Inspiring Enchantment & Illumination with Tarot & Intuitive Guidance

Pagan Prayer Beads – An Acknowledgment

Donald Engstrom-Reese's Daily Prayer Beads

The preserving shrine is nature and what is preserved in it.
The preserving shrine is memory and what is preserved in it.

– Irish Brehon law

My magical heart-sister, Isar Danu, was the first who ever told me about Reclaiming Witchcamps back in the mid-90s, when she started attending them. Officially called “Summer Intensives,” they were (and are) retreats for Reclaiming tradition Witches and other Pagans who are seeking ways to connect in community to each other, as well as to spend a week or so in total immersion, in magical sacred space.

It sounded terrific, but it was not until 2003 that I finally was able to attend. It was one of the best choices I have ever made and the gifts I have received from those experiences have continued to be treasures in my life ever since.

The basic format is that in the mornings, we split into smaller groups and choose a workshop-style path, which we commit to for the entire week. Later during the day, there are other optional activities, recreation, and affinity groups. Every night, there is a big, camp-wide ritual that centers on the story/myth/theme for that year’s camp.  Juicy, wonderful, deep stuff.

In my first year, I made the momentous decision to sign up for a path called, Practical Spell Work, taught by Donald Engstrom (his married name now is Engstrom-Reese). I could spend several days telling stories about Donald, a brilliant, funny, scary-powerful priestess of Beauty, Balance and Delight. When Donald prays to our Gods and Goddesses, the hairs on your neck will stand up!

In our path, which (thankfully!) turned out to be NOTHING like any sort of spell recipe junk you find on the mass market, one of our activities was to make Pagan Prayer Beads. Donald had been making and working with his prayer beads for many years when he taught this workshop, and credits his friend Helen for teaching it to him in the early ‘90s.

(In 2007, a book by this name, by John Michael Greer appeared on the market. I do not know if their paths ever crossed, or if his book acknowledges Donald (or Helen), but I would hope so. If not, I will concede that adaptations of widespread and ancient ideas transcend belonging to any original creator.)

At any rate,  I am going into this much detail about the lineage because I want to make sure you know that I did not dream this up myself. I give full acknowledgment and honor to dearest Donald, and I hope that you will become curious about this amazing man, and visit his website and blog.

In the coming days, I will be writing a lot about the intention and practice of working with prayer beads and how you can make your own. And together we will journey with each of my own beads, as we gather to give thanks in this blessed harvest season.

For today, I leave you with these thoughts from Donald (slightly edited):

Some of the earliest artifacts found and interpreted as holding sacred function are bead-like objects, including everything from sculptural medallions to small rounds made of stone, bone or clay. Some of us have known of the current use of sacred beads through our connections to Buddhism (the Japa mala) and Christianity (the Rosary).

Yet, many of us have no living relationship with the powers and pleasures of prayer beads…This [seems to me] like an idea that holds great potential.  It seems like a spiritual technique that embraces the sensual beauty, pleasure and power of a truly integrated life, weaving together spirit, energy and matter.

Indeed, for the past seven years, I have found it to be so. I hope it will for each of you, too.

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  • August 15, 2010, 12:19 pm carey

    Oh my, I am excited for this! I’ve never heard of Donald Engstrom…but woah! so glad to have heard of him now. Thank you, Beth for sharing all of this!

  • August 15, 2010, 3:20 pm Anastasia Blue

    I would love to go on one of those retreats. It just sounds amazing.

    I am looking forward to your upcoming posts.



  • August 15, 2010, 3:39 pm kendraro

    I have prayerbeads that I made a long time ago, I got the idea from the Pagan Book of Living and Dying by Starhawk (unless I’m remembering wrong) I’d loooove to go to witchcamp too!

  • August 15, 2010, 7:50 pm John Michael Greer

    Beth, thanks for referencing “Pagan Prayer Beads”! To put credit where credit is due, however, that book was mostly written by my coauthor, Clare Vaughn, a fellow Druid and longtime beader; her name came first on the manuscript, though the publisher insisted on switching things around to cash in on my reputation.

    Neither Clare nor I have met Donald Engstrom-Reese or his friend Helen, as it happens — not too surprising, since we’re Druids rather than Wiccans, and haven’t had any dealings worth mentioning with the Reclaiming movement (I’ve read a couple of Starhawk’s books, though it’s been a while, and Clare doesn’t even have that much contact.) We got the idea for the book while attending a Druid event in Ohio in 2004 or 2005, where several people in the vendors area were selling pagan prayer beads they’d made. Since the oldest known strands of prayer beads belong to a polytheist faith, it seemed like a very natural idea!

    It’s probably worth mentioning, though, that our book doesn’t claim pagan prayer beads as our idea. When Clare and I did some research after that event, we found that there were a lot of people who wanted to make prayer strands as an expression of their pagan faiths, but didn’t know how. That inspired us to write a how-to book to walk people through the process of designing and making their own prayer beads.

    I’ve heard from a lot of people who’ve found the book useful, so I feel the book has done what we’d hoped it would do. Of course there are people teaching workshops on pagan prayer beads, and that’s great, but not everybody has the chance to go to workshops or study with a teacher; it’s the ones who don’t, and need to learn from books, that we wanted to reach.

