History is more than a passing curiosity for me and I have a passion for separating fact from fiction. Finding origins and timelines of artifacts and customs has me an eternal student of archaeology and anthropology. The following history of henna is based on documentation.
Archaeological findings confirm the first use of henna as dye on hair, toes and fingertips was 5,000 years ago on mummified remains in ancient Egypt in 3,400 BCE.
Texts thousands of years old show the cultivation and trade of henna for use as dye, perfume and medicine had expanded throughout the Mediterranean Basin. From Egypt, henna first spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean: Arabia, Syria, Cyprus, the Levant and Babylon (16th century BCE-1st century BCE). Jewish traders brought henna to North Africa, the southern Iberian peninsula and Palermo, Sicily.
Henna as body adornment. Written texts show henna body art spread with Judaism, Islam and Christianity. It's documented in Arabia and Persia (8th-13th century) and the Iberian peninsula and Sicily (12th century). The arrival of henna body art in India is unclear but most likely arrived from Persia with the Mughal invasion (16th century). Henna finally made its way to Western + Northern Europe and North America in the mid-20th century.
8th-13th Century: Arabia & Persia
12th Century: Iberian peninsula & Sicily
16th Century: India
18th-20th Century: Asia
20th Century: N. America, W. + N. Europe
Body art fact: Henna designs depicting paisleys, peacocks, mandalas and floral strips are a modern creation originating in the mid-20th century. Before this, henna designs were comprised of lines, stripes, squares, circles or solid coverage on the hands and feet.
Henna belongs to many ethnic groups. For over a thousand years henna body art has played an integral part in cultural and religious life in the Mediterranean Basin, western/ central Asia, Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. Henna was introduced to Sicily sometime between the 9th - 12th centuries CE.
Henna is part of my heritage. My ethnicity is an Old World melting pot of Western Slavic, Sicilian, Anglo-Norman, Celtic, Germanic, Saxon and Norse with mixed religious ancestry of Christianity and Judaism. Sicilian women have been using henna for over 800 years, and even though my ancestors' use of henna fell to the wayside, I embraced it and made it my career. I have no issue with anyone doing henna body art as long as they respect its historical and multi-cultural significance and use safe henna. Henna is a beautiful medium that relaxes the senses and brings joy. That's something I believe should be available to anyone. I welcome all to enjoy henna.
Fun bit of nerdy trivia: The Sicilian side of my family is from Palermo and Enna. As the oldest surviving town in Sicily, Enna was founded by the Sicani tribe sometime before 1,100 BCE. They called it Henna.
Throughout Sicily's history colonists and conquerors translated Henna into their own language (castrum, castro + qasr mean camp, fort):
Enna (Greek, 705 BCE),
Castrum Hennae (Roman, 132 BCE),
Castro Yannis (Byzantine, 535 CE),
Qaṣr Yānih/ Jannis (Arabic, 859 CE),
Castrogiovanni (Norman, 1087 CE).
Enna (Mussolini, 1927 CE).
All of these names translate into John (English/ Hebrew), of which the feminine diminutive form is Jeanette... my name!
This was unknown to me when I started my henna career but there seems to be a touch of destiny at work here.