A history of henna body art

There are references that henna (called mehndi in Hindi and Urdu) has been used as far back as 9000 years. It was not at first used for body art, but used in dry hot climates for cooling the body. Making a thick paste out of the dried and then crushed Henna leaves, and soaking the person’s hands and the soles of their feet with it would create a cooling effect that would last after the soaking was over, and as long as the henna remained on the body. This was a common practice in Egypt, Africa and much of the Middle East.

It was after some time that the random designs found on the hands and feet caused someone to realize that this could be used for body art. When that happened and who did so is not really known. Nonetheless, this was the way in which henna body art started off. From there, it has grown in many different ways, and in different cultures. This art then traveled to many other countries in Asia Minor and Africa, and even some in Asia Major.

What is henna? Simply it is a leaf from the Henna Tree (Lawsonia inermis), or as called in different places, the mignonette tree, Egyptian privet, etc. It is a flowering tree that grows 12 to 15 feet tall, so it is not a big tree, more like a large shrub.

The diversity of the use of henna is quite extensive, because it was not only used in body art and cooling, but also medicine, and as a dye for hides and fabric, hair, beards and horse manes. It became a high demand product for so many reasons that it must have become a major business just to keep up the supplies needed for the many places that used it.

In archeological evidence, there are signs that even Neanderthals used it in the dying of their hair and hands for their fertility Goddess. The fact is that this is a very old plant that has been used by various humans for millennia. Henna was used in not only decorations, but religious ceremonies, special ceremonies, and commercially (in the production of fabric and clothing and furniture), as well as for medical use and for any other purpose the people could think of. This was one of the most diverse plant products for early man.

In Ugarit script, Henna is called “Kpr” and mentioned in one of their mythological texts about “Ba’al and ‘Anath.” According to the story, Ba’al, the storm god and the god of fertility, was helped by his sister, ‘Anath, the Warrior Goddess. Ba’al adorned his sister with perfumes, purple from a seashell, and kpr, before she went into battle with the Minions of Mot, the God of Death. The texts are from around 1400 to 1350 B.C.

The use of the word “Kpr” went into the Hellenistic world, through some means, to become the word ‘kupros,’ where it was found in medical texts of the day. And in Israel (200 C.E.), it was recorded as having been an agricultural plant. Thus it is still unclear how long it was used in that way. As that the plant was so much in use, it is likely to have been used as an agricultural plant for centuries before this.

Henna has had a long history with its cooling effect, which is brought about by the main agent in the plant, hennotannic acid, which strongly resembles the tannins used in tanning. Tannins make up tannic acid, which explains the reason for the dying effect, as well as the cooling effect. Whereas henna causes a red to brown coloration, tannin causes a beige coloration.

One of the medical uses of the henna was to make a poultice from it, then wrap it around the head to calm headaches. But the Swahili people have used this for anything dealing with pain, including pregnancy and hair growth, as well as to fight off biting insects and mildew.

However, as time has grown, the main use of the henna plant has been greatly reduced to the body art “mehndi” field, in which it is used to create a temporary tattoo lasting for days or weeks without the use of needles. But the art was used mostly for ceremonial, personal or religious use. It was also used to bless a woman while she carried a fetus inside of her, often called belly blessing.

Today it has grown into a new means of marking the body for beauty, without the pain. Many celebrities have done this. People such as Madonna and Demi Moore have brought this to light through the media’s constant attention. Now getting henna body art has become a new fad.

Today, one of the most used design forms is  based on Celtic art. But the more traditional four styles, Middle Eastern, North American, Indian/Pakistani, and Indonesian or Southeast Asian, each had their own designs.

The one warning you should be aware of when dealing with henna is that some artists have now decided to jump on the henna wagon with what they are calling “black henna.” A number of sites have referred to black henna as a stronger “hair dye mix” using PPD (p-phenylenediamine), which has numerous effects on the skin. The FDA has even put out a warning on black henna, and that reported cases have seen “redness, blisters, raised red weeping lesions, loss of pigmentation, increased sensitivity to sunlight and even permanent scarring.” And sometimes medical attention has been necessary.

Many colors are achieved with henna, but all by natural means through the berries and leaves etc. The addition of chemicals, or entirely replacing the henna with chemicals, is not safe. But generally, henna is a safe and time-tested design process that delivers some very beautiful works of art.