Komboloi: A solution at hand for worried times


1 December 2023

How Greek worry beads evolved into a secular celebration of freedom.

The komboloi of humanity,
which fulfils men’s needs,
brings happiness for he who holds it,
and honour to its beads.
–Cretan mandinada

You hold me in your hands while you dream. It is not just my beauty you drink in with your eyes, nor is it merely the craftsmanship of the hands that fashioned my beads and strung them on silk that delights you.

It is also the sound of the music I make: mystic melodies of the sea from my coral beads, or the whisper of amber, permeated by the aura and aroma of ancient forests where resins fossilized… The rhythmic sounds of stones from far-off lands are the song that now keeps you company.

Taking warmth from the palm of your hand, I slip tenderly between your fingers, sweetening the passage of time. A tangible presence in your solitude, I am present in moments of happiness as well as sadness. When you are anxious, I bring patience. When you are troubled, I bring calm. When you are revelling, I am your companion. When you are longing from desires unfulfilled, I am your solace.

I am a work of art and soulful friend in one. Something precious, yet commonplace at the same time… You have said on occasion that I am your heart’s desire, your passion. But more than this, the way we have bonded, you and I, I have become an extension of yourself – a part of your very soul.

In the first instance, the odd-beaded komboloi is said to nestle better in the palm of one’s hand, creating an elegant “garland” whose circle closes with a single bead. In addition, the other beads are “played” more easily in pairs which glide downward rhythmically and melodically in a more balanced progression when they terminate at the single bead which defines their way. And, finally, for the komboloi to bring good luck, its beads must be odd in number… simply because tradition says so.

The standard number of beads of a komboloi is 33 which some people believe signifies the number of years Jesus lived on earth. Others maintain that the number corresponds to the first knotted string for prayer associated with the monk Pahomiou. There is also a third version which relates that the komboloi originates in the Muslim tradition in which prayer beads originally numbered 99. Mohamed is said to have commended the faithful to hold 99 beads in order to assist them in recalling the 99 names or attributes of Allah. This string was called a Masbaha, meaning “to recite prayers”. By way of abbreviation, the number 99 was divided by 3, so that the standard string now comprises 33 beads. This number has prevailed for practical reasons and thus each larger bead “counts” for three of Allah’s attributes. Greeks refer to this larger bead as the papas which for the Muslims represents Allah himself.

As the komboloi evolved during the years of Turkish occupation, the number 33 was no longer observed and the Greeks reduced the number of beads to 23. It is believed that this change may have been a reaction against Ottoman control thus embodying a symbolic form of resistance. No one is certain what prompted this change, but we may be confident that, for the Greeks, the beads of the komboloi did not signify the names of Allah. Moreover, the Muslim Masbaha’s beads are tightly strung together and are stationary. In its Greek manifestation, several of the beads have been removed to permit them to flow freely and thus allow for the enjoyment of their delicate play and subtle music.

Komboloi beads should be strung on a cord, preferably made of silk. Today it is common to find beads on metal chains, but enthusiasts believe this is merely a passing trend. Chains are considered categorically unorthodox as it deprives the komboloi of its traditional authenticity and has the added disadvantage of wearing the beads away by “filing” them down with use.

In addition to the requisite silk cord, other characteristic features of the komboloi are the papas and the founda. The papas (which literally means “priest” in Greek) is the single bead that is larger than the rest whose style is often altogether different from the others. Its place is at the end of the loop where the ends are joined together.

The founda is the tassel tied to the end of the string behind the papas. Devotees believe that much of a komboloi’s charm is in its founda. The simple tassel is soft and silky and plays an important role as a stress reliever. Although it is a simple embellishment, it is impossible to think of the traditional komboloi without it. In bygone days the founda was rich and dense. The work of the tassel maker was so revered that it was considered not merely a profession, but an art form in its own right. Stroking the founda evokes a sweet serenity in the depths of your heart.

