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A String and a Prayer
How to Make and Use Prayer Beads
By Eleanor Wiley, MAGGIE OMAN SHANNON
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2002 Eleanor Wiley and Maggie Oman Shannon
All rights reserved.
Connecting to the Past: The History of Prayer Beads
Making, using, and wearing prayer beads creates a tactile communication, linking our senses to universal prayer energy. The first beads were grooved pebbles, bones, and teeth—made over forty thousand years ago—and had talismanic and symbolic connotations from the beginning. For instance, wearing an animal bone or tooth affirmed success in the hunt for food. Beads at this time also served as status symbols. Later in the evolution of human civilization, beads were used as currency. A fossilized shell and bone necklace that is thirty thousand years old, on display at a museum in the Czech Republic, demonstrates that earliest humankind used beads for some of the same reasons people still use them today—for personal adornment, which distinguished oneself from others through unique ornamentation.
Spiritual associations began with the ancient Egyptians, whose use of beads goes back to 3200 B.C. Calling beads sha sha strongly implies the beads' talismanic significance, since "sha" is the Egyptian word for luck. Beads officially sanctioned as instruments of prayer have been an important fixture of most spiritual traditions for centuries. And most of the world's inhabitants—nearly two-thirds of the planet's population—pray with beads. Some scholars have theorized that counting prayers naturally evolved from the abacus, the Chinese counting instrument that also uses beads. Others have noted that records of the third-century Desert Mothers and Fathers indicate that they carried in their pockets a specified number of pebbles, which they dropped one by one on the ground as they said each of their prayers.
The Religious Use of Beads
Traditionally, prayer beads have consisted of strings of similarly sized beads, seeds, knots, or even rose petals and beads made from crushed roses, from which we get the word "rosary." The Sanskrit term japa-mala means "muttering chaplet," which refers to prayer beads' function as a means of recording the number of prayers muttered. Since counting prayers was initially so important, each religion embracing the use of prayer beads developed its own symbolic structure to follow.
In addition to helping keep one's place in structured prayers, prayer beads also symbolize the commitment to spiritual life. With their circular form, a string represents the interconnectedness of all who pray. Each bead counted is an individual prayer or mantra, and the rote repetition of prayers and mantras is meant to facilitate a sole focus on the prayer or mantra itself.
Most scholars believe that the use of prayer beads originated in ancient India with the Hindus. In India, sandstone representations dating from 185 B.C. show people holding prayer beads, and this practice apparently became widespread by the eighth century B.C. The strand of Hindu prayer beads, called a mala, was designed for wear around the neck, and consisted of 108 beads for repeating mantras or counting one's breath, a practice later adopted by Buddhists. (The word mala means "rose" or "garland" in Sanskrit.) The earliest known mala—strung from seeds that still exist—is around two thousand years old.
The 108 beads represented the cosmos, in which people multiplied the sum of the twelve astrological signs by the nine planets. Hindu malas are usually made of natural materials. Beads made from rudraksha seeds (called "Shiva's eyes") are used by those in the Hindu cult of Shiva, while devotees of Vishnu usually use beads made from the tulsi (sacred basil) plant.
Around 500 B.C., India saw the birth of Buddhism, which adopted the Hindu practice of using a mala for repeating mantras or counting breaths. As Buddhism spread to Tibet, China, and Japan, so did mala use. Like the Hindu mala, Buddhist malas are usually composed of 108 beads—or divisions of that number, fifty-four or twenty-seven beads. While Burmese Buddhist monks prefer strings of black lacquered beads, malas also are made of sandalwood, seeds, stones, or inlaid animal bone. Twenty-seven-bead smaller wrist malas were created to prevent the prayer beads from touching the ground during prostrations.
In Tibet, malas of inlaid bone originally included the skeleton parts of holy men, to remind their users to live lives worthy of the next level of enlightenment. Today's bone malas are made of yak bone, which is sometimes inlaid with turquoise and coral. Buddhists also used their prayer beads as divination tools as well as for prayer.
The 108 beads represent the number of worldly desires or negative emotions that must be overcome before attaining nirvana. Buddhists believe that saying a prayer for each fleshly failing will purify the supplicant.
Christian prayer beads, most recognizable as the Catholic rosary, are usually made of colored glass or plastic beads, or sometimes beads crafted of olive wood. Although, as noted earlier, there are roots to the prayer practices of the Desert Mothers and Fathers in the third century, prayer-bead use was more widely developed in the sixth century. Then, Saint Benedict of Nursia asked his disciples to pray the 150 Psalms of the Bible at least once a week. Since this was a large assignment for the memory, a substitution of 150 Paters ("Our Fathers") was allowed. The faithful used beads to count the paters, and this string of 150 beads became known as a paternoster. It might surprise some who associate Lady Godiva only with unusual horsemanship, but the first recorded mention of Christian prayer beads occurs in her will. She bequeathed her paternoster beads of precious gemstones to the convent she founded in 1057.
