Prayer beads are commonly associated with the middle Ages (A.D. 600-1400) and Roman Catholicism. Their use, however, is universal and predates the Christian era. Christianity, in fact, was the last of the major religions to employ prayer beads in an important ritualistic role. Even today, the religions of nearly two-thirds of the world's population utilize some form of prayer beads.
The word bead is derived from the Anglo-Saxon bidden ("to pray") and bede ("prayer"). During the medieval period, when jewelry was discouraged by the church, rosaries were acceptable as convenient portable devices for counting prayers. Their purpose was to assist the worshiper in accurately repeating from memory the correct number of prayers and incantations required by his faith.
The rosary is only one of several ancient ways used to count prayers. The earliest means involved counting on fingers or shifting pebbles from one pile to another as the prayers were recited. These unwieldy methods were replaced by tying knots on a cord: the strings of prayer beads probably evolved from strings of knots. The Greek Orthodox Church still employs a knotted rosary the kombologion.
The use of beads to count prayers appears to have originated with the Hindus in India. Sandstone sculptures of the Sunga and Kushan periods (185 B.C.-A.D. 320) portray Hindu sages holding rosaries. It is possible, however, they were used even earlier by the Hindu cult of Siva or, according to legend, by Sakyamuni (also known as Siddhartha Gautama, c. 563-483 B.c.), the founder of Buddhism. One account places the rosary's origin in the sixth century B.C., when Sakyamuni paid a visit to King Vaidurya, a recent Buddhist convert. Later, Buddhists in Tibet, China, and Japan used rosaries, as did Muslim Persians and Arabs.
Christians may have first learned about the concept of the rosary from the Arabs, either as a result of the Crusaders' experiences in the Holy Land or through its introduction into Spain by eighth-century Muslim invaders. More likely, the Christian rosary evolved independently in Western Europe (first, possibly in Ireland) as the church developed more sophisticated rituals and its practitioners had an increasing number of prayers to count. Many church members were illiterate; using beads as a counting device insured that each prayer was repeated the prescribed number of times.
Although the number, arrangement, and materials of prayer beads are different with each religion, there are shared concepts that link the beads of the major faiths. Symbolic associations are frequently made between flowers (particularly the rose) and gardens and prayer beads. The name for prayer beads in Tibet and India is the Sanskrit word mala: it means “garden,” "garland of flowers,”: and "necklace of beads.” The oldest name for Hindu prayer beads is japamala:"muttering chaplet.” But japamala also means “rose chaplet,” presumably because the beads were made of rolled petals from the flower rose of Sharon (Hibiscus Syracuse). The Roman Catholic rosary has a rich historical relationship with rose garlands and rose gardens.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Christian rosary is the history of its name, derived from rosarium ("rose garden"). Since classical times, the rose has been universally beloved. Its form, fragrance, and color symbolize beauty, mystery, love, and perfection. Aphrodite wore rose perfume and a crown of roses, while the Muses wore garlands of roses and thyme. The ancient Romans associated roses with success and festivity: victorious warriors returning from battle were greeted with roses. In Christianity, the red rose symbolizes Christ's blood and the purity of the Virgin Mary Originating in the concept of the Paradise Gardens of Persia (with obvious biblical roots in the Old Testament's Garden of Eden), the cloistered rose garden became an essential part of medieval architecture; a secluded, high walled courtyard filled with fragrant roses. The rose garden was an ideal place for meditation and prayer. Collections of medieval prayers and hymns were bound into books called Rosaria ("flower gardens").
By the middle of the fifteenth century, rose gardens, rose garlands, and rosaries were associated with the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child in paintings and in the illustrations of rosary books. Religious paintings of the period are often set in rose gardens, under rose arbors, or near a rosebush. Angels and the Christ Child are seen wearing or holding rosaries.
It is unclear at what point the word meaning “a garden of roses" was transformed into “a string of beads used to count prayers.” Nonetheless, the spiritual identity of roses was extended to beads, which came to symbolize a permanent garden of prayer called the rosary.
While the quantities of beads used in rosaries differ from religion to religion (and even among various sects of a single faith), multiples of three predominate the iconography of rosaries, reflecting the significance of the number in prayers and even fundamental doc-trines—the Buddhist triad (Buddha, the doctrine, and the community), for example, or the Roman Catholic Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). The Buddhist rosary, and the Hindu rosary from which it was derived, have 108 beads; the Muslim, 99; the Roman Catholic, 150. In addition to their practical purpose, rosaries have intellectual, social, psychological, and aesthetic significance. Highly sensual, inviting continual handling, they were sometimes an ascetic's only material possession. Healing powers have been attributed to rosaries, as well as the power to exorcise evil spirits and ward off lightning. Certain materials, such as agate, were almost universally talismanic; their use as religious beads provided double protection. Coral beads were associated with the prevention of ailments of the blood. In many medieval paintings, the Christ Child is shown wearing or holding a coral rosary.
Beginning in ancient times, prayers have been recited in cycles. Countless ceremonies exist in which a circle is used to join people together, to create a sense of place, and to “protect what is within; to keep out what is dangerous or to concentrate force.” There are also ageless associations with the cycles of life, as well as annual, seasonal, and daily cycles. Symbolizing cycles of prayer, rosaries form closed circlets or chaplets. Whether the circle is large or small, it usually has either a terminal bead or tassel marking the beginning and end of the prayer cycle. Markers of a different shape or size occur at intervals among the counting beads, providing the user with a place to pause and rest.
The rosary's circular form has different levels of religious and psychological meanings. In meditation, the circle enters the mind in contemplation: "One uses prayer beads, ringing one-self in.” Meditation involves establishing a space, a circle, and focusing attention within it, thus concentrating energy. Writing about introspection, Saint Augustine admonished the faithful: "God is a circle whose center is everywhere." He prescribed “[returning] within yourself, for it is in the inward man that truth dwells.” The solitary, thoughtful manipulation of prayer beads enhances this contemplative state of mind, and the repetitious handling of the beads helps the worshiper concentrate on spiritual needs. As prayers are said, a closed circuit is created: words are spoken, fingers move, and ears listen.
Visitors to present-day Greece, Turkey, or the Middle East see men and women holding "worry beads." At business meetings in Saudi Arabia, businessmen discuss transactions involving millions of dollars while fingering strings of beads. If questioned, people will deny the beads have any special meaning. However, since there are usually thirty-three beads on the string with a vase-shaped retaining bead ending in a tassel, they are probably derived from both Christian and Islamic prayer beads. Worry beads, like prayer beads, are made in a great many materials—plastic, glass, olive pits, wood, amber, ivory, and semiprecious stones—catering to various owners' wealth and status. Their primary function as a release for tension provides a security that may, in fact, be subconsciously spiritual.