Sunday, January 4, 2015

Henna For All Ages: Henna and Childhood (50th post!)

Welcome to 2015, and welcome to our 50th blogpost! I’ve had a great time sharing my research with all of you and look forward to much more!

I asked on our Facebook page for suggestions for our 50th post and got a lot of interesting suggestions. We’ll get to them all eventually (and you can always submit more!)... For now, we’ll take one of our reader’s questions: 
[What about] something that relates to the interaction between children and henna culture? Not sure how much there is there, but it's always been something I've been curious about.
A great question! And there is definitely plenty to talk about. I know that many henna artists have introduced their kids to henna at a young age, so hopefully they’ll enjoy learning about these historical precedents.

Some of the earliest henna records involve children! Archaeologists have found children’s mummies from ancient Egypt with hennaed hair and nails, like the adults. Unfortunately we don’t know whether the henna was part of the funerary preparations or whether it was used during life. A papyrus from Hellenistic Egypt records that a child was buried with three branches: ebony for shade, a grapevine for drink, and henna for perfume (Smith 2009: 280-281).

An infant mummy from Roman Egypt (ca. 18-134 CE) with
hennaed hair, from Jackowski et al.

In the Middle Ages, we know that there were gender-variant teen dancers (designated male at birth, who performed in feminine attire) who used henna as part of their adornment. Generally between the ages of 8-18, they performed at weddings, circumcisions, and festivals across al-Andalus, southern Europe, North Africa, the Levant, and Central Asia. Maimonides writes disapprovingly (Hidushei haRaMbaM 1:51a):

And [with regards to] the little boys, who are sometimes adorned with women’s ornaments and their hands are dyed with the colour that women dye their hands with — this is the opposite of what is commanded by the transmitters of the tradition… This is a crooked path and the path of sinners, that they do this in public, in the synagogues, in the midst of the congregation and community of Israel, on G!d’s holidays, and no one takes any heed.

Despite rabbinic opposition, this tradition continued in Central Asia well into the 20th century, as explored in this blogpost.

Jewish girl with hennaed hands and
facial decorations, Morocco, 1940s,
photo by Jean Besancenot.
But henna was a part of family life as well. Children would get hennaed for holidays and celebrations, although there were often culturally-specific restrictions on how much. 

For example, in early 20th-century Mauritania, young children could have one hand or foot hennaed but not both; doing so before marriage was seen as inviting the evil eye (Tauzin 1998). Similarly, among Yemenite Jews, young children were allowed only to henna their hands; hennaed feet were seen as the prerogative of married women (Qafih 1961: 127).

Holidays were a primary time for everyone to get henna — in Muslim communities, the two ‘Id festivals were, and still are, an especially popular occasion for children to get henna; in Jewish communities children would get henna on Purim, Pesah, and Sukkot.

In fact, some Kurdish Jewish communities had a special henna ceremony for the holiday of Purim, described here, where all the young girls of the village would get a special bath and be adorned with henna as if they were brides; their mothers would sing wedding songs and tell them that they were as beautiful as Queen Esther.

There were also many times in a child's life when they had a special henna ceremony to mark a lifecycle ritual or time of passage. How early did people start hennaing their children? Often, right away! There are many traditions to henna children just after birth to welcome them into the world. The custom was especially prevalent in North Africa; Edvard Westermarck, the Finnish anthropologist, described (1926: 323-324):
On the day after the birth of the child and on the two following days as well, the midwife rubs its body with a mixture of henna, sugar, alum, marjoram, mint, mastic, water, and a small quantity of water… If the weather is hot the body of the child is rubbed with butter or oil, and some powdered henna is sprinkled in its armpits, on its navel, and between its legs to prevent perspiration and consequent chill.

Elie Malka noted that the Arabic hanna was used in the Fessi dialect of Judeo-Arabic to refer to ‘grandmother,’ and that the etymology would be explained as “the one who rubbed you with henna on the day of your birth” (1940: 36). Westermarck recorded that people explained the purpose of the henna as strengthening the skin, preventing its catching cold, and to make it strong.

