Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Her Fingers Stained Red from the Blood of the Slain": henna in medieval Hebrew love poetry

Today on the Jewish calendar is the 15th of the month of Av, or Tu beAv, which in ancient times was celebrated as a festival of love. The Mishna [compendium of rabbinic discussion, ca. 200 CE] records (Ta‘anit 4:6) that young women would go out to the vineyards to dance under the full moon in white dresses, and young men would choose their wives there. 

This holiday comes after the sombre commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, and we now move into a period known as the Seven Weeks of Comfort, which bring us to the New Year. In the liturgical calendar, the prophetic reading for this Shabbat contains the line (Isaiah 49:16) where G!d declares to the people of Jerusalem that G!d’s love for us can never fail: “Behold, I have engraved you onto the palms of My hands; your walls are in front of Me always.” That verse inspired the following design:

Henna and photo by Noam Sienna, 2008

Although Tu beAv is not generally celebrated today, I thought I would share a henna-related love poem in honour of this holiday. This poem was written by Shmu’el haNagid (993-1056 CE), also known as Samuel ibn Naghrilla, one of the greatest Hebrew poets of Andalusia. Not only was he an extraordinary poet and scholar, he was also an accomplished politician and military commander, serving as general of the army of Granada and vizier to the king (a rare position for a Jew, even in the Convivencia of al-Andalus).

The poem, which we might title “Qaḥ miṢeviyya”, or “Take From the Doe”, uses the classic imagery of a wine party, where the speaker is enamoured with the young woman — or boy! — pouring the wine (known in Arabic as a saqi, ‘cupbearer’). He describes the scene with a series of opposites that parallel each other: the red wine, which warms the body, is served in a cold clear crystal glass, like fire in hail. And all of this resembles the woman pouring: her skin is white but her hennaed fingers are red — but it is not henna, the poet declares, but the blood of her slain lovers! Her chilly disregard for the poet’s love makes her as cold as the crystal into which she pours his wine (Scheindlin, 1999, pg. 75). 

The association of wine-blood-henna is one of the most common images in the genre of medieval love poetry known as ghazal, and it appears throughout Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Ottoman poetry of the period (Sells, 2000, pg. 40). Unfortunately, while this metaphor is not uncommon in Hebrew poetry I have not yet come across any image in a Jewish Andalusi manuscript that depicts women with hennaed fingers (although there is visual evidence depicting Muslim and Christian henna use). But if the poetry is anything to go on, their henna must have been killer! (Sorry...) 

We do have various textual sources documenting the use of henna in Jewish communities in al-Andalus and across the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages, as merchandise, medicine, and adornment. But that's a topic for another blog post!

Take From the Doe

קַח מִצְּבִיָּה דְמֵי עֵנָב בְּאֶקְדָּחָה
בָּרָה, כְּמוֹ אֵשׁ בְּתוֹך בָּרָד מְלֻקָּחָה.
בַּעְלַת שְׂפָתוֹת כְּחוּט שָׁנִי, וְחֵךְ לָהּ כְּיֵין
הַטּוֹב, וּפִיהָ כְגוּפָתָהּ מְרֻקָּחָה.
מִדַּם חֲלָלִים קְצֵה יָדָהּ מְאָדָּם - לְכֵן
חֶצְיָהּ כְּאֹדֶם וּמַחְצִיתָהּ בְּדֹלָחָה!

Take from the doe the grape’s blood in a glass
That flares like a gem, like flame smoldering in hail.
Her lips scarlet threads, and her palate fine wine,
Her mouth is perfumed with the scents of her skin.
Her fingers, stained red from the blood of the slain,
Make half of her ruby, pure crystal the rest!

Happy Tu beAv, all!

Her fingers, stained red from the blood of the slain...
Henna and photo by Noam Sienna, 2013

Scheindlin, Raymond. 1999 Wine, Women, and Death: medieval Hebrew poems on the good life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sells, Michael. 2000 Love. In The Literature of Al-Andalus, ed. Maria Rosa Mendocal, Raymond Scheindlin, and Michael Sells, Cambridge University Press, pp. 126-158.

1 comment:

Gella said...

This reminds me of the wine party in the beginning of Megillat Esther.