In this post I’ll be covering prayer beads in general, including a brief history and tips for making your own. In the next post I’ll go into the creation of my personal set of devotional prayer beads, including the specific layout and prayers I use, so readers can follow the process from beginning to end. I’ll use a third post to go into some examples of special-purpose prayer bead sets, aka witch’s ladders.
I was talking to a friend recently about getting back into a devotional practice/headspace after a long absence. He’s having difficulty with it: focusing, making the time, making the space, figuring out what to say and how to say it. I remember how exponentially easier those things became for me when I developed my own set of prayer beads. So – what are prayer beads?
Individual prayers to praise, petition, or simply converse with a deity are foundational to faith. Humans are social creatures by nature and we tend to verbalize – we want to talk to our gods. Prayer is by far the most common way to do that. The more our ancestors wanted to connect with their deity of choice the more they prayed. Eventually devotees noticed awesome things happened when prayers were repeated.
Because repeating a prayer over and over again turns it into a chant.
Chants create a headspace that is incredibly helpful during both devotional work and meditation. This idea of repetition naturally leads to the idea of repeating prayers a pre-determined number of times, the chosen number usually having some sort of spiritual significance. That easily brings in not just the general numerological association of the number in question, but the specific association the chosen number references.
A final flourish on the idea of repetition is to repeat a series of prayers a specified number of times. This can guide the devotee through different areas of focus during their devotions, making even better use of that meditative headspace. It also invites the devotee to include even more associations.
However, every addition to the process makes it that much harder for devotees to reach the headspace that makes all the effort so useful to start with. People had to remember what to say, how many times to say it, and when to change to the next prayer in the series, all while focusing on the meaning behind it all. That didn’t work well. So people got creative and developed ways to count their prayers and track their place in a given series without having to think about it.
Experiments and approaches abounded. People counted fingers, moved pre-counted pebbles around, moved pegs through a series of holes drilled in specially made boards, etc. These techniques were effective to greater or lesser extents, but they all had their issues. They were limited, bulky, inconvenient, some were expensive, and many were frankly unattractive. Another way to count prayers was needed – something small, portable, accessible to everyone, and preferably beautiful.
And so prayer beads were born.
The History of Prayer Beads
Prayer beads have been used for centuries. In fact, the English word “bead” actually comes from the Old English gebed (“prayer”) and the Proto-Germanic bidjan (“to pray, entreat”).
From what we can tell the practice of using prayer beads began in India. The earliest written reference is from the Jain/Jaina (I’ve seen it as both) canon dating from 456 CE, as a device used by Brahman monks. Apparently earlier references can be found in other sources prior to 1700 BCE. The first statue we see with them is one of Shiva dating from the 3rd century CE.
From Indian Hindus the practice rather naturally spread to Buddhists, and from there they were carried on trade routes throughout the Islamic nations all the way to Alexandria, where Christians adopted them. Everyone put their own spin on it – changing the beads, the pattern, the prayers, whatever – while keeping the idea of using a string of beads to count and track.
According to one site over two-thirds of the world’s population currently uses prayer beads. That makes it one of the most common spiritual traditions around. The Catholic rosary is probably the type Americans are most familiar with, although rosaries of various types are used by other Christians too. Muslims have a set of prayer beads they call masbaha or subha. Buddhists and Hindus both use sets called japa mala beads, although they have different constructions. Various versions created by Pagans and polytheists from a multitude of paths currently pepper the internet, and a few books have been published on them (see links at the end of this post). Of course people make their own private sets too.
Constructing Your Own Beads
Pagan and polytheistic faiths don’t have a standardized set of prayer beads. There are ideas for suitable sets out there if you want to ease in to things with an example, but I highly recommend that everyone design their own set once they’re comfortable with the idea.
For the most part, when creating your own set the sky’s the limit. If it gets your headspace where it needs to be for your devotional work go for it. I’ve seen charms, beads, and feathers. I’ve seen sets made from heirloom pearls and polyclay, jewels and bones. Whatever works for you works for this.
There are a few ways to go about the process, usually some combination of “plan it all out in advance” or “stand in the middle of a bead store and let inspiration be the guide”. Either way these key points need to be considered.
A few elements are normally considered with layout. How you decide to approach the process will determine which aspect has more weight, but they all figure in.
1. Intent: What types of prayers are you counting? Devotional uses are the most common, and can range from devotions to a specific deity or pantheon to general devotions to all recognized Powers. Special purpose sets are useful too, and are often called things like “witch’s ladders” instead of prayer beads (even though they’re constructed and used in the same way). My favorites in this line are the ones structured as a tool to further explore the Self. Others are used as memorials (excellent for working through grief or long-term Ancestor work) or to commemorate an event (like an initiation). Pagans and polytheists have a lot of variety to choose from here.
