At this time of year, bells have a special place in many celebrations and worship services. However, the origin of the bell goes back far before the advent of Christianity. They have been used by different civilizations in religious rites before the development of a written language. There are depictions of bells in stone tablets dating all the way back to the 4th century B.C.
In medieval times, bells were steeped in superstition. The ringing of the bells was believed to protect a person’s soul at death, quiet storms at sea, and chase off evil spirits. Bells were hung in doorways to protect visitors from evil spirits. A visitor would ring the bell to drive the spirits away. This is the likely origin of the present day doorbell.
Bells have been made of clay, wood, or metal. Earliest bells were Chinese clay tile bells that could produce two notes when struck on the front or side. Some of the first hand bells were made of riveted iron plates dipped in molten bronze. In China, the bell was an important symbol of power. The emperor could have bells on four sides of his palace. A prince could have bells on three sides of his residence. A minister could have two, and an official could have only one bell on the side of his residence.
When the early Christian church was recognized by Constantine and came out of hiding, founders began to increase the size of bells and priests hung them on the outside of their churches. One of the rules of the day was that priest toll the bell at an appointed hour of the day. This regular tolling was very important to people in early days. It was the only way they had of telling time. In France, bells were rung at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. In some languages, the words clock and bell are similar.
Bells are no longer as important to our everyday lives as in years past, but they still have a long and diverse history throughout the world. Many have become a part of priceless collections or museum displays. Whether they are part of a religious rite or used as decoration, one thing is for sure: Bells are a huge part of our history culture. Merry Christmas!
Roger Williams is an agriculture educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee County.