Begleri (Greek: μπεγλέρι) originated in Greece, as an adaptation of traditional Greek worry beads, or "komboloi". Like other rosary-style worry beads, komboloi consist of a string of beads joined into a closed loop, often with a larger ornamental bead or tassels at the end. In Greece, there is a long tradition of flipping the komboloi around and between the fingers, to pass the time and keep the hands busy and the mind at ease. Skilled komboloi players are able to perform tricks and patterns as the beads pass rhythmically between the fingers.
While the structure of the komboloi is well suited to idle play, the cord can become tangled, and the beads can shift around during play, making it difficult to perform sophisticated tricks. In this context, begleri emerged as a much simpler, and ultimately more versatile variation on the theme--a single open strand, with weighted beads at either end. Begleri beads are usually threaded in symmetrical configuration, with equal weighting at either end. Traditional begleri, like komboloi, were often made from semi-precious stones, animal horn, or other valuable materials, and threaded with several beads at either end.
The history of begleri is not well documented, and much of the available information is speculative. Some sources suggest that the open-strand form of begleri may have originated from the Orthodox knotted prayer ropes referred to as "komboschoini", while others suggest that it may have been influenced by Slavic prayer beads, which are sometimes configured as a single strand as well. Others suggest begleri may simply reflect a more streamlined and playable evolution from komboloi. It is interesting to note that the Russian "chotki" or "chetki", although structurally very different from begleri, can be played in many of the same ways.
Historically, begleri, and komboloi more generally, was associated with the Greek mangas (also "magas", "manges" or "rebetes")--described as a countercultural or underworld group, also linked to urban working class subculture, and the rebetiko style of music, popular from the late 19th century onwards. Apparently, the mangas favoured large, noisy komboloi, as a prop to demonstrate their skill and attract attention, by clacking the beads together. The open strand design of begleri made this easier, and the configuration grew in popularity. It is unclear when exactly begleri, as an open stranded variation on komboloia emerged and took on a life of its own.
While begleri is closely linked to the cultural history of Greece, there is also evidence that its development was affected by the political situation in Greece at the time. According to one second generation komboloi seller, begleri with long joining cords were very popular during the 1960s, but were outlawed as potentially dangerous during the military junta of 1967-1974. Subsequently, the shorter version of play became popular, and traditional style begleri continue to be made with only a short section of cord between the beads. However, as modern begleri has developed both inside and outside of Greece, longer cord lengths have again grown in popularity, and this longer version is preferred by the majority of modern players.
In recent years, begleri has grown in popularity outside of Greece, as a skill toy and everyday carry (EDC) item. Its proliferation outside Greece can be traced back at least as far as EDC forum and bulletin board posts in the early 2010s, with members posting creations and sharing basic information online. Closer to the middle of the decade, several makers began producing custom beads in specialty metals popular in the EDC communities.
It was around this time that we at Aroundsquare first caught wind of this incredible toy. Although we certainly weren't the first outside of Greece to hear about begleri and try our hands at designing them, our involvement in begleri marked an inflection point in the development of the game and its surrounding community. Recognizing the incredible potential of this toy, we undertook to reimagine it as a trick-oriented skill toy, building on all the things that already made it great as an EDC item and personal accessory. We sought to produce the first designs oriented towards tricks and performance, while simultaneously documenting tricks and laying the groundwork for the development of more sophisticated play. This reimagining of begleri led to a proliferation of begleri designs and styles, using all manner of modern materials.
Aroundsquare has sincere respect for the history and roots of begleri, and we strive to fully respect this tradition while bringing our very best to it. We regularly consult with Greek players, as well as sellers of komboloi and traditional begleri, in an effort to glean further insight into the origins and development of the game we love. If you have your own knowledge of the history of begleri, we would love to hear from you as we continue our efforts to dig up and document the origin story of this incredible little item.