Pagan Prayer Beads by Elizabeth Barrette
Many different religions employ prayer beads. Hindu and Buddhist traditions use the mala. Islam uses the misbaḥah. Christianity uses the rosary. Pagan ones may go by these or other names. Just as we have many Pagan faiths, so too the prayer beads vary. A Wiccan set may look little like a Hellenic set and nothing like a Gothic Pagan set.
So how do you really make Pagan prayer beads? Ask twelve Pagans, get thirteen answers! Prayer beads differ in purpose, material, pattern, theme, and other important features. What matters is what you can get and what you want to accomplish with it. Let’s explore some options for your spiritual accessories.
Uses for Prayer Beads
Prayer beads have many applications beyond counting. You may count repetitions of the same chant or lines in a longer piece of liturgy or recite different things along with the sections of your set. Pinch each bead between your fingertips as you say the prayer, and then move to the next bead and the next prayer. Beyond this, you can explore all sorts of possibilities.
Marking time: Many traditions have prayers for the morning, evening, or both. Christianity has the whole set of canonical hours; for Pagan practice, an equivalent might be astrological hours. Most faiths have sets of prayers for specific holidays. You can mark your place with prayers that aren’t said all at once if your chain has a movable marker, such as a tassel on a lark’s head knot.
Being present: Stone beads such as hematite or agate are good for grounding. Use them with chants designed to replenish energy or release an excess of it, making your subtle self more stable. Textured beads help you remain in the present moment; molded or lampworked glass is fantastic, and beads carved from stone or wood also work. Move them through your hands as you walk or work, letting the sensations anchor your attention. Use these with prayers aimed at self-awareness.
Calming yourself: In times of stress, people naturally reach for spiritual comfort. Magic can help soothe jangled emotions too. Gentle stones such as rose quartz or howlite aid the process. Clear quartz or glass are obvious choices if you need clarity. As you pull the stones through your fingers, recite positive affirmations, steps of your safety plan, or a spell for peace. Also, some people find that fiddling with something helps them think better. If you tell curious onlookers that you’re using prayer beads, they will usually leave you alone. For this, a mental stone such as lapis may help, but hard beads click if they touch each other. Wooden or plastic beads are quieter. It helps to use a thick silk cord and big knots. Amber necklaces are often made this way, and they work great as prayer beads if you simply attach a pendant or tassel to the ends.
Connecting with other people: Prayer beads make very popular gifts. When someone is ill or injured, people often pray for them. Some prayer beads are made in detachable sections, a very long chain, or other configurations to make it easy for several people to share them.
Drawing power: Pagans often use objects to direct mystical forces. Prayer beads make a terrific place to store energy. Choose beads that match your desired goal. They build up quite a charge over time. You can also use prayer beads as a focus on your altar.
The components used to create a set of prayer beads influence their performance. Use the best materials you can find and afford for magical artifacts. These work better and last longer. Inferior materials tend to burn through and break faster because they cannot sustain such a high flow of energy. For most purposes, you want natural materials like stone and silk. However, for technomagic, you need synthetic materials such as Austrian crystal and tiger tail wire instead.
Consider what you want to string your beads upon. Silk cord is a popular choice for larger beads if you plan to space them with knots. It’s fairly safe with light, soft beads such as amber, but heavier or sharper ones can wear through it. Some people prefer leather cord, but it doesn’t knot as easily. Leather resists fraying and has a primal look. Beading wire, like tiger tail, consists of fine metal strands twined together and protected with a synthetic coat, like nylon. Some companies make this in bright colors, and it resists wear from heavy beads or sharp edges.
Findings include things that hold the jewelry together. Clasps join the ends of a necklace or bracelet. Yokes have three or more holes to attach different sections, like the Y shape of a rosary. We can reasonably include charms in this category, which are often though not always made of metal. Yokes and charms are among the most important parts in a set of prayer beads, as they usually indicate the theme, such as the Triple Goddess.
