I’m still sorting through the material that I collected this time, so even though I’ve left Morocco you can expect at least a few more Moroccan posts. And of course, if you have any specific questions, ask away!
For my last weekend in Morocco, I took a trip to a few pilgrimage sites around the Fes/Meknes area, including one with particular resonance for henna artists — the mausoleum of Sidi Ali ben Ḥamdush (or Ḥamdouche), the founder of the Ḥamadsha Sufi brotherhood, and the grotto of the jinniyya ‘Aisha Qandisha, the Ḥamadsha’s feared and revered spirit-interlocutor. In this post I’m going to explore the henna connection to ‘Aisha Qandisha and the Ḥamadsha, and more broadly, the relationship between henna and the jnun [spirits] in Morocco.
|Candles and henna leaves for Lalla 'Aisha in her grotto.|
I obviously only have space here for a very brief introduction; for more fuller treatments of the jnun in Morocco, the definitive early work is Westermarck (1926), and Crapanzano’s work (1973; 1980) is now a classic in the field. Some good contemporary pieces include Pandolfo (1997), Ma‘ruf (2007), Kapchan (2007), and Maréchal and Dassetto (2014).
I’ll also take this moment to plug a great source for information on Moroccan henna: the definitive work on the artistry, culture, and significance of henna in Morocco, by renowned artists Lisa ‘Kenzi’ Butterworth and Nic Tharpa Cartier — Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco (2010). If you’re interested in Moroccan henna this book is a must-have.
Now, back to the jnun. The world of the jnun has its origins in classical Islam. The Qur’an speaks of the jinn in numerous places, describing them as having been created prior to humankind from nari as-samumi, ‘the scorching fire’ (15:27), and implying that they can interact with humankind (e.g. 27:38-39), while at the same time existing in a parallel world to our own (e.g. 46:29, 51:56). Hadith and later Islamic literature expanded on these descriptions, creating a well-developed ‘jinnology’ which took on different characteristics in different areas.
Linguistic note: in classical Arabic, the singular is jinni and the plural jinn. In the Moroccan Darija dialect, jinn is the singular and jnun is the plural. In both varieties, jinniyya(t) is the feminine. The jnun are also commonly known by various euphemisms, such as mlek ‘rulers,’ l-khafiyya ‘invisible ones,’ or rjal l-blad ‘men of the country,’ or circumlocutions like haduk n-nas ‘those ones,’ or haduk taḥt l-arḍ ‘those under the ground.’ Hope that’s not too confusing!
In North Africa, the jnun are a class of sentient spirits which are distinct from the ordinary things and beings of our sensory, phenomenal world. While they don’t necessarily have physical bodies, they are able to take visible form on occasion and are often associated with particular places, especially dark and wet places, like marshes, grottos, and wells (and drains! One of my friends was scolded by their Moroccan host mother for pouring hot tea down the sink because it would anger the jinn who lived there).
Like their parallel fairy spirits in northern European mythology, the jnun are not willfully or inherently evil, but at the same time they are dangerous, and they are not creatures you want to interact with too much.
|A stylized khmissa, a very popular door|
ornament, on the door of the Jewish
cemetery in Meknes.
Vincent Crapanzano writes: “the jnun are not necessarily evil or harmful. They are whimsical and arbitrary, capricious and revengeful, quick-tempered and despotic — and therefore always potentially dangerous… Men and women who are angry or frightened are particularly liable to attack by the jnun; so are people in liminal periods associated with change in social status” (1973, pg. 140).
How do you deal with the jnun? Certain things will keep them at bay, including iron, salt, rue, eyes, the khmissa [hand], Qur’anic amulets, the colours blue and red, the number five, and of course, henna. You can also say particular phrases (BismiLlah r-raḥman r-raḥim, ‘In the name of Allah the compassionate and merciful,’ Llah yistr, ‘May Allah protect [us],’ ḥamsa fi ‘ainik, ‘five in your eye’), and you can avoid certain actions (like pouring hot water down drains or throwing out your nail clippings) or places where jnun are known to reside.
Beyond these ordinary actions, however, various Sufi groups have developed a system of intricate relationships with particular jnun, which include songs, dances, and rituals designed to satisfy a jinn’s demands and repair any disruption in the relationship.
Morocco is home to several Sufi ‘brotherhoods’ or ṭuruq (singular: ṭariqa), including the Tijaniyya, the Qadiriyya, the Shadhiliyya, the ‘Issawiyya, and the Ḥamdushiyya (or Ḥamadsha, as they are commonly known). The last two are particularly known for their work with the jnun, as are the Gnawa (an ethnic minority with a Sufi-inspired religious tradition, famous for their musical lila ceremonies). Lalla ‘Aisha is one of several named jnun with whom the Ḥamadsha and Gnawa cultivate a relationship. She has a special shrine, l-ḥufra dyal ‘Aisha, ‘the grotto of ‘Aisha,’ under a fig tree near the grave of Sidi ‘Ali ben Ḥamdouche, the founding saint of the Ḥamadsha.
|Henna and wax on the walls of |
How does henna relate to all this? As I mentioned, henna wards away negative energy, so it makes sense that it would appear in the context of saint veneration. When visiting saints’ tombs, one ritual activity is to apply henna there (solid application is fine) as a means of absorbing the baraka, or spiritual power, of that place; the henna is often prepared and applied by the muqaddim [guardian] of the shrine or his wife (Vonderheyden, 1934, pg. 49; Crapanzano 1973, pg. 175-176).
