Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Beans and seeds: II

As I've already mentioned in Bean Beads a few days ago, beans are certainly not the only type of seeds that have been used in rosaries. At least a couple of additional types seem worthy of mention here.

One is the teardrop-shaped pod produced by a grass named "Job's Tears" (botanically, Coix lacryma-jobi). This is usually referred to as a "seed," but it's actually a very hard, woody pod that forms around the tiny flowers of the grass. The seeds inside are high in protein, mild tasting and quite nutritious, and Job's Tears was historically grown in India and the Far East as a cereal grain (sometimes called aday). It's actually rather closely related to sweet corn (Zea mays).


The pods are naturally smooth and shiny, whitish gray, yellow, purple or brown, and they seem to take dyes fairly well. Conveniently for those who want to use them as beads, they already have a natural hole through the center. The teardrop shape is probably the reason for the name, and a lot of people appreciate the "tears" symbolism.


As with the other seeds I've mentioned, it's very difficult to know just when or where such seeds were first used to make rosaries. It's entirely likely that they were used first for jewelry and adopted for use as prayer beads just as many other jewelry materials have been.


Quite a different notable -- or perhaps I should say notorious! -- seed used in rosaries is the rosary pea or rosary bean (Abrus precatorius). The seeds are small, roundish, very hard, and brilliantly red with a black spot.

The reason this plant is so notorious is that the seeds contain a compound called abrin, one of the most toxic poisons in nature. The pea or bean family (Fabaceae), to which the rosary pea belongs, actually contains quite a few toxic plants with compounds of this general type, but this one is unusually potent.

Fortunately for all concerned, the poison is only released if the very hard seeds are chewed and swallowed, but a single seed could easily kill an adult human. The poison is also of a singlularly nasty type: rather like the poison of "death angel" mushrooms, it can bring active cell metabolism to a complete stop, causing the collapse of major body systems. There is not much that can be done to counteract this.

The rosary pea is native to India, and the Wayne's Word botanical website notes that, "Because of their remarkably uniform weight of 1/10th of a gram, seeds of Abrus precatorius were used by goldsmiths of East Asia as standard weights for weighing gold and silver. In fact, the famous Koh-i-noor diamond of India, now one of the British crown jewels, was reportedly weighed using seeds of Abrus precatorius."

The attractive red color means that rosary peas sometimes turn up as part of the seed necklaces commonly sold to tourists in tropical climates, and a warning about rosary peas used to be part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's standard information for returning tourists -- I don't know if it still is.

Personally, I wouldn't recommend using them. Hopefully we are all too sensible to chew on our rosaries, but there are so many other possible materials with far less risk attached.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Bean beads

...from Bombay to Bethlehem*

I strongly suspect that the item I saw for sale a few days ago on eBay, labeled "Rosary Beans", was a typo.

But maybe not.

As naturally formed "beads," various seeds, beans, and fruit pits have been used over the centuries for just about anything beads can be used for, including rosaries. (There's an interesting website on bean and seed beads from a botanist's point of view here.)

Obviously, not all types of beans are suitable as beads. In order to make a good rosary bead, a bean or seed needs to be pleasantly shaped, firm, dry, and not prone to spoilage or splitting -- which means ordinary edible beans of the type used for soup are far from ideal, since they are specially selected to have thin skins and split easily.

I don't think anyone knows how old the Hindu rosary is: it almost certainly pre-dates the Christian era, and the Western rosary may have been derived from it (or may have been an independent invention -- no one really knows). But from at least the 11th century, worshippers of Shiva have used rosaries (malas) of Rudraksha seeds. These are the hard, somewhat prickly fruit-pits from Elaeocarpus or "blue marble tree", a tropical tree distantly related to cacao and cotton.

I don't have a lot of firm dates for when or how other seeds came to be used in rosaries, especially since surviving rosaries that appear in collections without documentation are very difficult to date. Some of the most suitable seeds are not native to the area I focus on (Western Europe), and not likely to have been commonly imported until at least the early Renaissance.

Seeds that have, like the rudraksha, some sort of sacred associations are especially attractive for use in rosaries. The "bean" rosary that first attracted my attention to this topic, in fact, is made from seeds referred to as "spina Christi," supposedly from the tree used to make Christ's crown of thorns.


These are flattish, very hard, bean-like seeds, probably from Zizyphus spina-christi, a small thorny tree common in Palestine. I'm still searching for better photos of these seeds to see if that's really what they are: the one really good photo I've found so far of the tree and its seeds shows seeds that aren't as flat or as smooth as the seeds used to make the rosary appear to be.


Another popular rosary material from Palestine is olive pits, especially those associated with the Mount of Olives. I have a very nice modern rosary whose Ave (Hail Mary) beads are olive pits, and whose marker beads are mother-of-pearl. The joining piece is a Jerusalem cross. I've also seen rosaries that are described as being made from olive pits, but whose beads are smooth -- either the olive pits have been polished, if that's possible, or else this is a mistake for beads made from olive wood from Palestine, which are also quite common. Here's a closeup of my "olive pits" rosary.


Last, at least for the moment, is a type of seed rosary that I've seen several of over the years, without really knowing what they were or where they came from. The first one I saw that had any kind of description or distinguishing mark was this one, which includes a medal of Pope John XXIII.

