The Henna Ritual

Henna, a flowering shrub found throughout Asia and along Africa’s Mediterranean coast, has provided humans with healing, romance, enchantment and beauty for thousands of years. In the West, henna is most famous as body ornamentation, an alternative to tattooing and in fact, henna does have much to recommend itself in this area. It is painless and temporary, with no risk of infection. Henna’s dried, powdered leaves are cooked up into a paste, creating the enchanting dye.

Traces of henna have been found on the hands of Egyptian mummies as far back as five thousand years ago. From that time until the present, henna has been used to transform the body into a living amulet. Henna provides protection, prosperity, fertility, good health, romance, and joy. It brings you into immediate contact with the sacred. If you have had henna painted on you and you did not receive an immediate surge of spiritual uplift, then something was not right, either with the henna or with the ritual.

A fine henna artisan knows more than just how to mix up a good batch of henna and how to draw a pretty picture. She knows which designs to draw where so as to produce desired results. On the subcontinent, brides are adorned with peacocks and ripe mangoes, simultaneously celebrating and stimulating their unleashed sensuality. The married woman wishing to proclaim her love for her husband has dots and waves painted upon her palms: dots representing the rain of love that she longs to shower over him, waves for the passion she can barely control. A married woman with worries needs other designs. In Morocco, an eye inside a heart drawn upon one’s palm safeguards one’s lover from the covetous glances of others. The design of a horse will stimulate her partner to his utmost virility. To honor a young girl’s first menstruation, a deer may be painted upon her soles. To heal and assuage fears of infertility, a date palm is applied to the thighs.

Although henna is popular, powerful and beneficial, much of what you’ll find available commercially is poor quality. Henna paste only lasts for a few days; premixed henna in tubes may have been sitting like that for years. Exactly what’s in the tube may also be a mystery; premixed henna tends to come from countries whose ingredient labeling requirements are less than stringent. Either hire a reputable henna artist or mix up the stuff yourself.

Cooking up henna is not the hard part. Depending upon what you envision your design to look like and the extent of your artistic talent, drawing may or may not be difficult. The hardest part of henna for most Westerners is the time and stillness involved. Henna cannot be hurried. It is a sensuous, leisurely ritual. The Kama Sutra lists henna as one of the erotic arts required for women to know, but henna teaches other arts as well. Given the opportunity, henna will teach you to become the master of your time rather than the slave of your clock.

The Henna Ritual


Although you may paint henna anywhere you prefer, it works best on hands and feet. Whatever area you plan to henna must be free from all lotions and creams and then the skin must be exfoliated: a loofa or Hayate works well. Something is then placed upon the skin as a primer: if your skin is not sensitive, a drop of essential oil of eucalyptus is best. If you are sensitive, rub half a lemon over the area.

Henna paste can now be applied to your skin. In order to get a good color with staying power, it must remain on your skin for hours. Overnight is best. The paste goes on black. When it begins to dry and turn matte, a lemon/sugar mixture is applied for fixing and enhancement. This can be reapplied until a glaze forms. Henna craves heat, especially dry heat. Traditional rural henna artisans kept heated coals or stones for their clients to rest their hands and feet near. A hot cup of tea will work for you although you will not actually be able to touch it, only allow the heat to radiate towards your design. If you have had both palms done, you will not be able to drink the tea either, unless someone lifts it to your lips.

You really can’t do anything while henna is applied. Henna laughs in the face of multitasking. You can talk. You could listen to music or watch a movie. Of course, if you’ve had both palms done, someone else will have to handle the remote. You could read if one hand is reasonably free or someone turns your pages. If you’ve had one sole done, you’ll have to hop. If you’ve had both painted, you will be unable to walk without wrecking your design. Ideally, you will have someone with you to pamper you and take care of you. If you don’t have such a person, do your henna in segments, one foot or hand at a time and save the rest for the next day.

Henna sets best while you sleep. One of the advantages of doing henna at home is that you can time its application for right before bedtime. Once the lemon and sugar are done, wrap your design carefully and gently in toilet paper, mummy style. Leave it on for six to eight hours, the longer you can, the better your color will be. Eventually, the paste will come off by itself. Once it starts to peel off, crumble it off or scrape it off. Remove the last bits with some olive oil on a cotton ball. Avoid exposing it to water for the first twenty-four hours. You will have an orange-colored design, which will take a further twenty-four to forty-eight hours to evolve into its final shade.

Henna is a living being. You cannot control nor completely predict exactly what shade will result nor how long the henna will remain. Henna’s palate ranged from red to brick to brown.

