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  • Bullroarers


    What is a Bullroarer?

    The bullroarer (also known as a rhombus, or turndun) is a weighted aerofoil attached to a long cord. Most usually the aerofoil is carved from wood but bone, horn and shell are also known, as well as (rather less usually, stone). Typically, the aerofoil is a rectangular thin slat of wood between 6 to 24 inches long and ½ inch 2 inches wide, with sharpened blade-like edges which may be serrated along the long edges.

    British bullroarers: picture from Alfred C. Haddon.

    The cord is initially given a slight twist, and the aerofoil is then swung in a large circular horizontal plane, or a smaller vertical plane. The aerodynamics keep the aerofoil spinning about its axis, with the cord alternately winding fully in one direction and then the other. This produces a roaring vibrato sound which can be modulated by changing the speed or angle at which it is swung and also by letting out or drawing in the length of the cord. This amusing little video, should give you the idea:

    History of Use

    The earliest known example is from the Palaeolithic of the Ukraine, dating to 19,000 years ago. They are known from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Australia and the Americas. Notably in Africa and Australia they were used to communicate over long distances since the low-frequency sound carries over long distances and it is possible to code information into the sounds generated. There is no history of use as a communication device in Native American cultures where it seems to have been used more in the manner of a musical instrument for ritual and ceremonial purposes

    Use in Native South American Cultures

    The use of the bullroarer is recorded for the Aztec culture. Amazonian Shamans of the Tupi, Kamayurá and Bororó cultures among others used bullroarers as musical instrument for rituals and in the Tupian languages it was known as the “hori hori”.

    Use in Native Alaskan/Canadian Cultures

    Bullroarers are recorded as being used by the Athabaskan of Alaska and the Nootka of Pacific NW Canada.

    Use in Native North American Cultures

    Almost all of the native tribes in North America used bullroarers of various styles and types for religious and healing ceremonies and also as children’s toys. Some cultures used them during communal ceremonies to imitate the sound of rainfall in rituals calling for rain. They were also widely used in general religious gatherings involving ceremonies calling for plentiful food, general good health and fortune.

    The Navajo in the southwest called it the “tsin di’ni” (meaning “groaning stick”) and used it to drive away evil spirits, including those causing illnesses. In sacred ceremonies the medicine man used the bullroarer to cut through the air and create an opening that allowed the Yei B’Chei (the maternal grandfather of their holy people) to enter the physical world. Traditionally, it was made from the wood of a pine tree that had been struck by lightning, then covered with yucca pitch, and attached to a cord made from bighorn or buckskin.

    Navajo bullroarer: picture from The Franciscan Fathers, Saint Michaels, Arizona.

    The Moquis in the Southwest used it in ceremonies where a procession of dancers was led by a priest who whirled the bullroarer.

    The Apache in the Southwest regarded the sound as sacred and the bullroarer was not displayed or whirled outside their sacred circles. It was known as the “tzi-ditindi”, meaning “sounding wood”.

    Apache Bull Roarer: picture from J.W. Powell, Smithsonian Director 1892.

    The Chemehuevi of the Great Basin used a bullroarer (made from mountain-sheep horns) for rain-making (Kelly 1936).

    The Paiute of the Great Basin used the bullroarer to bring a warm wind to melt the snow (Kelly 1932).

    The Tübatulabal of Southern California used bullroarers for attracting birds while hunting and as childrens’ toys (Voegelin 1938).

    The Gros Ventre of Montana and the Arahapo of Colorado -and- Wyoming used the bullroarer as a child’s toy and it typically had a short string and a stick handle. It was known as the “nakaantan”, meaning “making cold” – perhaps a reflection of the widespread idea that the bullroarer summoned up the wind. The same name was used for the children’s toy known as the buzzer or whirligig.

    Gros Ventre Bull Roarer, carved wooden aerofoil length 56cm, sinew cord: picture from A.L. Kroeber, 1908.

    The use of the bullroarer is also recorded by the Hopi in the Southwest, the Pomo in California and the Yokuts in Central California, among others.

    Modern Use

    There are accounts of bullroarers in the Southern United States being used in the late 19th and early 20th Century as a practical joke. The spooky ethereal sound was employed to frighten the life out of superstitious country dwellers.
    Last edited by painshill; 01-31-2016, 11:52 AM.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.