Friday, April 4, 2014

"The Henna is Here, Mix It": Armenian Traditions of Henna Use

I had an amazing time teaching, learning, hennaing, and getting hennaed at the Henna Gathering conference in Connecticut this past weekend. I gave three presentations: Henna in Judaism, The Ancient History of Henna, and Henna in the Middle Ages, and I was so grateful that many people attended all three and asked interesting, engaging questions.

Armenian girls in formal dress, Tiflis, ca. 1890
One lovely participant asked me whether I knew anything about henna traditions in Armenia, and unfortunately she had to be satisfied with my simple answer that I was sure that they did henna in Armenia but that I didn’t know much beyond that. I felt that she deserved a better answer than that, so I thought I’d do a little research and see what I could come up with.

Modern Armenia is located between Turkey and Iran, two countries which have had long henna traditions, and Armenian culture has much in common with neighbouring traditions. So it’s no surprise that henna was used in Armenia as well as among Armenian communities in Persia and Turkey, as well as by other Caucasian groups like Georgians, Circassians, Azeris, and others. 

While I have seen records of Jewish henna use among Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, and Georgian Jews, I have not yet seen any source describing henna use among Armenian Jews. However, I would not be surprised if they did use henna — this has more to do with the paucity of sources on Armenian Jewish culture than anything else. There's also a small minority of Armenian Muslims, with even fewer sources for research. Thus, in this post when I talk about 'Armenians' I am referring to Christian Armenians, whether in present-day Armenia or elsewhere, belonging either to the Armenian Apostolic or Armenian Catholic Church.

Now for some sources! What do we know about Armenian henna? 
We have many recollections of henna that were recorded in the second half of the 20th century, but fewer primary sources that I've been able to find. Charles MacFarlane, a well-known Scottish writer and traveler, describes a 19th-century Armenian wedding in Pera, the Armenian quarter in Constantinople [today Istanbul]. The henna ceremony, which he spells khennagedje [probably Armenian hina-gisher = henna-night], took place on Sunday night, and he notes that henna “has always been deemed an essential ingredient in an Armenian marriage” (pg. 211).

He writes that once the bride’s family had welcomed the groom’s family into the house, the yeretzgin, or wife of the priest (remember that priests can be married in Orthodox Christianity) was honoured with the henna application: “The Khenna… was produced with great solemnity, and it was part of the functions of the chief Armenian priest’s wife to die [sic] the bridal fingers” (pg. 213). After both hands were hennaed, the bride was given presents of clothes, slippers, and a large decorated candle.

Hagop Der-Hagopian, village priest in Harput,
with his family, ca. 1900.

Armenian scholar Florence Mazian describes pre-1914 Armenian henna traditions in central Turkey, although she notes that “the basic form of their wedding ceremonies is fairly representative of Armenian weddings in general” (pg. 2). She writes that the henna party took place in the bride’s home the Thursday or Friday before the wedding, and that after the bride was hennaed with simple designs, the children were hennaed as well. She also confirms MacFarlane’s account that the local priest’s wife was often responsible for the henna application (1984, pg. 6):
Armenian girl in Vartashen, ca. 1900.

In Kesaria [today Kayseri], on the Friday evening preceding the wedding, a Henna Party took place at the home of the bride-to-be given by the women of her family and her friends. Henna was applied only to fingernails, and young women put henna designs (e.g., a crescent) on the back of their hands. 

On this evening, girls sang and danced. The future bride's family took her to the Turkish bath a day before the wedding. There, festivities continued.

In Nirzeh [or Nyssa, today near Ortaköy], on the Thursday or Friday preceding the wedding, a Henna Party occurred at [the] bride-to-be’s home attended by young and old women from her family as well as her girlfriends. Henna was applied by older women to the fingers of young girls. Little boys’ hands were dyed for fun. 

In former days, the yeretzgin (the priest’s wife) usually applied henna and was remunerated with a small amount of money for her services. However, this custom had slipped into disuse by 1914.

Interestingly, in the Armenian community of Sis (today Kozan) the groom was apparently also hennaed at the night when his hair was cut, and his friends would bid for the honour "to make the sign of the cross with henna on the hands of the godfather and groom" (this resembles other similar traditions in Persian and Yemenite Jewish communities). This was recorded by Armenian scholar Misak Keleshian in his 1949 book Sis-Medyan, and available on the description of Sis weddings on the phenomenal Ottoman Armenian website Houshamadyan.

In Mousa Ler (today Musa Dagh), the bride's henna was sprinkled with oghi (a clear spirit like ouzo or arak) and applied to her hands and feet. Her bridesmaids steal away a little of her henna to use as a starter (magatrich hius) for the groom's henna, which happens later that night. Apparently unmarried men could take some of the henna paste and send it secretly to young women that they were courting as a sign of their love.

