01 Feb Bead Around The World – Greek Komboloi
Komboloi is the Greek men’s favourite pastime. Somewhat puzzlingly translated into English as ‘Worry Beads’, a komboloi is a short strand of beads with a tassel. They are made of amber, black coral or ivory beads with a big gap where they can push beads back and forth along the string, seemingly very much deep in thought. Snap out of meditation, you hold the string in the gap to flip beads over, making the distinctive cracking noise as they hit others on the other side. Komboloi is sometimes called ‘fidget beads’. Whatever they do with them, this can’t be a form of entertainment, surely.
Looking beyond Greece and back in history, the origin of komboloi was very religious. Indeed they were prayer beads. In the Buddhist east they had malas, which consisted of 108 beads to count the prayer 108 times. The same principle applies to misbaha, Islamic prayer beads, which require 99 beads with an ‘imam’ bead in the centre, through which a tassel goes, marking the end or the beginning of the prayer. To make it more practical and less weighty they started making 33-bead misbahas and you just repeated the count 3 times to complete a cycle. The same number is also important in Christianity as Jesus is said to have died at the age of 33. The word komboloi is derived from ‘knot’ and ‘say (a prayer)’. The contemporary use of komboloi, however, has very little to do with Greek Orthodox Christianity, having lost its religious significance, supposedly, under the Ottoman rule in the 1800’s. The number of komboloi beads is mostly 23, sometimes 17 or 15 in total disregard to the practical purpose of counting, but it still has a ‘priest’ bead in the middle.
This bearded old man seems to have become the face of komboloi on the net. One komboloi website states; ‘The komboloi has a reassuring feel… a tangible, encouraging presence. At times when we are worried or confused, or when we are plagued by vexing thoughts that make us irritable, it can put our minds at ease’. Though Greeks claim their komboloi have lost all its religious meaning, it continues to sooth their minds in every day use. It is a kind of religion in essence. To quote Sherr Dubin; ‘Prayer beads have ‘intellectual, social psychological and aesthetic significance. Highly sensual, inviting continual handling, they were sometimes an ascetic’s only material possession’. I am sure White Beard knows what she is talking about.
There is a documentary on komboloi on YouTube with interesting interviews; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQC_pS4hDW0. You won’t be able to flip around our Prayer design necklaces. They do not have any practical use but they are ‘highly sensual’, I can assure you!
Above website quote is from http://www.kombologadiko.gr/historyen.html. Sherr Durbin’s quote is from ‘The Worldwide History of Beads’ (Thames & Hudson).