Should your eyes rest on a gentleman in Athens of any age who is in a state of deep conversation, heavy thinking, sitting, waiting, or watching, (common activities for anyone in Greece) it’s likely that he’s complementing the activity with a long string of beads and a graceful flip of the wrist.
Men in Athens carry their secular “Kombolois” or worry beads, like men of dozens of other countries in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Turkey, the occupying country that introduced Greeks to the habit. The difference?
“Turks use it for prayer. Greeks use it for pleasure.”
This was the answer of my resident authorities on the matter, Maria Dimitrelis and her daughter, Cristina. Their family-run amber shop on Voulis Street is an emporium of komboloi, old and new, Greek and foreign, rich amber and affordable plastic. Walking in and seeing them stacked on hooks along the walls and cases, draped lovingly in the window over hunks of amber, it can make anyone want to know more on the subject.
FACTS OF THE KOMBOLOI
According to the expert, Maria:
- The word “komboloi” comes from a combination of two Greek words, “Kombos,” the knot in the thread, and “Logos” the word, and also the name of the bead.
- The tradition started in India.
Here my expert delighted in pulling out antique specimens of the various countries, showing how the number of beads tells you everything about who the beads are intended for. See their website for examples by clicking here.
- Prayer beads of the Turkish have 33 beads and each one represents a prayer.
- The Greek komboloi might have 21, 17, or another odd number.
- The “Pappas” or “father” bead is the biggest, used to determine where to hold the beads for optimal spinning.
- Greeks started adopting the practice of the worry beads sometime before the Greek Revolution of 1821.
Kombolois will also have a lot of space between the beads; the nature of playing with the beads is best when there’s room for them to slide around and clack against one another. The rhythm and repetitive motion is therapeutic and breaks the chain of negative thinking the way singing does, which is another activity that might accompany any handling of the komboloi.
It’s true that the tradition is carried on more with men. There is a certain air of machismo when a man is clicking his komboloi from the street corner or in the back of a room, watching all that pass with a menacing squint accentuated by a thin mustache. It’s associated with “Mangas,” the tough guys holding up the style of those of the 1920’s who crowded in hash houses, listening to melancholy bazouki music known as “Rembetika.” Still, it’s not so unusual to see a woman using it to bide her time while sitting in an airport or riding the bus.
If you’re looking for a genuine komboloi from Athens, steer clear of the cheap ones sold in the chintzy souvenir stations which are usually plastic and made in China. The traditional komboloi is made of amber; the properties of the stone are believed to be good for your health and have a beautiful, resin-like aroma.
Some say that everyone has a stone specific to their person (think of Harry Potter choosing his wand.) Lapis, opal, turquoise, onyx, camel bone, and wood are all common materials for kombolois as well as other semi precious materials. According to the material and workmanship, a good komboloi can range from €20-€600, the latter being worthy of an heirloom or to decorate one’s home.
Should you stop by the Attica Center of Worry Beads, or “To Kekribari (Greek for amber)” Maria and her family will be delighted to help you find yours and even show you how to play with it like an Athenian.
All photographs were provided by Cristina Dimitrelis ~Video by Paige Moore
If you happen to have any additional interesting facts about the history and practice of the komboloi please feel free to add them by way of a comment.