The boughs do shake
And the bells do ring,
So merrily comes our harvest in,
Our harvest in, our harvest in,
So merrily comes our harvest in.
“Harvesting” Nursery Rhyme
Bells, like drums, are very old instruments that have played important roles in many aspects of human life. For centuries, they have been part of religious ceremonies, folk music and dancing, and the rhythm of the day. Bells are mentioned in nursery rhymes, poetry, songs, plays and films, folk tales, and other art mediums. They are familiar to people both in the West and in the East, although I will focus here on primarily Germanic lore.
The first bells, archaeology tells us, originated in neolithic China around the 3rd millennium BCE (Falkenhausen 132). In his book Suspended Music, Lothar von Falkenhausen mentions that suspended clapper-bells, called ling in China, were found in “virtually every Bronze Age cemetery in the country,” and were also used on shamans’ belts, horse-and-chariot gear, dog collars, and canopy curtains (ibid. 133-134). As time passed and bell use spread throughout the world, they retained their simultaneous mundane and spiritual/magical values. Within these dual spheres, bells serve two basic functions: 1) marking time and transitions, and 2) interacting with forces. Sometimes, as I’ll discuss below, bells serve both of these functions at the same time.
The English word bell has the following etymology: “common to the Low German dialects, cognate with Middle Low German belle and Dutch bel but not appearing among the other Germanic languages except the Icelandic bjalla which was a loanword from Old English. It is popularly but not certainly related to the former sense of to bell (Old English: bellan, “to roar, to make a loud noise”) which gave rise to bellow” (“Bell”). This connection of bells with the act of “bellowing” is spiritually and magically meaningful: bells can be used as a quieter, more discrete form of roaring — both to draw attention to oneself or one’s needs and to frighten away the things we do not wish to keep with us.
In the Norwegian magical tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” which is related to the better-known “Beauty and the Beast” tale and the Cupid and Psyche myth, the enchanted prince (in the form of a white bear during the day) “gave [the heroine] a silver bell, and told her that when she needed anything she had but to ring this bell, and what she wanted would appear” (Lang 20). The tale doesn’t mention how the bell magic works, but it can be inferred that a helping spirit is attached to it by examining other folklore sources.
Thorpe notes that “In the church of Coenhausen, in the county of Dassel, there is a bell, on which is the following inscription: ‘I call the living, bewail the dead, and drive away thunder.’ The people of the place have, from time immemorial, placed great confidence in this bell, and believe that in a storm, as soon as the bell sounds, the thunder must cease” (118). Not only does this church bell perform the usual church functions of calling in parishioners (see Keeping Time section below) and participating in mourning rituals as a musical “bellowing” of communal grief (see Signaling Transformations section below), but it is also credited with the power of ending storms by silencing thunder — the voice of a storm, the audible quaking of the sky.
The Handbell Society of Australasia, in its page on bell history, notes that bells “were baptised, and once baptised had the power to ward off evil spells and spirits. Bells were hung in doorways to protect visitors and the visited from the evil spirits which always wait around the door awaiting the chance to slip inside. A visitor would ring the bell to drive the spirits away then pass inside – which is the likely origin of the present day doorbell!” The belief in spirits lurking in doorways is possibly a pan-Germanic belief. Claude Lecouteux, in his excellent book The Tradition of Household Spirits, devotes an entire chapter on the lore of doorways and windows. He explains that “At one time the door was the sole opening of the house; windows made their appearance later” and that “The house…forms a protective cocoon, one that is sacred and magical” (49, 48). The openings, then, are spiritual and magical points of vulnerability, places in which malevolent spirits may enter if they are not well-warded. Lecouteux goes on to explain that “in the Upper Palatinate [of Germany], it is said that the recently deceased linger in the door hinges every Saturday, and in Bohemia [modern-day Czech Republic], that souls in torment live in doors. This explains a curious piece of advice that we come across in eighteenth-century Germany: ‘You should not slam a door because souls are performing penitence there'” (49-50).