Of course, the henna also was believed to protect it against jnun and the evil eye, to which infants are especially vulnerable. The custom of cleaning the child with henna and oil or butter, rather than water, may also be a way of avoiding contaminated water sources; today, medical professionals council against hennaing newborn children.

New Moroccan mother and child, with hennaed hands.
Photo by Anne Bloom.

Babies and their mothers would be hennaed again at various symbolic markers, including three days after birth, seven days afterward, and on the fortieth day afterwards (Patai 1942: 6). In Jewish communities, there was a special henna ceremony on the seventh night, namely, the night before a boy’s brit milah [circumcision], to protect them on this especially important occasion (Bitton 1998: 137).

Henna appears at another lifecycle occasion — the transition from a ‘baby’ to a ‘child,’ usually around the age of 3-5. In Muslim communities this was often when boys were circumcised, which often included henna: the boys had their hands and feet hennaed, and often the circumcision wound itself would get a little henna mixed with egg, oil, or butter. Boys in North Africa today are still hennaed before their circumcision. And unfortunately the practice of female genital mutilation also included a henna ceremony for the girl, often dressed up like a bride.

Young boy before circumcision with his mother,
Tunisia, 2007, photo by Ludovico Verducci. Note that the henna here
is combined with a black ink, as is traditional in Tunisia. Historically,
this would have been a gall ink (harqus); unfortunately today it is often
black hair dye or even the dangerous PPD. Please never use "black henna"!

In Jewish communities, this transition was marked with the first haircut, and the beginning of school — in North Africa, a special henna ceremony arose called kettab which was celebrated around the holiday of Shavu‘ot.
The preparations began on the Mimouna (the last night of Passover), six weeks before Shavu‘ot: families with little boys would go to the homes of families with little girls to ask for their hand, bringing henna, a ring, and bowls of candies (Brunot and Malka 1939: 314; Briggs and Guède 1964: 29). 

Young boy dressed for kettab ceremony,
Ghardaïa (southern Algeria), 1950s.
The day before Shavu‘ot, the children were taken to the bath and dressed in wedding finery. Their families hosted a feast with musicians and singers, the children’s hands and feet were hennaed, their faces were also painted with ḥarqus [a burnt soot ink], and their hair was cut (often for the first time — traditionally a Jewish child’s hair is not cut until the age of three).

On Shavu‘ot, a ketubba [wedding contract] was written on paper with honey and handed it to the children, who licked off the honey to the sounds of celebration (see a whole description of the kettab ceremony here)

It was both a celebration of Shavu‘ot  and receiving the Torah, and a mock wedding of the children to the Torah to which they were committing themselves. There were similar henna ceremonies for boys who finished memorizing the Qur’an in North African Muslim communities.

Henna appeared again when it was time for the child to transition into being an adult. For Jewish boys, coming-of-age (known as bar mitzvah) was marked with a special ceremony, which in North African communities included henna. The night before, the family hosted a dinner where the bar mitzvah boy had his hair cut, gave a speech, and had his hands hennaed; sometimes the family would do it, and sometimes they would call a professional artist, depending on what the boy wanted (Zafrani 2000: 63). While girls’ coming-of-age wasn’t historically marked with an official ceremony, there are some records of a girl’s first menses being marked with henna (Awret 1984: 156); today, of course, henna appears at many bat mitzvah parties.

Momy Bensimon, Henry Acoca, and Aaron Bensimon at their
bar mitzvah celebration, Mazagan (el-Jadida), Morocco, 1954.

I think one of the reasons why girls’ coming-of-age didn’t get more attention was because it often was closely tied to their wedding, which would have had a henna ceremony anyway! I don’t have space here to detail all of the various rituals and traditions which went into wedding henna ceremony, but I think it’s important to remember that more often than not both participants would have been in their teens.

Emilia, a Rroma bride, age 13, with hennaed fingertips. In Sofia (Bulgaria),
1978 (from Fonseca 1995).

