Friday, January 16, 2015

Period Henna: A Resource Guide for Henna in the SCA

I'll preface this by saying that I'm not a member of the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism), although I've been to a few events, and I've met several henna artists who are active members. The SCA is an international organization of historical re-enactment, devoted to the study, recreation, and practice of the "Middle Ages" (loosely defined as post-Roman Empire, pre-1600). SCA members develop a "persona," a character of sorts from a specific time and place, and aim to recreate that person's life "in period" — as close as possible to what clothes they would have worn, what foods they would have eaten, what crafts they would have made, etc.

I'm presenting about henna at a local SCA event and I realized as I was putting my information together that it might be helpful for other artists and enthusiasts, so here you go! This is basically a compilation of previous research that I've done with links to further resources. Feel free to comment or email me with any additional sources or questions — I'd love to hear from you.


There aren't a lot of sources on the early (pre-medieval) history of henna, and I've outlined most of them on my website, here and here

Venus with red (hennaed) hair, 1st-2nd century CE
Essentially, it appears that the origins of henna lie primarily around the western coast of the Mediterranean (contemporary Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Turkey, etc.), where it was used as a perfume and hair dye. 

Henna continued to be known and used in the Greco-Roman world, and traveled into Roman North Africa and even into mainland Europe. We have no direct evidence of henna's use as body art in the ancient world but it seems likely that they used it to dye skin as well as hair.

By the rise of Islam, henna was known as a medium for body art and was seen as feminine adornment in particular, although men used it as well to dye hair and beards. Early Islamic sources indicate that it was used by Jews and pagans in the Arabian peninsula, and that it was associated with joy and celebrations. It was favoured by the Prophet and his family and using henna became part of the sunnah [encouraged behaviour] and a mark of piety. There's more about henna in early Islam here and here.

There are two main areas where henna would have been an important part of cultural aesthetics during the 'SCA Period' — the Iberian peninsula (al-Andalus) / North Africa, and Persia. I'll offer some sources below for each of them, and then some reflections on what kinds of henna would not be "period."

SCA Henna 1: al-Andalus

An entry for henna in a Judeo-Arabic medical encyclopedia,
from the Cairo Geniza, Rylands fragment A539-4.
Thanks largely to the documents of the Cairo Genizah, we know that henna was an important and widely-traded commodity in the economy of the medieval Mediterranean. It was grown mostly in North Africa, especially Tunis, but there were also henna plantations in Sicily and even in Spain. It was shipped across the Mediterranean, including Egypt, Greece, France, and southern Italy.

It was an important medicine (see here) and hair dye, but its main use appears to have been for ornament. It was used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all in varying ways, to celebrate holidays and weddings. It was also used, along with kohl and other feminine accoutrements, to decorate the saqis, the beautiful dancing youths to whom the Andalusi poets were so fond of writing homoerotic odes. The Andalusi rabbi and philosopher Maimonides, for example, lambasts the the moral laxity of his community who allowed their boys to perform with henna and adornments, even in the synagogue (see his quote here).

In fact, henna appears frequently in medieval Andalusi poetry in both Hebrew and Arabic, as an attribute of the beautiful but cruel beloved (male or female). The red of their hennaed fingertips is often metaphorically described as the blood of their lovers whom they have slain by their cold disregard. See here for an example from the 11th century Granadan Hebrew poet Shmu'el haNagid.

Woman with hennaed fingertips, from the Sala de los
of the Alhambra, Granada, 14th century.

We know that there were henna artists working in the Iberian peninsula and North Africa among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Maimonides mentions in the quote here that a Jewish female artist, called a meqashetet [decorator], was responsible for hennaing the bride (and groom!) before their wedding, and the 15th century Muslim Algerian jurist al-Wansharisi recorded several fatawa from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria which discuss the importance of henna and henna artists for weddings (some are described here).

Miriam dancing with the women, Golden Haggadah,
Barcelona, ca. 1320.
Francisco Nuñez Muley, a Morisco Christian from Granada (1490-1568), testified that "[for applying] the henna to their hands and feet and painting them in an artistic manner, the [Moriscos] would have artists who painted them; they saw this as refined and elegant, darkening it with a certain material, which appeared to them to be good for celebrations and weddings" (see here, although as the author notes there are some problems with the exact dating of this text).

