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Around the World Bead by Bead

A substitute to the cigarette, a «tool» to count longing and agony, a long-time foe of the clock, the komboloi (worry beads) has passed through thousands of hands, inspired a large number of songs and become a symbol in religions and hundred-year-old traditions. Each komboloi has its own story. A journey back in time, stories of joy, prayer, loneliness, pain and expectation, simple people, with power, but also humble, with one common habit: a komboloi flipping noisily through their fingers. Some beads are old and precious, made of amber, coral, elephant bone, bone, shell, wood, faturan and mastic; and others are new, glowing in the light, transparent, but also with a story to tell. Amber was once resin, which has taken thousands of years to reach its current form, in other words to solidify, trapping within it many elements from the mineral, animal and vegetable kingdoms. That’s why sometimes we can observe insects or their eggs, plants and fossils inside the stone. Another rare material is coral, especially the black one which grows deep in the sea and is called “yousouri”. Ivory also belongs to the precious materials, such as shell, elephant bone, mastic (a rare blend of mastic resin, bakelite, amber and natural green colour) and faturan.

The latter is for many the best that can result from the joining of amber resin, bakelite, mastic and rosin». How can we identify real amber, which sometimes costs a fortune? To make sure that it’s real drop it in a glass of water and add salt while stirring slowly. Real amber will float to the surface! Another way is to rub it inside your palm. When it is warm, it will emit a sweet smell of incense (unless it is artificial). You will get the same smell if you burn the tip of a bead with a match. The prayer komboloi is a necessary tool to many religious as it helps the faithfuls not to lose count of their prayers. The Muslim prayer komboloi is made of 99 beads –same as the prayers– a number that corresponds to the attributes of Allah. Among them is one special bead –different from the others, usually longer and better looking, which sets the balance– called «imam», which symbolizes Allah. There is also a second type of prayer komboloi made of 33 beads. The faithful has to recite 33 times each of the three attributes of Allah that he has chosen, therefore ending up with the same number (99). The Catholic prayer komboloi is made of 54 small beads, passed around a thread or chain, divided into five sections of 10 beads and four singles. Each bead of the ten corresponds to an «Ave Maria» and each single to a «Lord’s Prayer». The chain ends with the image of the Virgin or the Christ, while five beads, set in the order of 1-3-1, represent the Lord’s Prayer, the Holy Trinity and, finally, the Virgin’s Prayer. Total: 59 beads, corresponding to 59 prayers. The Buddhist and Hindu prayer kombolois are called «mala», which means prayer.

Buddhist prayer kombolois are made of a string of 108 beads, divided into four segments, each made of 27 beads. Each bead corresponds to a grace of Buddha. The total of the allocated segments equals to 9, which is a mystical number and symbolizes the union of man and the «Absolute». In Orthodox Christianity we also have rosaries, which, according to tradition, the Archangel Gabriel, appeared to the Monk Pachomios in a dream and taught him how to tie. Each knot is made of nine weaved crosses, symbolizing the nine orders of the Angels, in a total of 33 knots (same as the years of the Christ) and ending in a triumphant weaved cross. The Greek komboloi, or «komboloia» as the elderly call it, has come to us from the East. There is no limitation on the number of beads since nothing specific is being counted. Nevertheless, their number is always odd, not only for reasons of symmetry but because it brings luck, and – as all komboloia – it ends in the «imam», which in Greece is called «pappa».

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