Bell, book, and candle

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The phrase "bell, book, and candle" refers to a method of excommunication for one who had committed a particularly grievous sin. Apparently introduced around the late 9th century, the practice was once used by the Catholic Church; in modern times, a simple pronouncement is made. This ceremony involved a bishop, with 12 priests, reciting an oath on the altar:

We separate him, together with his accomplices and abettors, from the precious body and blood of the Lord and from the society of all Christians; we exclude him from our Holy Mother, the Church in Heaven, and on earth; we declare him excommunicate and anathema; we judge him damned, with the Devil and his angels and all the reprobate, to eternal fire until he shall recover himself from the toils of the devil and return to amendment and to penitence.

After reciting this the priests would respond "So be it!" The bishop would ring a bell to evoke a death toll, close a holy book to symbolize the ex-communicant's separation from the church, and snuff out a candle or candles, knocking them to the floor to represent the target's soul being extinguished and removed from the light of God.

Cultural references[edit]

The Excommunication of Robert the Pious by Jean-Paul Laurens. The officiants have just excommunicated Robert as per the ritual, and left the quenched candle behind.
  • In Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus, the lead character is subjected to excommunication using this process: "Bell, book, and candle; candle, book and bell, / Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell." (Scene 7, lines 83-84)
  • William Shakespeare referenced the practice in King John: "Bell, book, and candle, shall not drive me back / When gold and silver becks me to come on" (Act 3, Scene 3).
  • Although omitting a candle reference, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's character Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov says in a tirade to local monks, "[y]ou cursed me with 'bell and book,' you spread stories about me all over the place. Enough, fathers!" (Book II, Chapter 8)
  • The Informer, by Liam O’Flaherty: “Yer ol’ man gev me dog’s abuse and drov’ me outa the house, an’ he cursed ye be bell, book an’ candle light.”
  • In the film Becket, Archbishop Thomas Becket excommunicates Lord Gilbert with something resembling a bell, book and candle ceremony. However, the bells are rung at the start, no book is in evidence (Becket instead casts down his candle first, followed by the others in attendance) and nothing to the effect of "until he shall recover himself...." is pronounced

Ring the bell. Close the book. Quench the candle. What's that? Never heard the final sentence of excommunication?

  • The track "Tetragrammaton" from The Mars Volta 2006 album Amputechture contains the lines "We summon by candle, by book, and by bell."
  • T. S. Eliot's Jellicle Cats are described as "familiar with candle, with book, and with bell."
  • The Rolling Stones' "Winter" (1973) includes the lyrics, "But I been burnin' my bell, book and candle."
  • John Lennon's song "Scared" contains a line "No bell, book and candle will get you out of this".
  • Peter Hammill's song "Empress's Clothes" from 1981 album "Sitting Targets" contains the line "You carry the bell, book and candle..."
  • Name of a restaurant in a former laundromat in the West Village section of New York City
  • "Bell, Book, and Candle" is a song written by British musician Boo Hewerdine. It appears on his 2001 CD A Live One and, in reference to his efforts to rid himself of thoughts and memories of a previous lover, contains the line "Every night I see your face when I have to pray. I need a bell, book and candle to keep your ghost away". The song has also been recorded by Eddi Reader and appears on her 1998 CD Angels and Electricity (Blanco Y Negro 3894-22816-2). Boo's recording was used on an episode of Emmerdale when Tricia Dingle died.
  • In Charmed, the song "Bell, Book, and Candle" by Eddi Reader is played during the funeral procession of Prue Halliwell.
  • Used for comic effect in Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell, believing that the ceremony can banish evil spirits, attempts to exorcise Aziraphale with it.
  • In the board game Castle of Magic, the bell, book and candle are used as items in the Ritual Spell.
  • In the board game Betrayal at House on the Hill, the bell, book and candle are three findable items which have greatly increased powers when used together
  • In the television film The Good Witch (2008), Cassandra Nightingale (Catherine Bell) owns a shop called "The Bell, Book and Candle".
  • In the Old Kingdom Trilogy of books by Garth Nix, bells are used as a tool to banish undead spirits, originating from the bell, book and candle.
  • Used in various video games:
    • Star Wars Galaxies, the Star Wars themed MMORPG, references "bell, book, and candle" in the quest dialogue from Ree-yees in the game's Jabba's Palace theme park.
    • In the early text-based computer game Zork (1977–79), the player must gather a bell, a book, and a candle in order to gain access to the lowest regions of Hell.
    • The Bell of Opening, The Book of the Dead, and the Candelabrum of Invocation are used by the player in the game of NetHack to perform the Invocation Ritual and reach the lowest dungeon level.
    • The famous 1985 game Ultima IV uses the items in a somewhat more positive light, requiring reading from the Book of Truth, lighting the Candle of Love and ringing the Bell of Courage (plus destroying the Skull of Mondain, a token of evil) to enter the Abyss and recover the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom to conclude the game.
    • In the 1992 video game Hugo 3: Jungle of Doom, a bell, book, and candle are required to exorcise an evil spirit to enter a cave.
    • In Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim, one of the first and easiest missions one can play is named "The Bell, The Book and The Candle". In it, the player must retrieve the three stolen artifacts from monster-infested ruins and shrines.
    • In "Sam & Max Season Two Episode 5 'What's New, Beelzebub?'" (2008), the antagonists use a bell, a book, and a candle to open a portal to a flaming pit in hell.
    • An important quest in the 1987 game Wizardry IV similarly involves the use of bell, book, and candle to bypass a portal to the flaming abyss.
    • "Bell, Book, and Candle" is the name of a quest in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning.


  • "Bell, book, and candle." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2005. [1]
  • Mabillard, Amanda. "Shakespeare FAQs: Bell, book, and candle." 2005. [2]