You can make prayer beads with all or mostly the same type of bead. For instance, a mala customarily has 108 identical beads separated by knots and one sumaru, or “head bead.” However, most sets use a mixture of types. One popular pattern uses large beads as counters and tiny ones as spacers. Another chooses a different style for each section. For example, the four elements might be represented by clear eggs (air), red pyramids (fire), blue spheres (water), and green cubes (earth). Some distinguish only by color or only by shape. An advantage to using shape is that it allows you to identify the beads with your eyes closed.
Beads come in many different materials. These may include gemstones, metals, wood, rose petal, glass, ceramic, plastic, polymer clay, and even paper. The type of material should suit the theme of your prayer beads. For heavy use, choose sturdy beads with smooth shapes that don’t snag. For occasional use, you can consider more delicate, fancier beads.
Rosaries got their name from their construction. Originally they featured beads made from a paste of rose petals. When warmed by skin contact, these beads gave off a subtle smell of roses. While few beads are made this way today, some people still do it, and this is a terrific choice for crafty people worshipping a goddess who loves roses, such as Venus.
Wooden beads allow you to draw on the energy of their tree. Sandalwood is the most popular for spiritual beads due to its sweet fragrance. Apple, ash, birch, cedar, cherry, hickory, maple, oak, and pine are some other options. Beads made from nuts or seeds also fit here.
Metal makes up not only beads but also most findings, many charms, and yokes. Gold corresponds to masculine, Sun, and fire energy and conveys prosperity. Silver relates to feminine, Moon, and water and supports intuition, communication, and cycles. These two compose most of the high-end jewelry components. Copper corresponds to feminine, Venus, and water and the magic of love, healing, and energy manipulation. Iron matches masculine, Mars, and fire and conveys protection, strength, and grounding. Lead corresponds to masculine, Saturn, and earth and works for grounding and protection against negativity; rarely used pure, it’s a common component of cheap alloys for charms. Tin relates to masculine, Jupiter, and air and bestows luck, business success, and divination. It’s another popular choice for cheap components.
Gemstone beads are enormously popular for Pagan prayer beads due to their power. Common choices include agate (grounding), amber (amplification), amethyst (dreams), aquamarine (peace), carnelian (courage), cinnabar (success), citrine (communication), clear quartz (all-purpose), garnet (love), hematite (protection), howlite (cleansing), jade (longevity), leopard jasper (animal magic), malachite (healing), moss agate (plant magic), obsidian (defense), onyx (cthonic), rose quartz (friendship), rutilated quartz (inspiration), snowflake obsidian (balance), sodalite (meditation), sugilite (enlightenment), sunstone (energy), and tiger’s eye (perception).
Beads of manmade materials such as glass, ceramic, plastic, polymer clay, and paper are less suited for most Pagan purposes because they lack the energy of natural materials. However, glass and ceramic remain among the most popular beads, so they are often used. Including a stone or metal charm provides a repository of power. Plastic, polymer clay, and paper are much less durable than other materials. They may serve for lightly used sets, however. For technomagic, synthetic materials tend to work better than natural ones, although you can’t beat a bismuth crystal as a focus.
Patterns and Themes
Prayer beads employ a wide variety of designs. There are different patterns and shapes, along with different types of jewelry, such as a bracelet or necklace, which allow the beads to be worn for easy use. Prayer beads typically represent a particular ideal or topic as well. These features combine to make each set unique. They also divide into families based on similarities.
One useful distinction comes between branched and unbranched beads. A branched pattern has more than one part, such as a circle with a string of beads hanging down. More complicated ones may use multiple loops or strings fastened together; these help in counting higher numbers. The shape may have special meaning; for example, a Wiccan set might use a pentacle of beads, while a Khemetic set for Hathor could use two extra strings representing her horns. An unbranched pattern may be a simple circle, which customarily has a starting point marked by a special bead or tassel. Rarely, prayer beads come in a straight line, not closed into a circle, which is followed from one end to the other. If it ends in a point, such as a crystal, a line of prayer beads may also serve as a pendulum for dowsing.
The other main distinction comes in the theme. The materials chosen help show what the prayer beads are for. Here are some popular choices:
Ancestors: Such sets may feature individual people, the branches of your family tree, different ethnicities, family religions, and so forth. These often use beads from ancestral locations, culturally significant materials, or representations of personality.
