Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Cloves and Kohl: Henna Traditions On the Swahili Coast of East Africa

I had a lovely private appointment a while back whose client wanted some henna for her upcoming trip to East Africa, including Kenya and Tanzania. I warned her that black henna is extremely prevalent in that area, but unfortunately I couldn’t tell her much more about the history of henna there, so… (you guessed it) time for a new blogpost! I love invitations to learn more about henna traditions across the world — if you have any suggestions for other areas to research, please leave them in the comments!

In this post, I focus on henna traditions on the Swahili coast of East Africa, especially the archipelagos of Lamu (today part of Kenya) and Zanzibar (today part of Tanzania). I imagine that many henna artists, like me, might associate East Africa simply with 'black henna' and the dangers it poses

I want to emphasize that while this post will discuss and portray the use of various ‘black henna’ chemical substances, I DO NOT condone the use of ‘black henna’ and urge all my readers to use and support natural henna ONLY.

So first, a little history (if you want to go straight to the henna pics, I won't be offended — just scroll down a bit!). The Swahili coast has been a centre of trade and culture for over a thousand years. Known as Zanj to medieval Arab traders, East Africa had strong mercantile ties with the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India, and even China. The Kilwa Sultanate controlled the Swahili coast throughout the Middle Ages, and once it broke up in the 17th century, imperial powers moved in. Zanzibar became part of the Sultanate of Oman in 1698, and a British protectorate in 1890.

The population of the Swahili coast, therefore, is a diverse mix of ethnic and cultural groups, including: Arabs, especially originating in Yemen and Oman; Afro-Arab families, formed as merchants intermarried with local women; African Bantus, including those living in slavery until its abolishment at the end of the 19th century; and Indians, including Hindus, Muslims, and some Parsis.

Brahmin Indian woman, Zanzibar, 1900.

While it is not clear when henna was introduced to East Africa, it was likely that these trading routes brought henna to the Swahili coast quite early on. Patricia Romero Curtin suggests that henna traditions “started among the Hindu women,” 1987, pg. 367, but I suspect that it is far more likely that it was brought by Arab merchants earlier on: probably in the 17th century, or even in the Middle Ages, in the period of the Kilwa Sultanate. Today (as I note in this post) in Swahili henna is known both as mhina / hina, a loanword from the Arabic al-hinna', or mkokowa, referring to the red mangrove (another dye plant that produces a similar colour) — thus supporting the idea that henna was introduced by Arab merchants rather than Indian Hindu migrants (who would have most likely referred to henna as mehndi).

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Bless Me, Mother, That I May Apply the Dye: Henna Traditions in the Balkans

Hi henna blog readers! I know it’s been a while — the beginning of my PhD program has meant that I’ve been even more busy than usual… I’m super excited to be teaching about henna at HennaCon this coming weekend! I’ll be giving three lectures: the history of henna, the use of henna in ritual, and a special “Mythbusters: Henna Edition.”

But in the meantime I got a great question on my tumblr recently about henna in the Balkans, and you know what that means — new blogpost!

So let’s start with defining where we’re talking about: a large peninsula in southeast Europe, from the Black Sea on the east to the Adriatic on the west, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and even parts of Slovenia and Romania.

Etruscan funerary casket, 2nd century BCE.
Some of the earliest records of henna in the ancient world suggest that it was known in this area, at least to the Greeks: descriptions of henna appear in the writings of Greek scholars and botanists including Theophrastus (ca. 371—287 BCE) and Dioscorides (ca. 40—90 CE). 

While the best henna was grown in Egypt and the Levant, the Roman historian Pliny (ca. 23—79 CE) notes that it was also grown in Cyprus, the island with which it shares its name in Greek (kupros)… Artistic depictions of women with red hair support the theory that it was known as a hair dye on the mainland of southeastern Europe.

