The Ornate Carvings Hidden In Medieval Prayer Nuts

By Heather Ramsey on Tuesday, May 19, 2015
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“Prayer is not an asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is a daily admission of one’s weakness.” —Mahatma Gandhi

In A Nutshell

Prayer beads are used in some cultures as part of religious rituals. Many of the beads are made of plastic or colored glass today. But in the 16th century, some wealthy Europeans wore prayer nuts, intricately carved boxwood prayer beads that portrayed biblical events. Fragrant substances may have been inserted inside the prayer nuts so that they served as pomanders, too. Even today, these rare prayer nuts are reserved for the wealthy, who can bid for them at auction houses such as Sotheby’s.

The Whole Bushel

Over 67 percent of people worldwide use prayer beads to help them recite prayers or incantations in religious practices. For example, rosary beads help Roman Catholics to count and order the Hail Mary, Our Father, and Glory Be prayers in a ritual recitation that probably began in the Middle Ages in Europe. The first written record of prayer beads for Christians was in Lady Godiva’s will in the 11th century. Her beads were made of precious gems, which she left to a convent. Many of today’s beads are made of plastic or colored glass. They’re meant to remind worshipers of their relationship to the spiritual world.

However, the use of prayer beads isn’t merely a Christian practice. The religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam also use them. It’s believed that the Hindus were the first to use prayer beads in the eighth century. Hindus and Buddhists call their prayer beads “mala.” In Hinduism, the Shaivism branch uses mala with 32 to 108 beads on a string. These rudraksha beads come from seeds of a specific type of Indonesian tree. They symbolize the hard life that believers in the god Siva must follow. The Vishnuism branch of Hinduism uses 108 wooden beads as their mala. They come from tulsi, which is a holy basil plant.

In Buddhism, mala also have 108 beads per strand for monks, but usually only 30 or 40 beads for lay Buddhists. The sacred Bodhi tree is the source of these beads, which symbolize the impurities over which the worshiper must prevail to reach the blissful state of Nirvana. However, Buddhists began to use amber, bone, and other materials for their beads as the religion grew beyond India.

For Muslims, prayer beads are called “subha,” which means “to exalt.” Each set consists of 99 beads corresponding to the attributes of their god, Allah, and one terminal bead for recitation of his name. No one is sure when or how Muslims began to use prayer beads in their religious rituals, but the kind of bead appears to be insignificant.

One of the most elaborate types of prayer bead appeared in the 16th century. At that time, some wealthy Europeans wore prayer nuts, intricately carved boxwood prayer beads that portrayed biblical events such as the Crucifixion or Jesus on his way to Calvary. These prayer nuts were artistic masterpieces carved on both the inside and outside. The depictions were as small as 4 centimeters (1.6 in) in diameter. But in one orb, almost 50 figures were carved within that small area.

Their owners wore prayer nuts on their rosaries or belts. Fragrant substances may have been inserted inside the prayer nuts so they served as pomanders, too. In earlier times, the attractive scents may have helped to cover up the odors of people and places that didn’t smell so good. Some people also believed the fragrances would protect them from disease. However, over time, prayer nuts became so small that they lost their religious symbolism and turned into collectors’ items only. Even today, these rare prayer nuts are reserved for the wealthy, who can bid for them at auction houses such as Sotheby’s.

Show Me The Proof

Sotheby’s: Prayer Nut with the Road to Calvary and the Crucifixion (image gallery)
Museum of Anthropology: Prayer Beads: a cultural experience
Dharma Beads: Christianity
Oddity Central: Prayer Nuts—Intricately Carved Wooden Marvels of a Time Long Passed