Satan And Bell Ringing


Durand, according to Bourne, in his Antiquities of the Common People,

ed. 1725, p. 17, was of opinion that Devils were much afraid of bells,

and fled away at the sound of them. Formerly, in all parts of Wales, the

passing bell was tolled for the dying. This is a very ancient custom

being alluded to by the Venerable Bede--

When the bell begins to toll,

Lord, have mercy on the soul.

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A small hand bell was also rung by the parish clerk as he preceded the

funeral procession, and the church bell was tolled before, at, and after

the burial. I do not know whether this was done because the people,

entertaining Durand's opinion, wished to save the souls and bodies of

their departed friends from Satan. Reference is often made to small

handbells in parish terriers, and they are enumerated in those documents

with other church property. Thus, in Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd terrier,

1729, among the articles mentioned as belonging to the church is a small


A little bell to be rung before the corps.

In Rhuddlan terrier, 1791, we find:--

One small bell, and another small corps bell.

I may say that there is hardly a terrier belonging to a Church in North

Wales which does not mention this portable handbell. Although the modern

reason given for their use at funerals was, that all impediments might be

removed from the roads before the funeral procession arrived, still it is

probable that the custom at one time meant something more than this. The

custom does not at present exist.

Giraldus Cambrensis thus alludes to these handbells:--

I must not omit that the portable bells . . . were held in great

reverence by the people and clergy both in Ireland, Scotland, and

Wales; insomuch that they had greater regard for oaths sworn on these

than on the gospels.--Bohn's Edition, p. 146.

As it was thought that the Passing Bell was originally intended to drive

away the Evil Spirit hovering about in readiness to seize the soul of the

deceased, so it might have been thought that the tolling of these

handbells at funerals kept the Great Enemy away from the body about to be

consigned to consecrated ground. But from a couple of lines quoted by

Bourne, p. 14, from Spelman, in which all the ancient offices of bells

seem to be included, it does not appear that this opinion was then

current. The lines are:--

Laudo Deum verum, Plebem voco, congrego Clerum,

Defunctos ploro, pestem fugo, Festa decoro.

I praise the true God, call the people, convene the Clergy,

Lament the dead, dispel pestilence, grace Festivals.

There is nothing in these lines corroborative of Durand's opinion, but as

I do not know the age of the lines I cannot controvert his opinion, but

if it was believed that the tolling of a bell could drive away

pestilence, well can it be understood that its sound could be credited

with being inimical to Evil Spirits, and that it sent them away to other

places to seek for rest.

It certainly was an opinion, according to Croker, entertained in Ireland

and elsewhere, that the dwarfs or fairies, were driven away from places

by the ringing of the bells of churches, and Croker in his Fairy Legends

of Ireland, vol. ii., p. 106, states that Thiele collected traditions

according to which the Troldes leave the country on the ringing of bells,

and remain away. Thus these mythic beings are confounded with Satan;

indeed Croker remarks (vol. i., p. 46) The notion of fairies, dwarfs,

brownies, etc., being excluded from salvation, and of their having formed

part of the crew that fell with Satan, seems to be pretty general all

over Europe. He instances Ireland, Denmark, and Spain.

Bells certainly were objects of great superstition. In Dyer's English

Folk-Lore, p. 264, it is stated that--Wynkin de Worde tells us that

bells are rung during thunder storms, to the end that fiends and wicked

Spirits should be abashed and flee and cease the moving of the tempest.

Croker also remarks in vol. ii., p. 140, of the above-named work:--The

belief in fairies and Spirits prevailed over all Europe long before the

introduction of Christianity. The teachers of the new faith endeavoured

to abolish the deeply-rooted heathenish ideas and customs of the people,

by representing them as sinful and connected with the Devil. In this

way the Devil inherited many attributes that once belonged to the

Fairies, and these beings were spoken of as Evil Spirits, Fiends, or


I now come to another kind of Welsh Folk-Lore associated with fairies,

Evil Spirits, or some mysterious power, that is the removal of churches

from one site to another. The agency employed varies, but the work of

the day disappeared in the night, and the materials were found, it is

said, the next morning, on the spot where the church was to be erected.