My second installment for week four of the Pagan Experience is all about the bells, the bells…! Check out the link or “Tools of the Trade” tab for more of my musings on other pagan tools.
The tolling of bells is often associated with religious contexts, the dimension of sound is an important one to our mental state at any time but particularly when we are seeking religious experiences. There are many different faiths and traditions that use bells in their ceremonies and each one has their own different take on the use of the bell however there seems to be two underlying themes which are relevant to the use of bells in a pagan context.
Listen to Me!
Firstly bells are rung as a “call to attention”. Christian bells would be rung before church services to call the faithful to prayer. Equally, church bells would be rung at times of crisis (as was the case in WW2 Britain when Home Guard members were on alert for church bells ringing to signal the start of the Nazi invasion) or to alert the population to national events both joyful and sad (such as royal births, marriages and deaths). The bells summoned the people to the church (or another assigned location) where the news that the bells imparted would be shared. The peel, or lack thereof, combined with the timing would give the listener some idea of what was trying to be imparted and would draw people to seek out the news.
On a more spiritual level the ringing of the bell has the action of focusing the mind ahead of devotions, particularly when the bells are rung in rhythm or sequence. In Hinduism the ghanta bell is rung in a particular rhythm ahead of the Arti ceremony so that the maangalik naad (meaning auspicious sound) can help the faithful focus their minds after long days filled with mundane stresses. The sound and the process of focusing on it provides both a spiritual boost as well as creating a relaxing calm which allows the listener to focus more clearly on spiritual matters.
It is not just the attention of the faithful that the bells attract. Bells are rung to alert divine forces, be they spirits or the Gods themselves, to the presence and intent of the faithful. We can see this evidences in the Japanese Shinto where bells play their part in the process of prayer. After an offering of money is made the bell, or Suzu is rung to call the attention of the Gods and Ancestors to the shrine before the prayer of two deep bows, followed by a wish from the heart and two hand claps and finally one deep bow.
The next theme of use is bells as a “cleansing” action. The intoning of the bell dispels negative influences and draws positive influences in. Again, this is something that is most recognisable in Eastern Traditions. In Feng Shui and Tibettan tradition Sheng (hand bells) and Tingsha (small cymbals) are used to cleanse areas of negativity whilst at the same time attracting positive forces. Singing bowls are also used for the same purpose. The bell or bowl is struck and allowed to carry its note (in the case of the singing bowl the sound is extended and its volume increased by drawing the mallet around the edge of the rim) until total silence before the process is repeated again.
By extension bells have also been used to drive away evil spirits and ghosts. In the Catholic High Mass, as the host is raised, an altar boy rings a set of four bells. In part this draws attention to the mystery of the Eucharist as it unfolds at the high altar but they also drives away negative spirits and forces as this holy act takes place. British folk tradition contains a number of different stories about church bless and blessed bless driving the fay folk away. In Christianity Bells also retain a connection with the real of spirits and ghosts through the use of the so called “Dead Bell” , also known as the Mort or Passing Bell. This bell was rung for the repose of the dead (usually specifically for wealthy benefactors of individual churches) to ensure that their spirits went to rest as the body was laid to rest. Depending on a person’s station the bell may have been hung by the grave and tolled during the service or carried in procession with the body as is seen in the Bayeux Tapestry in the funereally procession of Edward the Confessor.
Pagans and Bells
Let’s bring this back around to Paganism, because we could go into massive depth about individual religions and their use of bells.
Bells are usually associated with the element of Air (given that the sound we hear vibrates across the air that makes a certain amount of sense). They are usually considered to be a feminine energy as the high light sound of bells are considered to represent the voice of the Goddess. There might be other reasons for viewing which lay in eastern society. Thomas Inman (1820–1876) suggests in his book Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism that the use of bells worked its way into religion from cultures which use bells to indicate young woman’s virginity and availability on the marriage market. Small bells would adorn the clothing and tinkle pleasantly as the young woman walked. Once (in Inman’s own words) ‘”the flower” had been plucked’ the bells would be removed and the woman’s presumably married status took precedence. Regardless of how the association is transmitted to us the view that the bell is a feminine energy is contrary to the Christian view that they represent the voice of God (and therefore masculine energies). As such the bell is either located in the same area of the altar as other representations of air, or is itself a representation of air, or with the Goddess.
As discussed above those pagans who do use bells in their practice will often use them to either gain the attention of a divine source, create a sound to which they can enter a contemplative or meditative state or as a way of cleaning energies or confronting spirits. In most cases the bell is rung ahead of casting a circle or just before an invocation or prayer. Little brass bells are widely available on the internet, as are Tibettan cymbals, but sometimes you can spot cool little oddities in thrift and charity shops, like my little deer antler handled brass bell which adores my Pan altar.
From a personal perspective I have used my bells mainly to draw the attention of divine ahead of invocation, though I have used them to cleanse energy and draw the attention of genii loci/spirits. Sometimes I have had the intention to use the bell and been drawn not to for one reason or another often because I have felt that the attention of the deity was already upon me and the action was unnecessary. Equally, not all spirits and deities like bells. This isn’t just about energy and energy cleansing, they just don’t like bells so using one would be a sure fire way to put them off. A good example would be Pan; Pan is not a great fan of bells, particularly around midday when he is usually taking a nap. Don’t invoke him around this time and *defiantly* don’t use bells to do it. Later in the evening and I’ve found that the use of the bell adds a dimension to my ritual.
It is important to know your God’s, don’t assume that because you’ve read everything above this post that you can invoke any God or Goddess or ancestral spirit by tinkling your bell, it might be counterproductive to your work. Be led by intuition in such things.
Bell and Dorje