Thursday, August 7, 2014

Henna, Hamsas, and Eyes, Oh My: The Eye as Motif in Moroccan Henna

I’ve settled back from Morocco but I’m still going through my henna photos… One interesting thing I’d thought I’d post about is the use of the eye symbol — l‘ayn — in Moroccan henna.

The eye is a well-known symbol of protection across North Africa, the Mediterranean basin, and Central Asia, appearing on jewelry, textiles, ceramics, amulets, and other crafts. It is an ancient motif, appearing on objects and crafts from ancient Egypt (especially as the eye of Horus) as well as Greece, Rome, and other ancient sites throughout Europe and the Levant.

The symbolic idea is that the eye looks back and breaks the stare of the Evil Eye. The Evil Eye, known simply as l‘ayn among Muslims, and as ‘ain hara‘ among Jews, is an ill-defined negative negative energy which can cause problems ranging from financial problems to physical ailments and even death. There are actually different aspects of the eye — a general, powerful negative spirit which exists independent of human action, which is attracted to certain objects or behaviors (which one might term "The Evil Eye"), and a sort of curse or spell which can be placed (purposefully or inadvertently) on someone by another person (which one might term "an evil eye"). People can invite an evil eye with prideful and boastful behaviour, or have an evil eye cast on them by a jealous relative or spurned neighbour.

An eye amulet for sale in a jewelry store in Meknes.
The Eye was feared by all, and people would go to great lengths to avoid being given an evil eye. Both Jews and Muslims have proverbs to the effect that the Evil Eye is the most frequent cause of death (cf. Stillman, 1970, pg. 82, and Stillman, 1983, pg. 487). 

It can be avoided or deterred in a number of ways — amulets, rituals, prayers — and of course, henna is an especially powerful deterrent, especially when depicting the image of an eye.

Westermarck writes: “Besides the fingers of the hand, there is another means of throwing back the baneful power, l-bas, which emanates from an evil eye, namely, the image of an eye. If baneful energy can be transferred by the eye, it can obviously also be thrown back by the eye. The image of an eye, or a pair of eyes, is therefore very commonly used as a charm” (1926, pg. 459). Sometimes even actual eyes — birds’ eyes or fish eyes — were used as protective charms (Stillman, 1970, pg. 89).

The eye is often depicted inside a hand, another common symbol of protection, known as a hamsa (or khmissa in Moroccan Arabic), literally ‘five’ from the five fingers of the hand. The hand is imagined as blocking (or striking) the evil eye, and thus the expression khamsa fi ‘aynik, “five in your eye,” is used to avert the attention of an imagined evil eye. In Morocco, the hand — known as khmissa — is found all over in a variety of stylized forms, especially on doors, and on jewelry, ceramics, and textiles.

A stylized khmissa on a door in Fes to the right of the name-plate.

The question of what is and is not an ‘eye symbol’ in Moroccan art is complicated. Some scholars, like Westermarck, have identified almost every motif and shape — including squares, diamonds, triangles, zigzags, crescents, and six- and eight-pointed stars — as representing a stylized eye, while other scholars, like Jean Herber (1948) and Susan Searight (1984) in their work on Moroccan tattooing, are more cautious.

Religious pamphlets with eye-in-a-hand symbol, Fes.
But while we may argue over the extent to which eye symbols appear in Morocco, it is clear that realistic eyes are commonly depicted in folk art, and of course, especially in henna! I actually don’t know how long realistic eyes have been drawn in Moroccan henna — while eyes have been drawn in khmissa amulets since the early 20th century (Herber 1927, pg. 210), I haven’t been able to find any examples of hennaed eyes earlier than the 1990s. That may just mean that we don’t have photographic documentation of it… I'll keep looking!

But eyes have become a popular motif in Moroccan henna today, and the only true representational motif. Generally only one eye is drawn, and if two hands are being hennaed, the eye usually appears only on one of them. The eye can be a central element in the palm, or tucked into the base of the thumb or fingers. They are often placed inside a diamond or triangle.