Reading many of the traditional songs for a pre-marriage henna night, you can hear that the bride is expressing her fears and anxiety around moving to a new home and starting a new life, while her mother reassures her that she is being supported on this journey and that everything will go well. In the Ya Mashta song I explored here, for example, the young bride sings:
Why, O father, have you abandoned me? / Why, O father, must I die a stranger? / You abandoned me on the mountaintops.Why, O father, have you abandoned me? / Why have you married me off young?You should have said, “this is my daughter, / My little girl will stay with me.”
Similar themes are present in henna songs from Persia, Yemen, and elsewhere. It can be imagined that the henna night served an important function in reassuring nervous brides (and perhaps nervous grooms as well!) that their families and communities were supporting them through this transition.

Surmeh Kimiabakhsh, a Persian Jewish bride, age 14,
on left (with hennaed nails) and mother, right. Iran, 1910.

Children were also hennaed at weddings, even if they’re weren’t getting married. Some communities even had a tradition of ‘decoy henna,’ where a young boy and girl would be hennaed before the bride and groom in order to serve as decoys to confuse the evil eye. 

Jewish girl as 'decoy bride' with hennaed finger,
Mumbai, circa 1980.
And although it meant (in theory) attracting the evil eye yourself, being chosen as a decoy was actually considered an honour and a good omen that you would find a good marriage yourself. This was practiced among Jewish and Muslim communities in Persia, Kurdistan, and India (Brauer 1947: 102­-103; Weil 1977: 217; Slapak 1995: 151).

And one last anecdote — when I was in Morocco, I interviewed a henna artist working in the street, and she had her young daughter with her. I noticed that her daughter had fading henna designs all over her arms and legs, and I thought of all the henna artists I know who practice on their kids and whose kids love getting henna! I asked her whether she liked having her mom henna her, and she nodded very shyly. It was a nice moment of connection.

So as you can see, henna isn’t just for grown-ups! Whether for special ceremonies, holidays, or just because, henna was a part of children’s lives from the very beginning. And I imagine that for more than one henna artist, their love of henna was kindled when they were children themselves. Henna friends: did you first encounter henna as a child? And do your children love henna too?


  • Awret, Irene. Days of Honey: the Tunisian boyhood of Rafael Uzan. Random House Inc., 1984.
  • Bitton, Eliyahu. Netivot Ma'arav: minhagei Maroqo. Jerusalem: Mechon Bnei Yisaschar, 1998.
  • Brauer, Erich. Yehudei Kurdistan: mehqar etnologi (completed by Raphael Patai). The Israeli Institute for Folklore and Ethnology, 1947.
  • Briggs, Lloyd Cabot, and Norina Lami Guède. No More Forever: a Saharan Jewish town. Peabody Museum, 1964.
  • Brunot, Louis, and Elie Malka. Textes Judéo-Arabes de Fès. Rabat: École du Livre, 1939.
  • Malka, Elie. Glossaire Judéo-Arabe de Fès. Rabat: École du Livre, 1940.
  • Patai, Raphael. "Minhagei Leida etzel Yehudei Maroqo." HaTzofeh, October 9, 1942.
  • Qafih, Yosef. Halikhot Teiman. Jerusalem: Ben Zvi Institute, 1961.
  • Slapak, Orpa. Yehudei Hodu: bene-yisrael, kochinim, bagdadim. Israel Museum, 1995.
  • Smith, Mark J. Traversing Eternity: texts for the afterlife from Ptolemaic Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Tauzin, Alice. Le Henné: art des femmes de Mauritanie. Ibis Press, 1998.
  • Weil, Shalva. Bene Israel Indian Jews in Lod. University of Sussex, 1977.
  • Westermarck, Edvard. Ritual and Belief in Morocco. Macmillian, 1926.
  • Zafrani, Haim. Two Thousand Years of Jewish Life in Morocco. Ktav Publishing, 2000.


Cricket said...

My little guy figured out what henna was and learned to say the word before he was 2 years old, and often asks for it! He's too squirmy to deal with the paste though, so he still gets "marker" henna :) Soon ... SOON! lol

darcitananda said...

Fascinating as always. And surely it is not a coincidence that gall ink is referred to a "kidab" in Yemen.