Another type of bell — the wind chime — can be found in many houses, tinkling at the brush of wind as it sweeps past. Among the Romans, they were called tintinnabulum and were believed to ward away evil spirits. In Japanese folklore as well, wind chimes and similar instruments are believed to frighten away evil spirits and bring good luck (Gordenker). Thus, it can be said that the use of bells and windchimes for apotropaic purposes is near-universal.
Warnings and Alarms
In older times, bells were used on anything that required an alarm or warning of approach, such as sleighs and fire trucks (Poe). Bells are still hung on boats, docks, and trains for this purpose. And, again, door bells exist to alert inhabitants of visitors. Dinner bells, too, were once a fixture of daily life that alerted family members that dinner was ready.
For modern practitioners, bells can be used as warnings as well. I’ve read on Tumblr of some witches enchanting bells to ring at the approach of negative energies; I would imagine that they could also be used for positive warnings.
Bells proliferate in English-language nursery rhymes and poetry, often to signal or symbolize changes and shifts. Shakespeare twice mentions bells as a form of signaling or honoring death. In The Tempest, he wrote: “Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell: / Hark! Now I hear them – Ding, dong, bell” (I.ii); there is an almost identical rhyme in The Merchant of Venice. The context of both of these passages is death or an ending: knell as a noun means “
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontory were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….”
Andrews). It’s important to note that the bells were rung in this fashion at the point of transition — at the point of death, not after, which created quite a bit of controversy as Christianity sought to dominate older spiritual beliefs.The dead bell was rung for two reasons. One, “to drive away spirits who stood at the foot of a bed and about the house ready to seize a person’s soul as he died” (Handbell Society of Australasia). It was also rung, as noted in “The Passing Bell” chapter of the book Old Church Lore, “to bespeak the prayers of all good Christians for a soul just departing” (
There was also an official order for bell-ringing after death: “to ringe no more, but one shorte peale, and one before the buriall, and another shorte peale after the buriall” (ibid.). This seems less about frightening away spirits and more like closing a book, marking the beginning and ending of a final process. Then again, it could be both, as part of the tradition of preventing the generation of revenants.
Mourning bells also serve as an alarm, a notice to the surrounding population, that a death is occurring. As William Andrews noted in “The Passing Bell”:
“From the number of strokes being formerly regulated according to circumstances, the hearers might determine the sex and social condition of the dying or dead person. Thus the bell was tolled twice for a woman and thrice for a man. If for a clergyman, as many times as he had orders, and, at the conclusion, a peal on all the bells to distinguish the quality of the person for whom the people are to put up their prayers. In the North of England, are yet rung nine knells for a man, six for a woman, and three for a child.”
Of course, death is not the only occasion for bell-ringing. It is also used in mass ritual, which W.H. Auden noted in his poem “Whitsunday in Kirschstetten“: “An altar-bell makes a noise / as the Body of the Second Adam / is shown…” The Liturgy Office of England and Wales elaborates: “A little before the Consecration, when appropriate, a server rings a bell as a signal to the faithful. According to local custom, the server also rings the bell as the priest shows the host and then the chalice” (“The General Instruction of the Roman Missal”). In essence, a bell is rung to signify the transformation of bread to body and wine to blood.
Bell-ringing is also common at weddings as the newlyweds leave the wedding site. For example, at my sister-in-law’s wedding, guests were given small silver bells to ring as they departed. This likely has a similar purpose to that above: to frighten away any evil spirits that might want to harm the couple as they depart in wedded bliss, as well as to formally signal their social, legal, and spiritual transformations that matrimony brings.
Keeping Time & Marking Seasons
Benjamin Thorpe mentions in Northern Mythology a bell-pond in Lower Saxony, Germany, called the Opferteich (“sacrificial pond”) that “from the hour of twelve till one, a bell is heard tolling from its depth” (118). According to local lore in the town of Moringen in which this pond can be found, the Knights Templar forged and hung the bell in their church, planning to ring it for the first time on Christmas Eve, but had forgotten to consecrate and baptize it. This left the bell open to any and all spiritual powers. After the first stroke, it was lifted from its place in the tower by “a miraculous power” and dropped into the depths of the pond (ibid.). It is said that it rises every Christmas Eve, tolls once, and then sinks back down again. Clearly, a spirit claimed the bell, and this spirit must be connected in some way to the Yuletide (note: I use this as an umbrella term to include both Christian and pagan/heathen observances).
