Studies from around the world have proven the importance of beads, particularly in tribal cultures. In Ethiopia, beads often illustrate wealth or status, are markers of ethnicity, reveal the stage of life of the wearer, and are used for ritual purposes. Throughout Ethiopia, beads are created from a variety of techniques as well as imported, traditionally from traders to the south but now from Europe and China. In the north, artisans are well known for creating metal beads from gold, silver, brass, and iron by either casting or using the lost wax process. The most well known of these beads are the Coptic cross beads, typically made from silver. Decorated with a spiral pattern, these relatively plain beads are used as a sign of faith, often given during baptism and worn during church services. Northern artisans also use wood and clay to create beads or pendants, typically with religious symbols.
In the southern, tribal lands of Ethiopia, glass, stone, bone, ostrich egg, and cowry shell beads are the most common. Body adornment has an important place among pastoral peoples where beads are an expression of prestige and power. The color schemes and styles of necklaces may reveal the region of origin, ethnicity, and social rank of the wearer, as well as family lines since beads are inherited.
To make jewelry, beads are strung on a wire, to create a rigid, round necklace, or on a thread to create looser necklace that is often looped around the neck. Necklaces, bracelets and anklets are common throughout the country with waist bands also being prominent in the south. In addition to jewelry, beads are often added to baskets and calabash containers for decoration.
Ethiopia is well known for its skilled metal-smiths that create beautiful filigree silver and gold jewelry and large metal crosses for church processions. These skilled smiths are also tasked with creating Ethiopian prayer beads which are an important element of the church. These beads, smooth and almost perfectly cylindrical, are made from pure metals such as gold or silver. Ethiopian priests and devotees use the prayer beads much like a Catholic rosary, counting a line, passage, or individual incantation on each bead. Ethiopian Muslims also use the prayer beads, holding up to 66 metal beads, mostly during celebrations, fasting, repentance, and rites of passage .
Evil Eye Beads
Although mostly associated with Middle Eastern countries, Ethiopian culture also contains the superstition of the evil eye. Ethiopian folk culture maintains that those of the tabib class, manual laborers and artisans, possess the power of buda. People of this lower class were often considered envious and malicious due to the evil spirits that they contained within and their jealousy of the wealthy. Legend holds that those that possess buda were able to change into a hyena to attack their victims, raise corpses from the dead to use as their slaves, or create illness in those they disliked. To combat the evil eye, some people wore beads or amulets with scripture written on miniature rolls inside. This jewelry will help to protect the wearer from the gaze of the buda. Although a tradition of Ethiopia culture, many people do not believe in the evil eye anymore and through government support programs the status of artisans and manual laborers is being raised.
Beads of South Omo
Although beads are used throughout the tribal south of Ethiopia, little is known about their use. However, a 2009 study on beads in Konso provides some perspective on the ritual and daily use of beads in South Omo. Beads in the area are typically made from ostrich egg with cowry shell and glass beads being inherited or imported. Inherited beads, called heirloom beads, often came from trade routes through Kenya and may have been used as currency at one point. Beads are popular among women and children in Konso and many have cultural, religious, or symbolic meanings. Many of the pieces of jewelry seen in the area include heirloom beads that are inherited from mother to daughter through generations.
Jewelry and beads also play a symbolic role in the community. Specific types of jewelry and colors of the beads will denote the stage of life of a woman. Women who have children will wear a double stand ostrich egg anklet while grandmothers will wear a single strand anklet. The number of blue beads on the anklet tells others about her children. Men of high ritual status will sometimes wear necklaces with iridescent and dark blue glass beads while young boys will wear white beads to protect them from evil. Beads that are red, the color of meat and blood, have a positive connotation and are considered auspicious. Although most heirloom beads are not for sale, the people of South Omo create jewelry from plastic and glass beads obtained from Addis Ababa to sell to tourists.
For more information and pictures of Ethiopian and Africa beads visit The Bead Chest.
Visitor can find bead work in...