2.Theme: This is closely related to intent, and one often leads to the other. The theme is the idea you organize your beads around. My advice? Go for one central idea that has a LOT of associations. The Three Realms figure prominently in my personal cosmology, so that’s the theme I went with. A deity-specific theme can include listing names/epithets/associations of one deity or going through a myth or mythic cycle. A pantheon theme can be set up around the birth orders of the deities. Another easy and common theme is the four elements. If you use Tarot you can make a strand that leads you through the Fool’s Journey of the Major Arcana (which is a fabulous example for the self-analysis style). You can do the same thing with the runes. Those are already conveniently broken up into sets of 8 and are a good example of when it makes more sense to use pendants/charms than plain beads on a strand. You can even base a set on a sacred text – good choices here include the Kalevala, the Odyssey, and the Mabinogion. Be open-minded and creative.
3. Strand shape: This consideration is often overlooked. Circlets are common, both for the associations people have with circles and because they can be easily worn if desired. A Y-configuration, like a Catholic rosary, is a variation of that. Malas are usually straight strands and the ends are not connected. My first set of prayer beads was a bracelet made out of memory wire, which forms a spiral instead of a circle. Go with a shape that suits either your theme or the way you want the prayer to proceed.
4. Bead shape: Beads come in a staggering variety of shapes: round, bicones, chips, stars, animals, skulls, eggs, etc. Consider your theme and intent, and if it works feel free to bring some variety in. Personally, I love mixing smooth and faceted beads together, especially if they’re the same size, as it provides visual distinction without becoming overwhelming.
5. Number of beads: Is there a number that’s significant for you? You might want to make a set of prayer beads that has that number of beads, a multiple of that number of beads, or that numerologically reduces to that number. For instance, threes are likely to pop up for those following more Celtic-inspired paths. If that’s you, then 3, 9 (3×3), or 27 (3×9 AND 2+7) could be useful.
– Those with British Traditional backgrounds or working with lunar energy often find the number 13 meaningful.
– Threes can indicate the Triple Goddess/God, if you go with those.
– Those with a Ceremonialist bent might go for fours instead, referencing Greek elements. Fives can figure in here too, if Spirit is included with the other four.
– The numerologically-inclined might come up with a number that isn’t significant of itself, but that supports what they’re hoping to gain from using their beads – praying for harmony could suggest 8 as a significant number.
– If there are a large number of epithets around the deity you’re honoring and you have trouble remembering them all, have one bead represent each one on a strand and write one prayer that covers all of them.
– The number of beads on a memorial strand might relate to the birth date and/or death date of a person being remembered. Etc, etc.
This is another chance to truly customize your beads, and can have a huge effect on how regularly they’re used. Size and shape are just as important as the materials themselves.
Historically beads made from stone, metal, wood, ceramic, and crushed flower petals have been used as prayer beads. Polyclay can work for those who want ceramic-esque beads without the investment in special equipment. Ashes can be pressed into clay, added to molten glass before cooling, and can even be melted to make beads.
Knotted cords have a long association with counting prayers. The individual knots count as beads, making this a lovely way to incorporate some knot magick into your set. You can even spin and dye your own cords to use. Writing sigils or short sentences and tucking them into the knots before they’re tightened adds additional significance (if people are interested I can make a tutorial for these). I’d include luceted cords and kumihimo braids in this category too – both techniques give stunning results and make truly unique prayer bead sets.
Many practitioners shy away from plastic beads, but they definitely have their place. They’re sturdy, waterproof, and don’t clink, making them excellent for both children and active soldiers – the US military provides soldiers plastic rosaries to this day.
Think about your theme and layout here, too. If the prayer beads are meant for a deity, then choosing beads somehow associated with that deity might be a good idea. You can pick beads in Their colors, stones or woods sacred to Them, charms that call Them to mind, etc.
Do you like to pray in candlelight? Consider lampwork beads – there’s a foil layer in there that plays prettily with light.
Keep in mind that the beads need to comfortably pass through your fingers. Beads that are way too big or way too small can be distracting. Beads in the 8-10mm size range work well for me. Those with smaller hands or wanting a smaller strand might be more comfortable with smaller beads – 6mm is a common size too, and seed beads are great if you want something tiny. Round beads slip nicely, but other shapes have different textures you might want to incorporate.
