Recently, I’ve taken a real interest in prayer beads, in part because of my friendship with the lovely lady proserpinas-garden (you can find her on both tumblr and wordpress), who is a prayer bead maker extraordinaire (she’s really good at jewelry making). Inspired by both her skills, and a newfound desire to craft in the name of my Gods (which I have found to be a lovely practice), I too have decided to take up the art of prayer bead making.
What are prayer beads, exactly? Many people know of a type of prayer bead called a “rosary.” A rosary is traditionally a string of beads crafted in a Catholic context, to help a person “keep count” during the reciting of the verbal rosary. The verbal rosary is often (but not always) the “Lord’s Prayer”, followed by ten “Hail Marys”, and ended with the “Glory be” prayer. Each time the sequence happens is called a “decade.” The beads are supposed to represent these decades and help a person keep track while praying (while also giving them sort of a physical representation of the prayers to hold onto and connect with on the physical plane). Meditations on the “Mysteries of the Rosary” are often included in the process. (Source: Rosary)
In both Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism, prayer beads, called Japa Mala or Mala beads, are used, as well, and also represent prayers or “mantras.” Buddhism has many scriptures and chants, less prayers in a traditional sense, and more meditation aids. The number of beads can vary, but a common number is 108 mala – with the 100 signifying 100 mantras, and the extra 8 signifying all sentient beings. In other practices, the extra beads compensate for a person’s faults or mistakes in their life thus far, and can number more than 108 – sometimes 110 or 111. Mala beads are also sometimes used in Hinduism, also with the intention of aiding meditation.
Prayer beads also make an appearance in Islam, usually with 99 beads signifying the 99 names of Allah. Certain prayers are also sometimes attached to certain beads, and bead-counts. (source: prayer beads) While prayer beads are not used in Judaism, traditionally, devotional jewelry, usually simple chains with the ma’gen da’vid on them, are not unheard of. Such symbolic jewelry has come to really represent Jewish identity, more than prayer itself, though, so I’m not sure if that really counts in the category of prayer beads…perhaps my recent fascinating with prayer beads stems from a lack of ever using or seeing them in my childhood, since I grew up Jewish, I wonder!
Anyway, prayer beads from within a modern Pagan context is a fairly newer practice (as far as I can tell), and was not necessarily something done in ancient times (especially if we are referring to any of the reconstructed or historically-informed Pagan religions, such as Kemeticism). Certainly jewelry or beads could have been given, especially on a more personal level, to certain Gods as offerings or dedications, but as far as I know, at least in Ancient Egypt, I’m not aware of prayer beads being used in the traditional ways described above in some of the more well-known Abrahamic/non-Pagan world religions. I’d love to learn more about this, and admit I have not yet delved into any deep research on the subject, so if anyone has any information on prayer beads in Ancient Egypt, I’d love to know more!
In any case, I’ve noticed that prayer beads are something that has begun to emerge from within the modern PPRW (Pagan/Polytheist/Reconstructionist/Witchcraft) community as a common practice lately…perhaps less in the rosary sense of specific prayers being attached to the beads, and more in the Buddhist sense…with the beads representing certain Deities/spirits/entities or mythos (rather than mantras), the purpose being to aid meditation (like the Buddhist beads), or serve as a “reminder” of the Deity’s (or entity’s or mythos’) presence in a person’s life (which seems to be more unique to PPRW religions).
Despite what may or may not have been practiced in Ancient Egypt, I have personally come to love the idea of crafting something that not only represents a Deity, but can then be dedicated to Them, much like a statue, except more easily transportable. And that’s what really appeals to me, when it comes down to it: the fact that prayer beads can be worn, and therefore taken with you wherever you go…they can belong to both the Deity and to the human, and the physical touch of the beads around one’s hand or neck appeals to me on a very intimate level. It’s like embracing that Deity’s presence more physically; knowing They are with you in a more concrete sense. And of course, the beads can also serve as meditation aids and prayer reminders (like the other traditional beads discussed above) – there are many sacred numbers and/or bead colors and/or crystal/stone types that can be worked with from within a variety of traditions to represent a Deity, or a spirit/other entity. You could even simply make “spell beads,” if you are more of the witchcraft variety, and don’t necessarily honor or worship any specific Gods or beings. The beads could represent or embody a spell, or desired outcome; or they could function protectively, etc.
With all of this in mind, I asked my friend proserpinas-garden to help me make my first set of prayer beads about a week ago. I decided that my first set of prayer beads was going to be dedicated to the Lady Hetheru, a Goddess that has recently really been demanding some attention from me…I felt like I’ve owed Her something for a while, not to mention, She’s the perfect Deity (in my mind, and in my practice) to receive my first set of devotional jewelry, She being a Goddess of beauty (I tend to “feel” Her presence strongly when I dress up, for example; and I tend to dedicate all of my perfumes, beauty products, cute shoes, and “the act of dressing up” itself to Her).
So, with my friend’s help at the bead store (she has amazing patience!), I was able to collect the following materials:
After a few hours of crafting (in which I was taught how to correctly string beads, how to add the toggle clasp, and how to crimp/”finish” jewelry), again with the help of my friend (and getting distracted a few times by her adorable fluffy cat), the final product was finished:
I really think the beads turned out lovely, for my first time doing it! Then, after leaving my friend’s house, I did a little dedication ceremony for Hetheru, in which I formally offered the beads to Her. I also offered berry-flavored black tea and blue lotus incense.
I usually keep the beads on my shrine now, sort of in place of a statue for Her (when we move to our new apartment this June, I’m going to set up a separate “home shrine” for Her and the other Deities of the Home in my new kitchen, so the beads will eventually go there). Sometimes, though, I carry the beads with me. They’re too big to be worn like a necklace, but they are easy to slip into a purse pocket, or to wrap around my hands/wrists when sitting on the train or in a bus or car. And you know…ever since the dedication, I can feel a presence there, in the beads. I feel like She really is with me. It makes me feel comforted and safe, and loved. It’s a nice feeling. The beads are cool and comforting to the touch, as well…and pleasing to the eye. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but they do feel powerful somehow. It’s like there really was a transformation from beads bought in bulk from a store to Sacred Item of a Goddess, if that makes sense.
I really want to make more prayer beads now, but the process can be a little expensive, and I still lack some of the tools that I would need (I borrowed my friend’s tools to make the beads above). I love crafting with friends, but I’d like to be able to make stuff on my own too, eventually. I have a whole list of beads I’d like to make eventually – a pair for Djehtuy, a pair for Geb and Nut (based on some gorgeous beads I found that really do look like little earths and little night skies), and many more. My ultimate dream would be to someday have a set made for each Name of Netjer, so as to call on Them or bring Them with me sometimes, when I need each of Them in turn. Of course, that will take a long time to complete, so it’s really just a dream right now. Maybe someday if I have the RPD done through the Kemetic Orthodoxy, which I just joined as a Remetj member, I’ll feel called to make beads for my Parent Deities, Whomever They might be. Who knows!