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Bullroarers - by Bethe Hagens

However defined—as toy, musical instrument, communication device, work of art, or ritual object—bullroarers have fascinated human beings throughout our species’ history. There is no precise formula for making one. A fully functional bullroarer can be crafted by simply attaching a four-foot string through the hole at the end of a foot-long wooden ruler and swinging it overhead from the end of the string. The ruler will spin rapidly on its long axis, creating a buzzing sound or “call.”

The quality and impact of a bullroarer’s call varies with factors such as the strength, endurance, and expertise of the swinger; component materials of both bullroarer (wood, flint, slate, bone, ceramics) and string (fiber, hair, gut, leather); weight; shape and length (oval, rectangle and tear-drop shapes ranging from five inches to five feet); thickness and edge detailing; environmental acoustics (proportions of open or enclosed space, resonance, damping, humidity); social context; ambient sounds (other bullroarers, chanting, gongs, drums, environmental noise); age of the listener; and presence of visual, olfactory, and other sensory stimuli.

From the late 1800’s until well into the twentieth century, anthropologists worldwide recorded bullroarer mythologies, rituals and initiation traditions and argued their significance in theories of diffusion and independent invention. Social evolutionists used the bullroarer as a gauge of progress “up” the civilizational ladder, with Britain at the pinnacle, their bullroarers having “deteriorated” into toys as superstition was overcome by science. Somewhat lower were peasant Spain, where bullroarers were ritually swung on Good Friday, and indigenous cultures in North and South America using bullroarers to summon wind and rain, promote fertility among game animals and crops, and ward off evil spirits. In “primitive” Australia and New Guinea, researchers found thriving and almost unfathomably complex ancestral bullroarer “cults.” Women and girls, they were told, neither knew about nor, under pain of death, could they see the bullroarers. Young men newly circumcized and sub-incized were given small bullroarers to swing both to promote healing and to warn off females. At the same time, sacred traditions across many cultures held that the bullroarer was either given to, discovered by, or born of a woman who ultimately surrendered it to men.

Infrasonics and Consciousness Modification In the mid-1980s, a radical reassessment began when acoustic scientists determined that bullroarers produce a range of infrasonics, extremely low frequency sound waves (20 Hz. or less) that are below the human auditory threshold but nonetheless enter the brain. Thunder, earthquakes, waterfalls and waves, whales and sharks, cassowaries, deep drums and gongs, chanting, jet planes, and bass-boosters all generate infrasonics. These waves are picked up by the cochlea (labyrinth) of the ear and influence the vestibular, circadian systems of the brain. Infrasonics stimulate a wide array of euphoric, eerie, and/or deeply traumatic trance-like and hallucinogenic states, and serotonin nerves may be central to this process.

Awareness of and experimentation with infrasonics in military applications, performance, rock art research, ritual, therapy, persuasion, and learning has grown exponentially with contemporary brain research. Infrasonics fall within the same frequency range as brain waves, and brain waves have been experimentally linked to a variety of mood and thought patterns. Theta brain waves (5 Hz - 8 Hz) are associated with creativity and insight; alpha waves (8 Hz – 13 Hz) with relaxed meditative states; and beta waves (13 Hz – 30 Hz) with fully awake, analytical thinking. The different parts of the brain simultaneously generate different waves, and researchers have only begun to imagine how environmental infrasonic mixes might actually shape or even have given birth to human consciousness.

Traditional Symbolism Bullroarers have been universally linked to spirit beings in the sky. In general, until the present proliferation of bullroarers for performance art and ritual, bullroarers worldwide were carved or painted in some way to acknowledge the strikingly brilliant constellation of Orion, thunder and lightning, the Milky Way, rhombs, the vesica piscis (“vessel of the fish”), and/or optical illusions (especially fine line grids which create virtual color).

The oldest bullroarers are Paleolithic batons de commandement made of bone and incised with animals, lozenges (rhombic diamond shapes), zig-zags, and astronomical references. A 6500-year-old bullroarer was found at Çatalhöyük in Anatolia (modern Turkey). Given the traditional practice of rubbing bullroarers with pigments, red ochre, oils and/or fats, it’s likely that 5400-year-old rhombic cosmetic palettes from Late Predynastic Egypt were swung.

In classical Greek mythology, a rhombos (meaning bullroarer, but also rhomb, penis, and fish) was given as a toy to baby Dionysus just before his father Zeus had him killed by the Titans. Reborn from the thigh of his father, Dionysus lived on as god of fertility, vegetation, wine and ecstasy. Much like Orion, he is associated with death, rebirth and immortality. The name bullroarer is English and probably relates to Orion, who stands in the Milky Way just south of Taurus the Bull and is visible from every part of the globe. Orion derives from the Akkadian Uru-anna, “Light of Heaven.”

Several researchers have noted (and then bracketed) the astonishing similarity between bullroarer cults in Australia and New Guinea and the Greek myth of the castration of Uranus (Ur-anus) by Gaia (which can be translated as “dung ball”) and her children. Many Australian bullroarers, which are almost exclusively long vesica-shaped ovals, carry names closely related to a word for excrement. Well into the twentieth century, the ceremonial ground on which youth initiations and circumcisions took place (and on which bullroarers were swung) was sometimes called “place of excrement.” Many interpreters believe the bullroarer represents a penis and that the sanctification of excrement relates to ritual homosexuality that occurs in some initiatory rites. There are other instances of two bullroarers ceremonially bound together and labeled “womb,” however.

