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.
Several months ago, I decided to write down and formalize my own cycle of holidays. While I’ve been inspired in some ways by some of the Wiccan and Celtic holidays, not all of them have meaning for me and I don’t feel comfortable celebrating them. I realized that I need a cycle of holidays that doesn’t feel tacked onto my life; they need to be a natural part of the rhythm of my life, highlighting what I value and find reflected within my practices, community and environment.
Some of these are holidays that I’ve celebrated since I was a kid that have a slightly new meaning for me now; others, I started celebrating later because they fill a void by honoring something significant to me and give me satisfaction and meaning at certain points of the year.
December 20-January 1
Twelve Days of Yule
The Twelve Days stems from die Zwolften, originating in Germany, and takes place during the deepest part of winter. In Christian tradition, the Twelve Days starts on Christmas Eve, but it makes more sense (for many reasons) for me to start celebrating on the solstice. The Yuletide begins the day after Thanksgiving for us, but the Twelve Days are the core of it.
We decorate a Yule tree and deck the house with evergreens, nutcrackers, Weinachtspyramide, snow scenes, etc. We build a fire in the hearth and read ghost stories before it. We give gifts and set out cookies and milk for Father Christmas. It’s a cozy, hearth-based holiday that celebrates the warmth of home and loved ones within the darkest part of the year.
It’s easier for me to cross the hedge in the fall and winter months, and this is the time in many cultures where the divisions between this world and the Otherworld are less firm, so this is a time particularly dedicated to spirit work and hedge crossing as well.
This is also a time to honor Frau Holle, goddess of traditional women’s crafts, the domestic sphere, and winter (especially winter weather). I want to do more to honor her from now on, as she’s been a huge influence in my life for a couple of years and I’ve been moving into deeper work with her. I’ll probably reserve the 24th and 25th for Father Christmas, focus the solstice and the New Year on Frau Holle, and do a blend or personal work on the other days.
Speaking of the New Year, this is also a time of endings and beginnings – the hinge of the annual cycle. It just seems natural to me that the beginning of the year would start, like all things, in darkness. So the New Year is still at the tail end of the Twelve Days for me (rather than on Samhain, per the Celtic calendar).
This is inspired by Imbolc, Candlemas, and Groundhog Day. The term “first stirrings” denotes the various ways that the imminent birth of spring begins taking root at this time – the soon-to-be-born lambs are stirring in the ewe’s womb, and the ewes begin lactating to prepare for the birth; the bulbs of the first spring flowers are beginning to stir in the ground; hibernating animals are coming to the end of their long “sleep.” It’s a time for the first movements of unseen things that will eventually come to fruition. As such, it’s a great time for I Ching divination, as doing so looks ahead at approaching changes.
As I mentioned above, the darker time of the year means shadow and spirit work for me (looking deeply inward and increasing interaction with the Otherworld), so on this day I wrap up that work until autumn comes again. Therefore, it’s also a time for a return to the light with the wisdom that came from that descent.
I love the tradition of putting candles in the windows on the Eve as a beckoning for the spirit of Spring. A good hearth fire also plays a part, as February is the coldest month where I live. We have a candlelit dinner with cheese fondue, freshly baked bread, and Grannysmith apples. During the day, I always plan to make candles but never get around to it – maybe I will this time around.
Shaking the Dust
This is when spring emerges where I live. I like the idea of making this a time for spring cleaning – dusting off the dregs of winter and darkness and emerging fresh and clean. So this is my holiday for self-purification as well as freshening up my home. Because it’s a lengthy process to deep-clean a whole house, it begins the week before the equinox, which serves as the culmination of the process.
Brooms are hugely symbolic for me, so I start with a broom blessing. Then I spend each consecutive day deep-cleaning, cleansing and dedicating each space in the house for its purpose. Then I cleanse myself.
It is significant that this is a time of balance of the dark and the light, which is a hugely important concept in Taoism. The cleansing, therefore, is not about shrugging off or suppressing “darkness” in favor of the “light.” This is a time to center myself, to dwell in the hinge of my existence in which I am neither my shadow nor my higher self and remember the root of my existence, which is limitless and inexplicable. I shake off the dust of preconceptions and socially determined morality in order to remember what is constant and true.
Late March to Early April
Growing up, Easter was a secular holiday for my family, and I’ve always enjoyed it as such and want to share it with my son. It’s such a great day for kids.
To me, this is basically Children’s Day, a day to celebrate children, youth and renewal. So we do the traditional Easter basket stuffed with fruits and chocolates left at the front door by the Easter Bunny (the spirit of Spring, in my mind), coloring eggs, brunch (I really like fruit crepes), and an Easter egg hunt. This year, we took a trip to the local botanical gardens.
