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?What is that on your hands? Didn?t you wash them?? In elementary school, those were common questions that I was asked by my peers in response to the reddish-brown designs on my hands. Occasionally I would keep my hands in a fist, just so I wouldn?t have to deal with those questions. My answer to them was always, ?It?s Henna, and YES, I did wash my hands.? At that point my answer was rather simple, as I was not prepared with a ten-minute speech for them as I am today. Henna is a natural dye utilized worldwide for not only physical purposes, but also serves as a means of symbolism for many. Today I will discuss the body art purposes of Henna, its many cultural applications, and also the recent revival of Henna in pop-culture.

A historical background of Henna from mehandi.com referenced the text Mycenean Pottery by Penelope Mountjoy published in 1993, which traces the use of henna back to the Mycenaean culture, which dates back to 1700 to 1300 BCE. A goddess figure from Tiryns, the Mycenaean culture, is believed to have henna designs on her hands and arms. According to the August 1993 issue of New Scientist Journal, Sarah Houlton stated that Henna itself is a small shrub called hawsonia inermis, and is also know as Mehndi and Al-Henna. Henna grows in hot climates and is found in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Persia, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and other North African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. The leaves, flowers, and twigs from the Henna plant are ground into a fine powder and the powder us usually mixed with oil, lemon juice, and black tea, then formed into a paste. [[ show image of powder]]. Henna art varies from country to country, depending upon the different cultural and religious traditions. There are three main traditions that can be recognized, aside from the modern use of henna as a trendy temporary tattoo. According to an article entitled ?Henna History? available on the website of the henna artists at www.timidtattoos.com, generally speaking, Arabic (Middle-eastern) Henna features large, floral patterns on hands and feet, while Indian (Asian) Henna uses fine line, lacy, floral and paisley patterns covering entire hands, forearms, feet and shins; and African Henna art is large, and bold with geometrically patterned angles. Henna can be used to dye skin, hair, and nails. For hair it can be used as a red-dye and for skin it serves as a sort of temporary tattoo. Traditionally, application of Henna is a ritual that can take many hours. The hands and feet are decorated with intricate patterns using an applicator. [[ show cone]]. Hours later, the henna is removed, leaving a reddish stain that darkens over a 24 hour period. I prefer to keep the henna on my hands overnight, so that the design will be even darker. Depending on the part of the Henna plant used and the materials it is mixed with, the designs may be reddish or brown. These beautiful decorations can usually last up to one month. [[ show designs ]]

Ernst Fuchs, author of Body Decoration, has been quoted to saying, when speaking of henna, that “self-realization through visual form is a magic path that leads far beyond earthly life into the eternal shape of the individuality of the human.” These decorations offer visual expression and more for cultures throughout the world.

Henna is used for various cultural purposes and its designs even include symbolisms. Leslie Sherr, in her article entitled ?Henna Mania? from the May 2000 issue of Print Journal states that in Muslim, Hindu, and Sephardic faiths, during their marriage ceremonies, adorn and glorify every inch of the bride?s body with clothes, jewelry, and henna. In Pakistan, Indian, and Afghan cultures, there is a specific night, usually the night before the wedding, dedicated to the application of Henna, or Mehndi as those cultures call it. During the Mehndi Night, the bride is supposed to dress in plain clothing, and no makeup, as she is sad to be leaving her family. A close family member or friend applies Mehndi upon her hands and feet, while friends dance in a circle with plates of Henna lit with candles. In Pakistani and Indian cultures, it is said that when a bride has mehndi done for her wedding, the darker the design, the more her mother-in-law loves her. A good deeply colored design is a sign of good luck for the marital couple. Also according to Sherr?s article, Sephardic tradition has it that the groom’s name is hidden in the henna designs on the bride?s body, and his first task is to find the script before the couple can interact any further. Sherr also states that in many eastern places, henna is thought to hold special medicinal or even magical properties. It is used to help heal skin diseases, prevent thinning hair, and cool the skin to reduce swelling in hot climates. Henna is also made into a beverage to heal headaches and stomach pain. Henna has been used worldwide for centuries, but recently its use has expanded to Western pop-culture.

Henna has experienced a sort of revival. Western musicians and Hollywood personalities have adopted henna as a temporary, pain-free body decoration alternative to tattooing is now the hottest new trend among women and men. Henna can now be found in the mall at shops such as Claire?s and Afterthoughts, and also in various other stores. It comes in a package that includes henna patterns and designs. [[show pattern pic]]. As the trend grows in popularity, so grows the list of personalities that have been seen sporting henna patterns: actress Demi Moore, and the band ?No Doubt’s? Gwen Stefani were among the first celebrities to been seen wearing henna. The list of celebrities seen wearing henna include Madonna, Naomi Campbell, Liv Tyler, “The Artist formerly known as Prince”, Drew Barrymore, and Mira Sorvino. On WB?s the popular television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the character named Willow was discussing witches when she said, Y’know, nowadays ever girl with a henna tattoo and a spice rack thinks she’s a sister of the dark ones.”

Although the revival of Henna in Western culture may be a brief one, it is obvious that Henna is not going away any time soon. It has been around for centuries, and is used in cultures throughout the world. It provides healing to some, symbolism to others, and beauty to most. In addition to all of these awesome characteristics, Henna is 100% natural.


I. References

1. Sarah Houlton. New Scientist, August 7, 1993 v139 n1885 p14(1) Henna dyes nylon a greener shade of yellow.

2. mehandi.com Ancient Henna Research

3. Leslie H. Sherr. Print, May 2000 v54 i3 p62 Henna Mania. Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2000 RC Publications, Inc.

4. timidtattoos.com The History of Henna; compiled by henna artist of Timid Tattoos Productions.

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