But after the classical age, it seems that henna fell out of use... As far as I can tell, henna was not used in the region during the Byzantine empire, which would mean that the use of henna in the Balkans was reintroduced with the Ottomans, who began expanding their empire from Turkey into southeastern Europe in the 14th century. The Ottomans, of course, had already developed some of the finest henna traditions of the Islamic world. Depicted in miniature manuscripts, and mentioned in Ottoman poetry, henna (known as kina in Turkish) was not only an important cosmetic for the hammam, and a part of pre-wedding ceremonies, but also a major economic export for various communities around the Mediterranean basin.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Hennaed Drums, Part Two: North Africa

In our last blogpost, we explored the possible evidence for hennaed drumheads in medieval Spain. In the end, while there are many images of decorated drums, the lack of any textual or material evidence makes it difficult to say whether these decorations were in fact done with henna or not.

As we move towards the modern period, however, we come across another chapter in the history of hennaed drums which is much clearer: North Africa.

Musician with hennaed drum (tbal), Algeria,
1880s. Photograph by William Tupper.

Monday, July 27, 2015

March to Your Own Drummer: The History of Hennaed Drums (Part One)

I have a friend who is a musicologist specializing in Sephardic music, and for months we have been trying to arrange for me to henna some of the drums in her extensive collection. So far we have failed to successfully co-ordinate it... So in lieu of hennaed drums, I offer her this blogpost series about hennaed drums; hopefully we’ll be able to make it happen in reality soon!

This is the first of a three-part series, combining history and a how-to — the first part focuses on hennaed drums in medieval Spain, the second on hennaed drums in 19th and 20th century North Africa, and the third on modern hennaed drums, with some helpful tips from contemporary henna artists!

Hennaed Drums in Medieval Spain

The ultimate origin of hennaed drums is probably impossible to find definitively. Wherever people were using henna on skin, and had drums, it would be a logical extension to decorate your drumheads with henna. Drumheads will stain beautifully — they are skin, after all — and the colour will be deep and permanent (since the animal’s skin is no obviously longer growing).

Some of the earliest records, to my knowledge, that may allude to hennaed drums are from al-Andalus, the medieval kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula (today Spain and Portugal). While I have not been able to find any textual references to hennaed or decorated drums, a number of examples of medieval art, both Jewish and Christian, depict drums that have designs on the membrane.

The decorated drums of the Golden Haggada, Barcelona, ca. 1320.

The subject of the paintings is often the prophet Miriam dancing and singing with the women after the crossing of the Reed Sea. As is common in medieval art, although the events depicted took place in another time the characters are depicted as if they were living in the contemporary period — the clothes, instruments, and other objects were shown as recognizable to the viewers, as a way of drawing a direct link between the events of the Exodus (for example) and the celebrants at a Passover seder in 14th century Catalonia. “In every generation,” we read in the haggada [Passover servicebook], “one must see themselves as if they had themselves left Egypt.”

The drums shown are handheld frame drums, known as adufes or panderos in Spanish (tympana in Latin, tof in Hebrew, and duff in Arabic). They have a long history in the Iberian peninsula, and are deeply linked with religious ritual and symbolism in local Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities. It is especially associated with women, and in artistic iconography the frame drum is associated with Miriam in particular. 

To learn more on the symbolism of the frame drum in medieval Iberia, check out the extensive work of Mauricio Molina (e.g. 2007 and 2010). The frame drum’s importance continues for contemporary women in Spain and Portugal, as well as in the Middle East, as shown by Judith Cohen (2008) and Veronica Doubleday (1999). As Cohen writes, "perhaps [for contemporary Spanish and Portuguese women] playing the adufe and singing is an affirmation — for themselves, for each other, and maybe for the community as a whole — of their strength: physical, emotional and aesthetic."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Happy Anniversary! Two Years of Henna Blogging

This past weekend marked the 2-year anniversary of this blog! It’s hard to believe that I’ve been blogging about henna for 2 years. In honour of this milestone I thought I’d share some fun statistics and search queries from the past 2 years… Thanks for accompanying us this far!

