Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hanukkah O Hanukkah: henna traditions for housewarmings

A couple of my dear friends have moved into a new house (just down the street! yay!) and asked me if I would do henna at their housewarming party… Little did they know that henna housewarming parties are actually an old Jewish tradition!

But what does this have to do with Hanukkah? Well, the holiday takes its name from the fact that the Temple was rededicated after the victory of the Maccabees: in Hebrew, hanukkat haBayyit, ‘the dedication of the House’ (which in modern Hebrew now refers to any housewarming).

So while I have never come across any specific henna traditions for Hanukkah in my research, there is a Jewish custom connecting henna with housewarmings, so I thought I’d present it here.

Monday, November 11, 2013

From the Henna Files: new discoveries in henna research

So I haven’t written a blogpost in a few weeks, not only because I’ve been super busy, but also because I’ve been trying to decide what to write about: I’ve made a few “henna discoveries” in the past few weeks and they’re each worthy of a blogpost… So I’ve combined them into a research update post, as it were, and if anyone’s interested in one of them in particular, let me know (just comment here or on Facebook, or email me) and I’ll expand! 

So, without further ado, a glimpse into the week of a henna researcher: 

Henna in Pylos: not so much…
For some time, when I teach about the early history of henna, I have been mentioning that some scholars have suggested that the Mycenaean dyeing industry, located on the Greek island of Pylos, used henna as one of the ingredients in their dyed/perfumed oils. Chief among them is Cynthia Shelmerdine, who first suggested the idea in her paper “Henna in Mycenaean Perfumery,” presented at the American Philological Association annual meeting in 1983, and expanded upon in her 1985 book The Perfume Industry of Mycenaean Pylos. Her suggestion is that the word e-ti (vocalized possibly as ertis) refers to henna (via a complex philological argument involving a 5th century botanist) and thus these oils were possibly dyed with henna (more likely than being perfumed with henna flowers, which would likely not make the long trip to Pylos from Judea or Egypt where it was grown). 

A Mycenaean tablet in Linear B from Pylos

But now, the discovery: one of Shelmerdine’s students, Mary Jane Cuyler, has published an article re-examining the evidence, which (although published in 2010) I just found now: “Rose, Sage, Cyperus, and E-ti: the adornment of olive oil at the palace of Nestor,” published in Kosmos: jewellery, adornment, and textiles in the Aegean Bronze Age (2010). She argues that the textual evidence is so weak that it would require really strong archaeological support, which it doesn't have: it is unlikely that the oil was dyed with henna, since henna doesn’t really dye oil (being a fat, rather than a protein). You’d think that would be self-evident, but that’s the way academia works (sigh). So she did an experiment, demonstrating that henna mixed with water (or even wine) will dye skin and wool, but henna mixed with oil essentially does nothing. Therefore, she concludes, “henna was probably not infused in olive oil, and therefore the identity of ertis is again open for interpretation. It is likely to have been an aromatic that works synergistically with sage and may have been a plant native to Western Messenia” (pp. 661). Nothing like a good old-fashioned experiment! I guess it’s time to revise my henna history presentation…