Unfortunately there are few extant artistic depictions of what the henna designs might have looked like. One depiction of a henna pattern on a drum, showing an eight-pointed star with a design in the centre, survives in a Hebrew manuscript, the "Golden Haggadah," mostly likely from 14th century Barcelona. 

Christian Biblical manuscripts show angelic figures, and sometimes even Jesus himself, with what appear to be hennaed fingertips and possibly simple dot designs. Several other illustrated manuscripts made for Christians, such as the chess manual of Alphonso X, also show women with hennaed hands, although it is mostly solidly dipped fingers and possibly some script or scrollwork.

Detail from Alphonso X's Libro de
los Juegos
, Toledo, ca. 1283, folio
18r, showing a woman with hennaed hands.

The Inquisition led to the outlawing of henna throughout the Iberian peninsula as a symbol of Jewish/Muslim heritage, although repeated lawsuits and rearticulations of the ban on henna demonstrate that it was still used well into the late 16th century. Henna appears in documents from other parts of southern Europe, including Sicily and Provence, and so it is possible that henna was used there as well, although there is little evidence.

SCA Henna 2: Persia

Bowl fragment, Iranian Anatolia, late
12th century, in the Louvre.
Another area which developed a rich artistic tradition with henna, seemingly unconnected to that of al-Andalus, was Persia. It is likely that henna was brought to central Asia with the Islamic conquest, and the earliest records of henna appear in Persian poetry of the 10th century.

Starting in the 12th century, we begin to see examples of henna in Persian art — ceramics, tilework, and especially miniature illustration. It is difficult to extrapolate material reality from illustrated manuscripts: these are idealized depictions of an imaginary world, not photographs. Some scholars argue that one can make no assumptions from manuscript art about the realities of daily life whatsoever. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to assume that just as the clothes can be shown to have material corollaries, for the most part, the henna patterns worn (or at least aspired to) were similar in style to what is shown in these manuscripts.

It's also important to remember that these depictions, especially in miniatures, are... well, miniature. A woman's hand might be half the size of one's pinky-fingernail; the lines would have to be painted with a brush of only a few squirrel hairs (or even only one!). Thus it's difficult to make any extrapolations from these paintings as to what the henna patterns may have looked like in life.

In examining Persian miniatures I see essentially five main styles of henna art depicted. The first is simple dipped fingers, usually to the first knuckle, with another ring or two setting off the fingertip. These, like most henna in Persian painting, are usually shown as black, and with good, fresh henna that's applied thickly and left wrapped overnight, you can easily get deep stains that are close to black in colour.

"Zulaykha Enters Egypt," detail, Mashhad, ca. 1556, in the Freer.

The second style appears to show bold solid triangles along the edge of the hand or foot, often arranged asymmetrically. I believe in this instance that Catherine Cartwright-Jones may be correct in suggesting that this may represent a string resist, where strings are wrapped around the hand and henna is then filled in, creating the shapes defined by the strings. Similar techniques were practiced in Egypt, Turkey, Ottoman Palestine, and North Africa in the 18th-20th centuries — see here. Often these designs are ornamented with borders and dots.

"Wine in a Spring Garden," detail, Tabriz, ca. 1430, in the Met.

The third, which appears in a variety of visual interpretations, has a large solid band diagonally across the hand or foot, with ornamental designs on either sides all the way to the wrist or ankle. This band may have contained additional decoration, or perhaps script, or it may have been solid.

"Yusuf Interprets Zulaykha's Dream," detail, Iran, 1533, in the Bodleian.

It's possible that this is a variant of the previous style, made with a string resist, where the strings are used to define the edges of the central band and the rest of the hand is filled in with a freestyle pattern (usually represented simply with dots or squiggles). It's also possible that this style developed inspired by the boldness of the string-resist patterns, but was done entirely freehand. Certainly in some images, in any case, the solid area of henna appears closer to a triangle than a band. 

"Shirin Examines Khusraw's Portrait," detail, Shiraz, ca. 1490, in the Freer.

The fourth style, which is rarer than the others, seems to show a central design in an almond- or cartouche-style shape, or in some images possibly a mandala, usually also with hennaed fingertips. It's not clear what the shape included (flowers? arabesques? script?), but the central placement of an independent motif, rather than a full hand design, is certainly striking.

"Sindukht Learns of Rudaba's Actions," detail, Tabriz, ca. 1330, in the Freer.

