"Making, using, and wearing prayer beads creates a tactile communication, linking our senses to universal prayer energy. The first beads were grooved pebbles, bones, and teeth — made over forty thousand years ago — and had talismanic and symbolic connotations from the beginning. For instance, wearing an animal bone or tooth affirmed success in the hunt for food. Beads at this time also served as status symbols. Later in the evolution of human civilization, beads were used as currency. A fossilized shell and bone necklace that is thirty thousand years old, on display at a museum in the Czech Republic, demonstrates that earliest humankind used beads for some of the same reasons people still use them today — for personal adornment, which distinguished oneself from others through unique ornamentation.

"Spiritual associations began with the ancient Egyptians, whose use of beads goes back to 3200 B. C. Calling beads sha sha strongly implies the beads' talismanic significance, since 'sha' is the Egyptian word for luck. Beads officially sanctioned as instruments of prayer have been an important fixture of most spiritual traditions for centuries. And most of the world's inhabitants — nearly two-thirds of the planet's population — pray with beads. Some scholars have theorized that counting prayers naturally evolved from the abacus, the Chinese counting instrument that also uses beads, Others have noted that records of the third-century Desert Mothers and Fathers indicate that they carried in their pockets a specified number of pebbles, which they dropped one by one on the ground as they said each of their prayers.

The Religious Use of Beads

"Traditionally, prayer beads have consisted of strings of similarly sized beads, seeds, knots, or even rose petals and beads made from crushed roses, from which we get the word 'rosary.' The Sanskrit term japa-mala means 'muttering chaplet,' which refers to prayer beads' function as a means of recording the number of prayers muttered. Since counting prayers was initially so important, each religion embracing the use of prayer beads developed its own symbolic structure to follow.

"In addition to helping keep one's place in structured prayers, prayer beads also symbolize the commitment to spiritual life. With their circular form, a string represents the inter-connectedness of all who pray. Each bead counted is an individual prayer or mantra, and the rote repetition of prayers and mantras is meant to facilitate a sole focus on the prayer or mantra itself."