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…

Blood splattered like henna: pre-Islamic poetry
Another thing I have said in henna history presentations is that there is no mention of henna in the pre-Islamic poetry of early Arabia… It was essentially a bluff, and I’ve been lucky that there have been no scholars of Arabic poetry in the audience! Last week I decided to actually check that, and came across not one, but TWO important citations of henna in pre-Islamic poetry. They don’t add a tremendous amount of new information to our knowledge of henna in the Arabian peninsula, but they are important testaments to the use of henna in the cultural context into which the early Islamic world was born.

They are as follows:
Imru al-Qays al-Kindi (mid-6th century CE), the most well-known of the pre-Islamic poets, describes a horse’s mane spattered with blood “like the juice of henna in combed white hair” (see Jones, 1996, pg. 79).

Sa‘ida ibn Ju’ayya al-Hudhali (early 7th century) describes a battle where soldiers “destroyed their gathered [men] / and exposed every henna-dyed woman / to be dragged off and plundered” (Sumi, 2004, pg. 72).

Man with hennaed beard, Pakistan.
Photo by Riffat Bahar.
These brief mentions confirm what we already knew: that in the pre-Islamic Arabic peninsula, henna was associated with female adornment and also used by men to dye hair and beard. I also found a fascinating article by noted Dutch Arabist Gautier Juynboll (1986) on dyeing the hair in the hadith tradition, with some more references to henna in pre-Islamic poetry, and lots of discussion of the importance of henna (mainly for hair and beard) as a distinguishing body practice for early Muslims. I'm looking forward to going through that in more depth.

Wansha-who? Henna in medieval North Africa
Another important discovery, which I gave a sneak preview of in my “Medieval Henna” presentation at HennaCon: Ahmad al-Wansharisi (1430-1508), an Algerian Muslim jurist and legal scholar, wrote a 13-volume compilation (the Mi‘yar) of the collected legal decisions (fatwas) of North African and Andalusian scholars of the past two centuries. And in it, there are several fatwas that mention henna! For example: Ali al-Qabisi (Tunisia, 935-1012) mentions henna as one of the components of the bridal package (nafaqat al-‘urs) presented to the bride; another case is presented by al-Sharif al-Mazdagi (d. 1359, Granada), where a woman accepted the gifts of henna, soap, and fruit from her fiancé, had a henna party, and then refused to continue with the wedding: was the woman obligated to marry, given her acceptance of the bridal gifts, and thus her implicit consent to the engagement? (Yes, as it turns out). These rulings add little pieces to our knowledge of the spread of henna traditions in Andalusia and North Africa in the Middle Ages. I would like especially to thank Dr. David Stephan Powers, a professor at Cornell University and a renowned scholar on Wansharisi, who had the grace and courtesy to respond to an email from an unknown student requesting research help, and provided much-needed assistance in navigating the murky waters of medieval Islamic law. 

Smile with your eyes: a colonial photoshoot

Algerian woman, late 19th century
And finally, another piece from my files. This picture popped up on Pinterest about a year ago and prompted some interesting discussion. I did some research on it and proceeded to write it down in a facebook comment or something like that, and now when I tried to find it again it was gone, of course. So, retracing my steps...

Her arms are covered from below the elbow to just below the knuckles with stunning geometric designs — she has a band of diamonds across each of her upper arms as well. There was some debate over whether this was henna or tattooing. I’m inclined to believe that it’s henna, although her am designs may have been a tattoo, and perhaps the little diamonds on her elbows are tattoos as well. I can easily see her forearm designs being done in henna, though, most likely with a stick.

The jewelry, especially the beaded headdress, points to northern Algeria as the location of this woman (compare, for example, these photos: and It’s clearly posed, so the jewelry may have even been a prop of the photography studio (and perhaps her wrap as well).

Sure enough, I found another photograph of this woman from the same photoshoot, which was part of an album of pictures from Algeria, 1880-1900, sold at auction in 2010 (for 744 euros!).

Algerian woman, late 19th century

This woman is mostly likely Muslim; but my research on Algerian Jewish henna traditions, which were fairly similar to those of their Muslim neighbours, shows that in the 19th and early 20th centuries there were professional Jewish henna artists (known as a harqassa) who would create elaborate geometric and checkered designs by rolling out lines of henna between their fingers and laying them out on the skin. This photo may be a confirmation of that tradition. 

