Making Ancestor Prayer Beads: A Samhain Craft Project

In my last post, “Honor for the Dead,” I mentioned that this year as part of our family Samhain celebration, we crafted prayer bead bracelets to help us connect more deeply with our ancestors. A bunch of you have asked for more details on how to make prayer beads of your own, so I put together this handy-dandy step-by-step tutorial.

Ancestor Prayer Beads Samhain Craft

Important Note: For our ritual, we incorporated a bit of knot magic to lend power to the prayer beads — if you’re making these for yourself, I definitely recommend including this step. However, it’s completely optional! (If you’re making a set of prayer beads as a gift for someone, or just as a piece of jewelry to wear, you might want to skip it.)

Okay, let’s get started!

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The first thing you’ll need to do is gather together your supplies.

You Will Need:

  • 12 large stone skull beads (4 beads in each color: red, black and white)
  • 1 small stone skull bead (color of your choosing)
  • Decorative spacer beads (color and kind of your choosing)
  • 12″ or longer cord
  • Scissors
  • Optional: Bead threader, glue, journal

For our prayer beads, we used elastic cord (as pictured above) so that the finished piece would be wearable as a bracelet, but you can also use hemp or another cord of your choosing. Just be sure to test its thickness before you begin — the cord will need to be thin enough that you can still thread it through your smallest skull bead when it’s doubled-up (see Step 5 below). In this tutorial, I used a single cord of black-dyed hemp to make the knots easier to see.

Step 1: Setting and Sanctifying the Space

In order to focus attention and clarify intention for this craft, begin by setting and sanctifying the space. You can do this however you like, whether informally or how you normally would for a more formal ritual or magical working. (It’s not necessary to do a complete circle casting, especially if you’re leading the project in a large group or a group that includes children, as there may be times when participants will need to come and go.) Setting the space can be done with decorations — for instance, candles around the edge of the room that are lit one by one at the beginning — and/or a brief invocation of the four elements/directions. Sanctify the space by taking a few moments of silent prayer and reflection during which you bring to mind those ancestors who have influenced you and invite them to be present during your work to provide guidance and inspiration.

Step 2: Meeting the Ancestors, Stringing the Cord

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If you are leading a group, now is the time to pass around each set of skull beads — red, black and white — to represent the Ancestors of Blood, Land and Spirit. As you do, spend some time in conversation with the group about each type of ancestor and how you relate to them. Feel free to name specific ancestors who come to mind during this time, and invite others to share their thoughts and experiences.

If you’re doing this project by yourself, spend some time in silent meditation on what the ancestors mean to you, and how you can bring them more fully into your life. You might want to print out and read aloud the excerpt from my “Honor for the Dead” post, or write down some of your own thoughts in a journal for later reflection.

Take as much time as you need to gather and arrange your beads. When you are ready, begin to string your beads onto your cord along with any decorative or spacer beads you want to include. If you’re making a prayer bead bracelet, be sure to include enough spacer beads that the finished bracelet will fit snugly but comfortably around your wrist without being over­-stretched. Use a bead threader if necessary — this can be especially helpful if you are doubling up an elastic cord to make a sturdier bracelet when worn.

As you string your beads, meditate on each bead’s meaning. The Ancestors of Blood, Land and Spirit offer their own gifts that correspond to the four elements; name these gifts aloud as you string four of each color bead onto your cord. Here are some examples that you might use:

    The four red beads represent the gifts of Blood:

  • earth — e.g. our physical bodies,
  • air — e.g. our minds and intellect,
  • fire — e.g. our passions and creativity, and
  • water — e.g. our love for each other and for ourselves, and the very blood that flows through our veins.
    The four white beads represent the gifts of Spirit:

  • water — e.g. our sources of inspiration and emotion,
  • earth — e.g. the traditions and structures that support us,
  • air — e.g. the insights of collective knowledge and learning, and
  • fire — e.g. the creativity and courage to walk our personal spiritual paths in harmony with our wider communities.
    The four black beads represent the gifts of the Land:

  • air — e.g. the insight of travel and exploration,
  • fire — e.g. the wisdom to be found in diversity,
  • water — e.g. the generosity of the land and its peoples, and
  • earth — e.g. the roots that connect us to the land, nourishing our souls and deepening our sense of home.