The person widely believed to have introduced prayer beads as Christians know them today is Saint Dominic, after he had a visitation by the Blessed Virgin Mary. And Thomas of Contimpre first called them a rosary, from the word rosarium or "rose garden," since the faithful used strung rose petals and beads made of crushed rose petals to count prayers. When using a rosary—which is divided into groups of ten beads, called decades—in traditional practice, a Catholic repeats the "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" prayers as he or she marks off the beads with the fingers while meditating on the life of Jesus and Mary.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, both knots and beads are used. Shorter knotted ropes are worn on the wrist. Often made of wool, the Greek prayer ropes—called kombologion—have thirty-three, fifty, or one hundred knots. Russian chotki have thirty-three, one hundred, or five hundred knots. Sometimes the faithful use bead strands resembling a ladder (each end of a bead touching two parallel strands), which signifies the soul making its ascent to heaven.
Christian prayer beads probably once had relationships to the folklore surrounding stones and talismans. Coral, for example, was thought to guard against illness, so in many portraits of Jesus Christ as a child, he is depicted with coral beads. Later, as a result of such associations, clergy were not allowed to use rosaries with beads made of amber, quartz, or coral.
Christian prayer beads have been associated primarily with Roman Catholicism or with the Greek and Russian Orthodox tradition, because John Calvin discouraged their use by Protestant believers. He rejected materialism and ritual, feeling that the faithful should read and analyze spiritual texts in direct relationship with God, rather than simply memorize set prayers.
However, in the late 1980s, an Episcopalian priest created an Anglican rosary of thirty-three beads, which represent the years of Jesus' earthly life. There's also a nondenominational variation known as the "Earth Rosary." Consisting of four sets of thirteen beads, which indicate the thirteen weeks in each of the four seasons, the Earth Rosary has a total of fifty-two beads, representing each week of the year.
Like their secular counterpart "worry beads," prayer beads offer a kinesthetic comfort—they are a means in the material world to remember one's place in the spiritual world. As M. Basil Pennington reminds us in Praying by Hand: Rediscovering the Rosary as a Way of Prayer, prayer beads simply are a method or instrument "to help us pray, to enter into communion and union with God. Therefore, we should feel free to use it or pray it in any way that helps us to enter into that union" (33).
Prayer beads are also used by Muslims. No one knows exactly when or how prayer beads entered this faith tradition, although scholars believe that prayer-bead use in Islam was adopted from Buddhism. Muslims use strings of thirty-three or ninety-nine beads with one "leader" bead, which represent the ninety-nine names of Allah found in the Koran and the one essential name. Called masbaha or subha—from the Arabic word meaning "to praise"—Muslim prayer beads include markers after the thirty-third and sixty-sixth beads. Often subha are made of wood, or from date pits produced in the Islamic holy city of Mecca.
In Judaism, prayer beads have been considered a form of paganism. However, because the Jewish prayer shawl known as the tallit includes a specified number of knots, we can perhaps intuit that numbers are as spiritually significant to the tallit in Judaism as they are to prayer beads in other traditions.
Made of blue and white silk and featuring fringe, five knots, and four tassels, the tallit indicates obedience to a passage in Numbers 15:37–41. In it, Moses asks that the tallit be made and looked at, specifically noting the number of tassels to include "so you will remember all the commands of the Lord."
The Cultural Use of Beads
Greece and Turkey
Worry beads, the secular counterpart of prayer beads, are found in the Middle East, Turkey, and Greece, and are also known by their Greek name komboloi. Inspired by Islamic prayer beads, komboloi usually consist of thirty-three beads (any variation from this will still be an odd number, along with a leader bead). Some have even hypothesized that worry beads evolved as a way of mocking people using a rosary or subha. Though they have no specific religious significance, countless people use them to calm and rebalance themselves.
Beads have always had spiritual significance to Native Americans; neck medallions as early as A.D. 800 served as talismans against threat. Certain items of jewelry and other ornamentation using beads were often integral to their healing ceremonies. For instance, Native Americans first used seashells and quills for their beadwork. Europeans introduced glass beads, which Native people incorporated into their beautiful and colorful work. These tiny beads were called "little spirit seeds" by some tribes, who felt that they were a gift from the gods.
Vestiges of Christian missionaries appear in the rosaries of the Yaqui tribe of Arizona, who have been Christians since the early 1600s. Their culture blends the symbolism of Christianity with their traditional Native beliefs.
