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.