By the end of this step, you should have twelve large skull beads (and any additional spacer beads) strung onto an unknotted cord, as well as one remaining small skull bead. This final bead represents yourself as a bridge between the past and the future, your ancestors and your descendants. Do not string the bead or knot the cord at this time — now the real magic begins!

Step 3: Raising Energy

If you have cast a formal magical circle, now is the time to raise energy to charge and consecrate your prayer beads as you prepare for the final bit of knot magic that will complete your work. This can be done in a variety of ways — including breath-work, visualization, chanting and drumming — use whatever technique works best for you. When you feel your intention focused and your energy at its peak, move on to the next step.

Step 4: Connecting to the Past

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Just as the beads represent the blessings of the ancestors, the cord represents the connections that weave these blessings together and connect us all to one another.

Pull the cord tight to make a loop (but do not over stretch the cord if it is elastic) and tie it in a square knot three times. Each knot represents one of the Three Realms. As you tie the cord three times, say:

I honor the ancestors who came before me.
By earth, sky and sea, I honor them.

Step 5: Taking Your Place in the Circle

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String the final skull bead (representing yourself) onto the cord above this knot, passing both ends of the cord through the bead. As you do so, say:

I take my place in the circle of life and death.

Step 6: Looking to the Future

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Above the last skull bead, knot the cord again three times, saying:

I honor the descendants who will come after me.
By earth, sky and sea, I honor them.

Step 7: Completing the Circle

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Knot the cord one last time, this time with an overhand knot (hold both ends of the cord together, make a loop and pass the ends of the cord through the loop, pulling tight so that the knot rests up against the previous knots close to the last bead). As you make this last knot, say:

With this knot, I complete the circle.
So may it be.

Step 8: Meditation and Blessing

After completing your knot magic, spend some time in silent meditation on the blessings and lessons that the ancestors impart, including any individual ancestors that have special meaning for you. Feel all the love and support of your beloved dead infusing every bead, every knot in your prayer beads until they are warm and glowing with that energy. When you have finished, speak aloud a simple request that these prayer beads serve as a reminder of all the blessings that the ancestors share with you.

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Step 9: Opening the Space

Conclude your ritual and open the space in your usual way, whether formally or informally. Thanking the ancestors for their presence and undo any actions that you used to establish the space at the beginning of the work (for instance, blowing out any candles that were lit, bidding farewell to the four directions, etc.)

Step 10: Post-Ritual Follow-Up

After the end of the ritual, go back and trim any excess cord off of your prayer beads and add any more knots you feel you need to make sure they are secure. If you plan to wear your prayer beads as a bracelet or piece of jewelry, you may choose to further strengthen the knots of your cord with a small dab of non­-water­-soluble glue. Allow the glue to dry for several hours before wearing.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

5 Comments

  1. Lea
    Oct 29, 2014

    I have an art group that meets in my studio every two weeks and I think I will ask them if they would like to do this. Even if they don’t, I certainly will. Love this!

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Oct 29, 2014

      Awesome! If you do (either with your group, or just yourself), send me some pics! I’d love to see where you go with it. :)

      • Lea
        Oct 29, 2014

        I definitely will!

  2. Kevin
    Oct 30, 2014

    I love this idea! I’ve already been making bracelets for my family but this is perfect for Samhain. I shared your idea with my Druid Grove and I’m sure they will love it as well.

    Thank you,

    Kevin

    • Alison Leigh Lilly
      Oct 30, 2014

      Cool! :) This is a great all-ages project — it’s easy enough that you can really focus on visualization and raising energy while you do it, but the end result is also beautiful and wearable.

      My only advice if you’re going to do it with a group is to allow extra time for the beading and knot-tying and have someone whose main job is to help anyone having trouble, especially if you have really young kids or older folks whose eyes might not be as good as they used to. :) When we did it with my family, my husband and I traded off — one of us would lead a guided meditation or discussion to keep the energy of the group focused, while the other would be available for anyone who needed help. That way no one felt like they were holding up the whole group or waiting around bored if they finished early.

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