Native Americans bring a spiritual philosophy to their beadwork, believing that the time it takes to make items beautiful honors the spirit world. In A Primer: The Art of Native American Beadwork, author Z. Susanne Aikman, who is of Eastern Cherokee descent, counsels using a "Spirit bead," or a bead that stands apart from the rest of the pattern, when creating beads of one's own: "Each piece should contain an intentional mistake or Spirit bead," she writes. "The reason for this is that we are but human and cannot achieve perfection; if we attempt perfection in a piece it could be bad luck. So always remember your Spirit bead" (3).
African cultures have long prized beads, though their earliest use served as indicators of power and wealth. Africans also used beads to communicate. The "love letters" of the Zulu tribe manipulate the colors and patterns of beaded offerings to one's suitor in order to convey secret messages. In Rhodesia, Matabele chiefs gave beads to witch doctors as a tribute to their god. These beads were known as "ambassador beads," since they were used to elicit the goodwill of the Divine. For the Yoruba, beads represent the qualities of spiritual wisdom, the power of the gods, and the gods themselves. The Yoruba believe that using beads in ritual or on ritual objects will enhance their power. Diviners wear special bead necklaces that identify them as spiritual leaders and enhance their power. The Masai find beads so meaningful to their culture that their language includes more than forty words for different kinds of beadwork.
Given both the religious and cultural significance that beads have held around the world, we can trust this precedent and explore the spiritual power of beads in our own lives. As we move into the next sections, we invite you to think about creating your own prayer beads as something to do in addition to, not instead of, any current practice you may have.
I have learned that there can be a whole universe in one bead. Colors, textures, and relationships between beads can tell a lifetime of memories. They are spiritual.
Creating Personal Meaning: The Symbolism of Prayer Beads
Prayer beads invite reverence. When making prayer beads of our own, consciously chosen colors, numerical patterns, stones, elements, amulets, and shapes offer powerful personal reminders and meanings. When we take the time to tailor each string to our own particular spiritual situations, our prayer practice can deepen and expand. While the spectrum of such possible personalization is as large as your imagination, here are some ideas to consider as you work.
Elements of Prayer Beads
Whether or not you subscribe to any of the traditional, religious, cultural, or folkloric associations made to different colors, you no doubt are attracted more to certain colors than others. Pay attention to your natural leanings. The colors that attract you will be more healing, comforting, and inspiring to you, no matter what the guide below says. As with every aspect of creating your own strand of prayer beads, the elements that "speak" to you are responding to the promptings of your soul. Listen to those impulses—and honor them.
Here's a general guide to cultural associations with certain colors:
White. White symbolizes purity, which is why it is the traditional color for most Western weddings. It also represents initiation, and we see it frequently in rituals marking significant life passages. It is the color of the absolute, and of knowledge and pure light.
Yellow. Resembling the color of the sun, yellow also represents light (and enlightenment);wisdom; harvest (as in the color of grain); and communication. In the Hindu system of mapping energy centers known as chakras—Sanskrit for "wheels" or "disks"—yellow is associated with the third chakra, which represents the will, intellect, action, and vitality. The color of the precious metal gold, yellow represents yang (masculine) energy.
Orange. Orange is the color of happiness. Its energy stimulates the appetite and facilitates socializing, which is why so many restaurants are decorated in orange hues. It is also associated with the second chakra, representing sexuality and creativity.
Pink. The soft shades of pink represent love, including love of self.
Red. The stimulating tones of red activate energies, as red also represents fire and blood. This color suggests passion, power, life, and strength. Red is the color associated with the first or root chakra.
Purple. The color purple was originally derived from the dye of a shellfish known as porphyra. Since it was so expensive to manufacture, the color became associated with royalty and with clergy. Perhaps because of these associations, purple also represents the sacred. Among the chakras, it is associated with the seventh or "crown" chakra, which governs understanding, transcendence, and enlightenment. Accordingly, purple is the color of power, honor, and intuition.
Green. The soothing tones of green represent balancing and healing energies. It is a color of hope, growth, and rebirth, and because it appears so often in nature (and in American banknotes), it also suggests abundance. Green is associated with the fourth chakra, known as the "heart" chakra—and thus also represents love.
Blue. The color of the sky and sea, blue especially invites relaxation and meditation. Its cool hues soothe the spirit. Some believe blue also has protective powers. Associated with the sixth chakra, blue or indigo represents imagination, visualization, and clairvoyance. Blue also signifies Divine truth.
Brown. Another color found in nature, brown represents the earth, dirt, and autumn—the cycle of life. In the late Middle Ages, brown also suggested the erotic in lyrical songs and poetry.
Gray. As it blends black and white, gray represents the middle way. Its inherently balanced nature associates readily with mediation; gray is the color that represents justice.
Excerpted from A String and a Prayer by Eleanor Wiley, MAGGIE OMAN SHANNON. Copyright © 2002 Eleanor Wiley and Maggie Oman Shannon. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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