The Long History of Safe Strings

Mentally and emotionally navigating the uncharted territory of a global pandemic, unprecedented in our lifetimes, is exhausting. Now and then we need a place to anchor—a safe harbor away from the storm—to moor our ship and reconnect with who we are. We could pause there to mend our sails, repair our lines, polish the brass of our railings, and especially our binnacle—the compass of our ship—so we can once again see our true selves gleaming in its reflection.

Maybe you’ve been faring better, but I was frequently experiencing panic attacks, highlighted by psychosomatic coughing, chest pains and shortness of breath. I was hyper-vigilant… “Is this it? Have I caught the virus?”

I didn’t know how to stop this from recurring each time I had any encounter with the outside world: a grocery delivery, a neighbor approaching too close or petting my dog, my daughter coming home from the post office. “What if?” said the little voice inside, logical or not, safety precautions all in place.

When my friend Suzanne described the Safe String concept to me I was excited about it as an awesome way to memorialize our time in isolation and honor the sacrifices we were all making to keep ourselves and our neighbors safe from a deadly pandemic.

I had no idea that this activity would provide that safe harbor where I could reconnect with my true self and find peace, escaping my storm of anxiety.

When I finished designing the website, I got around to starting my own Safe String, and something very unexpected happened. My panic attacks stopped completely. It’s been a month or so and I have not had a single one.

I kept asking myself the same question:

"What is it that makes threading objects on a string and holding that creation in my hand so unexpectedly soothing and reassuring?"

I decided to find out.

In cultures all over the world, a string of beads held in the hands has provided stress relief, peace, ritual purpose or emotional satisfaction. This goes back thousands of years. A shared human, cultural history, baked into our DNA, could explain the immediate and profound effect that holding my Safe String had on my anxiety – erasing it completely.

Yale has a fantastic timeline of beads, going back to 3000 BCE. The panel of the timeline that they share in the article includes a wide variety of sizes, shapes and materials, invoking the creative minds and skillful hands of our ancient human ancestors. The image is interactive, so inquisitive viewers can learn about each bead.

This website on kompoloi, Greek worry beads, delves into the history of beads held in the hands, in addition to an almost poetic description of the kompoloi experience.

Below are historically and globally well-known strings of beads, their origins and purposes. The use of beads on a string to assist with prayer or bring peace is too ubiquitous and ancient to ignore.

I am convinced that all of this informs a universal, human need for “Safe Strings,” and explains the calming power I experience from making and holding mine.

Mala Beads

All over Asia, Mala beads are used for keeping count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra. Mala beads could be many materials and come in various numbers of beads. One source says they originated in India in 7000 BCE and were originally made from the seeds of a tree that only grew in Java. Wikipedia claims they were first documented in the third century in China, “but are thought to be older.”

Misbahah Beads

Muslim misbahah prayer beads date back to the 7th Century when Fatima bint Muhammad, as she was grieving, created beads out of Ḥamzah ibn ʻAbd al-Muṭṭalib's grave soil, which was the first misbahah. It is believed that before the very first misbahah was made, people counted loose stones through their fingers to aid in counting prayers. Today misbahah beads can be made of wood, plastic, olive seeds, pearls or semi-precious stones, such as onyx, carnelian and amber. In modern culture, the misbahah is also used to reduce stress.

Rosary Beads

In the early days of the Catholic Church, monks embraced the concept of “praying without ceasing,” and began to recite 150 Psalms every day. Later, however, many of the monks in the dark ages could not read. Thus, 150 repetitions of the Our Father replaced the 150 psalms. But how would you know whether you had just finished your 120th or your 125threcitation of Our Father? The monks began using knots on a rope to help them count out their prayers.

Beginning in the 4th century, Eastern Christians also used knotted ropes to count prayers. Today, Eastern Orthodox nuns and monks still use knotted ropes to recite the Jesus Prayer. The intricate knots form the shape of the cross to keep the devil from untying them. Today, beads are often inserted at intervals to help with counting.

In the 13th century, St. Dominic had a vision of the Virgin Mary, which led eventually to the development of the Rosary. Repetitions of the Hail Mary, rather than the Our Father prayer, were assisted by the Rosary, which replaced knots on a rope with beads, and established a tradition still followed by Catholics today.

Worry Beads

Greek Worry Beads, or kompoloi, are passed through the fingers to relieve stress and pass the time. They have no religious significance or ceremonial purpose, though the etymology of the word is derived from “prayer rope” in Greek. They can be made from any type of bead, but amber and coral are preferred over non-organic materials such as metal and minerals. They usually have an odd number or prime number of beads and are designed so that the beads flow freely. The sound that the beads make when hitting each other, being gently tapped or manipulated, is as much a part of the kompoloi experience as the feeling of the soft beads in your hands as they warm from your touch and, if they are amber, the scent as they warm as well. The result of the kompoloi experience is a pervasive sense of wellbeing and peace, in spite of the difficulties of life.

Ancient History

Archeological discoveries that reach further back than the Yale Bead Timeline, reinforce the notion that humans have been stringing objects to wear or hold in their hands as far back as we can trace.

These five thousand-year-old beads from Gerzeh Egypt are lapis, carnelian, agate and gold beads, re-strung in this image. In the burial site where they were discovered, some beads were around the neck of the deceased and some were by the hands at the waist, as if held, not worn as a bracelet.

Check out this 50,000 year old ostrich shell bead from the Denisova cave in Siberia. So lovely and perfect.

In 2004, 75,000-year-old shell beads were found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa.

Until 2006, they were thought to be the oldest man-made beads. That’s when archeologists found three small shell beads of the same species, with similarly located holes drilled for stringing. These were about 100,000 years old. Two came from Skhul Cave on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Israel, the other from the site of Oued Djebbana in Algeria.

Does an embedded, ancient memory of creating and stringing beads activate this calm in me? Is that true for all of us, and will it do the same for you?

Please leave your thoughts below.

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