I suppose that a lot of people would consider the bell to be a minor tool. In fact, since we only have two primary uses for them in witchcraft–to symbolically open and close circle and to disperse energy–I wouldn’t be surprised if many practitioners didn’t even use a bell in their practice as many other things can do what bells accomplish.
Of these two uses, I think that the most important is to set the frame for circle. In Hartwood Grove, for example, all our circles begin by first leading the group through a grounding, and then followed by two events: the priestess striking the altar three times with the heel of her wand and striking the bell. I can definitely attest that by the time the last of the bell’s chime has faded away, I can feel that I am mentally prepared to enter another realm, for my mundane consciousness has completely shifted. Obviously, a lot of that happens during the grounding process, but the strikes and the knell serve to bring my attention to the sacred work at hand and really ‘focus me in’ rather than letting my newly-altered consciousness bask blithely in post-meditation warm fuzzies.
I’m sure that part of this is now a Pavlovian response: since Hartwood grove does this at every ritual, my brain has been conditioned to complete the consciousness shift with that sound. Though the shift has become more solid with consistent repetitions, I also remember that the tintinnabulation had a similar effect the first time I experienced it. There’s really something to be said for using a bell to start a ritual.
While Hartwood does not ring a bell to signal the end of a ritual (usually chatting over cakes and wine does a great job of bringing consciousness back to reality…maybe too good of a job), I’ve found that in my solitary practice, that ring is necessary to help me shake off the last of that altered state and return to my standard consciousness…most likely because I have far fewer instances to “break ritual mind” with baser humor when I’m by myself.
Using a bell sound as a framing device for circlework is then a really powerful addition to the casting, but it doesn’t have to be limited to just circlework. Many Buddhists, for example ring a bell or gong to open and close all their meditations, and certainly Pagans can adopt that practice, too. It is a simple thing that could be done alone or in conjunction with mantras, lighting and snuffing candles, or any other sort of meditative framing trick one’s acquired. Over time, I’m sure that the mental conditioning will only serve to better strengthen one’s ability to make their brain switches faster and deeper.
I’ve also mentioned that Pagans commonly use bells to disperse stale energy, which has a tendency to accumulate in unused corners–both physically and mentally. This is, perhaps, a more common use in traditions that have a more shamanic and less ceremonial influence, but the practice seems to be on its way to transcending those boundaries. All you really need to do to clear energy with bells is to walk around a space, ringing a bell, and visualizing the dispersal of the energy. When I’ve done this in the past, I like to sense the energies of the room first and identify the “stale” areas. Then, when I ring, I spend a lot more time in those places. One shaman noted on his website that the energy in a room after it has been cleared with bells is almost “crystal-clear”, and I’d agree. I kind of get a feeling when I’m in a bell-cleared space that everything is new…sort of like what you feel when someone has just moved into a new home and has just finished unpacking. It’s settled, but fresh.
Interestingly enough, I do find that there are differences in bell-clearing a space that completely depend upon the bell’s energy. For example, I find the post-clearing energy to be much more mellow if a long-chiming bell is used, particularly if it has lower tones. If something more tinkling is used–particularly if it must be shaken to be rung–I find the post-clearing energy to be more ‘sparkling’ and in the crystal-clear line.
If you do try energy clearing with bells, it might be a good idea to pay attention to what the bell sounds like before and after the clearing. Some people observe that the bell tones will sound clearer and last longer after a space clearing is complete, almost as if all the sound-deadening matter has left the air. That might not make sense scientifically, since sound needs substance to transmit. It can’t be produced in an empty vacuum, after all. Perhaps, then, the bell clearing makes the air in the space more regular and less chaotic? Increased uniformity in arrangement makes wave transmission more uniform, too.
These two uses of the bell–to frame ritual and to clear energy–are the two most common I’ve seen in Pagan practice, but their could be a third, one I’ve only seen in Catholic Mass. We could potentially ring a bell to announce the presence of deity and/or the elements. This I’m not so fond of as I usually find these energies tend to announce themselves, but it could be incorporated quite well, I’d imagine.
The specific types of bells Pagans use definitely goes across a wide gamut. However, these days I’m definitely seeing a pronounced interest in traditionally Buddhist bells. There are, of course, gongs, but there are also singing bowls, dripu bells (and their accompanying dorje), and tingsha chimes. Many of these are traditionally used to begin and end periods of silent meditation, and they all have long-lasting resonant sounds.
I think most Westerners tend to gravitate more to the singing bowls and tingsha chimes. Both are commonly available and can be pretty unobtrusive. Singing bowls often look like a fairly attractive mortar and pestle and call little attention to themselves, and tingsha chimes are small enough to be tucked away if they’re highly decorated. In any case, I find both to be of good use in framing circles and meditation as their long-lived tones act more as a gentle cue rather than obnoxious awakening (such as an alarm clock might tone). I find that specifically tuned Western handbells–such as what one might find in a bell choir–can create a similar cue effect, as can simple chime sets.
Any of these could also be used for announcing the presence of deity and/or the elements and for space cleansing. However, I really do prefer high pitched, short toned bells for that–something you have to shake a good bit to keep up the sound. The sparkling energy afterwards certainly makes that more “alarm” like sound worth the auditory assault.