Thursday, August 4, 2016

What a World of Solemn Thought Their Monody Compels: Bells in Ritual

Bells of ritual
Copper alloy bells for sacred & magic rituals, apotropaic symbols of protection. Roman period. By Tilemahos Efthimiadis, from Athens, Greece CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Subtitle: Bells: Their Importance in Ritual Usage

by Race MoChridhe

I am not aware of any Pagan tradition that uses bells as part of its standard equipment (though I am aware of a few good Pagan books that recommend them). Bells are part of the standard equipment in every temple of the world’s largest continuously surviving pre-Christian tradition, however. If you have ever come very early in the morning to a Hindu temple, bearing flowers for Sri Durga, and sat in the midst of the bell’s reverberations, as the rope and the clapper and the priest’s firm hand become one motion and one being, you will know why the bell is indispensable. If you have not, then I will tell you.

Many Western ritualists I know do keep a bell for opening and closing rituals. Whether the performance is magical or devotional, it is useful to mark its boundaries in time as well as in space. During a group ritual, this has the very practical benefit of simply calling everyone’s attention to the same moment for getting underway. Even in a solo rite, however, there is the additional benefit of calling attention to this moment. Much like a blessing or aspersion received before entering the space of a circle, the clear, sweet tone of the bell is a purification, signifying unmistakably to the mind that the time has come to leave all daily concerns aside and to focus on the ritual task at hand. As a preparation for either the intense focus required for magical work, or the deep silence sought for devotion, this signal is ideal.

Ritual handbells used in ancient Japan
Ritual handbells used in ancient Japan

The bell’s true function, however, is even more profound. Both partisans and critics of the Roman Catholic rite will occasionally describe it as “smells and bells”. In the churches of the West, no less than the temples of the East, the bell is ubiquitous, in keeping with a common theme of religions... In the Abrahamic traditions, including Christianity, God creates the world through an act of speech. In Filianic tradition, the world is begotten from an act of laughter. In Hindu tradition, not only the world, but the gods as well, arise from the reverberation of the primordial sound aum or om, which contains within its fathomlessness the potential of all being. The first moment of Creation is always a moment of sound.

To appreciate this, one must go beyond merely reading it.* Go and listen to the strike of a clear brass bell, its ripples fading even into the darkest corners, and hear the aum… aum… as it bears motion to profoundest stillness. Go and sit at the base of the church tower when a bevy of iron bells begin to strike their chorus, overlapping one another in excited agitation, like the angels pouring down at God’s command, “Let us...” (Genesis 1:26). In the midst of the awe-inspiring cacophony you will hear the words woven through the rings like a lady’s ribbon—yehi or, yehi or… Let there be light, let there be light... (Genesis 1:3).

bell and striker
A bell and striker, styled after those popular within Tibetan

When the bells are struck, be it at Notre Dame or Varanasi, it is more than just a symbol; it is a mythic identification. Eternity is not everlasting time, but a state of timelessness. We are not separated from the primordial sound of Creation by billions of years, but only by the thin veil of our awareness, which imposes time upon the raw experience of All-That-Is. Within the peal of a bell lies the affirmation of our ritual power to draw that veil aside and to stand within the echo of eternity—to cast our voices back into the very stream that spoke us. The bell does not merely call our attention to this moment; it reminds us that this moment is eternally the Moment, if we will only open our ears.

Executed properly, the ringing of the bell is thus an act of magic by itself—one far more difficult and ambitious than those usually undertaken by even the most skilled magicians. Approached in the right frame of mind, the ringing of the bell is already union with the sun and conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel. You need have nothing more than a bell to rain the heavens down upon the earth. And yet no one will require you to have one, and in this is a profounder lesson still, for those willing to sit a while in silence.

*Nonetheless, for those who do not recognize the origin of this article’s title, it is highly recommended to read Poe’s The Bells before undertaking the exercise that follows it.

My next article is on the chalice.

Other articles in this series include:
The Sacred Tools of the Druid
Ancestors of the Athame

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