One early written record of henna is in the Ebers Papyrus which was written around 1550 BCE. It is an ancient Egyptian medical guide book filled with ailments and injuries along with herbal and spiritual cures. This text offers many medicinal uses for henna such as rashes and headaches, but does not mention henna’s use in body art. The history of women’s crafts is often allusive because the traditions are passed verbally from mother to daughter rather than written. In researching the origins of knitting, for example, one would run into similar challenges. No one can pin down a geographic origin or even agree on which millennia it was developed. It’s much the same for henna. we’ll have to look past the written record and peer into the lives of ancient women.
Where do we begin to look? Knowing that henna loses it’s ability to stain from exposure to moisture and sunlight, we can assume that henna use was limited to areas where the plant can grow. This will limit the search to the Mediterranean coast, Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. The next step is to look for evidence of henna use in artifacts in or near the area that henna can grow, and then try to decipher if henna is in fact the substance depicted in the artifacts, or if it is another means of body modification. If this sounds like a daunting task, I agree. Thankfully some scholars have taken interest. Catherine Cartwright-Jones has taken a hearty, 200 page first stab at it with “Developing Guidelines on Henna: A Geographical Approach.” It lays out a set of protocols for the systematic study of the history of henna. Noam Sienna has more recently been doing some outstanding research in the history of henna as well.
So, what do we know already? The most widely known use of henna for body art, beyond hair coloring, is the adornment of the bride in an Indian wedding. Contrary to popular belief, this is a fairly recent development. The tradition of wedding mehndi dates back to at least the 1700’s in Muslim traditions, but many claim that it wasn’t a popular part of Hindu weddings until as late as the 1940’s! Even then the wedding mehndi wasn’t the detailed and intricate patterns that we see today. When you are confined to using simple tools like a small stick to apply the henna paste you may find that you are artistically limited!
Catherine Cartwright-Jones argues the earliest examples of henna used for body art actually come from what is now Crete, the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, and the West Bank. These date back to between 6000 and 3000 BCE. A lager consensus agues that the first solid evidence of henna on skin was on the fingertips of Egyptian mummies in about 1200 BCE. Texts have been found that suggest henna was widely used as a medicine and dye throughout the Mediterranean, Northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula by 500 BCE. It is unclear as to whether henna was used as a dye for skin decoration at this time.
A warming trend in the Middle Ages saw the use of henna spread as far north as Spain. This was brief, though, as laws banning anything vaguely Islamic were strictly enforced during the inquisition, and women put down the art in order to preserve their lives.
Islamic writings dated to the 8th or 9th century CE mention henna as being used as medicine, hair dye, and in skin adornment. These uses of henna most likely traveled with Islam into India.
Suddenly in the last couple of decades henna has enjoyed a worldwide boom. Ease of transportation and the availably of moisture and air tight containers has made it possible to ship henna all over the globe. The modern obsession with pop culture has made henna a very visible art-form thanks to western fashion pioneers like Madonna and Gwen Stefani.
The most amazing part of the history of henna as body art is that it is still evolving. We are living history right now as we watch an ancient practice take a new worldwide hold. It’s kind of like the evolution of jeans, but with more artistic expression and much deeper roots. Oh yeah, and unlike jeans, henna has always been predominately for women!
For more information on Henna history, especially in Jewish traditions, see Noam Sienna’s web site here: http://www.hennabysienna.com/