Yuletide celebrations often focus on imagery of light and warmth — things that are found lacking in the depths of winter when the celebration takes place in the northern hemisphere. There is the blessed Yule log, the star atop the tree, colored lights, and candlelight. Bells, too, play a prominent role in Yuletide celebrations. There are countless Christmas songs that mention or feature sleigh bells, hand bells, or large church bells. Bells are hung from doors, on the tree, over the mantel, etc. And, not long after Christmas (but still during the traditional Yuletide season), bells are rung at the cusp of the new year. It’s well known that scholars believe many Yule traditions are intended to beckon the return of warmth and sunlight — the small light of the hearth fire and candles, of the star imagery and Christmas lights, are reminders of the great, warm and life-giving light of summer. This could have an apotropaic effect as well — light, being so representative of warmth, fertility, vigor and health due to its connection with summer, may be used in this colder, darker time to stave off the forces of darkness, illness, and death that seem (to our ancestors, at least) to hunt us at every turn in the winter. So, too, it can be argued that bells, like light, are used to beckon the summer sun or frighten off the dangers of winter.
The Morris dance is an interesting English tradition with an uncertain history. On record, it seems to have appeared out of nowhere as an element of court celebrations in the 15th century. Current scholarship suggests that the word “morris” originated from a variation on the term Moorish, and that the dance developed from continental European folk dances that were inspired (at least in name) by North African culture (“Morris dance”). Certainly, stylistic similarities abound and likely have proto-Indo-European roots. In morris dance, the dancers often wear white clothing (consistently a color linked in Germanic and Slavic cultures with purity and holiness) with bells on their legs. Often a procession of fantastic, liminal characters occurs around and among the dancing: an androgynous figure (the nexus of binary genders), an animal-man (the nexus of animals and mankind, or wilderness and civilization), a fool (the nexus of maturity and innocence), a youthful hunter (the nexus of life and death), etc.
These dances are virtual staples at Whitsuntide, a holiday celebrated on the seventh Sunday after the Feast of the Pentecost, right around the beginning of summer. With the prevailing imagery of the dance revolving around fertility (the union of male and female) and virility (stags and horses), it’s not such a leap to draw a connection between the Morris dance and ancient solar veneration to bring forward fertility of the soil and the community. The bells, then, can be interpreted as tools with which to chase away the cold weather or evil spirits associated with death, illness, blight, etc., or to beckon forward the warm fruitfulness of summer. Either way, they help to mark the transition from one season to another.
Spirits of Community
Every day, bells are used to keep time, letting the people of a community know when the day officially begins and ends as well as other significant times. The popular English nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” works on this notion, characterizing different areas of London based on the events that occur around the church bells when they ring. It’s founded on the notion that church bells embody the spirit of their district, village, town, etc., providing a predictable rhythm throughout the day and (literally) setting a unique tone for their environs. They call people to wake, to work and to church, to lunch, to supper, and to bed. In a sense, bells work as the voices of the spirits of their communities (for further evidence, consider the legend of the Opferteich above in this light: that the pre-Christian spirit of that community used the bell to communicate with its inhabitants).
Bells in Modern Magical Practice
It should be clear by now that bells have a multitude of potential uses in magical and spiritual practice. They can be rung at significant moments in ritual, including at the beginning and end, and at moments when we symbolically effect a change or transformation. They can be blessed to bring forth positive forces and things we need. We can hang them around our homes as apotropaic charms. They can be used as omens in divination and prophecy, and for contacting spirits. I’m sure there are other uses that I haven’t mentioned, and you’re welcome to note them in comments below.
Bells are versatile, subtle, elegant tools with a long and important history. As with most common objects, we often forget their significance to us and the long path our ancestors have walked with them in hand. But we can bring them back, use the everyday objects we see around us in our magic, making the mundane sacred and bringing sacredness into the mundane so that we are never without it.
Bibliography (Unlinked Sources)
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Pantheon, 1972.
Lang, Andrew. “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” The Blue Fairy Book. Dover, 1969. pp. 19-29.
Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Trans. Jon E. Graham. Inner Traditions, 2013.