Today, however, it is common to find modern komboloi without the founda. It seems younger generations consider it old-fashioned while “traditionalists” believe that a komboloi without a founda is shamefully incomplete and disfigured. The so called koutsavakides were partly responsible for the disappearance of the founda as silk was expensive. They also began omitting the larger, costlier papas and reduced the number of beads to 17.

Anthimou Gazi’s Greek dictionary published in Athens in 1839 sites an interesting verb: kombeo-kombo. The verb is defined as: “sound, ringing, especially sound emanating from terracotta or metal objects when one collides with another’. If one assumed that the affinity between the words kombeitai and komboloi is a coincidence and that the sound—kombos—the beads make “when one collides with another” is not one of its fundamental elements, one would, indeed, be mistaken.

It is, in fact, no coincidence at all because the komboloi is also music… Literally and metaphorically, as Elias Petropoulos writes in his book Rebetika Tragoudia: “the komboloi is also an accompaniment to the baglama. The musician held his komboloi from its tassel in his left hand which hung from a buttonhole of his clothing while he tapped the beads rhythmically against his wine glass. Some old-school folk singers may still be observed in this practice.

The sound of the komboloi is its voice. “Don’t bang the beads” as the well-known folk song says, but not for the reasons implied in the lyrics. Rather it is because beads are made of stone, amber, coral, bone, horn, ebony, etc., and one must play them gently and quietly in order really to be able to hear what they are saying.

The soul of the komboloi – its voice – is the music of its beads, whatever their shape, whether flat or irregular, translucent or opaque, made of stone, gems, wood, amber, bone, or even from olive pits, or carob beans.

Antiquated encyclopaedias identify beads as: [a small object] “perforated at its spherical axis for threading”… Quite a mundane definition for something so rich and intriguing an artistic creation with so much symbolism and history!

The komboloi has a reassuring feel… a tangible, encouraging presence. At times when we are worried or confused, or when we are plagued by vexing thoughts that make us irritable, it can put our minds at ease. Although devotees have made many laudable claims about the komboloi, it is not an exaggeration to say that it has a calming effect that provides balm for the spirit in distressing times. Moreover, in accord with acupuncture principles, it is also alleged that handling the beads stimulates areas of the fingertips which induces well-being. Thus, even beyond its psychological benefits, the komboloi offers a palpable sense of serenity as well.

In Greece, there is a very strong link between humanity and worry beads. They are a pervasive element of society and an important part of folk tradition. In the summer it is a common sight in the cafés in the shade of the plane trees, while in the midst of winter, it is a natural companion clicking away in the hands of someone warming themselves by a wood-burning stove, or in the little deli off the village square with bit of raki.

These are all images of Greek life in which the komboloi is at home; scenes of both past and present, documenting a timeless relationship that not only survives, but grows stronger with the passage of time. But the tradition of worry beads is much deeper than this and more than the simplistic popular song lyrics denotes: “I whiled away my time with you”, for it is not simply a common and mundane way to combat boredom; it is many things, including a good luck charm and talisman. The old mule-drivers used to hang beads, usually blue, on the heads of their horses or donkeys. Now we see them hanging from tractors and cars. The history of beads in Greece is really a love story… but how did it start?

Orthodox prayer beads: the Komboskini

It seems the first place in Greece known to have used “beads’ was the monastic community of Mount Athos where monks tied knots at intervals on a thick cord to count their prayers. These “knotted strings” known as komboskini were used for counting prayers and opened the road for the Greek komboloi, or worry beads.

