The History of Prayer Beads
To Bead or Knot to Bead: Some Historical Considerations
by Dr. Alexander Roman, noted sociologist and rosary enthusiast
The practice of using counters of various kinds for the purpose of reciting prayers is one that embraces the broad spectrum of historical religions in every age.
The repetitive Asian mantra was always dominant among Buddhist and Hindu monastics that developed circular beads on strings to chant continuously, night and day.
Their beads reflected various colours and substances that had rich, symbolic meaning related to their religious beliefs, including the numbers of beads on any given circlet.
Representations of western pagan religions likewise show worshippers holding what appear to be prayer-beads used for repetitive invocations.
In the beginnings of Christianity, the repetition of a short verse from the Psalms or of the Our Father prayer came into vogue, especially among the monastics of the Thebaid in Egypt.
The Gospel ban against "vain repetitions" did not extend to liturgical prayer and repeated personal prayers that were said slowly and meaningfully within a meditative devotional context. Christ Himself, especially during His Agony in the Garden prior to His Passion, prayed for long hours repeating a short phrase.
Here is an example: "…Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me, yet, not what I want, but what You want . . . And again He went away and prayed, saying the same words." (Mark 14: 36-39).
In the time of St Basil the Great in the fourth century AD, the practice of reciting the Jesus Prayer was predominant among Eastern monastics.
The Jesus Prayer had a number of forms including:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Lord Jesus Christ, by the Mother of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Lord have mercy.
But the first form was the most approved by the Church and is today as well.
St Basil prescribed the saying of the Jesus Prayer in place of reading the Psalms and the Divine Office for those who could not read and also for those who were travelling and who were otherwise impeded from using the liturgical books in their prayer.
He prescribed the saying of the Jesus Prayer 300 times for each of the 20 sections of the Psalms into which the Byzantine Church had divided it.
Basil then ordered the use of a counting device of a woollen, knotted cord of 100 knots, divided every 25 knots with a larger or other knot or bead. In Slavonic, this knotted cord is called "Chotki."
Before his time, Christian monastics used loose beads in bags to count their repeated prayers. St Paul of Thebes had a bag of 300 beads and placed them, one by one, into another bag as he prayed. Interestingly, this is exactly how St Clare of Assisi prayed, centuries later.
Another method involved the use of the monastic staff itself. The top of the staff was carved with notches that one could use to count prayers as one walked or stood in prayer with the staff.
But the knotted cord became, by far, the most popular prayer counter. The East used nine turns of the threading needle to create one knot, a tradition that went back to Pachomius of Egypt.
When St Pachomius prayed on a knotted cord where the knots were made of three turns or wraps, the devil was able to undo them. Pachomius increased the size of his knots until he made them with nine turns of the threading needle - and the devil, much to his dismay, could not undo them!
Beads and other materials were later used for prayer cords and prayer chains that the West has come to know as the "Rosary" or a garden of roses ("rosarium").
In the West, the prayer cord was also popular. When St Dominic received the rosary from the Mother of God, what he received was a knotted cord and Dominicans and other Western monastics wrapped these large circled cords around their wrists as part of their monastic uniform - very much like Orthodox clergy and monastics do today.
The Western use of the prayer cord initially involved the praying of Our Father's in place of the Psalter for those who could not read - one Our Father for each psalm.
This was called the "Pater Noster Psalter" and Christians initially used decorated strands of knots or beads that were not attached at the ends.
So popular this devotion became that the term "pitter patter" came into being, referring to the sound made by those praying the beads as they recited their "Paters" or Our Father's!
Guilds of "Pater Nosterers" came into being that made knotted cords and strands of prayer beads for the faithful. One of the more famous series of guilds was located on the street "Pater Noster Row" near St Paul's Cathedral in London, England.
The Hail Mary was also used and soon the "Rosary" or "Psalter of the Virgin Mary" came into being that consisted in the recitation of 50 or 150 Hail Mary's. Meditation on the mysteries of the lives of Jesus and Mary were added as well.
The Golden Rosary that is still used today in Schrocken in the Vorarlberg Alps is a rosary made up of 63 beads for 63 Hail Mary's in honour of the years the Virgin Mary lived on earth (a tradition of the Brigettine Monks and those who share their rosary). No Our Father beads are included on this rosary, however.
Other bead numberings included 72 beads for the Franciscan Crown Rosary, three decades and even one decade or "Tenners" that were especially popular with me and pilgrims.
Rosary rings and tenners were also popular and resumed their popularity during the Irish Penal times when Catholicism was banned in Ireland.
So important the rosary or the "telling of the beads" became that wealthy nobles often paid to have an individual follow them around while saying the rosary for them at all times.
Such were called "beadsmen" and it became popular as an expression of courtesy to sign one's name in a letter to another "Your beadsman" to indicate that one was willing to undertake the continues prayer of the rosary beads on the other's behalf voluntarily!
Thus did St Thomas More sign his letters to his family and friends.
According to The National Assembly of Hebrew Students, Old-Testament Jews were instructed by the Torah to put
fringe on the four corners of their garments. This was to help them remember to observe all
the commandments. These fringes are tied in special ways and do look like prayer ropes.
While they are not necessarily designed to be used as prayer counters, many devout Jews do
count their prayers on the knots of the fringes.
I suspect these knotted fringes may have evolved into, or at least influenced, the knotted wool
Komvoschonion used by the Greek Orthodox. However, I have not found any documentation to
support this idea. But then again, I haven't spent much time researching it, either!
As far as beaded prayer ropes go, we do know that in the early centuries of the church, some
monastics kept track of their daily prayers by dropping small pebbles into a sack as each prayer
was said. Later, pebbles were strung on a rope. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,
"In many monastic rules, it was enjoined that the lay brothers, who knew no Latin, instead
of the Divine office should say the Lord's Prayer a certain number of times (often amounting
to more than a hundred) per diem. To count these repetitions they made use of pebbles or beads
strung upon a cord, and this apparatus was commonly known as a "pater-noster", a name which it
retained even when such a string of beads was used to count, not Our Fathers, but Hail Marys
in reciting Our Lady's Psalter, or in other words in saying the rosary."
In other words, the Pater Noster is the 'original' Christian prayer rope!
A Pater Noster is a straight rope of beads, NOT brought into a loop like a rosary or chotki.
It has a cross at one end and a tassel at the other. Original Pater Nosters did not have
larger beads spaced throughout like the "Pater beads" on modern rosaries or the "spacer beads"
on modern chotki.
It was the Eastern monastics that introduced the prayer rope to St. Dominic, who altered it to
the ubiquitous Dominican Rosary used by Roman Catholics today.
What is a Chotki?
, or Komvoschonion
, is a set of prayer beads much like a rosary, used by
Orthodox and Eastern Catholics. Instead of "Hail Mary" and "Our Father", the Jesus Prayer
is prayed. Chotkis come in a variety of sizes: 33, 50, 100, 101, 103, 150, and 300 beads. The Greek
is usually made of knotted wool or "rattail", while the Byzantine Ruthenians of
the Carpatho-Rusyn Mountains use strung wooden beads. The chotki ends in either a cross or
a tassel, said to be used to wipe away one's tears.
How to Pray a Chotki
Praying the Chotki can be very simple: Just use a variation of the Jesus Prayer
on each bead.
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner."
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, through the prayers of Your most holy mother, have mercy on me, a poor sinner."
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."
"Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."
Praying the Chotki can also be very elaborate, with an entire liturgy written for this purpose. A condensed version of this liturgy in chaplet form will be included with any Chotki purchased on this site, along with a pamphlet describing the traditional use of the Chotki.
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