The fifth style is the most complex — a swirling arabesque design that covers the whole hand. Depending on the painter's ability, this is represented with greater or lesser degrees of fineness, but we must remember that the artists are working at a very small scale. Just as the elaborate embroidery on a coat might be reduced to a few lines and dots, so too the markings shown here may represent more elaborate work. Contemporary henna artists could easily find plenty of inspiration for these types of designs in the surviving islimi artwork of this period on fabrics, tilework, and manuscript illumination — I know I certainly have.

"A Nomadic Encampment," detail, Tabriz, ca. 1540, in the Harvard Art Museum.

We know little about how henna was prepared and applied in this period, although I admit that I am less familiar with Persian sources due to my lack of training in Iranology. From my initial research, though, it seems like we have the opposite situation from when researching henna in al-Andalus: here we have an abundance of artistic depictions of henna, but little textual or literary context to help us understand how and when henna was used.

European travellers in the 17th and 18th centuries describe that dried henna leaves were powdered in a mortar, mixed with water, or lemon or pomegranate juice, and applied to the skin and nails to be left on overnight (wrapped in linen), and this was probably the case in earlier centuries as well. The designs were likely applied with a stick, or possibly a brush. One Safavid painting from the late 16th century, currently in the Met, has been titled by the curators "A Woman Applying Henna," although she holds no tools and it appears as though her hands and feet have already been hennaed. 

"Woman Applying Henna," Iran, late 16th century, in the Met.


As I describe in my blogpost here, the earliest evidence that we have for henna use in India seems to point to the Mughals, who arrived in India only in the early 16th century. Court documents record henna ceremonies being performed for royal weddings in the 1620s and 1630s, and European travellers of the time confirm that henna was used to dye hands and feet. But all textual records and all visual records depict only dipped fingertips, or solidly-stained hands, without any of the elaborate patterns found in Persian art. And none of these records, to my knowledge, are earlier than the 1600s.

Mughal portrait, possibly Mumtaz Mahal, India, 1628, in the Freer.

So What's Not Period?

  • henna cones: I'm being somewhat facetious about this, because I recognize that often using a cone or bottle is the easiest way for us to apply the beautiful designs that we want, and the C in SCA does stand for Creative, after all. But I do think that everyone who is interested in reconstructing historical designs should try their hand at historical application techniques! A true artist is not limited by her tools.
  • elaborate henna designs for Indian personae: as described above, henna does appear in India at the beginning of the 17th century and possibly even earlier, so it sneaks in just at the tail end of "period" (especially if the ending date is fuzzily fixed around 1600-1650). But all the evidence indicates that henna was used in India only for solid finger dips or palms well into the 19th century.
  • henna anywhere off the hands/feet: I have not seen any reliable period sources that describe henna being used on other parts of the body, and baring one's midriff, shoulders, etc. in public would be highly inappropriate in any case (with the exception of certain Persian styles of shirts which exposed the centre of the chest... There is some evidence that they had visible designs, likely tattoos, there as well.)
  • henna with glitter, gems, etc.: I think this goes without saying.
Of course, I'm not trying to tell anybody what they should and shouldn't be doing. Make your own choices! Come up with your own creative ideas! Have fun! And of course, most importantly, do your own research! But if my work can be of any help to you, please take it with my blessing. Happy Hennaing!
And SCA folks, feel free to share widely and add updates from your own research and experience! How have you incorporated henna into your persona? What sources have been most helpful for you?


Nox Lumen said...

Check Tibetan art from around 1100-1200. There are clearly red palms and foot soles as well as red nail tips in religious paintings. I find it highly unlikely that Tibet had henna and India didn't when it is depicted in art for an imported spiritual path.[0]=field_collection%3A834

Noam Sienna said...

Nox Lumen, thanks for your comment!
The red palms depicted in medieval Tibetan art are not henna but lac (rgya tshos), a red paint made from insect resin (see Lac has deep spiritual significance in Tibetan Buddhism and is a common feature of Tibetan painting. Henna is not traditionally used in Tibet (it is far too cold to be grown there) and so Tibetan painting unfortunately does not shed light on henna use in medieval India.

holikarang said...

now you got me really cuious to explore in my ancient Indian literature more as I am sure mehndi has a Sanskrit name so as a plant was known long before the Mughals for sure, I also know it is used in Ayurveda so I wonder when it started being used as a medicine, and I want to read the Kamasutra again as I am sure I read something about body dyes there before...