Similarly, a pilgrim might rub earth or dust on their face and arms — earth from a shrine was sometimes known as l-ḥenna dyal s-siyid, ‘the henna of the saint’ (Westermarck 1926, pg. 199; Ma‘ruf 2007, pg. 144-145). When we went to the shrine of Muḥammad ben ‘Issa, the founder of the ‘Issawiyya, I saw people reaching under the tomb structure to smear dust on themselves and get close to the saint.
Understandably, the application of henna for baraka is also done at the grotto of ‘Aisha, near the shrine of ben Ḥamdouche. When I went to visit the grotto of ‘Aisha, in fact, the first thing I noticed was the familiar smell of henna. The walls were coated with a thick of layer of dried henna paste, and henna leaves and powder were scattered everywhere.
While I was there, the guardian quickly mixed up some henna paste (there was a box of henna powder lying around, which he mixed in an empty half of a plastic bottle with water from a well in the centre of the grotto) and told me to smear it on the walls (which I did, of course!). Outside the shrine, pilgrims can purchase trays of offerings for Lalla ‘Aisha with henna, candles, incense, milk, and sweets.
|Trays of offerings for Lalla 'Aisha in Sidi 'Ali ben Hamdouche.|
But henna can also be demanded by a jinniyya of her followers, especially if they have done something to anger her (she can also demand other things, including clothes, cosmetics, incense, music, food, or animal sacrifice). The henna is usually done in an evening ceremony known as a lila, which can be dedicated to the jnun in general or to one jinniyya in particular. Three jinniyyat are especially known for their love of henna: Lalla ‘Aisha, Lalla Malika, and Lalla Mira (Butterworth and Cartier, 2010, pg. 18).
Lalla ‘Aisha is the most important and the most feared, and the Ḥamadsha consider themselves her special devotees (hence her grotto at the Ḥamadsha sanctuary). She has many manifestations, some of which have their own names (Lalla ‘Aisha Sudaniyya, Lalla ‘Aisha Dghughiyya, Lalla ‘Aisha Ḥasnawiyya, Lalla ‘Aisha Baḥriyya). She is associated with the colours black and red, and is attracted to blood and jawi incense. She often appears to men and tries to seduce them; if they recognize her and plunge a steel knife into the ground, they gain control; but if they sleep with her, they become ‘married’ (mzawwaj) to her and must always follow her demands. Crapanzano writes (1973, pg. 143):
She is always libidinous and quick-tempered. She never laughs, and she is always ready to strangle, scratch, or whip anyone who insults her or does not obey her commands… She may appear to believers either as a beauty or as a hag with long pendant breasts. Usually, even in her beautiful manifestations, she has the feet of a camel, a donkey, or an ass.
When ‘Aisha demands henna, it must be done right away. Her favourite pattern is rows of large symmetrical dots (Spadola, 1992, pp. 81, 94; Vázquez, 2010, pg. 325), and she prefers her henna to be darkened to black (with traditional methods like double application and an ammoniac soak, not PPD!).
|This woman identified her henna as l-ḥinna dyal 'Aisha, 'the henna of 'Aisha.'|
See another example of henna for 'Aisha in this post.
Another jinniyya who can demand henna is Lalla Malika. She is regal (her name means ‘queen’), modern, and playful; it is said that she never attacks her followers. She prefers Gnawa music to that of the Ḥamadsha, and is associated with the colours pink and purple. She loves cosmetics, perfume, and fine clothes, and her presence inspires romantic feelings and even sexual attraction. Crapanzano writes (1973, pg. 146-147):
Lalla Malika is very beautiful and dresses, as they say, with a lot of chic. She demands the same elegance of all her followers. She is a flirt and quite promiscuous, and she especially enjoys relationships with married men. I have been told she speaks only French… She likes to laugh and tickle [her followers], and she is responsible when a group of women suddenly start giggling.
Lalla Malika, as befits her personality, likes elaborate and delicate henna patterns, and in particular the traditional Fassi style (this is similar to what my colleague Kree Arvanitas found years ago in Morocco). I was told by several henna artists that while Lalla ‘Aisha likes the older style of dot-fill, Lalla Malika prefers the tree fill (shajara). It’s still unclear to me whether there are specific patterns that are done for Lalla Malika or whether any elaborate henna pattern can be associated with her. An area for further research…
|This woman told me she had done this henna for Lalla Malika.|
The third jinniyya who can demand henna is Lalla Mira. She is said to be an Amazigh jinniyya, and is associated with the colour yellow. She is mirthful and loves perfume, amber jewelry, sweets, and dance, but she can quickly lose her temper. Crapanzano writes (1973, pg. 148):
She lives in houses and takes her walks after afternoon prayers… She makes people laugh, but also attacks and takes possession of them. She is unmarried… Lalla Mira can attack someone who is laughing or crying a lot. Sometimes a woman who is crying is suddenly paralyzed. She continues to cry as long as she is paralyzed. You must then put henna in her hands, in her mouth, and in her nose.