The origins of the komboskini are rather obscure, but one monk claims it began with saint Pahomios, who was once an idolater and who had fought as a soldier in Roman Egypt during the 3rd century. He eventually became an ascetic and built his cell near the Nile River, later organizing a community of over 3,000 monks. It is alleged that they often lost count of the number of prayers they were reciting and one night the Archangel Gabriel visited the saint in a dream carrying a silk cord and taught Pahomios how to count prayers. He tied knots in the cord each one woven from 9 crisscrosses representing the orders of the angels. After making 33 knots he tied the ends of the cord together and this is alleged to be the origin of prayer beads or komboskini. Orthodox prayer beads are usually made from black sheep’s wool, symbolic of the Lamb of God and are not always made of 33 knots but vary according to the prayers the monk wishes to recite. They can number 50, 100 or 300 accordingly.

From the Komboskini to the Komboloi

Greece is the only place where the tradition of using beads for prayer is no longer relevant and the beloved komboloi has become an object purely of secular pleasure without any residual religious connotations.

This change came about during the long period of Ottoman occupation when the Turks of Greece held in their hands a tespich which was Hellenized to become a despigi. The Ottoman tespich had beads with no space between beads to allow them to glide along the string since its purpose was only to count prayers.

In other words, it was a garland of motionless beads which the Turks held not only at prayer time but also during formal occasions and celebrations. The Greeks inherited the garland of beads from the Turks, but they adopted it with a much more playful disposition. One per-spective maintains that their use of the beads was intended to mock their oppressors, while another holds that, paradoxically, it was meant to keep their hands “busy” so as not to be led astray. Another theory holds it was intended to deter the custom of shaking hands which the Turks forbade.

Thus, on the enslaved mainland, in Evia and the Peloponnese the Turkish tespich transformed into the worry beads of the raya or the “enslaved ones”… With a resolute spirit and ingenuity, the Greeks removed many of the beads from the string, to create spaces between the beads so they could play more freely. Thus the komboloi became an animated living being that sings and sighs.

The End of the War

During the interwar period, the upper classes continued to guard against the reintroduction of the komboloi – a stance which was soon to be subverted. The sweeping change brought about by the Second World War was to prove a great catalyst on all levels, forcing people to re-evaluate many of their long-held perspectives.

The much disparaged komboloi becomes, once again acceptable, and after 1945 the growing number of devotees who found solace in its company no longer felt guilty about their affection. The war was over. The years that followed saw the reputation and status of the komboloi re-established, with initiates, and converts, discovering and adopting it anew. People began collecting and exhibiting worry beads with enthusiasm as it became part of their circles of friends, given as a gift of camaraderie.

This is an extract of the book Bead by Bead, by Marianna Moutzouridou, courtesy of the Kombologakido, a museum dedicated to the komboloi in Nafplio, Greece.

The komboloi today

We asked Eva Eiropoulous from the Kombologadiko about the current interest in the komboloi.

“They come from every age. We had a five-year-old who saw his grandmother had a collection. Many use it to relax and especially to quit smoking. For some, it’s about power. They buy an expensive komboloi to show their status. Amber is the most popular because it’s what the grandparents used. Women prefer amethyst or pink quartz.”

Komboloi diaspora

Jon Lambousias in his Komboloi Shop

According to some sources, the city of Melbourne has the third-largest Greek population in the world. It is not surprising then, that it has its own Komboloi Shop, located in the Monastiraki of Oakleigh.

Jon Lambousias discovered his first komboloi while on his honeymoon in Greece. Intrigued by it as an object, he started collecting its many different varieties: “You could get them out of camel bone from Egypt, amber from the Baltic region, Faturan, the Arab bakelite and mastic.”

He once came across a man in Athens who had the longest komboloi he’d ever seen. It turned out he was 79 years old and added a new bead for every year.

This interest eventually led to the establishment of a shop in Monastiraki, named after a famous Athens market. He found a broad customer base beyond traditional Greek men: “A lot of people buy these just for anxiety and just to keep their hands occupied… It helps with dexterity and conditions like dementia and Parkinsons.”

I will do away with the watch
And I will get a komboloi,
So I can count the sorrows
and the sighs.
Song “Roloi, Komboloi”, debut singer Grigoris Bithikotsis

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