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Henna: Patterns Woven through Time

Moroccan culture is laden with symbolism and traditions from the past. Within this context of Moroccan culture is a ritual with over 5,000 years of history. Henna, an intricate form of body art, is deeply embedded in Morocco's past, as well as its present. Henna is worn by Moroccan women of all backgrounds: young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and non-educated and traditional and "modern."

Woman applying henna
Henna is a temporary, natural skin dye applied topically to the body. Henna is similar to a tattoo, but is not permanent. Henna art and design involves no breaking of the skin and is both painless and safe. Depending on the individual's body chemistry, the dye will fade in 1-4 weeks. The color may vary from shades of red to brown, again depending on each individual's body chemistry. Today's popular culture has witnessed a renewal of this ancient ritual. The trend has caught on with many Western musicians and movie stars. Although a "new craze" in pop culture, henna is anything but new. The history of henna is rich and far-reaching.

Vocabulary Box

Laden - full, loaded down

Topically - in medical contexts this means something applied to the skin

Aesthetic - having appreciation for beauty

Traditional henna designs for a Moroccan Tsul wedding
Tracing back over 5,000 years, henna has been used to heal, condition, cleanse and decorate the skin. The origin of henna is not known for certain. Centuries of migration and cultural interaction make it difficult to trace the exact origins. Henna is most commonly used in Muslim and Hindu cultures. In Morocco, the tradition of henna use may be a product of Berber culture. Moroccan history is interwoven with the history of the Berbers. In addition, it is a culture with a great many ritualistic beliefs and practices. However, as mentioned, it is difficult to trace the exact origin of henna in Morocco.

Translation Of Symbols
(not applicable to all cultures)

Fish - water, fertility, prosperity

Bird - messenger between heaven and earth, destiny

Eagle - power

Lizard and Salamander - seeker of the sun, the human soul seeking light

Snake - fertility, healing powers

Turtle - saints, protection against evil eye

Triangle (eye), Inverted Triangle (eyebrow), Diamond - eye, protection against the evil eye

Hand, Number 5 - protection against evil

For more information about henna symbols, refer to Moroccan Henna Information

Henna comes from a small shrub, hawsonia inermis. The plant grows in tropical climates throughout Africa and Asia. The leaves are dried and crushed to form a powder. A mixture of eucalyptus oil and lemon juice is mixed with the powder to form a paste, which is applied to the skin. Research on the original purpose of henna has led to a theory of functional use. Henna may have initially been applied as a method of cooling the body temperature. Many believe that "form followed function," meaning a form of body decoration developed out of a medical and healing function. The result of the original functional use of henna is a ritualistic art form: rich with symbolic meaning and cultural significance, as well as aesthetic beauty.

Moroccan Wedding Rituals

For centuries, elaborate henna has been applied to Moroccan brides. The night before the wedding, the bride and other women gather together for the henna ritual. The bride receives the most elaborate designs, while the other women are often patterned with lesser designs, covering only small portions of the body. Within the bride's henna design is often found the name of the groom. Further, a bride is not expected to perform any housework until her henna has faded. The wedding henna ritual has a deeper purpose than mere aesthetic beauty. During the evening of the "henna party," the older, married women share the secrets of marriage with the bride-to-be. Moroccan women continue the tradition to this day. However, there are some women in Morocco who refuse to wear henna in an effort to move in a more "modern" direction. This is not to say that women with henna are not "modern," but rather demonstrating the various views of henna within the Moroccan context.

The use of henna differs between cultures. Depending on the culture, various names are used to refer to this ancient ritual: henna, Al-Khanna, Jamaica Mignonette, Egyptian Privet and Smooth Lawsonia. In Arabic the art form of applying henna is called henna, while in India it is referred to as mehndi. The actual aesthetics of the designs tend to differ from region to region as well. Arabic henna uses large designs with floral patterns, applied to the hands and feet. Indian mehndi patterns are often fine, thin lines creating lacy, floral and paisley patterns, covering the entire hands, forearms, feet and shins. African henna, on the other hand, is characterized by large, bold geometric designs and patterns. Similar designs have different meanings for each culture. Among the many symbolic meanings drawn from henna designs are good health, spiritual enlightenment, fertility, wisdom and protection.

In Morocco, everyday patterns are often simple, while more intricate designs are applied for special occasions. Weddings, the birth of a child, festivals, feast days and other days of traditional significance would call for more elaborate henna. In general, there has been a renewal in the use of henna. For some, henna is used for cosmetic purposes only. However, for others it is a piece of history, tradition and culture, as well as a beautiful art form. Weaving in and out of Moroccan culture and tradition, henna is deeply symbolic of Morocco - both past and present.


Monica - Hijab, the Muslim Woman's Head Covering
Monica - I am Tariq, Hear me Roar
Team - A Culture Rich in Tradition: The Jews of Morocco
Making a Difference - Abeja gets M.A.D.-- She's Making a Difference

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