In the past 2 years, I have researched, written and posted 59 posts (this one is the 60th — and there are four finished draft posts coming in the queue!), which averages out to 2.5 posts every month. Not bad! In total, not counting this post, I’ve written over 86 thousand words (86,288 to be precise) of henna research on this blog, which would come out to roughly 153 single-spaced pages in Times New Roman 12… Practically a whole book's worth!

The most popular post (by pageviews) is actually not a henna-related post but this post about Ethiopian Jewish tattooing traditions; the most popular henna post is this post on Persian henna in the photographs of Antoin Sevruguin. The majority of my blog readers, unsurprisingly, come from the US and Canada; but thousands of readers have also found my blog from France, Russia, Germany, the UK, Israel, Morocco, India, Greece, Indonesia, Ukraine, and Australia. All in all, over the last two years, my blog has been viewed over 40,000 times.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Seen in the Yemen: Visiting a Yemeni Henna Artist, 1938

Apologies for the long break with no posts! The end of the semester and the deadline for my thesis, combined with my move, ate up every spare minute of my time. Hopefully now I'll have time to return to more regular blogging.

I’m settling into my new apartment in Minneapolis, and I’m especially grateful for the warm welcome I’ve received from the local henna artist community. I’ve already had the opportunity to work alongside some wonderful artists here and it’s been great to build community together. In appreciation, I thought I’d post this lovely and fascinating story about a visit to a henna artist in Yemen in the late 1930s. I think it’s so important for henna artists to feel a connection to their artistic predecessors, and to recognize that our involvement in this art comes with a long and rich historical legacy.

Freya Stark in local dress, 1936.
The source of this story is Freya Stark (1893-1993), a British-Italian traveller and writer who bravely trekked through the deserts of western Iran and southern Arabia alone (at a time when few women would do so), as well as travelling extensively through Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey. She accompanied the British archaeologist Gertrude Caton Thompson and geologist Elinor Gardner on their 1937-1938 expedition to the Hadhramaut in south-eastern Yemen. Her account of visiting a Yemeni henna artist comes from the published diary of her travel, A Winter in Arabia (1940).

In February 1938, Stark writes, she was in the village of Huraidhah, just in time for ‘Eid al-Adha, the great feast celebrating the near-sacrifice of Ismail and the return from the pilgrimage to Mecca. Of course, any holiday must include some henna, and Stark wanted to join in. She had her hands hennaed by a local artist named ‘Ayesha, who is called “the best beauty specialist of the town.” Stark, as a honoured European visitor, was hosted by the local notables and social elite, and ‘Ayesha was apparently henna artist to the stars — Stark finds her at the house of the family of the local mansab (the position of mansab was an office of tribal leadership whose authority is both social-political and religious, due to their claims of descent from the Prophet).

Friday, May 29, 2015

The History of Harqus: Temporary Facial Decoration in North Africa

I’ve been swamped with thesis research and planning my upcoming move (!) so I apologize if posts have not been coming as regularly. My thesis (on demons in North African Judaism) has also brought up lots of interesting material on henna, so hopefully I can share some of that over the next few posts.

For now, though, I’d like to address an issue which has been floating around the internet for a while: the North African facial art known as ḥarqūs. I’ve seen a few posts on my tumblr referencing it with some misconceptions, so I thought I’d take some time to clarify things and offer some primary sources (both texts and images!).

The entry for ḥarqus from Belkassem Ben Sedira's Arabic-French dictionary (Algeria), 1882.

To begin with, how do we spell it? In standard academic transcription, the Arabic word حرقوس would be written as ḥarqūs, although in some areas of the Maghreb it was pronounced closer to hargus (or hargous in French spelling). Other spellings, like harkus (or harkous) or harkos, are encountered as well. Catherine Cartwright-Jones, who has put some material about it on her site, spells it harquus (with two u’s), following the transliteration system of al-Kitaab, the Georgetown Arabic textbook commonly used for Introductory Arabic throughout the United States, which recommends doubled letters to represent long vowels. While the “two u” spelling has become common on the internet, I prefer not to use it for two main reasons: it does not follow scholarly convention, and it confuses people about the pronunciation (I’ve heard people say “harkwus”). In this post I'll use ḥarqus, except in quotations, where I'll keep whatever spelling the author used. Basically it should be pronounced har-KUS, with a rough ‘h,’ a back-of-the-throat ‘k’ or ‘q,’ and a long ‘u’ as in goose.

