|Etruscan funerary casket, 2nd century BCE.|
Some of the earliest records of henna in the ancient world suggest that it was known in this area, at least to the Greeks: descriptions of henna appear in the writings of Greek scholars and botanists including Theophrastus (ca. 371—287 BCE) and Dioscorides (ca. 40—90 CE).
While the best henna was grown in Egypt and the Levant, the Roman historian Pliny (ca. 23—79 CE) notes that it was also grown in Cyprus, the island with which it shares its name in Greek (kupros)… Artistic depictions of women with red hair support the theory that it was known as a hair dye on the mainland of southeastern Europe.
|"The Sultan's Wife," detail, from I Turchi ("The Turks," Codex Vindobonensis 8626), ca. 1590.|
Note the angular henna patterns on the women's hands and feet.
Meanwhile, Sephardic Jews brought their own henna traditions with them when they arrived in the Ottoman Empire from Spain in the early 1500s; even if the form of the ceremony eventually evolved to closely resemble that of their neighbours, they still called it by its Old Spanish name la noche de alhenya (לה נוצ׳ה דה אלחיניא). Henna was sent to the bride as part of the bogo de banyo, the ‘spa package’ given by the groom’s family containing towels, soaps, combs, candies, and all other necessary accoutrements.
|Embroidered towels and inlaid clogs sent with the henna|
to a Sephardi bride for the hammam, Rhodes, 19th century.
But henna was not restricted just to minority communities like Jews and Rroma. From the 18th to the early 20th century, henna was also regularly used in the Balkans by local Christian and Muslim communities. For example, Lucy Garnett describes the cosmetic routine of Albanian women (1891, pg. 221):
“Albanian ladies appear to be even more addicted than Osmanlis [Ottoman Muslims] to the use of cosmetics… No sooner are they married than they begin to dye their hair with a decoction made from gall-nuts and palm oil, paint their eyelashes, and extend their eyebrows till they meet over the nose… They redden their lips and cheeks with iris powder or carmine, and stain their nails and the palms of their hands with henna.”
|Vlach bride (centre) with her family, Samarina, Macedonia, 1914 (from Wace and Thompson).|
“When the groomsmen, bridesmaids and musicians are all assembled they go with the bridegroom’s gifts to the bride, a ceremony which is called taking the ghalika to the bride. The ghalika is a low, broad basket in which are placed the gifts, a veil, tinsel strips for decorating the bride’s hair, scents, henna, brooches, combs, mirrors, soap, a handkerchief and sweets… On the Saturday evening the women, but especially the girls of both families, put henna on the nails and palms of their hands, and this is also done to the bride.”
The application of henna to the bride’s hair and hands, like everywhere else, was accompanied by much singing and rejoicing. The words of one Macedonian song for the henna ceremony were recorded at the turn of the 20th century in Kavala — it is written as a dialogue between the bride and her mother, a common theme in henna songs (Abbott, 1903, pg. 157):
“Bless me, my dear mother, that I may apply the dye. /
You have my blessing, my dear child: May you both live and prosper. /
If my brothers were in life, Oh, what a rejoicing would there be! /
If my father was in life, Oh, what a rejoicing would there be! /
May my mother be well, still a rejoicing there shall be!”
Abbott observes in a footnote that “it need not be supposed that her father and brothers are really dead,” but rather that the tone of the song was meant to convey the mixture of joy and sadness that is characteristic of lifecycle ceremonies of passage.
|Macedonian henna song from Kavala (in Abbott, 1903). Note for the linguistically-inclined |
that the title of the song uses the word kana [henna], but the first line uses μπογια [colour],
a loanword from the Turkish boya.
In general it seems, unfortunately, that henna — whether for a bride or for ordinary use — was not done in patterns but rather a simple stain on the fingernails and palms. BUT there are a few photos that do demonstrate a tradition of henna patterns in the Balkans... In 1940, the Albanian artist Fadil Pullumi (Pëllumbi) did a series of watercolour paintings, based on postcard photographs, of traditional Albanian sights and landscapes, and he included one of a girl with hennaed hands in Dibra, a mountainous region straddling the border between Albania and Macedonia (you can see the original postcard photo here):
|Young girl from Dibra, Fadil Pullumi, 1940.|
In these photos, taken in 1966 in the village of Brod (Kosovo), a group of women are shown painting the bride’s hands and feet with henna patterns, using what look like small matchsticks, with a large bowl of henna resting next to the bride's legs. The caption notes that the women applying the henna are known as knarice in Našinski, the Gorani language, from the word kna, henna.
All these patterns appear to be composed of hatched lines forming large circles/suns on the tops of the hands and feet, with zigzags and herringbone across the fingers and toes... They are intriguingly similar in both placement and design to traditional Balkan tattoo patterns (see more here). There is also some resemblance to the patterns of traditional Balkan weavings, such as the beautiful kilims visible in the background behind the bride... In another undated photo, also probably from the mid-20th century, a Gorani bride is shown in her headdress with visible henna stains in a similar pattern.
While henna is still done in the Balkans today, most groups (other than the Gorani) simply put a dot in the centre of the palms. No doubt the decades of secularization, urbanization, oppressive communist regimes, and bloody ethnic conflicts have prevented the transmission of many of these traditional practices. Hopefully younger generations feel empowered to recover and record their family's heritage and continue to celebrate with the blessing and rejoicing that henna once symbolized. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this exploration of Balkan henna traditions, and I look forward to more questions!
|Bosniak bride with hennaed palms, wrapped in ribbon; Sandžak, late 20th century.|
- Abbott, George Frederick. Macedonian Folklore. Cambridge University Press, 1903.
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- Garnett, Lucy. The Women of Turkey and Their Folk-lore, vol. 1. London: David Nutt, 1890.
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- Leibovici, Sarah. 1986 Noces séfarades: quelques rites [Sephardic weddings: some rituals]. Revue des Études juives, Vol. 145.
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- Moscona, Isaac. 1970 Engagement, Marriage, Divorce. In The Annual of the Cultural, Social, and Educational Association of the Jews of Bulgaria.
- Wace, Alan John, and M. S. Thompson. The Nomads of the Balkans: an account of life and customs among the Vlachs of northern Pindus. London: Methuen and Co: 1914.