Alice Muggerditchian Shipley, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide of 1915, grew up in Dikranagerd [today Diyarbakır in southeastern Turkey], and recorded her childhood memories of an Armenian henna ceremony before the wedding of a family friend (1987, pg. 25):
One of the ladies came in with a bowl of a green paste called “henna.” Opening our hands, she filled them with this paste and closed our fingers. We then dabbed the outer surface and our nails with the paste and tied rags over them and fastened them at our wrists. While the pasting was going on, two ladies brought in the bride, who was wearing a short veil over her face… As the ladies sipped [their tea], they became very happy with their tasks and completed their work by spreading the thick paste on the bride's feet and toenails.

They slept with the henna overnight, and removed the paste in the morning. She writes that “no one was permitted to wear gloves, which would have concealed the henna color on our hands and nails. Everyone had to see that the bride, her flower girls, and the entire entourage in the following carriages were properly attired to the last shade of burnt orange on all hands and nails” (pg. 25). She adds that her hennaed hands and nails were proof that “I had been initiated into the real Armenian wedding à la Dickranagerd” (pg. 26). 

According to the Houshamadyan database, similar wedding traditions of henna ceremonies have also been recorded for the Armenian settlements of Palu, Arapgir, Yozgat, Harput (today Elazig) and Zeytun (today Süleymanli).

Armenian girl in national costume, Artvin, ca. 1905,
photograph by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (in LOC)

Anne Avakian, in her Armenian Folklore Bibliography, records two more relevant articles that mention henna (Derzhavin 1906 and Vardanian 1967), but since they are in Russian I’m afraid I can’t say more than noting that they discuss henna traditions among Armenians in the early 20th century.

Armenian girl, Yerevan, ca. 1900.
A number of traditional henna songs were recorded by Armenian ethnomusicologist Mihran Toumajan in the 1920s and 30s; German choir Ensemble Karot transcribed them with notes for their album Traditional Wedding Songs of ArmeniaYou can listen to samples of them here

Interestingly, the songs reference a custom of hennaing only one hand to leave the other free to do housework. I thought the whole point of doing henna was to get out of doing work!

Mek dzerkd hinaye
Color one hand with henna;
Don’t color the other,
To take the cares of your mother. 
Color one hand with henna;
Don’t color the other,
To take the cares of your father-in-law.

Hinan ekav, shaghetsek 
The henna is here, mix it.
The henna is here, mix it.

Harsanekan yerg hinayi
This henna is not ordinary henna,
The boy [groom] who sends it is very handsome.

Armenian man, Lesser
Caucasus Mountains,
ca. 1913. Photo by
George Kennan.
We don't know if henna was used at other holidays or celebrations, although it was likely a general cosmetic, as in other communities. Armenian men, like Turkish and Persian men, would use henna to dye their beards. 

One traveller wrote that "in Persia, Musselmans, Jews, Armenians, all let their beards grow. They frequently die [sic] them black or red, so that a white one is very seldom seen" (Monthly Magazine, 1822, pg. 22). British writer Marianna Postans noted that "Armenian gentlemen [in India] wear the Persian dress, and dye both their hair and whiskers with the favourite henna" (pg. 131).

Henna was also used medicinally in Armenian communities as a remedy for headaches and migraines — other remedies included rubbing the head with vodka or arak!

Overall we can see that henna was an important part of the Armenian wedding, sometimes with designs and sometimes with solid application for palms, toes, and fingernails. I am particularly fascinated by the integration of the yeretzgin into the ceremony, and the use of the cross as a henna design for the groom, as an example of how different groups developed creative and innovative interpretations of henna traditions to match their own communal needs and practices. For comparison, in Jewish communities, the local rabbi often did the groom’s henna, but I’ve never seen reference to the bride’s henna being done by the rabbi’s wife (often known as a rebbetzin or a rabbanit).

Armenian woman (with hennaed
fingertips?), Gyumri, ca. 1900.
How far into the contemporary period did Armenian henna traditions last? Are they still practiced today? To some extent, yes!

Meltem Bayazıt Tepeler, a Turkish wedding planner at KM Events, writes on her website that “Anatolian Armenians have henna nights too. The henna that is used at the henna night is usually brought by the female members of the groom’s side of the family. The paranymph [assistant] makes and kneads the henna paste at the bride’s home and applies it first to the bride’s palm with a gold coin.”

Similarly, Scout Tufankjian, an Armenian-American photojournalist, has included several photos of a henna ceremony celebrated in 2010 in Anjar (in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon) in her book The Armenian Diaspora Project.

