Imbue Them With Spirits

Cracked – 6 Ancient Bizarre Beliefs With Logical Explanations

Daily Beast – The Victorious Gay Greek Army That Got Cancelled by History

Encyclopedia Britannica – Saint Nicholas

English Heritage – Dragons and Their Origins

Fathom Archive – Ancient Egyptian Society and Family Life

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe (1990)

Guardian, The, January 11th, 2010 – Great Pyramid Tombs Unearth Proof Workers Were Not Slaves

Harvard Magazine, July-August 2003 – Who Built the Pyramids?

Harvard University, Science in the News – Pee is for Pregnant: The History and Science of Urine-Based Pregnancy Tests

Heritage Daily – The Origins of Dragon Mythology

History Collection – Life in the Ancient Mayan Empire Was Unbelievably Strange

Jones, David E. – An Instinct for Dragons (2000)

Kaplan, Matt – Science of the Magical: From the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Superpowers (2015)

Medical Daily, October 7th, 2016 – The Use of Poop in Medical Treatments Throughout History

Office of NIH History – A Timeline of Pregnancy Testing

PhysOrg – New Evidence Supports the Hypothesis that Beer May Have Been Motivation to Cultivate Cereals

Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Pelopidas

Royal Museums, Greenwich – What is a Mermaid and What Do They Symbolize?

Saint Nicholas Center – Who is St. Nicholas?

Science Magazine, January 10th, 2010 – Egyptian Eyeliner May Have Warded Off Disease

Sima Qian – Records of the Grand Historian

Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014), Vol. 118 (1988) – Hipponax, Boupalos, and the Conventions of the Psogos