  • August 16, 2010, 7:15 am Rena

    for all those who’d “love to go to a summer intensive” but can’t imagine it can be done, why not include a link to ?
    I’m sorry it took me so long to look into it and realize it was possilbe for me!
    and I still hope that one of these years I’ll be past this passage, and will be able to return to more of them… seeing glimmers of dawn in the distance…

  • August 16, 2010, 9:51 am Beth

    Wow! Lots to respond to here..
    First, Kendraro – as a matter of fact, Donald is the source of that part of the Pagan Book of Living and Dying. Starhawk mentions at the beginning that she learned about them from him, and in fact, Donald is the contributor of Chapter 3, describing his practice in detail.

    Welcome, John (or do people call you John Michael?)! Thanks so much for responding here! I am honored. I very much admire your work, and was glad to see your book when it was published, since this is such a great idea.

    So I hope I did not come off as sounding dubious in any way. Even if you have never met (and as you say, why would you?) I know there is LOTS of cross-pollination between our tribes, especially in “Paganistan,” where Donald, et al, mostly hang out (ex. this past weekend’s Harvest Fest).

    So please let me apologize for any misunderstandings. And I most warmly invite you to add your perspective and views as we make this journey, working with the beads, and most of all, celebrating the harvest season with a gratitude practice. Thanks very much for making clear the genesis of your book and for enriching our discussions. And especially, thank you for your body of work, which indeed, is how so many come into this wisdom!

    Let’s see.. Rena – I did in fact include a link, at the very top of the post, but here it is again. Yes, Witchcamps are amazing. I wasted so many years freaking out about the fee, until dearest Isar pointed out that it’s just a matter of socking away a little bit every month. Very, very doable, and absolutely the best bargain for feeding one’s spirit that you could ever find!

    Now, on to today’s Card of the Week!

  • August 16, 2010, 11:13 am Arie

    I would love to meet Donald and all the wonderful reclaiming folks in the US and attend every year a WC and a EAT.
    I attended some in Europe, but now finances are not so well, as I have to add the flight costs on top.
    I agree WCs are a life changing experience.
    We did succeed though in having some workshops with a famous reclaiming teacher from the US. Also we had someone from the UK here before him.
    I wish I had WINGS. 🙂
    UK, Germany, Spain, USA :-))))

  • August 16, 2010, 1:49 pm Donald Engstrom-Reese

    What fun to read all of this. It is so exciting to see so much interest in Pagan Prayer Beads. And yes, it is so true, no one own this art-form/technology. I suspect it emerged from the Earth along with our ancestors. One of the aspects about the PPBs, is that no one but the individual or the community who work with their prayer beads can make a set for themselves, either the poem/prayer nor the finish string of wonder.
    May we all dare to dwell in beauty, balance and delight.

  • August 16, 2010, 1:52 pm Donald Engstrom-Reese

    Oops, to be clear. I meant to write:

    One of the aspects about the PPBs that I really cherish, is that no one but the individual or the community who work with their prayer beads can make a set for them, neither the poem/prayer nor the finish string of wonder. Each set is unique to the individual or community and their prayer beads.

  • August 16, 2010, 6:36 pm Maggie

    For years I used the rosary for my prayers and intentions. I have a beautiful crystal rosary that my grandmother and mother used for their prayers and intentions. As my spiritual practice changed and became inclusive of many diverse and different cultural practices, new beads would be a wonderful way to honor my practice and to use along side my ancestors’ beads. Thank you Beth for leading us on this journey. It will be exciting to hear from others on the journey.

  • August 16, 2010, 9:35 pm Elizabeth

    I’m so excited to follow this thread. I’ve had the opportunity to do prayer bead various times with Donald for community and individually. And they indeed retain the intent and energy for years. I still have them. I appreciate seeing the comments about ancestors and Earth connection. I wonder how the sense of collecting and gathering in ingrained into us. I always picked up rocks, sticks, acorns, leaves and created and kept clusters of things as a kid (well still do now, but with knowledge of the power of the items). I think it is similar magic with prayer beads but just on a rudimentary level. But why? Ancestors were ‘marking’ seasons and events, but I think there is more to it. Oh, well. something to ponder as yet unexplained in nature.
    ‘Lovin’ those beads’

  • August 17, 2010, 3:31 am Waverly

    I love it that you tied together so many things that interest me from pagan beads (brought up Roman Catholic and love rosaries), WC (also my doorway into the pagan world, plus I had a similar experience in a crafts track at BC Witch Camp with the amazing Raven whose voice could wake mountains) and the writings of John Michael Greer. I knew his name was familiar but it took me a while to figure out why. I remember an article he wrote many years ago for Gnosis magazine that tied together the Boy Scouts and Native American spiritual practices, early English pagan traditions and the custom of calling the four directions. Check out his article about Victorian sex magic in the Red Room. Fascinating!

  • August 17, 2010, 9:49 am Arie

    I used the Japa mala as part of a self awareness exercise in the past. It included attention splitting and reapeating a long verse correctly at each stone. This would lead to a trance state.
    To make my own prayer beds seems very exciting.
    But I believe it would be better to attend a workshop on the subject as I’m two left handed. 🙂
    I believe it would require making tiny holes in small breakable objects, if I get this correct. 🙂