The Berbers living in northern Africa used body decoration not only as a way to beautify themselves but also as potent protection against illness and evil spirits. One of their most unique forms of decoration was known as siyala. Siyala was a type of body decorating that could be applied as tattoos or as body paint, and it was made of intricate patterns of lines, dots, crosses, and palm branches that varied from group to group. Siyala was applied to women in particular because it was believed to enhance a woman's fertility and to be especially protective against harm. At puberty, girls were often decorated with siyala to promote their ability to have healthy children.

Believing that evil spirits entered the body through bodily orifices, Berbers used siyala to protect their faces in particular but also the parts of the body that clothing did not cover. The eyes were considered the most vulnerable opening on the body. Berbers applied siyala around the eyes and hung silver jewelry on the forehead and the neck as the greatest protection against evil spirits. Siyala on the feet and the backs of the hands also protected a person. Women traditionally applied siyala on their hands before their weddings. Siyala look similar to the mendhi patterns that are stained in henna on Indian women.


Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.

[ See also Volume 1, India: Henna Stains ]

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