Henna is a potent natural dye that comes from the dried, crushed leaves of the henna shrub. It has been used for thousands of years and across many cultures in medicines, textiles, perfumes, and to paint designs on the body. Archaeological research indicates that henna was first used to stain the fingertips and toes of the mummified pharaohs, but many other peoples probably used henna as well, believing in its beauty and spiritual benefit. We know that the Egyptians hennaed their hair and nails to strengthen and condition, but it is difficult to know if they hennaed designs similar to other cultures, as henna designs fade in a couple of weeks. Tattooing, however, was practiced since the Middle Kingdom. Mummies of dancers have elaborate geometric patterns while musicians typically have the god Bes tattooed on their bodies, so one can speculate that henna was similarly used. Ancient Egyptian women also wore henna, perfumes, and cosmetics to honor Hathor, the goddess of beauty. It was believed that these materials painted on the body would transcend into spiritual means and Hathor’s presence and energy could be felt by the women of ancient Egypt. Henna could have also been used on the mummified pharaohs to help preserve them. Henna would have strengthened the bodies while also deterring fungal growth, making its use very practical. So, henna, with its many healing properties and connection with temple practices as well as everyday life, was spiritual as well as practical for the ancient Egyptians.
The Museum’s Henna Workshop details the history of henna and its various functions, as it expanded from ancient Egypt to other cultures. Instruction and application will follow the talk with designs to reflect the culture discussed. Join us the first Sunday of every month at 12:30 pm, to explore a new culture and discover how henna was used in the past and how we can use it today.