Friday, October 5, 2012

Christian Prayer Beads (Part 1)

Orthodox Prayer Rope
Photo Credit: Mercy Chapel
by Angela Magnotti Andrews

Prehistoric desert monastics were known to carry pebbles in their pockets which they dropped rhythmically in the Egyptian sand as they recited their prayers. These Desert Fathers and Mothers began writing about this practice in the 3rd century A.D. Over time, this devout practice transformed from piles of pebbles to seeds or pebbles strung on cords of rope. This new practice likely evolved in order to save the supplicants some time. These initial prayer cords were straight, not looped as we find them today.

The first circlets of prayer beads were discovered in European graves dating to 782 A.D. Rings made of bone sewn into these leather thongs were turned over as prayers were counted. Though these simple circlets were popularly used by devotees for many centuries, they were not used by all sects of Christianity.

History shows a divergence of practice, with Orthodox believers adopting the use of knotted prayer ropes and Catholics using strings of beads to count their prayers.

Orthodox Practices
The first use of knots to count prayers is difficult to pin down, but legend has it that Saint Anthony, founder of Orthodox monasticism, tied a knot in his leather rope every time he prayed Kyrie, eleison (“O Lord, have mercy.”). It is reported that he would find in the end that Satan had come along and untied all his knots, forcing him to begin again. Determined to thwart his enemy, he began wrapping his knots seven times across the cord, embedding within each knot the sacred sign of the cross. Unable to withstand the powers of this symbolic emblem, the devil was unable to untie his new knots. Kimberly Winston writes that Orthodox believers continue Saint Anthony’s techniques even today. {p. 8}

Jump to Part 2

1. Encylopedia Britannica Online. “Rosary.” Accessed October 20, 2012.
2. Laning, Chris. “Historical Rosary and Paternoster Beads.” Paternoster-Row website, 2007-2009.
3. Museum of Anthropology. University of Missouri. “Prayer Beads: A Cultural Experience.” Copyright 2011. Last updated October 22, 2012.
4. Prayer Beads World (website). “Prayer Beads in Islam.” Copyright 2008. Accessed October 22, 2012.
5. Roman, Alexander. To Bead or Knot to Bead: Some Historical Considerations. As found on Chotkis website on October 22, 2012.
6. Rosarium, The. “About” Accessed October 22, 2012.
7. Rosary Workshop. “Journaling the Bead: A History of the Rosary.” Accessed October 20, 2012.
8. Winston, Kimberly.  Bead One, Pray Too. New York: Moorehouse Publishing, 2008.

*Clip-Art Courtesy of The Graphics Fairy


  1. Hi Honey, Just took the time to read the seven posts on the Christian Bead series. Fascinating! What fun information and so well written! Love the length of the articles. Blessings to you as you write your heart out!

    1. Thank you, Mom! I'm so glad you enjoyed them and learned new things.