Henna and the Moroccan Aesthetic

It was in North Africa that the first henna plant appeared.  The use of henna for decoration in Morocco goes back to the time when the Berbers first migrated to the area; they were long settled there when the Phoenicians and the Romans invaded North Africa.  No one is certain of the Berber's origins, but it is generally believed that they came from either Yemen or what is now Syria.  It wasn't until the 8th century that Arabs, spreading the word of Islam, invaded the Berber regions and added the Berber culture to their already rich mix.

In the cave paintings of prehistoric humans of North Africa, we can see the beginnings of designs that reflected their daily lives as hunters and gathers.  Likewise, early Berber images reflect aspects of their rural lives, connected to nature and the agrarian cycle.  Thus, planting, harvesting, reverence of the sun, moon, earth and the stars are all inherent in the symbolism of the Berber's early cultural traditions and are carried on even today. Such symbols are not only for decoration but also for protection from the evil eye and from the evil spirits believed to dwell in the surrounding trees and streams.

James Jereb, in his book The Arts and Crafts of Morocco, describes Berber designs as "a testimony not only to the meditative and aesthetic power that decoration holds for them, but a faith in supernatural power. Many pieces are valued not because of appearance alone--perhaps because of their form or the way in which they are decorated--but because they may contain a power known as baraka, a concept deeply embedded in Moroccan religious beliefs and crucial to the understanding of all artistic traditions in Morocco.  Baraka has many meanings in Morocco, but it is principally the positive power of the saints and the Sufi brotherhoods.  It is a source of inspiration among most Moroccan artisans...Baraka permeates all things to varying degrees; not only can it exist in jewelry, talismans and other manufactured objects, such as ceramics and textiles, it is also thought to suffuse plants, such as henna and oleander, and incenses, such as sandalwood and myrrh.  This power is transferred to objects and textiles by the use of a particular artistic vocabulary of symbols, designs, motifs, colors and techniques that protect the object, creator and consumer." (p. 13)

Baraka is sought and used to deal with the darker forces of life, curing illnesses and protecting oneself against the evil jnoun (spirits--the source of the English word "genie") and the evil eye.  Berber symbols are included in the design of everyday objects to protect the object as well as the person who uses or wears it.  These motifs appear in all aspects of the Berber artisanal tradition, including pottery, leatherwork and textiles, not to mention all types of personal adornment.  Berbers found many ways to adorn themselves with jewelry, tattoos and henna.  It is mostly Berber women who are tattooed.  Because tattoos are forbidden by Islam, many women have found other outlets for placing their protective motifs by including them in textiles they weave and in jewelry and henna.  Thus, the designs that are drawn in henna on the hands and feet of a bride on the eve of her marriage are these same protective and nurturing symbols that have evolved throughout centuries of use.

The design vocabulary of the Berbers includes magic numbers, magic squares, verses from the Koran, Arabic script, geometric shapes (triangles, squares, crosses, eight-pointed stars, six-pointed stars, spirals, circles and diamonds), as well as motifs representing plants, flowers, humans, eyes and hands.  Odd numbers are also important to Berber motifs and often will be incorporated into the designs.

The following is a translation of some of the symbols common to Berber design:

fish water, fertility, prosperity
bird messenger between heaven and earth, destiny
eagle power
lizard or salamander seekers of the sun, the human soul seeking the light
snake phallus, fertility, healing powers
turtle saints, protection against evil  eye
triangle, inverted triangle, diamond eye, protection against the evil eye
hand, number 5 (khamsa) protection against evil

moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
(represents the crow's beak which is worn strung around a child's neck for protection)
Lion's paw
(a symbol of strength;
the claws are a symbol of protection)
(a protective symbol)
moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
(fertility symbol)
Partridge eyes
(a symbol for beauty and women in general)
(associated with dizzy spells and celestial experiences, perhaps symbolic of
religious trances)
moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
(associated with fertility
and also magical rites)
(associated with fertility
and also magical rites)
(fertility symbol)
moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
(a symbol for protection against the evil eye;
the cross in the middle deflects evil in four directions)
Ouarida (a kind of flower)
(the diamond shape is a symbol of protection against the evil eye)
(a symbol of metalworkers, whose occupation is treated with fearful respect as metal keeps away)
moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
(a symbol of metalworkers, whose occupation is treated with fearful respect as metal keeps away jnoun)
Snake and fish skeletons
(the snake represents a holy person and also has many magical and medicinal properties)
(a symbol of metalworkers, whose occupation is treated with fearful respect as metal keeps away jnoun)
moroccan henna symbol
moroccan henna symbol
(positive motif which carries baraka)

The placement of the design--whether tattooed or hennaed--is as important as the design itself.  Berber women are often tattooed around body openings to keep the jnoun from entering the body through them.  Designs on hands, arms and fingers can lend lightness and delicacy to the body; also the feet must be adorned with protective symbols to keep the jnoun from coming into the body through the earth. Designs near breasts and pubic areas enhance sensuality.  Designs on ankles or hands protect the person from the evil eye. Designs on the back prevent infertility and treat it.

Current designs reflect Morocco's key position along trade routes, commingling artistic traditions from Europe with those of the Islamic world and sub-Saharan Africa. Because Islam forbids the artistic representation of human figures, Moroccan designs emphasize flowers and leaves as well as architectural motifs.  Islam's influence on the Moroccan aesthetic was not merely one of constraint, rather one of celebration and devotion.  Artisanal objects are created as an act of worship and tribute to God through the devotional work of a believer.  In fact, the very act of decoration is considered a meditative practice bringing the artist ever closer to oneness with God.
For examples of Moroccan design and specifically Moroccan henna designs, please go to Henna Gallery. Also read about my recent trip to Morocco and my various henna experiences.


Henna and the Moroccan aesthetic
my attempt to answer the question "what is Moroccan henna?"

Moroccan henna parties
join me in Morocco for a peek at some real Moroccan henna parties

Henna hustling in the place of the dead
henna in the Times Square of Marrakesh

Moroccan henna blog - by Nic and Kenzi
Moroccan henna photo gallery

Moroccan food is more than just couscous
Explore the world of Moroccan cuisine with home-grown recipes

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