The Bullroarer: An Instrument That Whirls Through Cultures and Time
Music is believed to have been made by human beings since prehistoric times. Paleolithic tombs suggest that one of the earliest and longest-surviving artifacts that can be called a ‘musical instrument’ is the bullroarer. Although the bullroarer is an ancient instrument, it has also been used in various cultures throughout history. Today, the bullroarer is associated mainly with the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. Nevertheless, evidence of its use can be seen also in other cultures, such as the ancient Greeks and the Maoris. In each culture, the bullroarer is known by a different name.
Prehistoric instruments from France. The bullroarer (upper right) is made with reindeer antler and was found in Lalinde, Dordogne. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Construction of a Bullroarer
The use of the word ‘bullroarer’ for such a musical instrument is said to have entered into “anthropological literature” thanks to 19th century scholar by the name of Rev. Lorimer Fison. The name came about when he compared the Australian Aboriginal version of this instrument to a wooden toy he had made as a boy - which he incidentally called a ‘bullroarer.’ Since then, this term became adopted as the technical name for the instrument.
Portrait of Rev. Lorimer Fison, an anthropologist, Methodist minister, and journalist who named the bullroarer. ( Public Domain )
As noted by Rev. Lorimer, the bullroarer is commonly made from wood. Nevertheless, animal bone may also be used for its construction. Regardless of whether wood or bone is used, the material is usually thin and flat, and also elliptical in shape. It has also been mentioned that the design of the bullroarer is mostly a matter of taste, and that any shape would work as long as it is not too heavy or wide.
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The choice of using bullroarers that are elliptical may have something to do with its symbolic importance, in addition to aerodynamics. The piece of wood/bone is then pierced at one end, and a length of string, cord, or thong is threaded through the hole and tied.
Seven variations of African bullroarers on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
For the bullroarer to function, a user holds the string with one hand, and then the piece of wood/bone is whirled. As the bullroarer rotates, it vibrates the air around it, thus producing sound. Bullroarers create a distinct, low-pitched sound, that is capable of traveling over long distances.
The quality of the sound produced made the bullroarer a suitable device for signaling. Apart from a practical function, bullroarers were also used as toys. However, the bullroarer was an important ceremonial instrument for many cultures as well.
Uses of the Bullroarer in Different Cultures and Over Time
In ancient Greece, for example, the bullroarer was used during the Cotyian and Bendidaean rites practiced by the Thracians. A bullroarer-like instrument used during these rites is mentioned by the playwright Aeschylus, who is quoted in Strabo’s Geography:
“and also the instruments used in her rites, are mentioned by Aeschylus; for he says, ‘…stringed instruments raise their shill cry, and frightful mimickers from some place unseen bellow like bulls, and the semblance of drums, as of subterranean thunder, rolls along, a terrifying sound.’”
Amongst the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, the bullroarer is used during initiation as well as other ritual ceremonies. Like in ancient Greece, the bullroarer was used only by the men in the past. Women are traditionally prohibited from using, touching, or even seeing a bullroarer.
A decorated “tourist art” bullroarer. ( National Museum of Australia )
In fact, for the Australian Aboriginal peoples the bullroarer is believed to ward off evil spirits, bad tidings, as well as women and children. It has also been suggested that due to its shape, the bullroarer is a phallic symbol. Some have even said that due to the considerable taboos surrounding this Aboriginal instrument, it is seldom used in Australian popular music.
By contrast, the bullroarer of the Maoris is found extensively in the popular music of New Zealand. This instrument is known also as the purerehua, and receives its name from a moth, due to the similarity of the sound made by the instrument and the sound made by the moth’s wings when it is flying.
Despite being commonly used today in popular music, the purerehua may also be used for ritual purposes. The purerehua is traditionally used during healing rituals, or for the purpose of making rain. Additionally, the Maori believe that the purerehua is able to allow them to channel their spirits through the instrument into other worlds, and it thus serves as a device to communicate with other realms.
A detailed purerehua (bullroarer) created in the early 1900s. ( Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa )
These are just some of the many examples of how the story of the instrument commonly-known as a bullroarer crosses cultures, purposes, time and space.
Featured image: “Tourist art” bullroarer decorated with a kangaroo design. Photo source: National Museum of Australia
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