The bell is a symbol of the connection between heaven and Earth, the bell calls people to prayer and urges obedience to divine laws. The ringing of the bell often symbolizes the cosmic harmonies.
In Islam and Christianity, the sound of bells is considered to be an echo of divine power (the voice of God), the hearing of which carries the soul beyond the limits of the mundane.
The sound of a bell is a symbol of its creative power. Because of a bell’s hanging position, it gains mystic importance as an object suspended between heaven and earth.
The bell is generally considered to represent the passive, feminine principle, while it’s shape reminds of the celestial vault and the heavens, and the clapper symbolizing the tongue of the preacher.
Throughout all cultures bells were considered protective items, warding off misfortune and demons, or exorcising evil.
More generally, bells mark the passage of time, announce good news, warns of dangers and tolls for death, and hence can symbolize human mortality.
The symbolism of the bell depends on its sound
The symbolism of the bell is different in each culture, and it strongly varies depending on what kind of sound the bell makes.
In Indian tradition, the bell symbolizes hearing but more importantly, the primordial vibration which takes the shape of sound. It is because of this that most “sounds” made during meditations or yogic rituals are meant to emulate the sound of bells.
In the Islamic world, the sound of the bell is considered delicate and represents the sound made by Koranic revelation, or the manifestation of God’s power in the physical world. Thus, listening to the sound of bells is a ritual in itself, for it dissolves the limitations of one’s existence and joins them with the divine, even if briefly.
Similar to the Islamic view, the Pali Buddhist beliefs consider the “voice of heaven” to be that made by the sound of golden bells.
By contrast, Chinese culture considers the sound of bells to be that of thunder, and is often closelly connected with the sound of a drum. Curiously however, the sound made by choir of bells is considered to be one of the highest forms of music and a representation of universal harmony.
In the case of bells situated on the roofs of pagodas, these have the purpose of turning Buddhist law into “sound”, as a reminder of the proper way of living.
Throughout all cultures, the ringing of bells and of handbells has a universal power of exorcism and purification.
It is for this reason that the the Cristiant Saint Anthony Abbot is depicted carrying a bell to exorcise demons.
Finally, the sound of the bell either protects against evil influences, or warns the person that these are approaching.
The Tibetan handbell, known as a “tilpu”, has a complex symbolism and array of meanings attached to it.
By contrast with vajra (thunderbolt), the Tibetan handbell’s dim and gentle sound symbolizes the world of illussion and senses as opposed to the “diamond realm” of the vajra;
The handbell represents Wisdom and the passive female element while the vajra is Law and the active male element.
This duality, of handbell as female and vajra as male, is shown by the initiate wearing a gold ring (vajra) on the right hand and a silver ring (tilpu) on the left.
Unlike thunderbolts, handbells also symbolize the virtues of womanhood and the Teachings.
The handle is usually shaped like an eight-branched bolt of lightning cut in half.
The tibetan handbell is frequently used to perform rituals and spells, and is often times engraved with the Sanskrit greeting of “The Jewel in the Lotus (Om Mani Padme Aum, sometimes abbreviated to Om Aum) or else some magic spell.
It is often decorated with the Prayer Wheel, a ring of lotus petals, lions, gods and so on.
The sound of the handbell undoubtedly symbolizes the divine command to study the Law, obedience to the Divine but most of all, intercommunication between Heaven and Earth.
The position of its clapper symbolizes everything that is situated between Heaven and Earth, and because of this it establishes a relationship between them.
But the handbell also possesses the power to communicate with the Underworld, since a magic handbell is used in rituals to summon the spirits of the dead.
The handbell is constructed from an alloy of tin, iron, gold, copper and quicksilver.
Bells in religious use
Ritual uses of bells in Europe was either adopted or influenced by Eastern traditions. The Buddhist sacred bell (ghanta) was used the same way, and for the same reasons Christian churches would ring their own bells, hundreds of years later.
That being said, both Easter and Western cultures wore bells bells as a way to repel spirits and protect agains the evil eye.
Priests of Yahweh were commanded to wear bells (Exodus 8:33-34), although their wives and daughthers could not and there were even laws made that codified this prohibition (Isaiah 3:16-18).
The bell’s spiritual implications made it an article of value. Before the winners of races and contests were rewarded with “loving cups” the usual prizes were bells which were seen as vessels of mana, but inverted.
Church bells were considered to have magical powers, since they would hang in the steeple “between heaven and earth”, which also symbolized the passage between this world and the next.
During processions or thunder storms, church bells would echo across the land as a way of terrifying demons and make them flee.
Saint Agatha, patron saint of bells
In Christian tradition, Saint Agatha is viewed as the patron saint of bells and bell-makers, however the story of how this came to be was a peculiar misunderstanding.
In the original myth of Saint Agatha, she was martyred by having her breasts cut off.
She was thus depicted carrying them on a patera (offering dish). However, it’s likely that some of her believers confused the breasts for bells, and so the belief that she had powers over bell manufacturing caught root.
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