An ancient bead for a timeless tradition

Job’s tears prove popular for prayer beads

Did you ever make a daisy chain or a necklace of dandelions? Maybe you gave it to your mother or grandmother?

Above is a chaplet of St. Anne (the mother of the Blessed Virgin) made from Job’s tears. (Patricia Kasten | The Compass)

Over the centuries, people have used various natural materials to string rosaries: rose petals, funeral flowers, wooden beads, walnuts and even olive pits.

One type of rosary material that remains popular today and has biblical ties is Job’s tears.

Historically, these rosary beads, made from seeds, have been popular in places like the Cajun regions of Louisiana and in Hawaii.

What we call corn

Job’s tears come from a plant which botanists call Coix lacryma-jobi. It is a form of maize and related to the corn plant sprouting in our Wisconsin farm fields today. (Coix means “corn” in Latin) The plant is a tall grass that produces tear-shaped seeds that dry to a blue-gray, smooth, almost glass-like bead. As the beads age, they darken in color. They also darken with use, as when held in the hand and used for prayer.

This grass is hardy and grows in many places of the world. Variously called David’s tears, Mary’s tears, Christ’s tears (Lacryma Christi) or “teardrops,” the seeds are most often named for Job, the man of many sorrows found in the Old Testament. “My friends scorn me: but mine eye poureth out tears unto God” (Job 16:20. King James Version)

From Job’s distress

Various legends, as quoted by the Missouri Historical Society, say that when Job’s tears fell to the ground, they caused tall grass to sprout.

Besides their connection to Job in the Bible, Job’s tears seem an appropriate material for a rosary because the plant not only provides beads to nourish the soul, but also gives food to feed the body. The plant is native to tropical regions and, according to nature historian W. P. Armstrong, its seeds were used as cereal in first-century China. Their use spread across Asia and, by the 17th century, Job’s tears were planted at the edges of rice fields, most likely to protect the rice from the elements.

Job’s tears — called juzu dama in Japanese (meaning “Buddhist prayer beads,” for their use in much of Asia) — became a food staple in China and Japan, as well as in India.

Tears as drink

Armstrong notes that Job’s tears contain more protein than other cereal grains. It has been used in soups and porridges, as well as for brewing beer in India, and for both tea and alcohol in Japan.

However, most recently in our country, Job’s tears have been used in rosaries or jewelry.

The “bead” of the plant is actually a protective shell that shelters internal flowers and the plant’s actual seeds. When these internal parts dry, they can be removed and the remaining shell can be wired into strings of beads.

Rosary plant

In Louisiana, Job’s tears are often called “the rosary plant.” Its seeds were often shared with family members, so that the next generation could make rosaries from “Grandfather’s plants.” Keagan LeJeune, writing for the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism in 1999, spoke with rosary-maker Diane Babineaux about the Cajun Job’s tears rosary tradition. She saw Babineaux collect “bags of seeds labeled with a name, a place, and a date telling whose yard and family the seeds had come from.”

“The uniqueness of the plant is mirrored in the creation of each rosary,” Le Jeune explained. “Each bead, selected for its size and color, is carefully chosen with the new owner in mind. … Each maker alters their creation to reflect the personality of the receiver.”

She explained that Babineaux chose brown beads for rosaries to be made for men in the family and lighter, pearly-shaded beads for women.

Family rosaries are cherished heirlooms in any culture. In Louisiana, transplanting a family Job’s tears plants to the garden of the next generation remains a tradition. Having a rosary made from plants that grew in an ancestor’s yard — and whose seeds may now grow in your own yard — adds a special dimension to connecting the generations.

 

Sources: Rosary Collectors Guild at rosarycollector.wordpress.com; Ukirt.hawaii.edu; the White River Valley Historical Quarterly (Missouri); palomar.edu/users/warmstrong/plapr99.htm; sowtrueseed.com; herbalpedia.com; and louisianafolklife.org