Now that we've covered how to spell it and say it, let’s turn to what it is (and is not). Ḥarqus refers to a black ink used for painting the face and hands with small temporary designs. These designs are often very similar (or even identical) to the tattoo designs common in the same areas of North Africa… But ḥarqus is not a tattoo, and the word ḥarqus does not refer to tattooing! Tattooing is known generally as washm or usham in Moroccan Arabic, although many of the tattoos actually have their own names based on the placement and motif (see Herber 1948). It’s true that there is some relationship between them — many designs, as I mentioned, were done both with ḥarqus and tattoo, and tattoo artists also applied ḥarqus (although ḥarqus was also done by individuals at home).

"Fatima and Manoubia applying makeup," Alexandre
Roubtzoff, Tunis, 1917.
But before I get too distracted by tattooing traditions (which are well deserving of their own post), let’s get back to ḥarqus. The word itself is unusual in that it has four root letters; Herber suggests that the word itself ultimately derives from the Greek khalkos, ‘copper,’ although I suspect it is related to the root ḥrq, ‘to burn.’ In some Amazigh communities it was known as tanast.

Ḥarqus is essentially a gall ink, made from the tannic acid of oak galls and iron or copper sulfate, which produces a intensely deep black ink, lasting for a few days on living skin and permanent on parchment (a very similar ink is used in Jewish communities to this day for writing Torah scrolls). It was (and is still) used throughout the Maghreb, mainly Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia; a similar cosmetic was also used in the Arabic peninsula, known there as khiḍab (another subject for a future blogpost). When made at home, poorer women sometimes used just a simple mixture of soot and oil, but ‘professional’ recipes for ḥarqus show the variety of organic and non-organic ingredients:

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The First Indian Mehndi Design? Rare Henna in a Mughal Painting

The things I do for you, dear readers! This blogpost almost got me thrown out of a museum… But such is the life of a henna researcher.

The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto
This week I went to the Aga Khan Museum, a phenomenal new museum of Islamic art (a must-see for anyone visiting Toronto!) sponsored by the current leader of the Ismaili Muslim community, His Highness Shah Karim Aga Khan IV

A 300-million dollar project (including an adjacent community centre), the museum displays thousands of artifacts from across the Islamic world, including textiles, ceramics, metalwork, illuminated manuscripts, and Qur’ans.

In particular, I was interested in the special exhibit, “Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin” — paintings and drawings from India, 1550-1850, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) from the private collection of British abstract artist Howard Hodgkin. I suspected that there might be some interesting examples of henna… And I was right!

This is a crucial period in the history of Indian henna (and by "India" here I mean the entire Indian subcontinent, of course, not only the modern political state). It seems likely that the use of henna for body art was introduced to India by the Mughals, a Persianate dynasty that entered India in 1526; and we know that by the 20th century henna art was being done in India in patterns — so the origins of Indian henna patterns must lie somewhere in between! But when? Indian mehndi art is one of the most well-known traditions of henna art today — but as a historian, I'd love to know how far back we can trace it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Karaim, Kena, and Kopecks: Henna Among Crimean Karaites

I got a wonderful question on my Tumblr a few days ago and I thought I’d feature the answer here too.
 “Hi!! Do you have any record of Crimean Karaite henna traditions? All I have to go on is your post about henna customs in Turkey/the Balkans, and also in an article about modern Crimean Karaites it said the woman being interviewed had hennaed hair.”

A great question! Before I jump into the answer, some background for people unfamiliar with Crimean Karaites:

The Karaites are a sect of Judaism which attempts to live only according to the TaNaKh [Hebrew Bible], and does not recognize the halakhic [legal] authority of the Talmud or later Rabbinic thought; non-Karaite Jews are referred to as Rabbanites. Today, most Karaites live now live in Israel or the United States; in the past, there were large Karaite communities in Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, as well as many Karaite Jews in the Crimean peninsula (as well as pockets in Lithuania and mainland Ukraine).