Loved ones: These prayer beads represent living people. Photographic charms are popular, but you can also use charms about their professions or anything else that reminds you of them. These are customarily used to count prayers, ensuring that you cover everyone each time you pray.
Chakras: Usually divided into seven sections, a miniature version can be made with just seven beads. Use the colors of the chakras in order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.
Elements: There are actually different sets of these. Earth, air, fire, and water (and optionally spirit) is the Western set. Wood, fire, earth, metal, and water is the Eastern set. A fey set has been proposed as earth, air, fire, water, life, light, and magic. The Celtic Three Realms fit well here: land, sea, sky. Look around and find one you like.
Goddess: The Divine Feminine may be evoked in the form of one goddess, the three faces of the Triple Goddess, or a set of goddesses who share a common interest. Look for goddess charms at a Pagan store.
God: The Divine Masculine may be evoked as one god, a pair of gods like the Oak King and the Holly King, or a set of gods, such as your personal patrons. God charms are a little harder to find than goddesses, but they exist.
Pantheon: Make a set of prayer beads representing all or a subset of the deities in a particular tradition. God or goddess sets also fall into this category. Genderqueer folks might like to make a set using all the deities of ambiguous or variable sex or gender.
Ideals: Most faiths have a set of recommended virtues or tenets of belief, such as the Nine Noble Virtues of Ásatrú. This style also lends itself well to positive affirmations.
Spellcraft: You can make prayer beads to suit any magical working. All the usual subtopics apply, such as love, home, prosperity, healing, fertility, or other magic. Use the beads to count repetitions of your incantation.
Totems: Evoke your animal power with prayer beads that mimic pawprints, teeth, claws, feathers, the animal’s outline, and so forth. You may focus on a single creature or, since modern complexity means people often have multiple totems, include all of yours on a single strand.
Creating a set of prayer beads is much like creating a necklace or bracelet. At minimum you need beads and something to string them on. If you want to make your set as a circle that can be opened and closed, you will need a clasp. If you want to make a line, those customarily have an anchor at each end, which may be larger beads, metal charms, crystal points, tassels, and so on. If you want to make a branched set, you will need one or more yoke charms, typically a metal emblem with three holes to attach the string. The loose ends usually have an anchor. If you’re using soft string like silk, you can just knot it. Metal won’t knot, and neither will many synthetics. To fasten the ends of those, you need something called a crimp bead that clamps over the looped wire.
Check for functionality. Replace any beads that have chips or findings that don’t work right. Make sure that your string fits through all of the beads and findings. Really, test this stuff before you start, because it sucks to get halfway through and then discover a problem.
Lay out all of your beads and findings in the order you will use them. This is easiest to do on a proper beading board, which has grooves to hold everything steady. They’re affordable at a craft store, and some stores have beading nights when you can borrow their boards. Alternatively, you can find or make something else with grooves or use a piece of nappy fabric to hold everything in place.
Make sure that you have the right number of beads and that they are in the correct places. Check to see if they all reasonably fit together this way and you like the way they look. Now is the time to make changes if you’re not satisfied.
Start at one end and work your way around. Either finish that end (such as by attaching an anchor), or if you’re going to knot both ends later, put a craft clip there so that your beads can’t slide off. String the beads in order. If you’re knotting, take care to put a knot between each pair of beads. If you’re using tiny spacer beads, make sure you use all of them. It’s easy to miss one. When you get to the far end, either finish it or knot the two ends together. Branches are basically made in the same manner; you’re just attaching one end to the main strand with a knot or finding. Trim any extra bit of string and you’re done.
Most people want to consecrate their prayer beads before putting them into use. The process includes cleansing, charging, and dedicating an artifact to its purpose. There are various ways to do this. A simple cleansing might include smudging, which uses air and fire.
One way to charge things involves laying them in sunlight and moonlight for twenty-four hours. For dedication, name the deity or other theme, and then recite the prayers that match the beads. Of course, if your tradition provides another consecration process that you prefer, you can use that instead.