When Allah, through his emissary the Archangel Gabriel, gave the Koran to Mohammed, he explained the importance of communion between God and man, and the importance of prayer. The longer a prayer lasts, the calmer the mind and soul of man become. He ordered that the prayers the faithful recite should be ninety-nine, as many as Allah’s names, or attributes. They were to recite these names twenty times a day.
Mohammed felt, however, that this was too much, and negotiated through Gabriel until Allah consented to five prayers a day.
Mohammed then turned to the problem of making it easier for the faithful to keep track of the attributes they were counting. He called a council and they searched for a solution for three days and nights. At last they hit upon the idea of making a sort of abacus by passing a string through ninety-nine beans or peas. As they slipped them through their fingers one by one, they could keep count. They called it misbaha, which means “I recite.”
As time passed, the misbaha became more elaborate. Wooden beads were made, and a larger, longer one was added, but not counted. This bead was called Allah. There was a small gap between the beads, the size of a single bead, so that one could easily slip one past as one counted.
Wherever Islam spread, so did the misbaha. Precious stones were sometimes used, as well as black coral, ebony, camel bone, solid amber. New materials were made, especially in Egypt, often named after their inventors: Ambrasit, Resanit, Resan. The greatest of these was Faturan, a compound of amber resin, bakelite, mastich, and colophony. These ingredients are immersed in acetone, which leaves only the solid parts of the resins, and then placed in high-pressure hydraulic presses until they are as hard as stone again. During this process, colour was also added. Faturan beads could be yellow, orange, red, or purple. The classic is a dark red, like wine.
The idea of prayer beads spread to the west, as well, in the form of the rosary, although here the beads are not mobile. And already they existed in the east, in the form of the Buddhist mala, used in India and China.
A strange offshoot of this tradition can be found in Greece. During the Ottoman occupation, Greeks would see the Turks carrying these long strings of beads. No one knows how it happened, but they acquired some themselves. Only the Greeks had no religious need for them. They became playthings. The number of beads was reduced (though it must always be an odd number) and the gap was increased, so that the beads could slide around more. It became the komboloi, known among tourists as “worry beads”.
The most common etymology is from kombos (κόμβος) and logion (λόγιον). Kombos is the word for “knot” and the second part of the word could best be explained here as meaning “bunch of”. (Greek monks use a knotted bracelet to count prayers on.) The problem with this etymology is that the word for knot is pronounced komvos, and komboloi would more properly be written kompoloi. So the root is more likely kompos (κόμπος), which is the sound of two things hitting each other.
Curiously, the word can be found in Liddell & Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Kompos, it says, means “a noise, din, clash, esp. such as is caused by the collision of two hard bodies, as of a boar’s tusks when he whets them.” A second definition is a boast or vaunt. But what is interesting is a verb, kompologeo (κομπολογέω), to speak boastfully. The noun of this verb is kompologia (κομπολογία).
One needs to forget, for a moment, the modern gaudy plastic toy or souvenir known as worry beads. There was a time when they were a sign of laziness (since one played with them instead of working) and rough machismo (since only men had them). Only men of the lower classes could be found handling a komboloi, with the exception of priests, who needed something to do in their idleness. It is a remnant of a world in which men were dominant and yet spent most of their time in coffee-houses. They would either hold it and let its beads slip through their fingers and listen to the slow clicking sound they made, or would swing them about with a flourish. It was the seated equivalent of a swagger.
A good komboloi is judged by three criteria: its feel, its look, and its sound. Some might add a fourth criterion: its smell. Amber, when rubbed, produces a faint pleasant smell, and many beads are made with incense as well. The piece I own, probably 60 to 100 years old, is made of a mixture of amber and mastich, with some frankincense added to it.
The greatest materials are rare, and most of the methods of making them have been forgotten. After decades of cheap plastic trinkets, the traditional komboloi has come back into fashion, but the demand is greater than the supply, and people often carry around plastic pieces that they have spent a small fortune on. Meanwhile, the prices of the real thing keep rising. This summer I held an old faturan komboloi that cost 1,300 euros.
Although there has been an increased awareness of what materials make an authentic komboloi, it is once again being vulgarised. One can see yuppies walk down streets in Athens with expensive imitations, or (much worse) silver ones. In the crowded city streets, one can no longer hear the beautiful sound of bead hitting bead. Few seem to know that the komboloi was meant to be company in one’s loneliness, consolation in one’s suffering, relief in one’s anxiety, a small measure of cheer in one’s melancholy.