These are by far both the clearest and the most elaborate designs I have ever seen in a photograph from this era, whether henna or tattooing. Was she a new bride? Did the photographer just happen to be in the right place at the right time? Unfortunately it doesn't seem likely that we'll be getting any answers... Feel free to weigh in: add your thoughts in the comments below! I love love love her patterns, whatever they are, especially the one on her right arm. Anyone want to try to replicate it?

So that’s a little taste of what my henna research looks like — bouncing back and forth between a thousand different things, essentially. Enjoy!

Mary Jane Cuyler. “Rose, Sage, Cyperus, and E-ti: the adornment of olive oil at the palace of Nestor,” in Kosmos: jewellery, adornment, and textiles in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 655-662. Peeters Leuven, 2010.
Alan Jones. Early Arabic Poetry: volume two: select odes. Ithaca Press, 1996.
Gautier Juynboll. “Dyeing the hair and beard in early Islam: a Hadith-analytical study.” Arabica vol. 33, pp. 49-75, 1986.
Akiko Motoyoshi Sumi. Description in Classical Arabic Poetry: wasf, ekphrasis, and interarts theory. Brill, 2004.


Veronica said...

Interesting. Roll the henna between their fingers and lay it on the skin. Sort of like a barely wetted henna?

Noam Sienna said...

I've always wondered about the rolling-henna technique, since I've come across it in a number of places but never actually seen anyone do it. I'm not sure it was done with a very thick paste, or whether it was actually just a very stringy paste and they weren't rolling it so much as draping it quickly with their fingers. Either way it must have taken a lot of talent.

Michelle H said...

This woman was probably. Jewish. Muslim women were and still are forbidden to expose their shoulders, arms, legs and other parts of their body. Her husband or father would have severely punished her for posing like this. In the beautiful Orientaliste paintings, the female mannequins were nearly all Jewish.

darcitananda said...

Another great post NOam! To Michelle, Orthodox Jews are just as strict about covering. I had heard somewhere that the ladies that posed for these postcards were mostly Berber and/or that they were prostitutes. I really don't have anything to back this up though. None of the women look happy to be posing.

Noam Sienna said...

Michelle and Darcy, thanks for commenting about the model. I was going to write more about it but decided not to... I've looked through a lot of colonial photos and paintings of North African Jewish and Muslim women. I don't she's Jewish for a few reasons:
Mainly, she doesn't look ethnically similar to Algerian Jews but closer to maybe Kabyle Berbers. Also if she's purposefully tattooed (her face, maybe, or shoulders) that would indicate that she's probably not Jewish.
But the important thing to remember is that this is a posed photograph. Obviously both Jewish and Muslim women covered their shoulders, arms, and legs (and even faces) in public. But posing for colonial artists is a different story, especially as Darcy said, for lower-class women and sex workers. Also, there's a difference between painting and photography. It's true that many painters' models were Jewish. But for photography, I get the sense that people were more willing (for the right price) to participate in more "sexy" photoshoots. Photography can be done in an afternoon, and is much less visible to people other than the photographer. This pose is almost *too* sexy for a Jewish model... And there are many photos of bare-breasted women, certainly Muslims.
So all in all, it's certainly possible that she's Jewish, but I think it's much more likely that she is an Algerian Muslim, probably Chouia or Kabyle.

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing Choui ~ the idea of adornment wouldn't be a stretch and the characteristics seem to me to be of this vein.

Both Jewish and Muslim would have been discouraged from such adornment, imo.

She looks Algerian to me ~ and absolutely ravishing.

Mary Jane said...

I just came across your blog, and I am so glad my article was useful to you! It is not impossible that Mycenaeans used henna, but I have seen no evidence for it in the Linear B tablets. I am still on the lookout for the identity of ertis, which I still doubt was a dye. It is somewhat disheartening to produce something negative without providing a potential alternative, but I do hope that I've reopened the issue for reexamination.

Noam Sienna said...

Mary Jane — thanks so much for your comment! The history of henna in the ancient world is pretty foggy, but as sad as it is I feel that we can only really rely on the few strong pieces of evidence that we have. We can only hope for further development on the ertis issue... So thank you for your scholarship! Maybe there will be an academic conference on henna one day...

Anonymous said...

In regards to the models not looking pleased about posing: early films were not fast. Many exposures required many seconds. That is why many old photographs lack smiles, smiles are hard to hold for long periods of time. Many portraits, especially indoor ones, utilized iron stands to grip the head from behind to help maintain the pose.