Spacers are an important thing to consider. A bunch of beads all pushed together makes it sometimes difficult for your fingers to feel where one bead ends and another begins. It can also put more stress on the threading material, which ups the potential that it’ll break. That’s why pearls on necklaces are separated by knots. This technique is common for malas, too. To deal with this issue you can use knots, specially designed spacers that easily thread on, and/or much smaller beads.
Don’t forget the possibilities of the threading material! This is especially true if the threading material will be visible, like with knot spacers. There are so many materials and colors that can be used for threading that it can really make a difference in your project, and it’s a great way to pull in more associations.
Don’t limit yourself to beads, either. Consider charms and other types of findings. Feathers, specific animals, talismans, etc can all be used if they work for you. Just remember that too much variation can snap you out of a contemplative headspace, so do your best to make the transitions between things work for the design of your piece.
Perhaps the most basic consideration is cost. A strand of prayer beads made from rare pearls would likely be stunningly gorgeous. However, if you’d don’t happen to have thousands of dollars lying around it’s a bit out of reach. Unsurprisingly pearls, precious metals, and precious stones are the most expensive beads you can use. Semi-precious stones come next, and while still pricier than other options are more reasonable than gold and gems. Those who prefer to use natural materials, and materials with specific associations, often love these. Stone beads are available in abundance, too.
Next comes glass. I adore glass. It’s the workhorse of prayer beads, in my opinion. Very cost effective, comes in a wide variety of sizes, colors and shapes, and durable. I also like the idea that glass is made from Earth melted by Fire and cooled by Air that still flows like Water. Hits all of my buttons, and I rarely pay more than $20 for enough to make a gorgeous set. You can also find base metal findings like clasps in this price range. Lampwork beads are usually in the high end of the glass bead range.
Plastic, wooden, and bone beads are probably the cheapest way to go. Wooden beads give you the opportunity to stain or paint them whatever color you want, use sacred woods, and even use them as a canvas for paint or wood-burning specific designs. The customization options make this a great option if you can’t find anything pre-made you like that’s in your price range. Bone can vary from incredibly inexpensive – on par with wooden beads – all the way up to the prices of semi-precious stones, so if you’re interested in those shop around.
Knots are a special material subset. You can use any thread or cord you like, so cost can range between negligible (embroidery floss is less than $1 a hank) to moderate (silk). If you go with techniques like luceting and kumihimo you also have some special equipment to add in – but once you have it it’s yours.
I’ve included a few examples below, with bead sources and additional references at the end.
This blends elemental associations with the Triple Goddess. The form is obviously inspired by the Catholic rosary. This can be a good thing – I’ve found that those who grew up Catholic and have fond memories of it often find this form comforting, even if the prayers have changed. However, this may be considered cultural appropriation, so be careful with the choice you make.
This set is designed specifically to honor the goddess Freyja. Note the handmade pendant and the variations among all the beads used.
This frankly gorgeous example uses Triple Goddess imagery, along with charms and specially-shaped beads. The silver spacers break the beads up and bring in more goddess-associated color, while making the four sets of two beads without a spacer stand out more.
Here we have a set designed for Lilith, and the creator then found that they suited any of the “dark” goddesses. Note the three sets of three beads, adding up to 9 total, with a goddess image on one side and a pentacle on the other. This is also the shortest strand I’m showing. Personally I think longer is better, as it’s the repetition that is so effective, but to each their own!
This is a fabulous example of a special purpose set. Each of the bone beads is inscribed with a rune, and each of the three sets uses a different color bead as spacers.
Want to make your own? Here are some sources for supplies.
Shipwreck Beads – The largest bead supplier in the US. I always find gorgeousness here.
Artbeads – Another fabulous bead supplier.
Silver Enchantments – THE source for pendants and beads with religious or magickal themes. Goddess images, animals, ritual tools, Celtic knots, etc can all be found here, and the prices are very reasonable.
Michael’s – When I need basic beads in a hurry this is generally where I go. I find the selection superior to other box-style craft stores.
Want more info? Try these books out.
Pagan Prayer Beads: Magic and Meditation with Pagan Rosaries by John Michael Greer and Clare Vaughn
A nice, simple overview of prayer beads specifically for Pagans and polytheists. Lots of layouts are provided, as well as a basic how-to-bead section. The most specific and thorough I’ve found for the whole process.
A Circle of Stones by Erynn Rowan Laurie
This one is written particularly for those into Celtic Reconstructionism, which considering the author is not surprising. Keep that in mind if deciding to use this as a reference. It’s available on Amazon as linked above, or you can purchase the ebook at the author’s website.