I’ve just come back from a wonderful vacation on the West Coast. While I was in San Francisco I took a tour of the San Francisco Botanical Garden, which includes a ‘Plants of the Ancient Mediterranean’ section — I was disappointed to see that there was no henna!
I had a good talk afterwards with our tour guide, who specializes in botany of the ancient world, about the history of henna and some of the different sources for studying it.
One area that I’ve recently begun researching is the writings of the early leaders of the Christian community, known as the Church Fathers, many of whom lived in North Africa and the Levant. Several Church Fathers attempted to establish standards of modest dress and adornment for their Christian followers, and in their writings they vehemently denounce both men and women for what they saw as excessive pride and vanity.
In doing so, they describe how the people in their communities would dress and adorn themselves, providing a window into the world of late Roman North Africa. It has to be taken with some grains of salt, to be sure — they were likely exaggerating and modifying their descriptions for the sake of argument. But while we can’t take their writing at face value, we may still be able to learn something about the dress and adornment of early North African Christian communities.
None of them, as far as I can tell, specifically mentions henna. However, many of them do allude to dyeing the hair, and especially reddening, which can be interpreted to refer to henna. We know that the Greeks and Romans knew of the use of henna as a hair dye and several pre-Christian writers describe this specifically. For example, the Greek botanist Dioscorides (1st century CE) writes (De Materia Medica 1.124) that henna [kupros] is a small shrub that grows in Judea and Egypt, and the ground leaves can be mixed with soapwort to dye the hair [xanthizei de kai trikhas strouthiou khylo ta phylla leia]. He describes the colour of hennaed hair as xanthos, which can refer to yellow, gold, orange, or even auburn.
|Yep, totally a 'Rufus'.
Roman bust of Venus, 1st-2nd century CE
The great Roman scientist Pliny, in his Latin treatise on natural history (NH 23.46), repeats Dioscorides’ observations in his entry on henna [cyprus], describing the colour of hennaed hair as rufus, ‘red’ [ipsa rufant capillum]. Thus it is a reasonable assumption that henna is a plausible assumption for Church Fathers writing about dyeing the hair, especially if they describe the colour as xanthos (if they are writing in Greek) or rufus (in Latin).
The earliest mention of dyeing the hair that I have found in the Church Fathers is from the Christian philosopher Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 CE), who (as his name suggests) spent most of his life in Egypt, although he left Alexandria towards the end of his life to go to Antioch or Jerusalem; his place of death is unknown.
|Friends don't let friends dye their hair orange...
Or do they? Roman fresco, 1st century CE
In his book Paedagogos [The Teacher], he attempts to describe the ideal Christian life. He condemns cosmetics and those who use them, “those women wearing gold [ornaments], occupying themselves with curling their locks, anointing their cheeks and outlining their eyes, and seeking to dye [baphas] their hair, and practicing the other evil arts of luxury, adorning the outer covering of flesh” in order to attract their lovers (3.2). He later specifically addresses the woman who dyes her hair orange [xanthos], quoting from the Classical Greek poet Menander (341-290 BCE) that “no wise woman / would make her hair orange [xanthos].” Apparently even some men were hennaing their hair, because later he declares that “dyeing [baphas] the hair, and anointing it and making it orange [xanthos] when it has become grey” is a practice for androgynon exolon, “accursed effeminates” (3.3). He comes back again and again to the theme: dyeing the hair is a way of hiding age, and/or showing pride in one’s appearance — both things the good Christian should avoid (3.11).
Hair-dyes are also mentioned in a lesser-known contemporary of Clement, Apollonius (ca. 180-210 CE), who is quoted in the later Church historian Eusebius (ca. 263-339 CE). We know little about Apollonius — he is thought to have lived in Asia Minor, perhaps Ephesus or Phrygia (today Turkey). Apollonius writes against the Montanist movement, a charismatic, ecstatic form of mystical Christianity that the authorities found heretical.
|"Do these look like prophets to you? I think not."
Roman mosaic of dice players,
El Djem (Tunisia), 3rd century CE
Apollonius is skeptical of their claim that any one of their followers can receive prophecy: he writes satirically (quoted in Eusebius, Church History V.18.11), “But it is necessary that all the fruits of a prophet should be examined. Does a prophet, tell me, dye [baptetai] [their hair]? Does a prophet paint their eyes? Does a prophet delight in adornment? Does a prophet play with tables and dice?… I will show that these [activities] have been done by them.” Unlike the Church Fathers, it would seem that the Montanists saw no harm in how their followers (it is not clear whether Apollonius is talking of men or women) adorned and amused themselves. For Apollonius, however, it is ludicrous to imagine that these ordinary and immodest people, with their games and adorned bodies, could make claims to prophecy.
We now move to the “Latin Fathers,” writing mostly from Roman North Africa.
Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 CE), from Roman Carthage, was one of the first Latin Christian writers. He expresses many of the same themes as Clement, arguing that hiding one’s old age and delighting in adornment and appearance is immodest and unbecoming to the good Christian. His book De Cultu Feminarum [On the Apparel of Women] blames the fallen angels (of Genesis 6) for teaching women how to make herbal dyes and kohl, to pierce the ears, and to design jewelry and combs (1.2 and 1.10).
|Roman gold — scholars debate whether it was from a fallen angel or not.
