Henna is a plant and the scientific name for it is "Lawsonia Inermis". When using henna for body art or hair dye we use powdered henna. The leaves of the plant are harvested while still young and then dried out, crushed, and sifted to form the powder that we use for this purpose. Natural henna stains the skin immediately with a light orange colour which then darkens within the next 2-3 days. Unfortunately there are companies out there that sell "black henna". This type of henna has PPD added to it which gives the paste a black appearance and it stains the skin immediately as opposed to taking 48 hours to oxidize. This type of henna is dangerous and can cause severe reactions to the skin. I do not use or condone black henna. Black henna usually smells like a sharpie marker. My paste is made with pure henna powder, lemon juice and essential oils. Natural henna should be a darker green colour with a natural earthy smell.
No one truly knows where henna originated. Although the earliest written recordings of its existence date back to ancient Egyptian times when writing was first emerging. Remnants of henna stain discovered on mummies from ancient Egypt also confirm the use of henna was present in their lives.
From Egypt through trade and exploration, henna grew in popularity throughout the Eastern world. Henna has natural cooling properties which is why it became so popular in these hot climates. People started off by rubbing henna on their palms and the soles of their feet. From here, artistic henna designs were born.
Henna and it's history fascinates me. My favourite book on it by far has been, "Henna's secret history" written by Maire Anakee Miczak. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a more thorough approach to henna's history, medicinal uses, and the scientific breakdown of the plant itself.
Henna is embraced by many different cultures. With India, Africa, and the Middle East being the most popular. Its interest is also rapidly growing in the Western world. Even within countries, henna designs and symbolism can differ from region to region.
Traditional Indian designs tend to be very condensed to include fine lines, flowers, peacocks, mandalas, religious symbols/representations, and paisley patterns. They cover the hands, forearms, and feet. Many Indian brides will have the grooms name written somewhere within her intricate henna design and as a part of the wedding ceremony the groom must find his name before the celebration can continue. There is also a long standing belief that the darker the henna on the bride, the deeper her love with her husband will be.
These designs tend to be larger with more negative space than an Indian design. Both cultures share similar characteristics in their henna such as flowers, vines, paisleys, flowers, religious symbols and geometric shapes. Middle Eastern and Arabic designs usually don't contain faces or animals.
Henna is popular mostly in Northern Africa. African designs contain large geometric shapes, lines, and cultural/religious symbols. Within the different countries of Africa there is much variance between design symbolism and placement. There is belief among the indigenous Berber peoples of northern Africa that applying henna to the soles of the feet will protect the wearer from evil magic that can manifest within the footprints left behind by a person.
Henna has become increasingly popular in the western world for obvious reasons. It's beautiful, fun and temporary! In this day and age we have more exposure and access to henna than ever before. Many people struggle with the worry of cultural appropriation but henna has been so widely used in many countries over thousands of years, so in reality, it doesn't belong to anyone and should be embraced by everyone seeking a natural form of self expression through body art. With the western world becoming more and more diverse, henna design styles have began to fuse together just like our cultures. This fusion is creating new and exciting styles that are pushing the limits of henna design further, making if fun for both wearer and artist to create their own unique design using multiple techniques and patterns.