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 33 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.

Native America

Beads have always had spiritual significance to Native Americans; neck medallions as early as 800 A.D. 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."


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. Think about making your own prayer beads as something to do in addition to, not instead of, any current practice you may have.

Cultural Use of Beads » History of Prayer Beads » A String & A Prayer: How to Make & Use Prayer Beads
Eleanor Wiley and Maggie Oman Shannon (2007) Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

A String & A Prayer: How to Make & Use Prayer Beads

A String & A Prayer: How to Make & Use Prayer Beads

Eleanor Wiley and Maggie Oman Shannon (2007) Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC

Eleanor Wiley and Maggie Oman Shannon have taken an ancient practice and made it new. A String and a Prayer recounts the history and symbolism of prayer beads, teaches basic techniques for stringing beads and a host of other objects into prayer beads, and offers a variety of prayers and rituals to use those beads on a daily basis. Beads have appeared throughout history. Prayer beads are used in the spiritual practices of cultures as diverse as the African Masai, Native Americans, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, as well as the religious rituals of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism. But prayer is highly personal. By infusing prayer beads with personal associations, we can keep our spirituality fresh. The beads are a device to help build and rebuild meaningful ritual in our lives. With myriad ideas about what makes objects sacred and where to find sacred objects—from the personal, perhaps beads from a grandmother's broken rosary, to the unusual, maybe seashells from far away found in a thrift store—A String and a Prayer offers many suggestions for different ways that beads can be made and used, exploring the creative roles they can play in our relationships, ceremonies, and rituals. "You are the expert, trust yourself. Let the instructions be a guide to your own creativity," write the authors.