Jewelry hoard, Dolaucothi (Wales), 1st century CE
He devotes a whole chapter (2.6) to dyeing the hair, where he bemoans women “dyeing their hair with saffron [crocus],” wishing they were “from Germany or Gaul” — an early kind of European cultural/sartorial imperialism, it would seem. This would imply that they were dyeing their hair blond, but Tertullian later refers to the bad omen of their “flame-coloured heads” [flammeo capite], so perhaps some women were also dyeing their hair red. Like Clement, Tertullian strongly disapproves of men’s adornment as well, describing with horror how the men of his milieu would “trim their beard sharply, pluck it out, shave around it, put colour [disponere… colorare] in their hair and disguise its first greyness as soon as it appears, remove their body hair with some kind of womanly ointment and smooth it with some rough powder, and all the while consulting the mirror at every opportunity.”
His student, Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 200-248 CE), took the same position in his Liber De Habitu Virginum [Book on the Dress of Virgins], urging women to cease their deceptive ornaments and their attempts to disguise the aging process. He mentions dyeing the hair with yellow colour [flavus], but also warns the women that their red hair foreshadows the flames of their ultimate destination: "with audacious deed and sacrilegious contempt you stain your hair, presaging your evil end by your flame-coloured hair [capillos iam tibi flammeos]". He concludes that their many adornments and cosmetics will prevent them from being recognized on the Day of Resurrection (ch. 14-17). This passage was previously featured on a HennaPage contest, which is what first directed me to looking at the Church Fathers.
Interestingly, another Roman African and a contemporary of Cyprian, Commodianus (ca. 250 CE), mentions hair dye in his book of (versified!) instructions for Christian life, Instructiones (2.18), but here it is black, not red or blond: “You dye your hair, so that it always remains black” [Seu crines tingis, ut sint toto tempore nigri]. Niger in Latin can also mean ‘dark’ or ‘dusky’... but I think he’s probably talking about a different (set of) hair dye here rather than henna.
Perhaps the most famous, or most revered, of the Church Fathers was Jerome (c. 347 – 420 CE), who was born in what is today the Balkans but spent his life traveling between Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and Bethlehem. His most famous work is his collection of translations and commentaries on the Bible, which became the Latin Vulgate. He also wrote many letters to debate contemporary issues and clarify points of theological interest. One of his letters (107) addresses a woman named Laeta, who asks how to raise her daughter Paula as a good Christian girl.
Among the many nuggets of advice Jerome gives her about education, family life, diet, and religion, he notes: “Let her appearance and clothing itself show her to Whom she is promised. Do not pierce her ears or paint her Christ-consecrated face with white lead or rouge [purpurissum, literally ‘purple’]. Do not cover her neck with gold or pearls, nor load her head with jewels, nor redden her hair [capillum inrufes] and thus make it suggest something of the fires of Gehenna.”
One scholar in the 1930s actually suggested that Jerome is punning here on henna-Gehenna, but that is hardly a tenable reading, since Jerome would not have known the word ‘henna’ (in Latin, as we’ve seen, the plant was known as cyprus). But it is still likely that he is talking about henna, which we know was used to redden (inrufes) the hair in Roman times. And his disapproval of hennaed hair is consistent, as we've seen, with earlier Christian writers on the subject — even the theme of the red hennaed hair foreshadowing the flames of hell, which was invoked a century earlier by Tertullian and Cyprian.
|Yeah, doesn't look like he would be terribly into henna.
Saint Jerome in His Study, Caravaggio, 1605.
Now, all of these passages refer to dyeing the hair. I have not seen any source from this time period, Christian or otherwise, that clearly demonstrates henna use on skin. The only possible reference to henna use on skin that I found in these writings was in Arnobius (died c. 330), a Numidian Christian apologist from what is today Tunisia. He describes women’s adornments in brief, asking women to maintain their natural beauty: their souls were not sent to Earth, he says, to “acquire gems, jewels and pearls… pierce their earlobes, ruin their foreheads with headbands, seek to make their bodies conspicuous with paint [conspiciendis quaererent corporibus fucos], or darken their eyes with soot” (2.41). This key passage is slightly obscured by some scribal difficulties — some scholars amend the first word to conficiendis, which would shift the meaning to ‘they seek to prepare their bodies with paint’. Either way, fucos is from the noun fucus, ‘red dye,’ referring to the Greek phykos, the lichen that produces the red orchil dye. What exactly this refers to is unclear: some scholars believe it to mean ‘rouge,’ while others take it to be a general term for pigment. Elsewhere in Latin literature it sometimes refers clearly to a red paint/dye for skin, and other times clearly refers to kohl (the Roman poet Propertius describes a girl painting her eyes with caeruleo fuco, ‘blue kohl’). So were they reddening their bodies with henna? Or rouging their cheeks? The Latin is unclear. This gets into more complicated issues about the history of cosmetics which I will perhaps save for another blogpost… But in short, I would suggest that this refers to rouge or another temporary paint, rather than henna, since we have no evidence to support it being henna.
So in conclusion: from the writings of early Christian leaders, we can see that women and men in the burgeoning Christian communities of North Africa and the Levant commonly dyed their hair red, most probably with henna, as well as occasionally blonde or black. Christian leaders were strongly opposed to this practice, disapproving of the immodesty of adorning one’s body and the deceit of hiding one’s age; nonetheless the practice appears to have continued unchecked for centuries, and likely persisted until the Arab conquest in the 7th century. While Christian communities in North Africa essentially vanished in the Islamification of the following centuries, Christian communities remained in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Turkey, Iraq, and other areas of the Middle East and Central Asia. The henna practices of these communities evolved alongside their Muslim neighbours and are still practiced to a large extent even today. Henna is often thought of as being a "Muslim" or "Hindu" thing, and I hope this adds a little more to the complex picture of henna's history.