A henna stain should last a minimum of two weeks. It may last as long as twelve. To some extent, this is dependent upon the quality of the henna and the care and talent of the artisan but there is also a personal, chemical interaction involved

. Henna loves some people; they never receive a weak shade. Others have to work and experiment to achieve the color they want. The color ultimately received is always an eagerly awaited mystery.

henna baby

Henna Flowers and Fragrance

In India, henna plants are grown in the backyard as hedges and for personal use. It’s not likely that most of us will be able to grow enough to produce sufficient powder but there are other reasons to grow a henna plant. The dye comes from the leaves. The flowers have their own power. Blossoms packed into woolens repel moths. Spiritual protection is provided and your clothes retain the fragrance.

Henna’s fragrance is legendary. An old saying in India states that when henna is in bloom, snakes and men draw near. Arabic tradition says just breathing the fragrance of the blossoms restore fertility and rejuvenates virility. An essential oil is produced, although it is rare and expensive. The paste, too, has its aroma which lingers on the flesh as long as the design does. In Asia and Africa, the aroma of henna is believed to reduce men to putty in a woman’s hand. Henna has a distinctive aroma, earthy, primal and green. It evokes strong reactions. Should someone dislike the fragrance, you can add rosewater or orange blossom water to the paste.

There are thousands of recipes for henna paste and thousands more for the lemon/sugar aftermath. Recipes are hoarded and treasured and kept as family secrets. A very basic recipe follows: feel free to improvise. Some substitute a shot of espresso for the tea. Others add assorted spices, like cardamom, cloves or fenugreek. Saffron is an expensive but seductive addition. Pink or red rose petals can be added, too. Okra is sometimes used to thicken the paste. Strain all solids from the liquid before adding henna.

Have fun!

Henna Paste

1/2 cup loose black tea

1/2 cup henna powder

4 cups water

1 fresh lemon or lime

1 teaspoon essential oil of eucalyptus

Any color enhancers you wish to add such as spices rose petals or sliced, dried limes.

1. Your henna powder should be green and fragrant. It must be sifted. Put it through a very fine mesh strainer. You can stretch panty hose over a bowl and push the powder through.

2. Boil the tea leaves in 4 cups of water until the water has been reduced by about half.

3. Add whatever additional ingredients you would like.

4. Let the brew simmer for approximately 1 hour.

5. Allow the brew to cool on the stove, preferably overnight, without removing any of the solid ingredients yet.

6. Strain and discard the solids, reserving the liquid.

7. Add the juice of 1 lemon or lime {only the juice, no pulp or seeds} to the brew.

8. Warm the brew gently but do not boil.

9. Begin to add your henna powder, spoonful by spoonful, stirring all the while. I’m not giving you precise amounts because you need to achieve a consistency and your eyes and hands will help you do this better than numbers. The henna should ultimately be the consistency of cake batter. Stick a spoon into the mixture and see how the paste drips off. If it runs off quickly and easily, it’s too thin, add more powder. If it clumps and doesn’t flow at all, add more liquid, a bit at a time.

10. Once the correct consistency is achieved, add the teaspoon of eucalyptus oil.

11.  Put a little paste on your skin for fifteen minutes. Although the henna isn’t full strength yet, it should leave a faint orange mark. Testing is a good idea because a lot of time and effort will be invested after this point. Who wants to painstakingly draw a design and wait eight hours just to find out that the henna didn’t take?

12. Let the finished paste rest for about six hours, covered in a warm place. You’re ready!

Lemon and Sugar

Juice 2 lemons using a strainer so that the juice separates from the pulp and seeds, which can be discarded. Add about 2 teaspoons of sugar for each lemon. Stir to dissolve the sugar completely.

There are all sorts of methods for applying henna, ranging from pastry-baglike plastic cones to plastic squeeze bottles to plain old sticks. There is no right or wrong way, only what works for you.

Henna fades away completely on human skin, nails, hair and horse manes, too. Everywhere else, consider it a permanent dye. Be careful where you prepare and apply it. Cover the area with newspaper or plastic. You will never get it out of a carpet. Of course, sometimes this is an attribute. Henna can be used to paint enchanting designs on magickal articles. Henna can be used to create a beautiful and protective finishing tough for a small chest to safeguard your treasures.

henna chestHenna Treasure Chest

Henna paste

An unfinished wooden box

The henna will not take if the box is coated with any lacquer, varnish or similar substance. To test, apply a small amount of henna paste in a manner that can be incorporated into the eventual design. Leave on for fifteen minutes and then scrape off. A pale orange stain should remain. If it doesn’t, some sort of finish is on the wood, which must be removed.

Begin your design in the center. Then work from the edges inward. Take your time and work in stages. Henna’s colors evolve with time. The color as it first appears is not the finished shade. Eventually, the color will be consistent.