Lalla Mira prefers rural-style henna, without designs, but applied solidly on hands and feet to the wrists and ankles.
|I came home one day to find that my host grandmother (also|
from a small Amazigh village!) had hennaed her hands
to help with her joint pain, and also 'just because'.
So let's say you need to do henna for a jinniyya — how does it happen? The person who is affected hosts a night-time ceremony called a lila [‘evening’] or ḥadra [‘trance’] with invited musicians (usually Ḥamadsha or Gnawa). A henna artist comes and adorns the patient with the particular patterns necessary for the ceremony (sometimes this happens the day before). The musicians recite invocations to Allah and the saints (ḥizb), short religious mantras (dikr) and special chants for the jnun (riḥ). Offerings are made to the jnun — milk, dates, henna, incense; sometimes an animal sacrifice is made. The music and dancing continues until the participants fall into a trance (ḥal) and collapse. Eventually the ceremony winds down, and the participants eat and go to sleep; if the ceremony has been successful, the patient recovers over the following days (for more complete descriptions and analyses, see Crapanzano 1973 and Kapchan 2007).
North African Jews had a similar system of interacting with the jnun, which were also known by the Hebrew name shedim or euphemisms like t-tḥata dyalna, ‘our counterparts underground’ or j-jarin dyalna, ‘our neighbours.’ The shedim were generally not named as individuals nor did they have individual personalities as among the Ḥamadsha; nonetheless, they shared many of the same properties and could be mediated the way.
|Jewish hennaed dancer, Algeria,|
early 20th century.
Jewish communities shared the belief that henna was an effective way of averting negative interactions with the jnun, and like the Ḥamadsha, Jews would use henna to placate spirits who had been offended or angered (Stillman 1983, pp. 492-493). Henna was also offered to the jnun at transitional times, including weddings and housewarmings (Malka 1946, pg. 59; Zafrani 1969, pg. 123).
Moroccan and Algerian Jews also held a special ceremony, like the lila, known as sulḥa or salḥa (Allouche-Benayoun, 1999: 208-209). It was explained to me that when someone was very ill, it was believed that they had offended one of the underground spirits. They would keep the ill person in the house for eight days, and have them drink a special herbal beverage called sulḥa [sarsaparilla].
After eight days, they brought a troupe of non-Jewish musicians [Gnawa?] to play and dance and the ill person would be hennaed on their hands and feet (I don’t know whether it was solid application or particular designs).
The patient would then be brought to a place with naturally flowing water, where they would throw in the sulḥa drink, cakes made of semolina and honey, and the dried henna paste; they would ask G!d to protect and heal the afflicted person, and to forgive them any wrong they may have done. The musicians would play fast-paced music and the women would dance themselves into a trance: “We would lose everything. We didn’t know where we were, really, not at all... And this black man would [also] go into a trance, and dance, and then he would faint. When he fainted, we would say, ‘This is it, the jnun have left.’”
SO: what does this mean for us as henna artists? While we may not follow the Ḥamadsha path or even believe in the existence of jnun, I think there are lessons here for all henna artists. When I think of the jinniyyat, I think of different ways of bringing them into our henna work.
Lalla ‘Aisha for me is a symbol of power in henna — bold henna, henna with a purpose, henna that jumps out and demands that you pay attention to it. When I need to do henna with a forceful energy, to stand out in a crowd or to protect me in a moment of transition, I channel Lalla ‘Aisha and invite her presence in the design.
Lalla Malika for me is a symbol of beauty in henna — delicate henna, flirtatious henna, henna that showcases the artist’s skill and delights the eye. When I need to do henna that will captivate and seduce, that will make people ooh and ahh, I channel Lalla Malika and invite her presence in the design.
And Lalla Mira is my favourite, a symbol of simplicity in henna — henna that isn’t striking or beautiful, henna that isn’t powerful or fancy, just henna for the sake of henna, henna that is satisfied with itself. When I do henna for myself, for no reason other than the joy that henna brings me, I invite Lalla Mira, and I feel her presence.
Thank you, Morocco, for all the wonderful experiences, and thank you, dear readers, for following along! The travel is over but the journey continues...
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Butterworth, Lisa Kenzi, and Nic Tharpa Cartier. Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco. Self-published, 2010.
Crapanzano, Vincent. The Ḥamadsha: A Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry. University of California Press, 1973.
Crapanzano, Vincent. Tuhami: portrait of a Moroccan. University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Kapchan, Deborah. Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace. Wesleyan University Press, 2007.
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