John XXIII rosary

I've since seen other examples, and I became intrigued enough to bid on one at eBay, but owning one hasn't gotten me any closer to knowing what type of seeds these are. I feel particularly embarrassed about this as I have a degree in botany -- though I haven't used it in many years.


I can, however, say confidently that this is something in the "umbellifer" family of plants (its old name, now call the Apiaceae). This is the family parsley and Queen Anne's lace are in, and their seeds tend to have lengthwise stripes, which are actually little tubes full of aromatic oils. Unfortunately many of the seeds look very similar and are hard to identify. And this is also the family that contains poison hemlock, so nibbling on unknown umbellifers is seldom a good idea!

The one tenuous scrap of information I actually have about these seeds is that (or so I'm told) these are special rosaries made from seeds gathered from the Pope's summer "vacation home" garden. That would explain why they're not very common. I will suspend belief, however, until I see more evidence.

(Part 2)


*this title was inspired by a cookbook, Bean Banquets from Boston to Bombay. Quite a good cookbook, too.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

This rosary is shot

In the Department of Odd, I ran across this rosary for sale on eBay some months ago. The seller calls it an "Old Rare Handmade Shot Bead Penance Monks Bavaria Rosary St Michael the Slayer," and says that it's made from "lead shot hand smelted into round beads approximately 10-12mm in diameter."


I probably don't need to point out that eBay is very much a "caveat emptor" (i.e. buyer, beware!) kind of market, and descriptions of anything on eBay should always be taken with several grains of salt. In particular, something said to be "old" or "rare" generally just means that the seller has never seen anything like it and hopes it will be worth money :).

Without seeing this in person, I can't tell exactly how it's made or from what materials, but from the fairly good photos, it certainly does appear to be hand-made, and the round beads look like they could indeed be lead shot. I'm not sure it would have been necessary to melt and re-cast them: it seems to me that boring holes through them would have been easier.


The construction is a simple, common type, with each bead threaded onto a short piece of wire, which is bent into loops at each end. The marker beads (for the Our Fathers) have extra-long wires which are bent double at each end, so that the bead, which is the same size as all the others, is held in the center of the longer wire. This creates a space on either side of these beads. The medal of St. Michael (slaying the devil, a typical pose) looks like a commercial medal that has had new holes bored in it to use as a connector. The reverse of the medal is probably a Guardian Angel (angel shown watching over a child).

The cross is made from more of the round beads, threaded onto two longer pieces of wire, one for the vertical and the other for the crosspiece. The ends are bent over to secure them. As is common with this construction, it's a bit crooked, since the only thing holding the two wires at a right angle is the center bead, which looks as if it has been bored through both horizontally and vertically. It's hard to make a cross that looks good out of two wires and figure out how to join them securely at a right angle, and this has clearly been knocked around a little since it was made. Commercial crosses don't have this problem, since they're cast in one piece.


Finally, the seller says, "This rosary was worn made and worn by a monk and is a penance rosary made to guard against evil to remind him of God's message to take the correct way in his life. Its origin is Austria 1800+s."

That's the kind of story that always makes me skeptical. I don't know how it came into the seller's hands: if it was directly from the person who made it, all of the parts of the story could certainly be true. Otherwise it's nearly impossible to do more than guess when and where it was made, which could have been any century from the 15th to the 21st.

People tend to assume, however, that any large rosary must have been made for a monk or nun to wear on his or her belt -- and that certainly isn't always the case. Large rosaries can also be made as personal keepsakes, or as showpieces, designed to be hung on a wall or provide religious atmosphere to a room, as is often the case with the very large wooden rosaries I discussed a while back in Up Against the Wall. I also think that large rosaries suggest "extra" piety to a lot of people's minds, and so tend to be associated with priests or other "professionally" religious people.

As for the "penance" aspect, well, since it must weigh quite a bit, if someone did wear it around all the time, there might have been some penance involved. But I suspect that's the seller's way of trying to explain a rather awkward object. Catholic artifacts whose purpose isn't obvious seem to attract speculation that they must be "penitential."

I have to share a funny story about one of the rosaries from my own collection. One of the early pieces I made is a 15-decade rosary of rosewood beads, strung on black hemp. I wanted an example of a 15-decade rosary that might have been made by someone of humble origin, and it was also an excuse to display a little one-inch Franciscan "tau" cross (T-shaped) that someone brought me from Assisi years ago. There are also two very worn old medals attached, so worn that you can barely tell what they are, adding to the "old and poor" appearance -- though I shouldn't have cleaned them with metal polish, because you can now read the very un-medieval word "Chicago" on the back of one of them.

When I wear this with medieval clothing, it's usually looped and pinned over one shoulder and across my chest, and tucked into a belt at the other side, so it's rather obvious. Every so often, some would-be-witty good ol' boy with more muscle than brains spots it and says something like, "Gosh, what did YOU do, looks like you have to pray lots extra, hardy har har."

I have a dear friend who is a past mistress of the snappy comeback (I'm not) and she happened to be around for one of these occasions. Afterwards I asked her what I should have said. She told me I should just smile sweetly at the person and say, "Well, but of COURSE. I have to pray for YOU."