Mayan Music: A painted image of a file of Mayan musicians playing rattle, ocarina, and trumpets while a theatrical scene goes on.

The Music of the Maya: Mysterious whistles Confound Experts

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Music has held a special role in human society for thousands of years. In ancient China, for instance, sets of bronze bells were played for entertainment and ritual purposes at court. The complementary tones produced by the different bells were a reflection of the Confucian ideal of harmony. In ancient Rome, a flute player would be present at sacrifices in order to drown any disturbances from the external surrounding. Music was also central to the rituals and traditions of the Maya, evident in the objects left in the archaeological record.

The Mayas had numerous wind and percussion instruments, including flutes, whistles, trumpets, rattles, bone and gourd rasps and drums. These instruments have been described in texts and depicted in Maya art. One of the most intriguing instruments to have been found is the Maya whistle.

Maya bird whistle made around 1000 AD.

Maya bird whistle made around 1000 AD. Credit: William Scott / Source: BigStockPhoto

Maya whistles have been found in several archaeological sites. For instance, eight of these whistles were found during the excavation by the INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) at the site of Yaxchilan in Chiapas, Mexico, between 1989 and 1991. The whistles from this site are shaped as frogs, and produce a sound that resembles the noise that is made by frogs.

Left: A whistle in the shape of a frog from Yaxchilan ( Right: Maya monkey whistle.

Left: A whistle in the shape of a frog from Yaxchilan ( Right: Maya monkey whistle. (William Scott / BigStockPhoto)

Apart from Mexico, such whistles have also been found in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, an indication that these regions may have belonged to one common musical sphere. For centuries, however, these whistles were perceived as curiosities, rather than musical instruments, and for a long while they were believed to be drinking vessels.  Due to their strange shapes, these whistles were examined from an artistic, rather than a musical point of view, and it is only recently that their musical qualities have been given any real attention.


Whistle in the shape of a Ball Player, Late Classic Mayan – San Diego Museum of Man

Whistle in the shape of a Ball Player, Late Classic Mayan – San Diego Museum of Man ( Wikimedia Commons )

Made of clay, it is unsurprising that the whistles have survived for such a long time. As clay is a highly malleable material, it can be easily shaped into a variety of forms. Thus, the whistles could be shaped like animals, humans and mythical beings. Once they’re fired, the whistles harden and are ready to be used.

It is unclear as to the way these whistles were used. Seeing that great care and effort went into making these instruments, it is unlikely that the whistles were used as toys. Rather, they may have had a more important and serious function.

As some of these whistles were found in burial sites, it has been speculated that they were used during funerary rituals, perhaps by musicians accompanying the funerary procession. It has also been suggested that the whistles were used during human sacrifices. The noise emitted by the whistles is said to be capable of altering the consciousness of the sacrificial victims, possibly sending them into a dream state.

Maya vessel with a scene of human sacrifice. Guatemala or Mexico, c. A.D. 600 - 850. Were whistles used to alter the state of consciousness of the victims before death?

Maya vessel with a scene of human sacrifice. Guatemala or Mexico, c. A.D. 600 - 850. Were whistles used to alter the state of consciousness of the victims before death? Public Domain

The shapes of the whistles may also offer a clue as to their function. Whistles in the shape of animals or mythical beings, for example, may have been placed in graves to aid the deceased in the afterlife. On the other hand, the frog-shaped whistles, such as those found in Yaxchilan, could have been used in festivals and celebrations associated with the rain god.     

Chaac, the Maya rain deity. From The Maya Book of the Dead, The Ceramic Codex.

Chaac, the Maya rain deity. From The Maya Book of the Dead, The Ceramic Codex. Public Domain

The whistles of the Mayans are still a mystery to us, and much research would be needed before a better understanding about these musical instruments can be gained. Yet, it may be fair to say that we have made some advances. Instead of perceiving them as merely objects of art, archaeologists are now seeing them as they are - musical instruments. Through these whistles, just as the bronze bells for the Chinese and the flutes for the Romans, we may be able to catch a glimpse of the ideals and beliefs of the Mayans.  


I'm not trying to troll here--really. But there are a lot of "suggested" uses for, say, the whistle. How do we know it's not a Mayan child's toy? Seems like instantly attaching it to ritual is a bit of a rush. Especially since it was made of clay; not expensive, not sacred, not critical to survival. Seems perfect for kids in a time without toys (as we know them). I mean, had it been carved from gold...or a giant emerald, we'd KNOW it was of great importance.

Good point Defiant. We know so little about this culture, and with each discovery there seems to be a rush to explain what cannot be known (at this point). Equally, a broken clay whistle would not be considered an irreplaceable loss, so the "toy hypothesis" has merit. I would only be hesitant to add the instrument depicting a ritual sacrifice into a children's toy catalogue. Then again, that may just be me forcing 21rst century morality onto a culture long since gone.

The Flute player seem to be a central and pervasive figure in American Native Mythology and their religious myth of creation.
in the "The Book of Hopi" it is claimed that the Hopis came from the south. ( mayas or aztecs, but the left because it became to harsh with the human sacrifices ) .
It´s like the american native have a mythical or religious common backdrop; they have a lot in common at the deeper layers of thinking.

Flutes (sound) was used to create the world to begin with. And I don't think that because it was made of from clay, it should be seen as either cheap or a toy, I mean what else that was at their disposal can you carve or make into figures that looks like animals . ? Clay may have been a somewhat high technology at that time. Clay can be be formed into whatever figure you like, it can be painted it can be sacrificed by smashing and it last a very long time.


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