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Don’t Worry > Bead Happy August 10, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greek Culture Heritage.

The No-Worry Beads of Greece

Your first sight of komboloi may be in a blur of beads as you see them furiously worked by a nervous Greek passenger in the next seat as the plane starts to descend. Prayer bead or fidget toy, at that moment, komboloi fulfill both purposes. Or you may catch sight of them as you race past an airport souvenir stand, where they dangle by the dozens. Wherever you first notice them, they are bound to be strangely compelling. Once you touch them, and feel the smooth beads sliding through your fingers, you may find yourself hooked.

Like most Greek folk art, the history of komboloi is confused. Some claim that they are a recent addition to mainland Greek culture, arriving only seventy or eighty years ago and then achieving a fashionable status. Or that they are a mimicry of Turkish prayer bead strands, adopted by persecuted Greeks to mock their captors.

Still another theory suggests that the Turkish conquerors forbade their Greek subjects to shake hands, and the beads were introduced as a way of reminding Greeks to not shake hands. Others assert, probably more rightly, that they are derived from the knotted prayer strands (komboskini) used by Greek Orthodox monks. As the word komboloi means “group of knots”, this may be the true origin.

Until recently, komboloi were the special province of men, and were rarely seen in the hands of women. Melina Mercouri was an exception, often handling a silver strand in public as she fought for recognition of Greece’s cultural sovereignty. Modern young Greek men would disdain carrying them. But now, as they transcend cultural tradition and become a fashion accessory, both men and women are carrying them. Beautifully crafted strands are appearing in fine jewelry stores, and older strands are becoming prized collector items.

Most komboloi are strands of about sixteen to twenty beads, with one bead tied and set off, usually adorned with a tassel. They can be strung on leather, string, or fine metal chain. Some are what I call “flippers”, two bigger beads on a short length of cord, which bounce back and forth against the hand.

Varieties of Komboloi

The short strands of komboloi beads come in many varieties, from plastic to ceramic, bone, glass, amber, and coral. Religious komboloi may add a saint’s medal to the strand, often St. Christopher, patron of travelers. Some “secular” komboloi add a medal showing an image from Greek culture; these are produced for tourists.

Amber is a traditional stone for komboloi, but be aware that reconstituted (mastica), partially real, or imitation amber is common and has been used for a long time, so age is no guarantee of authenticity. Buy older strands based on their beauty, not necessarily what the substance is said to be.

As komboloi grow in popularity, other versions are popping up. Long strands with big chunky beads are intended as wall decorations. Small strands may end up hanging from rear view mirrors.

Both of these uses count on an inherent protective quality in komboloi. Some modern strands are made of beads shaped and marked like dice, symbolizing good luck, particularly for gambling or games of chance. Others are made of cobalt-blue eye beads, warding off the evil eye.

Prices vary widely. Most souvenir stand strands will cost a few euro. Lowest prices will usually be for plastic beads, but glass or ceramic beads are much more satisfying to handle and are often the same price as plastic. The cord-strung beads are more pleasant to use, as the fine chain can grate a bit against sensitive fingers or catch on the edge of a sleeve.

Specialty stores, of which the Komboloi Museum and shop in Nafplio is the reigning king, will charge more but will have better quality and a wider selection. The Komboloi Museum also has stands in shops at the Athens Airport. At the main location in Nafplion, the display upstairs includes dozens of ancient strands of komboloi, plus prayer beads from other cultures worldwide. They also offer an excellent book on the history of worry beads, written by one of the owners.

Jewelry shops will charge substantially more, with gold and silver strands with semi-precious stones abounding. There’s no upper limit; fine strands are costing between Euro 250-1000 or more, and are particularly popular with Greek businessmen. As komboloi are growing in popularity, they are actually being imported into Greece, so not all worry beads sold in Greece are from Greece. Ask.

Travel delay? Break out the beads. Temperature too hot? Swirl those beads, you might start a breeze. If a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can start a storm in the Atlantic, why not coax a breeze to yourself with komboloi?

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