Henna traditions among Egyptian Karaites were previously featured here; now we’ll investigate henna among Crimean Karaites, known as Karaim or Krymkaraylar (there was also a Rabbanite Jewish community in Crimea, known as Krymchaks). How the Jews (Karaite or Rabbanite) got to the Crimean Peninsula is a blogpost for another time... Suffice it to say that according to the 1897 Russian Imperial Census there were 12,894 Karaites in the Russian Empire, of which 5,400 lived in the Crimean Peninsula, 800 in Lithuania, 200 in Volhynia, and the remainder elsewhere. Today there are perhaps four thousand European Karaites, with about a thousand living in Europe and the remainder living in Israel or North America.

A Karaite kenesa [synagogue], Vilnius, built in 1921.

It might be surprising that we would look for henna traditions among Crimean Karaites. After all, Crimea sits in the Black Sea between Russia and the Ukraine, not places traditionally associated with henna. But it’s important to remember that the Crimean peninsula was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire under the Crimean Tatars until 1783, and even after it became part of Russia, there was still a heavy cultural influence from Turkey. And of course, no matter how much I learn about henna, I am always surprised by how far it has travelled and how diverse its traditions are!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The History and Symbolism of Haroset... With Recipes!

We're taking a break from henna-related posts to compile some resources about haroset, a traditional Passover food. We'll be back to henna after the holiday!

The Passover seder includes a series of symbolic foods placed on a seder plate, most of which are explained over the course of the meal: the matzah, the parsley, the bitter herbs, the shankbone... But one element is left unexplained: the haroset, a paste-like mixture of fruit, nuts, and spices, differing wildly in recipe from community to community. Although it is eaten with matza and maror during korekh, just before the meal, there is no discussion of its significance or acknowledgement of its symbolism.

Haroset is not mentioned in the Biblical descriptions of Passover, which stipulate only the eating of a sacrificial lamb (qorban pesah) with unleavened bread (matza) and bitter herbs (maror). The word haroset first appears in the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:3) and seems to be related to the Hebrew heres or harsit, meaning clay. The sages explain that haroset is part of the seder (along with matza, greens, and two cooked dishes) but not obligatory; Rabbi El'azar ben Tsadoq disagrees and maintains that haroset is, in fact, part of the mitzva of Pesah.

Expanding on the Mishnah, the Talmud (BT Pesahim 115b-116a) explains that haroset was used for dipping the greens into, and that before Passover the spice merchants of Jerusalem used to call out, “Come, buy the spices for the mitzva [of haroset]” (implying that it was part of the commandment). The Jerusalem Talmud (JT Pesahim 10:3) notes that it is also called dukkeh because it is pounded [dakha] into a paste. The Babylonian Talmud adds that the haroset was thought to counteract something in the maror called kappa — a bad enzyme? kind of worm? — but leaving the maror in too long, one rabbi warned, would allow the sweetness of the haroset to neutralize the essential bitterness of the maror.

Maror, apparently a giant artichoke, in the Sarajevo Haggada
(Barcelona, ca. 1350).

But what does the haroset represent? The haroset is often explained as symbolizing the clay that the Israelites used to make bricks during their labour in Egypt. So then why is it so good? Haroset is one of the most popular foods at the seder, and it is usually consumed in much larger quantities than the bitter herbs or even the parsley. If it symbolizes the hard work of slavery, then fruit and spices are not the immediate logical choices.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Happy Nowruz! Henna for the Springtime New Year

Happy Nowruz! This weekend marks the spring equinox, March 21, marked by many communities across Central and South Asia as Nowruz (نوروز‎, also transliterated Norooz, Newroz, Nauruz, etc.), the New Year.