April 30-May 1
Walpurgisnacht & May Day
Walpurgisnacht is a primal celebration of the coming summer with strong heathen overtones — bonfires are lit, wild dancing and feasting occurs in celebration, and witches are believed to congregate on mountain tops for their sabbaths. May Day, in contrast, is essentially a springtime Valentine’s Day — professions and gifts of love are made and given, picnics are had, a Maibaum (may pole) is erected and ribbons wound about it as a symbol of fertility and growth. I just recently started celebrating this holiday in an effort to reconnect with my German heritage and memories of living in Germany as a child as well as my entrance into heathenry. I’d like to make it more of a communal celebration in the future, but this year, it was more private. I poured libations to wights, household spirits, deities who had presented themselves to me recently, and my ancestors. My husband and I built a fire in our backyard, drank a couple of beers, and just enjoyed each other’s company.
For me, the height of summer is about extroversion, being out in the world, interacting with others, celebrating life and connecting with our bodies. It means reconnecting with wild nature – communicating with the trees, the grasses and herbs and flowers, the animals that run about at this time, and building relationships with and learning from them. Where winter is a time to honor the hearth and inner fires, Midsummer is a time to honor the outer fires of community bonds and our connections with nature as human animals.
This isn’t a holiday that I’ve always celebrated, but I really connect with it. It’d be a great time to host a garden party with friends and family, food and drink. The fireflies are out at this time, so ideally it would start in the evening and extend into the night for firefly viewing as well as moon viewing if it’s clear out. We’d have a fire in our fire bowl, play music, dance and imbibe.
First Monday (and the preceding weekend) of September
This is the beginning of the apple harvest in the Southeast, and there are some pretty major apple festivals held in various towns at this time. This is also Labor Day weekend, which celebrates the hard work done thus far over the year. It’s a time to honor those who do the often thankless jobs that keep society afloat as well as enjoy the fruits of our own labor. Crafts are a big thing at these festivals, and I honor that aspect of my practice during this time as well.
We start out the holiday by visiting an apple festival, which includes drinking locally made cider, eating treats like apple pie and apple ice cream, and buying fresh apples from local orchards. We also go camping, where we reconnect with the earth, eat campfire food, and spend uninterrupted (i.e. no computers, no phone usage, no work) time together. We rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor, whatever they may be.
First few weeks of October
As I mentioned before, I feel very connected to my German heritage, and this is a big holiday in Bavaria, where I spent about half of my childhood. While it originated as a celebration in honor of Prince Ludwig’s wedding in 1810, it has evolved into a cultural and harvest festival centered around beer.
Beer is sacred to me. As Wikipedia claims:
Beer is one of the world’s oldest prepared beverages, possibly dating back to the early Neolithic or 9500 BC, when cereal was first farmed, and is recorded in the written history ofancient Iraq and ancient Egypt. Archaeologists speculate that beer was instrumental in the formation of civilizations.
Beer is humble and earthy while also highly complex (at least, the good beers are). Beers embody the souls of the places and people that created them – the grains, the spices and/or herbs, the water, the hops. What you drink when you drink beer is the fruit of the earth, clean water, and the wisdom, tastes and hard work of the brewers. Drinking beers aligned with the seasons can very much be a part of any practice.
Beer also has magical and spiritual value. With alcohol being a psychoactive substance, beer can sometimes help to facilitate trance states by its gently sedative effect. (Note: you don’t have to get drunk in order for this to work, and being blackout drunk is sloppy, dangerous, and will just make you pass out instead of leading you anywhere – always drink responsibly, and only if you’re of legal age to do so). In addition, brewed alcoholic drinks are associated with wisdom and the power of prophecy in many, many cultures across the world. So (curbing this digression) I honor beer and the art of brewing at this time.
Beer also brings people together. Beer tents and beer gardens are a big thing at Oktoberfests (and, really, any German Volksfests), where strangers and friends gather together at large tables to drink beer together, and there are lots of stalls for crafts and agricultural shows, and fair rides, and there’s dancing and traditional music. It’s a time to reconnect with the community, enjoy good food and drink, and have a good time. In the States, it’s a chance for all German Americans (regardless of the state of origin of their ancestors) to celebrate their cultural heritage, and I really love it because it brings back well-loved memories for me and reconnects me to some of my ancestors.
This is a night of spirits and shadows. We watch scary (especially supernatural horror) movies, host or attend a costume party, trick-or-treat with our son, emulate and even celebrate the things that frighten us. It’s a time to be both scared and scary. It’s become my Witch’s Night – a night of power to celebrate my participation in mystery. I like to break out the ouija board and other divination/spirit communication methods on this night.
Last year, I set up an altar on the back porch for ancestors and other spirits coming by. This year, I want to make a point to honor the spirits I’ve been working with as well.
This is also the time that I’ll begin my annual descent into shadow work – either by working through personal issues or just acknowledging that darker side in order to maintain balance. I also reestablish home and personal protection spells for my household for the next year.
Last Thursday of November
This has always been about food and family for me – gathering together around a big table, eating and laughing and being thankful for what we have. It’s a good time to honor ancestors, too. And, of course, post-dinner nature walks. This is the last harvest festival and the doorway to the Yuletide.