Fish-shaped bullroarers may relate to ancient traditions about spinning dolphins who assist humans. Recent iconographic research ties the dolphin (Greek delphys), the womb (delphis), and the lozenge shape (rhombos) to the constellation Delphinus the Dolphin (stars which form a rhomb on a string). The contemporary Dogon tribe of Mali in northwest Africa uses a fish-shaped bullroarer named po, which is also the name for their most important dietary seed grain (fonio) and the small dark companion star of Sirius (beneath the foot of Orion).

Future Research Directions History, anthropology, and the neurosciences are teaming up to decipher the roles of diffusion and independent invention in the remarkably uniform worldwide tradition of bullroarers. A major task is to understand the subtleties employed in generating the voice or “calls” of the bullroarer and their role in the creation of human belief systems—especially the spectrum of physical, emotional and hallucinogenic responses to beneficial (15 Hz. and above) and potentially “toxic” (below 10 Hz.) infrasonics. Of particular significance is the widespread belief that the bullroarer existed prior to deities or ancestor spirits. Robert L. Hall has argued persuasively that bullroarer and flint knife traditions can be analytically joined (Hall 1983, 75), thus providing an important window on the interpretation of historical artifacts such as the Aztec Sun Stone, whose tongue is a fish-shaped flint knife (Tecpatl) traditionally believed to have preceded the creation of the gods.

Bethe Hagens

Further Reading

Allen, R. H. (1963). Star names: their lore and meaning. New York: Dover Publications.

Dundes, A. (1976). A psychoanalytic study of the bullroarer. Man, 11(2), 220238.

Gianfranco Salvatore Home Page. (2001). Can archetypes be heard? Retrieved 1 February 2004 from: http://www.gianfrancosalvatore.it/englishsection/musicworks.html

Hall, R. L. (1983). A pan-continental perspective on red ocher and glacial Kame ceremonialism. In R. C. Dunnell & D. K. Grayson (Eds.), Anthropological Papers: Lulu linear punctated: essays in honor of George Irving Quimby (pp. 75107). Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

Purdey, M. (2003). Does an infrasonic acoustic shock wave resonance of the Mn 3+ loaded/CU depleted prion protein initiate the pathogenesis of TSE? Medical Hypotheses 60(6), 797820.

Ramsayer, K. (2004). Infrasonic symphony: The greatest sounds never heard. Science News 165(2), 2628.

Spencer, B. and F. J. Gillen (2003). The Northern Tribes of Central Australia. www.elibron.com: Elibron Classics.

Tuzin, D. (1984) Miraculous Voices: The Auditory Experience of Numinous Objects. Current Anthropology, 25(5), 579596.

Williams, F. E. (1976). Bull-Roarers in the Papuan Gulf. In E. Schwimmer (Ed.), Francis Edgar Williams: "The Vailala madness" and other essays (pp73122). London: C. Hurst & Company.

Zerries, O. (1942). Das schwirrholz [The bullroarer]. Stuttgart: Strecker and Schroder.

Response to reviewer:

1 (Subincision) Subincision is the splitting of the underside of the penis, from urethral opening to base. Variations, including splitting along the top, as well as head-splitting and total bifurcation have been reported in contemporary cultures.

2 (defense) It might be better to substitute "military applications".

3 (virtual color) The black and white sensors of the human eye (the rods) are overstimulated by the intense black/white juxtapositions typical of geometric optical illusions. The rods actually begin to vibrate against the eye's color sensors (the cones) to create an illusion of flourescent colors and rainbows washing across the black and white pattern.

4 Their really isn't a translation for batons de commandement. A number of researchers have begun to classify them as bullroarers, but they are still called by the old name which hearkens back to a time when the investigators thought that they must have been the power sticks of the community rulers (like conductors' batons).

5 The Egyptian rhombic slate palettes are identical in size and shape to many bullroarers. The have a hole in the end at exactly the point where a bullroarer's string is attached, and (Flinders Petrie's photos) there is evidence of wear that would have been caused by swinging of some sort. Many of the same oils and paints are found on them as on bullroarers. Some of the holes of palettes are broken in the way that they are on bullroarers. The Egyptian palettes, like the Australian churinga (even today), were multi-use objects. For example, the same Australian bullroarer/churunga can be a bullroarer, resin palette (for smoothing wax), or a baby board. The Egyptian palettes that are patterned after animals (again, Flinders Petrie) are in many cases identical to power objects in Oro or Orun societies in Yoruba culture and Cuban Ifa societies that are swung as bullroarers.

6 A better way to put it might be "noticed but then generally ignored” rather than “bracketed” similarities between aboriginal and Greek mythologies.

7 "Vesica-shaped" is what we need, as it is a technical geometric term that has been important in the history of iconography and sacred art. It is the middle oval-shape created by the overlapping of two identically-sized circles. It has been used to represent all manner of divine figures including both Mary and Jesus (as "vessel of the fish").

8 What I'm trying to get across here is that much ethnographic literature across cultures reports that indigenous sacred narrative (what we would now probably call "mythology") holds that the bullroarer actually preceded the divinities. That is what is so puzzling and tantalizing at the same time. It is not "belief" in divinities that they mean here, I think. Divinities make their presence felt when the bullroarer is swung.

11. Yes! Robert Hall is an archaeologist, Professor Emeritus in the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.