This ancient holiday originated in Zoroastrian Persia, and is celebrated today by many ethnic groups throughout Central and South Asia, the Balkans, and the Levant (and, of course, in the diaspora), including Persians, Afghans, Kurds, Turks, Arabs, Desis, and more; it's also not restricted to any religion, and is celebrated by Zoroastrians, Muslims, Jews, Alevis, and Baha’is, among others. There are many wonderful customs associated with Nowruz, including a table set with seven symbolic items each starting with the letter ‘sin’ (haft sin in Persian) or seven kinds of fruit (haft mewa); jumping over a fire as a celebration of the victory over darkness and a cleansing beginning for the year; spring cleaning; decorated eggs (like East European pysanky); new clothes; and of course, festive gatherings with many delicious traditional foods.

Families celebrating Nowruz outside Tehran, 1958; photo by Inge Morath.

Henna is also a traditional part of the festivities! The first records of Nowruz henna that I've found come from the late 19th century, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were mentioned in earlier Persian texts — I welcome the help of any Iranologists who might have references! But it's certainly attested well enough by European travelogues.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Roaring Twenties: Henna in 1920s Marrakech

I am super excited to be co-presenting at a weekend conference in NYC, Feb. 28-Mar. 1, devoted to Moroccan henna (and tickets are still on sale, until Feb. 20! Sign up here). I thought I’d devote a quick post to an interesting piece of Moroccan henna history that crossed my desk… For more, you’ll have to come to our workshop (FB event here)!

A while back, I received a gorgeous and mysterious postcard from Sarah Corbett, founder of the Henna Cafe Marrakech (a wonderful centre for henna and education), titled simply “Le Henné” [The Henna], showing a young girl sitting outside looking at the camera while having her foot hennaed by another woman.

"The Henna," postcard, Marrakech, ca. 1920, by Félix.

Then this week I came across what I thought was the same photo in Essai de Folklore Marocain [An Essay on Moroccan Folklore], a ethnographic work about popular beliefs in Morocco published in 1926 by Françoise Legey, an Algerian-born French doctor and educator working in Marrakech. Looking closely, though, it is actually a different photo, but taken during the same session.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

O Drom [The Road]: Henna Among European Roma

A friend of mine asked me the other day if there were henna traditions in Europe... Of course! In this post I thought I'd feature one such group (and I welcome your suggestions for others!): henna traditions among the Romani communities of the Balkans and southern/eastern Europe.

I am increasingly concerned about the growing worldwide discrimination against Roma, in Europe in particular (here are some links). Having marked International Holocaust Memorial Day just a few weeks ago, I am reminded of the ways in which Roma, like Jews, have persevered throughout history against racism, xenophobia, stereotypes, and of course, the incomprehensible terror of the Holocaust, sometimes referred to as the Porrajmos (to learn more, I recommend the powerful movie A People Uncounted).

Identity card of Maria Miezi Bihari, a Romani girl from Germany, 
photographed by Nazi officials of the Racial Hygiene Unit, ca. 1940.

In that light, I thought I'd share some of the sources I've collected describing henna use among various Roma communities (and readers are welcome to add more!). I think that it's super important not only to shed some light on a beautiful and often-stereotyped community, but also for people who use and work with henna to remember that henna is very much a part of the story of Europe (like I wrote about in this post), not just India or Morocco. Showcasing the diversity of global henna history is one of the main objectives of this blog, and I feel that there is a special kinship between Jewish and Romani tradition in particular. In many places, in fact, henna was used by both Jews and Roma, but not by the other majority groups of the population.

A Serbian Roma family arriving in Ellis Island, ca. 1905.
Photo by Augustus Sherman, NYPL.
A note about terminology: I'm using the term "Roma" (sometimes also spelt Rroma) to refer to the diverse ethnic group of historically semi-nomadic people found throughout Europe, who were speakers of various dialects of the Romani language. Various subgroups include Sinti in Central Europe, Manouche in France, Kalderash in Russia, and many others. There are also other groups of semi-nomadic people related to the Roma, including the Domari people in the Middle East (with whom I worked when I was living in Jerusalem; see below).

