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A cowbell is a bell worn by freely roaming livestock, so that it is easy to locate them should they wander off. Although they are typically referred to as "cowbells", due to their extensive use with cattle, they are used on a wide variety of animals.
Characteristics and Uses
Most cowbells are plated with thin, flat pieces of sheet metal that can be decorated or left plain; their craftsmanship varies by geographic location and culture. The ornaments on the cowbell and the collar are usually just aesthetic, but some cultures believe that they provide magical protection. The cowbell is used to keep track of grazing animal herds' like goats, reindeer, sheep and cows. They are mainly found on free-roaming animals in Europe and Mediterranean areas, but are also used worldwide by those who practice transhumance, including nomadic pastoral tribes in Africa and Asia.
Different bells can have specific sounds to identify important characteristics (age, gender, and species) of the animals. Some cultures have even developed names to differentiate between bells and their tones; for example, in Spanish they are named "truco" for stud males, "esquila" for female goats or ewes, and "esquileta" for pregnant female and immatures. Each of these bells has unique sounds, shapes, and sizes.
It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the use of cowbells began, but the earliest examples of truly recognizable cowbells are from the Iron Age.
The earliest archaeological evidence of bells dates back to more than 5000 years ago, from 3rd millennium BC of Neolithic China. Goats, sheep, and cattle were kept and there is evidence of early forms of the cowbell, made of pottery. The pottery bells later developed into metal bells. In West Asia, the first bells appear in 1000 BC. The earliest metal bells, with one found in the Taosi site, and four in the Erlitou site, are dated to about 2000 BC.
In Europe, the earliest written attestation of bells used for livestock dates to the late 14th to early 15th century (Grimm's Deutsches Wörterbuch s.v. "Kuhschelle" points to a 1410 mention in a Frankfurt archive; the OED lists 1440 as the earliest attestation of bell-wether, the leading sheep of a flock, on whose neck a bell is hung, and attributes the phrase "to bear the bell" in the sense "to take the first place", originally referring to the leading cow or sheep of a drove or flock to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, 1374). In 15th century Germany, a cow bell was worn only by the best and leading piece of livestock. The wider distribution of the bell worn by livestock was a gradual process of the Early Modern period. In France, Rabelais in the mid-16th century in his Gargantua and Pantagruel makes this explicit, stating that
- "...such was the custom, to appear on the field wearing jingling garment, as the high priest wears when entering the sacristy; since the tournaments, that is, the contest of nobility, have been abolished, carters have taken the bells and hung them on their hacks" (cited after Grimm, s.v. "Schelle").
Swiss folklore reflects a period when a great Trychel, a large cow bell, was a rare and much-coveted item. The legend of the Simmental tells how a young cowherd strays inside a mountain, and by a beautiful woman is offered the choice between a treasure of gold coins, a golden Trychel, and the fairy herself. He chooses the Trychel.
In Southern Germany, the term is Kuhglocke. As opposed to regular cast metal bells, trychlen are made of hammered sheet metal. This results in a less clean, clanking sound, but at the same time results in a bell that is less heavy and thus easier to carry.
Cowbells have historically been used in many parts of Asia. The most famous are from Korea, Indonesia and India as Village Handicrafts. The last remaining Cow Bell manufacturer in the United States, Bevin Brothers Manufacturing, has made bells in East Hampton, CT since 1832.
Examples of Ceremonial Traditions
In Western Europe in the spring, when the snowmelt is finished, villages send the cows to the high alpine meadows to graze. This event, called Alpaufzug, is celebrated in each village with a procession through the village into the high pastures. The cows are decorated with floral wreaths woven through the horns. The best milk-producing cow in the village leads the procession wearing the largest bell. The bells are made in various sizes, and cows are awarded bells according the milk production of the year.
In the fall, the event is repeated, but this time called an Alpabzug, as the animals return from the high meadow. The best cows (called the Kranzkuh) from each herd again lead the procession. The traditional festival is called Viehscheid in Southern Germany, and has various other names in the Alpine regions.
Procession of La Vijanera fiesta (Cantabria).
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Cow bells.|
- "cowbell". The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English 2007. Oxford University Press. Retrieved November 4, 2007.
- Lothar Von Falkenhausen (1993). Suspended Music: Chime Bells in the Culture of Bronze Age China. University of California Press. p. 132. ISBN 978-0-520-07378-4. Retrieved February 8, 2013. "China seems to have produced the earliest bells anywhere in the world... the earliest metal bells may have been derived from pottery prototypes, which seem to go back to the late stage of the Yang-Shao culture (early third millennium BC)"
- Huang, Houming. "Prehistoric Music Culture of China," in Cultural Relics of Central China, 2002, No. 3:18–27. ISSN 1003-1731. pp. 20–27.
- Falkenhausen (1994), 132, Appendix I 329, 342.
- Lienert, Meinrad (1915). "Die güldene Kuhschelle". Schweizer Sagen und Heldengeschichten (Stuttgart).
- "BevinBells Manufacturing Company".
- Spicer, Dorothy Gladys (1958). "Twelve Festivals of Switzerland". Festivals of Western Europe (The H. W. Wilson Company).
- Larkin, Leah (August 25, 2005). "Alps: When the cows come home, it's party time". Stars and Stripes.
- Robert Schwaller, Treicheln, Schellen, Glocken (1996; 2005 addendum).