Generally, when beads are used outside of personal adornment, they are utilized in prayer. Buddhists have their 'mala' beads to keep count of their mantra or names of a deity. The long necklaces that are worn by Buddhist monks have 108 beads; 108 being an auspicious number bearing special religious significance. The shorter mala beads can also number 54, 27 or 18 and are worn around the wrist. The Buddhist derived their mala beads from Hindus, so Hindu prayer garlands are also called mala and number 108. Similarly, the Hindu mala is used to keep count when chanting mantras or names of a deity in a practice known as 'japa.'
In Greek or Cypriot culture, however, beads can be used to simply pass the time, and perform no religious or ceremonial function whatsoever. Perhaps it is why they are called 'worry beads' or 'komboloi.' As their names suggest, the komboloi have no religious purpose although their origins date back to the time when monks in Mount Athos made prayer ropes (or 'komboskini' from which the name komboloi is derived).
Interestingly, komboloi are also prevalent among Middle Eastern men and some women. There, 'masbaha' can either be prayer beads like Catholic rosaries, or worry beads that are answers to problems with what to do with an empty hand.
The cultural obsession with 'komboloi' can be likened to popping the bubble wrap.The mindless repetition is relaxing, and the gentle popping sounds, soothing. In like manner, the komboloi are often rolled against each other to create soft clicking sounds that are distracting enough to help people reduce smoking. Perhaps as a manifestation of the Greek easy-going attitude, the komboloi are often playfully flipped to create louder sounds that help ease tension, or let go of worries (hence the name).
Superstitious Greeks, especially husbands on their weddng night, are also thought to do a ritual involving worry beads to ensure sexual fulfilment on that night and on their honeymoon thereafter. Superstition is also one reason why komboloi are sometimes used as amulets. Finally, status-conscious Greeks use them to broadcast their wealth as their worry beads are often made of expensive materials like silver or amber.
Komboloi are often made of odd-numbered beads, usually a number one more than a multiple of four. Some worry beads even come in prime numbers. The most popular komboloi, however, have 33 beads and made of wood beads. Wood beads and other organic material are preferred as they are more pleasant to handle than metals and are thought to absorb nervous energy.