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Beads that ease the soul > The Komboloi Museum in Nafplion July 6, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Mainland, Greek Culture Heritage.
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Beads that ease the soul > The quiet click of ”worry beads” or komboloi, is everywhere in the streets, and mind-set, of Greece.
 
NAFPLION, Greece > “They’re plastic,” said Aris Evangelinos, snatching the string of beads from Peter’s hand and putting a match to them.

The orange and yellow “worry beads,” which the Greeks call komboloi, had been my gift to Peter less than a week ago. Now they were briefly in flames.

When the flames died, Evangelinos put his nose to the beads and sniffed.

I scanned their edges for damage: Plastic would have melted; amber would have burned.

Peter’s komboloi (pronounced com-po-LOY) did neither. His mood improved immediately.

Over the past few hundred years, the Greeks have evolved worrying from a pedestrian experiment to high art. Worrying became colorful, rhythmic, sensuous. And after that, who was worried?

In many countries, beads are associated with prayer, but on the streets of contemporary Greece, a komboloi supplies calm companionship and a certain chic.

We seemed to hear them in Greece. Komboloi ticked and twirled in the hands of restaurant patrons waiting for tables. The beads dropped slowly, one at a time, through the fingers, rapping softly but resoundingly on the bead below as if signaling a secret code.

There were rhythms for every mood, lengths for every hand, beads for every budget. They were wrapped around young and old fingers alike.

There was something appealing about an ancient, compact, low-tech antidote to Palm Pilots, cell phones and Internet access. Stroking beads sends a different message to the brain than jabbing at keyboards.

Peter wanted a string, to experience the rhythmic grasp of the dripping beads. We had bought his strand in Crete.

Aris Evangelinos, owner of the Komboloi Museum, held another match to Peter’s beads, and the flames around them lingered.

“Well,” I said before Evangelinos could light a third, “what are they?”

We wanted to know. We had been told by the seller that the beads were a mixture of amber and stone from China. Clearly, this komboloi was not the standard olivewood or monochromatic plastic. The beads looked like geologic tie-dye: layers of red and orange, with sepia swirls and bursts of sunsets.

The Komboloi Museum in Nafplion, a seaside town on the eastern edge of the Peloponnese, is a candy store for the anxious. One wall is covered to the ceiling in strands of cabernet red, amber orange and saffron yellow beads. The beads are smooth to the touch and feel like poetry to the fingertips.

Some are translucent, others built of so many layers that the eye loses its way before the center is discerned.

In his shop/museum, Evangelinos repairs older komboloi and sells contemporary versions. Hanging on the back wall are black-and-white photos of a komboloi workshop in Egypt.

Upstairs is a display of rosaries and prayer beads that Evangelinos has collected over more than 20 years. In four small rooms are beads used by Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Greek.

Made from red and black coral, cedar and sandalwood, glass, Bakelite, snake’s bone, elephant bone, silver and mother of pearl, some strands held as few as 19 beads, others more than 100.

Amber was clearly the material of choice: There were more than a dozen strands of beads, crimson and rust, gold and flaxen, cherry and brick. Most pieces were dated, between 1750 and 1950.

In a book that Evangelinos had written, he said that his grandfather told him: “The eyes alone cannot decide which is the best and most beautiful (komboloi). The fingers and the ears must agree as well.”

The most desirable beads, made from solid amber, are all but impossible to find. If you do find a strand, it will be old and expensive.

Second-best are beads made from faturan, amber filings combined with resin. This is where expertise comes in: the color of the bead; its weight and shape, which account for the critically important, harmonious “click” of bead on bead.

The edges must be considered: Are they rounded or squared off?

Many of these choices are personal, but certain qualities are unarguably superior to others. It was clear that Evangelinos was a connoisseur, and any slipshod, crass, metal elements or lengths of chain were not to be tolerated.

To him, we probably appeared to be too ignorant to be buyers of consequence.

I had spent about an hour in the upstairs museum and came down to find Peter and Evangelinos engaged in mercantile camaraderie.

Peter, who breaks out in hives at the entrance to a mall, surprised me. He was negotiating for an amber komboloi. But not one that was too expensive.

“Do you have any contemporary komboloi as fine as the old ones upstairs?” I asked. “Or the komboloi that belonged to your grandfather?”

The proprietor studied my eyes, then opened a drawer under his desk and pulled out a strand of heavy, red, solid amber beads.

“This belonged to my grandfather,” he said.

Peter and I knew better than to reach for it. Komboloi etiquette is clear: Never touch unless you are invited to.

Some believe that the komboloi takes on the aura of its owner, and it can wreak havoc with the owner’s inner rhythms if someone else clicks those beads.

Next, Aris smiled, put away his grandfather’s komboloi and withdrew a tangerine-colored strand, which he passed to Peter.

This was the strand that had begun Evangelinos’ quest.

Slowly, Peter ran the beads through his fingers. He held them to his ear and listened as one bead clicked the next.

Eventually, Peter cleared his throat and asked if there might not be one more komboloi he might see. Evangelinos scowled and sighed while Peter smiled and stroked the beads, and the process began again.

While Peter studied these wares, Evangelinos ran a fingernail over the surface of the beads Peter had brought in. He was stumped by an earnest student — and a potential client.

I studied the monochromatic, candy-colored komboloi in the window. There was a deep red strand of 19 transparent beads to which my eye kept returning. For $6, worrying had never looked so appealing.

I took it from the hook, allowed my fingers and ears their input, and a few minutes later, decided these were the beads for me.

Twenty minutes later, Evangelinos was still pulling komboloi from drawers for Peter. He sighed loudly, opened another drawer and withdrew a strand of 21 beads, both transparent and opaque. It radiated a deep warmth and, when rubbed lightly between the fingers, the faint warm-earth scent of amber.

Peter smiled. Here, at last, was his amber komboloi.

For additional information >

KOMBOLOI MUSEUM, Rallou – Helen Evangelinou
25 Staikopoulou Street, Nafplion 21100, Greece
Tel-Fax : 27520 21618
http://argeas.cs-net.gr/komboloi/index.htm

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Comments

1. Linda - July 12, 2006

What do the different colored beads mean?

2. grhomeboy - July 12, 2006

Hi Linda, thanks for asking!

There’s no special meaning in the different colored beads. I am writing a new post adding some additional details, which will be posted within the next few minutes.

Hope it helps. Enjoy reading!

3. Phil Ferris - July 14, 2006

I have some beads from Aris – he is a most generous man and I look forward to when I can get to nafplio to meet him. Thank you for your interesting report.

4. grhomeboy - July 14, 2006

Welcome Phil!

Thank you for your kind comments. Hope that you get to Nafplio soon again and that you will have a great time knowing that you are welcomed among your Greek friends. In the meantime enjoy the blog!


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