The term "Gypsy," which may be familiar to my readers, has been largely rejected by the community as a derogatory slur, and while some Roma may reclaim the term as an identity label for themselves, it is inappropriate for non-Roma to use the term. Accepted convention is to refer to the overall ethnicity as "Roma," with the adjective "Romani" to refer to the language, culture, etc.

The origins of the Roma, as many know, are subject to vociferous debate, but it seems likely that they originated in India, migrating westward through Persia in the early Middle Ages. By the 1600s they had spread throughout Europe, although they frequently faced persecution and expulsion.

Could they have brought henna with them from India? It's possible, but unlikely, since (as I explore in this post and this one) henna did not become commonly used in India until the very late Middle Ages, centuries after we believe the Roma left. Could they have picked up henna in Persia? It's certainly possible, although we lack any historical documentation. It's more likely, in my opinion, that the use of henna was a practice that developed in the Ottoman Empire; my reasons will become clear below.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Period Henna: A Resource Guide for Henna in the SCA

I'll preface this by saying that I'm not a member of the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism), although I've been to a few events, and I've met several henna artists who are active members. The SCA is an international organization of historical re-enactment, devoted to the study, recreation, and practice of the "Middle Ages" (loosely defined as post-Roman Empire, pre-1600). SCA members develop a "persona," a character of sorts from a specific time and place, and aim to recreate that person's life "in period" — as close as possible to what clothes they would have worn, what foods they would have eaten, what crafts they would have made, etc.

I'm presenting about henna at a local SCA event and I realized as I was putting my information together that it might be helpful for other artists and enthusiasts, so here you go! This is basically a compilation of previous research that I've done with links to further resources. Feel free to comment or email me with any additional sources or questions — I'd love to hear from you.


There aren't a lot of sources on the early (pre-medieval) history of henna, and I've outlined most of them on my website, here and here

Venus with red (hennaed) hair, 1st-2nd century CE
Essentially, it appears that the origins of henna lie primarily around the western coast of the Mediterranean (contemporary Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Syria, Turkey, etc.), where it was used as a perfume and hair dye. 

Henna continued to be known and used in the Greco-Roman world, and traveled into Roman North Africa and even into mainland Europe. We have no direct evidence of henna's use as body art in the ancient world but it seems likely that they used it to dye skin as well as hair.

By the rise of Islam, henna was known as a medium for body art and was seen as feminine adornment in particular, although men used it as well to dye hair and beards. Early Islamic sources indicate that it was used by Jews and pagans in the Arabian peninsula, and that it was associated with joy and celebrations. It was favoured by the Prophet and his family and using henna became part of the sunnah [encouraged behaviour] and a mark of piety. There's more about henna in early Islam here and here.

There are two main areas where henna would have been an important part of cultural aesthetics during the 'SCA Period' — the Iberian peninsula (al-Andalus) / North Africa, and Persia. I'll offer some sources below for each of them, and then some reflections on what kinds of henna would not be "period."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Henna For All Ages: Henna and Childhood (50th post!)

Welcome to 2015, and welcome to our 50th blogpost! I’ve had a great time sharing my research with all of you and look forward to much more!

I asked on our Facebook page for suggestions for our 50th post and got a lot of interesting suggestions. We’ll get to them all eventually (and you can always submit more!)... For now, we’ll take one of our reader’s questions: 
[What about] something that relates to the interaction between children and henna culture? Not sure how much there is there, but it's always been something I've been curious about.
A great question! And there is definitely plenty to talk about. I know that many henna artists have introduced their kids to henna at a young age, so hopefully they’ll enjoy learning about these historical precedents.

Some of the earliest henna records involve children! Archaeologists have found children’s mummies from ancient Egypt with hennaed hair and nails, like the adults. Unfortunately we don’t know whether the henna was part of the funerary preparations or whether it was used during life. A papyrus from Hellenistic Egypt records that a child was buried with three branches: ebony for shade, a grapevine for drink, and henna for perfume (Smith 2009: 280-281).

An infant mummy from Roman Egypt (ca. 18-134 CE) with
hennaed hair, from Jackowski et al.