I have alway been mystified by amber, from the first time I held a small piece to the sky, and behold, a tiny insect came to light, trapped in the yellow resin for all eternity. Worry beads first appeared in India. They were invented to help count prayers and consisted of a series of fruit pits, punctured and strung on a piece of string. Over time fruit pits were replaced by amber, ivory, coral, semi precious stones, or other precise stones and noble metals. A tassel and a “papas” (the bead that marks the beginning and end of its cycle) were eventually added. The people of India embellished worry beads in various ways and thus created a work of art. Worry beads evolved into a collectible jewel that soon became a symbol of wealth, prestige, power and culture. They were something between jewel and sceptre . Today, they are still used to count prayers.
The Greek word for worry beads is kompoloi (Greek: êïìðïëüé), often spelled koboloi, komboloi, or coboloi and was first introduced by the Turks. Kombolois became popular among the common people as means for meditation and to calm the nerves.
During that period worry beads were popular among religious Greek people. The most common name for the religious worry beads is worry knots or komposkini (Greek: êïìðïóêïßíé), meaning a rope with knots, because the religious persons use each knot to say a prayer.
You would be hard-pressed to not see a senior citizen Greek man sitting at a tavern or ouzo bar table without a komboloi in hand. Twirling one is not that easy. It took me many ouzos to learn the technique! In my right hand, the tassel is held between the middle and first finger second joint, with the tassel in the palm, lying down. A flick of my wrist in a counter clockwise motion, launches the beads over my hand and wrapping around my little finger, I then repeat the motion, releasing the Papas, shield, bead and tassel. My komboloi is silver beads on a silver rope chain with dark yellow amber beads disbursed throughout. It fits my palm size. I have owned plastic ones. Ancient Persian komboloi can run at $1,000 for large hand hewn Baltic amber. Nice!
When tourism development in Greece occurred, komboloi, being an important element of Greek culture and tradition, became again popular but this time as a souvenir sold to tourists. Then and today, komboloi can be a trinket usually made of plastics, metals, or machine-made silver platted beads and had nothing to do with the jewel of superior aesthetics and a symbol of wealth, power, freedom and prestige that used to be in the past.
In our age, when stress, shopping, drinking, smoking, depression and antidepressant drugs have become a matter of everyday life, kompoloi made a dynamic comeback and offer many solutions to the “vices” of contemporary life. My chain-smoking Greek shipping friend stopped cold turkey with one komboloi; twirling away the vice.
They are not exaggerating when they say “show me your worry beads and I’ll show you who you are”. Choices include the size, color, number of beads, shield, tassel and priest head (papas). In order for a komboloi to be functional as a twirling toy, it is said that they should consist of an odd number of beads, with a sum always equal to a modulus of four, plus one. I was told they should have forty beads in the body: representing the 40 days of Jesus on earth before ascending to heaven. The Plaka District in Athens purports a plethora of shops. Nafplion, Greece has a museum dedicated to the art. My favorite shop was on the rim of the volcano in Thera, Santorini, Greece. Sadly, the old artisan closed the doors some years ago, though, I will keep my komboloi close at hand.
Vitina Village Bead Shop in the Peloponnese Mountains with artisan.
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