The Scarlet Letter
Volume VI, Number 1 | March 2001
The Magick Art of Mehndi
By Sr. Scorpionis

MehndiI have possessed a year-long desire for a tattoo, born largely of my parents tattoos and then furthered by the many beautiful examples that adorn many of my brothers and sisters bodies. Due to some unpleasant experiences with piercings over my life, I have never been sure if a permanent tattoo would be possible for me. I was intrigued by the ancient yet temporary form of body art known as mehndi, practiced throughout the Hindu and Muslim worlds. I knew what it was and had encountered it before, but my first real introduction to this art form came via a workshop at the last Io Pan Jam festival. I drew a sun upon my left palm, and upon my right, I drew a spiral. I was unprepared not only for the magical intensity of decorating ones body, but also of the substance of mehndi itself. A passion was born.

I was thrilled at the prospect of having found a method by which I could not only satiate tattoo-envy, but also never have to go through the process of deciding what permanent art I would want where on my body. Instead, I have the freedom to keep a piece of art for as long as I desire to trace over it, or to eradicate it more quickly by washing my hands or feet more frequently. Much like black-and-white photography, the restriction of color actually frees my imagination to create more meaningful designs. I also have the ability to decorate myself in places where tattoos cannot go, namely the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. MehndiIndeed, places where tattoo ink has trouble holding itself are the very places mehndi will stay the longest.

Far more important than any physical considerations, however, are the magical properties of mehndi, and the act of decorating my hands and feet with personally significant symbols. It was the spiral in my right palm that captivated me the most, and the way it gradually darkened over a day or two, as mehndi will. This was a living and organic piece of art that I had done myself, something singular in my experience. It required no canvas other than my own skin to display. My hand tingled. I felt as if I had activated something, empowered that hand in some way. Although I have put many other designs in its place in the months since the spiral was there, and have no photos to remind me of its appearance, I can still feel it on my palm, as though it had gone through an initiation.

By far, my favorite part of the body to decorate is the hand. Physically, the hands are so unique in appearance and function from the rest of the body that even unadorned, they are an object of curiosity to me. With a design upon them, they become mesmerizing objects of meditation. The folds and lines lend an almost fractal-like quality to designs, for they are changing with every bend, grasp, and point.  They feel somehow spiritually anointed, lending a certain power. How that power manifests depends on what Ive drawn, and where. Not being a person that likes to draw an immense amount of attention to myself, I tend only to do the palms rather than the backs of my hands. Then they may be revealed as I choose, for not many people notice the palms of ones hands.

Similarly, I often choose to decorate the bottoms of my feet. Astrologically, the feet represent the subconscious, so I view the bottoms of my feet as a kind of ‘backdoor to my subconscious. If I have a concept or idea Ive been trying to impress upon myself, I will conceive of an appropriately representative design and draw it on the foot bottoms (typically only in the center so I can still walk!). No one sees it unless I want them to. I will also often decorate the tops and sides of my feet in an effort of empathic protection: a sensitive individual gets bombarded with a lot of weird energy from the mundane world.

Mehndi absorbs spiritual energy, so if one mixes mehndi with a particular magical intent, it will carry over. One can then amplify this effect by drawing symbols pertinent to the intent. It may be exactly this absorptive quality that makes mehndi so enchanting. If I want to make a protective mandala, I invoke that sensation of protection while Im mixing and drawing. All of this takes focus, so I also use mehndi as a tool to reground and pay attention to myself, something I am sometimes woefully neglectful of. I do not mix mehndi if I am in a hurry. I make sure I have the hours necessary to make new mixing liquid (my own secret recipe) if I need to and let the mehndi sit for a while and ‘ripen.

Grounding and focusing seem to be the most prevalent characteristics of mehndi in my experience. It is a very earthy substance. A bowl of fresh henna powder is a deep yet vibrant green with a rich smell that reminds one of a freshly plowed field. Many traditional mehndi recipes call for curry and paprika, and almost always cloves as well.  These four substances placed next to one another are strikingly close to the four colors that comprise the Sphere of Malkuth. In combination, a new batch of warm mehndi with these and other spices and oils gives a heady aroma that instantly centers and clears the mind, bringing me back to my body from wherever Ive been distracted to. Even mehndi using the most basic recipe of water, lime juice, and eucalyptus oil retains the same aromatherapeutic grounding quality.

It seems odd to me that I should get so much broad pleasure out of something as simple as essentially playing with mud. On the other hand, there is something to be said for recapturing that essence with which we all used to express ourselves at one time or another. Mehndi affords me the rare opportunity to satisfy a number of desires and curiosities all at the same time: history, chemistry, biology, art, religion, geometry, etc. It is also a strangely addictive art form. I once spent nearly six hours on one hand and wrist, front and back. I was nearly compelled to keep finding something else to draw, some other part of my skin to embellish. I think this addiction comes from the joy I take in the knowledge that in doing this, I make myself a living piece of art, one that I can renew and change at Will. In this way, a simple form of art has given me the most palpable example I have ever had of pursuing Thelema.

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