History is more than a passing curiosity for me and I have a passion for separating fact from fiction. As an eternal student of archaeology and anthropology, finding origins and timelines of customs and artifacts is not just a passing curiosity. The following history of henna is based on documentation. Information is added here as I uncover and verify evidence.
Archaeological findings confirm the first use of henna as hair, finger and toe nail dye was 5,000 years ago on mummified remains in ancient Egypt in 3,400 BCE.
Texts 4,000 - 1,000 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 then brought henna to North Africa, the southern Iberian peninsula and Palermo, Sicily.
1,300 years of henna body adornment. Written texts show henna's use in 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 use of henna for body art in India* arrived from Persia with the Mughal invasion (16th century). Henna finally made its way to North America and Europe in the mid-20th century.
* The conjecture that the body art depicted in the paintings and sculptures of the Ajanta Caves (2nd century BCE - 6th century CE) in Maharashtra, India as a far earlier use of henna in India's history is devoid of proof. There is no evidence of henna grown or traded in India at that time. What was abundantly used and documented for body paint in India during that time is the use of red lac as well as alkalized turmeric powder, red iron-oxide and madder powder. All are red in color, indigenous and abundant to the region.
8th-13th Century: Arabia & Persia
12th Century: Iberian peninsula & Sicily
16th Century: India
18th-20th Century: Asia
20th Century: America & northern Europe
Body art fact: Henna designs depicting paisleys, peacocks, mandalas and floral strips in the Indian fashion are a modern creation - originating in the mid-20th century. Before this, Indian henna designs were comprised of lines, stripes, squares, circles or solid coverage on the hands and feet.
Looks can be deceiving. Considering that henna body art has a 1,300 year old history, encompassed many countries, cultures and the world's major religions, it doesn't belong to any one group. If someone's ancestry stems from the Mediterranean Basin, western/ central Asia, Islam, Judaism, Christianity or Hinduism they have, without question, every right to use henna for body art. Most people haven't traced their ancestry back 300 years much less 1,300 years, and not everyone shows their ancestry on their skin, so one should err on the side of caution before accusing another of cultural theft based strictly on appearances.
Henna is part of my heritage. My ancestry includes western Slavic, Sicilian, Celtic and Viking with mixed religious ancestry of Christianity and Judaism. Sicilian women have been using henna since at least the 1100's. Being Sicilian, I have absolutely no issue with anyone using henna* for body art. Henna is a beautiful medium that relaxes the senses and brings joy. That's something that, I believe, should be available to everyone. I welcome all to enjoy henna.
Fun bit of ironic trivia: My Sicilian ancestry comes from Termini Imerese in Palermo and Leonforte in Enna. As the oldest surviving city in Sicily, Enna was founded by the Sicani tribe sometime before 1,100 BCE. They called it Henna.
To learn more about henna and cultural appropriation/ appreciation I invite you to read an excellent article by fellow henna artist Modesrah Ahmed here.
Carrettino Wheel, Taormina Sicily, 2008.
Copyright Jeanette Platania-Harper