Have you ever gotten a henna tattoo while on vacation or at a festival? Or have you ever consider what henna signifies in other cultures? From an American standpoint, I have always viewed hennas as an opportunity to get a “temporary tattoo” that last a few weeks. However, in the Middle East, henna signifies so much more.
Henna use varies from culture to culture. Although henna decorations are mostly tied to weddings and bridal preparations, they are also included in celebrations of pregnancies, births and so forth.
Henna is used as a symbol of good luck, health, and fertility and has been practiced for over five thousand years. Although the exact origin is debated, the first evidence of henna use has been discovered in Egyptian mummies, such as pharaohs. The hair and nails of these mummies were stained in various shades of henna. I wonder if henna was used strictly for the elite?
The plant that produces henna is called Lawsonia inermis, which can grow from four to eight feet in height. This plant can be found in various Middle Eastern and African countries such as Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan, Syria, Uganda, and more. By mixing henna with other leaves, fruits, and teas, different shades are produced. The dried henna leaves are then ground and produce a powder, which the skin absorbs when water, sugar, and oil is added, causing the skin to be stained. Henna is not poisonous and with soap and water can be removed. In Arabic, the act of applying henna to a body is referred to as henna, while in Indian it is called mehndi.
Although universally henna has been used for cosmetic purposes, regions in which henna is traditionally grown have used henna as medicine. For medicinal purposes, henna is applied to skin and hair as a product that cools, cleanses, and colors. This application is used by millions of Middle Easterners, Asian, and Africans who are able to obtain henna inexpensively and frequently.
Depending on the culture, henna designs will differ. India and Pakistani designs are more intricate and dense in design. However, Middle Eastern henna tends to be more abstract and features floral designs and vine patterns. Non-traditional designs are more personal, although they may contain some patterns from Middle Eastern designs. From my experience with henna in the United States, I have noticed that henna is heavily based in patterns and intricate designs, but did not realize why until I discovered the history of henna!