And several Armenian botanists published a paper in the 80s describing the aeroponic cultivation of henna and indigo in Armenia, so it is apparently still grown there (Mairapetyan, Vartanyan, and Sarkisyan 1988). 

But like the rest of the region, I would imagine that even if henna ceremonies are still commonly done for weddings, the henna itself has become much more marginal. The same has happened with henna ceremonies in contemporary Turkey, for example.

But to end things on a happier note, I’ve personally learnt a lot more about Armenian henna traditions, and I’m thrilled to put this information out there for others to learn too. There is so much inspiration in Armenian folk art, from embroidery to jewelry to the phenomenal ceramics that are the famous work of Armenians in Jerusalem. Who would like to try to recreate some Armenian henna art, and help revive this old tradition with me?

Ceramic tiles, Armenian Quarter, Jerusalem.
Anonymous. Manners of the Modern Persians and Turks Described. Monthly Magazine, or British Register. Vol. 54, 1822, pp. 19-23.
Avakian, Anne. Armenian Folklore Bibliography. University of California Press, 1994.
Derzhavin, N. Iz oblasti Kavkazkoi etnografii: iz zhizn Artvinkikh Armian [Ethnography from the Caucasus Region: the life of Artvin Armenians]. Sbornik Materialov dlia Opisaniia Mestnostei I Plemen Kavkaza, vol. 36, 1906, pp. 1-34.
Keshishian, Varty (trans. Simon Beugekian). Hadjin — Folk Medicine. Houshamadyan website, accessed March 2017.
MacFarlane, Charles. The Armenians, a Tale of Constantinople, Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1830.
Mairapetyan, S. K.; Vartanyan, M. K.; Sarkisyan, E. D., 1988: Soilless cultivation of henna and indigo in Armenia. Proceedings of the International Congress on Soilless Culture, pp. 303-309
Mazian, Florence. Armenian Wedding Customs 1914: From Sacred to Profane. The Armenian Review, Vol. 37, 1984, pp. 1-13.
Poghosyan, Anna (trans. Hrant Gadarigian). Sis — Religious Customs. Houshamadyan website, accessed March 2017.
Postans, Marianna. Western India in 1838, Vol. I. London: Saunders and Otley, 1839.
Shipley, Alice Muggerditchian. Wedding in Dickranagerd. Ararat, vol. 28, 1987, pp. 25-26.
Tachjian, V (trans. Hrant Gadarigian). Sis — Folk Medicine. Houshamadyan website, accessed March 2017.
Tepeler, Meltem Bayazıt. Armenian Wedding Traditions. KM Events website, accessed April 2014.
Vardanian, L. M.. Perezhitkii instituta initsiatsii y Armian [Survival of Initiation Customs among Armenians]. PH, vol. 4, 1967, pp. 292-296.


Anonymous said...

Hi Noam,

Thank you for researching and writing about Armenian Henna. I am Armenian and very interested in the history and practice of henna. I will definitely be reviving this tradition!



Anonymous said...

They still practice Henna ceremony before the wedding in the town of Ainjar, in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon. The Armenians in Aleppo also continue the tradition.


Noam Sienna said...

Hi anonymous reader S! Thanks so much for sharing — I've updated the post with some more info. Glad to know henna is still alive and well!

Azad said...

Thank you, I’ve been wondering about this myself since I remember going to weddings as a kid and seeing henna applied to our ponies and wrapped with a cloth got me interested in searching this up. I’m Western Armenian and Assyrian and most Western Armenian weddings I’ve been to have done that a night before the weddings or at “bridal shower”. Sadly I haven’t seen Eastern Armenian weddings do this tradition that’s been in our culture for centuries. I’m going to go deeper down this rabbit hole hoping to find more information on this since I’m very interested in uncovering traditions we used to have prior to the genocide where everything became muddied. Appreciate this article, hope you’ll update this article if you have found any new information, would love to learn more about this since I’m also interested in henna as of lately.

Anonymous said...

Meant to say pinkies not ponies 😂

Anonymous said...

Such a stupid fucking post. You dumb fuck just because Turks and Iranians used it on their beards doesn’t mean Armenians did. Armenians NEVER did such a thing. No Armenian in Armenia even uses henna at all. Armenians are a Caucasian people. Not related to Turks or Iranians

Anonymous said...

Western Armenians did prior to the genocide it was a tradition. I’ve been to so many wedding where we all get our finger dyed in henna in the bridal shower and the bride henna dyes her finger too and sometimes I’ve even seen the bride have henna on the palm of her hand stamped with an old Armenian coin. It’s not uncommon, after the genocide and the soviets taking over Armenia a lot of our culture was lost and dismantled. The diaspora pre-Soviets have kept those traditions alive.

Anonymous said...

I just saw an armenian henna video in eastern armenia last week 💀💀 cry about it