Christians once ascribed powerful properties to bells—the power to drive away demons, for example, and still today some Christians believe they embody the voice of God. Before Christians, the members of ancient civilizations ascribed magico-sacral properties to bells too. Why were bells thought to hold so much sacred power? I never thought about this too much until my dissertation advisor and friend Phil Ford posed the question to me. With a little digging, I found the answer—it’s all about the unique property of bronze.
The peoples of ancient civilizations recognized the ability of bronze to resonate a very long time, much longer than other metals—or any other material. When it was struck, it was loud and the sound lasted for minutes, rather than just a momentary “plunk.” Ah ha! Bronze had a voice that could really carry. This does seem magical, right? It would seem easy to ascribe magical properties to such a material and also fashion objects, bells, to take advantage of this quality.
Luc Rombouts in Singing Bronze explains further. “When Horace ascribed eternal value to his own poetry, he called it aere perennius, more lasting than bronze.” Bronze was the one to beat, the metal producing the longest lasting sound.