The khmissa is generally not drawn in Moroccan henna since (as one Fassi hannaya explained to me): “You don’t need a khmissa, because the khmissa is the hand — when your hand has henna on it, it becomes the khmissa.”

So let’s take a look (pun intended) at some of the hennaed eyes that I spotted in Morocco!

This eye is in the palm of the woman whose hands were previously featured here. While the backs of her hands were pure bildiyya-style henna, her palms were more of a fusion, with some floral and Indian elements along with the classic Moroccan. The eye here has an interesting non-solid pupil and eyelashes that fade out instead of meeting the line. The empty space around the eye, and in the eye around the pupil, make this motif pop out.

A hennaed eye in Fes.

The woman wearing this eye was also previously featured here. This henna was done for Lalla ‘Aisha, as can be seen by its large dots and dark colour. The eye has a simple solid pupil and a dark eyebrow on one side. Placed right in the centre of the palm, it definitely has a powerful impact.

Henna for Lalla 'Aisha, Fes.

This eye was done for me when I got hennaed on my last night in Morocco — my host mother called her hannaya (most locals have a family hannaya that they use for holidays and family celebrations) and while she had never hennaed a man before, she was happy to do both my hands in the bildiyya style. The eye has a little chevron in each corner (a common element) and long eyelashes with dots on the end.

Henna for travel from a Fassi hannaya.

This eye-in-a-hand pattern appears on a hennaed drum that I purchased in Fes near the henna market. The eye has long pointed lashes but is otherwise quite simple. It sits inside a diamond, with dot clusters filling the empty corners. This is a good example of how the eye can be positioned as the central element in a geometric bildiyya design layout.

A hennaed square frame drum, purchased in Fes, 2014.

This eye is not quite realistic, but is composed of elements from the traditional bildiyya style. Shaped like a diamond, the pupil is a spiral attached to the upper part of the eye. The edge is decorated with short lashes and small decorative elements — crosses and clusters of dots.

Stylized eye in henna, Fes.

Eyes also appeared in henna that wasn’t the classic bildiyya style. This woman’s henna was on its way out but it can still be seen clearly — the design is disorganized and doesn’t follow any particular style or pattern, although the layout and toothed edging are drawing on the classic Moroccan style. But I like the eye! It has a big round centre, and small toothed eyelashes.

Fading henna, Fes.

Eyes even appear in khaleeji work! This woman was spotted in Meknes; she has a large realistic eye in the centre, with shaded eyelashes, surrounded by a quick khaleeji-style strip.

Eye henna in Meknes.

And one of the street artists that I watched in Fes ‘signed’ her pieces with a small stylized eye! After finishing the design, she would quickly add it to the side (here it is at the base of the pinky finger). Just a little extra protection for the road…

A stylized eye on the edge of a khaleeji design, Fes.

If you’re looking for more inspiration, there are several designs featuring eyes in Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco. Eyes are a wonderful motif to incorporate into your Moroccan-style work, and are powerful symbols of strength and protection. I wish you all eyes in your hands, hands in your Eyes, and happy hennaing!

An eye in my own Moroccan work.

Herber, Jean. La main de Fathma. Hesperis, vol. 7, 1927, pp. 209-219.
Herber, Jean. Onomastique de tatouages marocains. Hesperis, vol. 35, 1948, pp. 31-56.
Searight, Susan. The use and function of tattooing on Moroccan women. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files, Inc, 1984.
Stillman, Norman. “Women on Folk Medicine: Judaeo-Arabic Texts from Sefrou.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 103, 1983, No. 3, pp. 485-493.
Stillman, Yedida Khalfon. “The Evil Eye in Morocco.” Israel Folklore Research Centre Studies, Vol. 1, 1970, pp. 81-94.
Westermarck, Edvard. Ritual and Belief in Morocco. London: Macmillan, 1926.