BullroarerThe bullroarer, rhombus, or turndun, is an ancient ritual musical instrument and a device historically used for communicating over great distances. It dates to the Paleolithic period, being found in Ukraine dating from 18,000 BC. Anthropologist Michael Boyd, a bullroarer expert, documents a number found in Europe, Asia, the Indian sub-continent, Africa, the Americas, and Australia.
In ancient Greece it was a sacred instrument used in the Dionysian Mysteries and is still used in rituals worldwide.
It was a prominent musical technology among the Australian Aboriginal peoples, used in ceremonies and to communicate with different people groups across the continent.
Design, use, and soundA bullroarer consists of a weighted airfoil (a rectangular thin slat of wood about 15 cm (6 in) to 60 cm (24 in) long and about 1.25 cm (0.5 in) to 5 cm (2 in) wide) attached to a long cord. Typically, the wood slat is trimmed down to a sharp edge around the edges, and serrations along the length of the wooden slat may or may not be used, depending on the cultural traditions of the region in question.The cord is given a slight initial twist, and the roarer is then swung in a large circle in a horizontal plane, or in a smaller circle in a vertical plane. The aerodynamics of the roarer will keep it spinning about its axis even after the initial twist has unwound. The cord winds fully first in one direction and then the other, alternating.
It makes a characteristic roaring vibrato sound with notable sound modulations occurring from the rotation of the roarer along its longitudinal axis, and the choice of whether a shorter or longer length of cord is used to spin the bullroarer. By modifying the expansiveness of its circuit and the speed given it, and by changing the plane in which the bullroarer is whirled from horizontal to vertical or vice versa, the modulation of the sound produced can be controlled, making the coding of information possible.
The low-frequency component of the sound travels extremely long distances, clearly audible over many miles on a quiet night.
Various cultures have used bullroarers as musical, ritual, and religious instruments and long-range communication devices for at least 19,000 years. For example, due to their eerie sound, some people used bullroarers in the southern United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s to play pranks on superstitious people.
Because of its pitch modulation, the bullroarer has been incorrectly used as an example of something exhibiting the Doppler effect. Such an explanation could be correct for an observer, but not for the user. For an observer other than the user, the bullroarer's blade alternately approaches, and recedes from, him or her, leading to the instrument's pitch rising and falling respectively. Such an explanation cannot be correct if the observer is also the user, because for him or her, the blade remains nearly equidistant. Any pitch modulation that is heard identically by a user and a different observer must be a property of the instrument, rather than from the Doppler effect.
The greatest pitch variation are caused by the spinning blade's winding up or loosening the cord. When the twist in one direction gets tight enough, the blade spin will slow and then it will reverse its spin and unwind rapidly, and will continue that direction of spin until the cord twist tightens again. At that time, the blade will reverse its spin direction again. During the reversals the blade's rotational speed about its long axis rises and falls. This variation in its own rapid rate of spin is what produces the pitch variation.
This instrument has been used by numerous early and traditional cultures in both the northern and southern hemispheres but in the popular consciousness it is perhaps best known for its use by Australian Aborigines (it is from one of their languages that the name turndun comes).
Henry Cowell composed a composition for two violins, viola, two celli, and two bullroarers. A bullroarer featured in the Kate Bush Before The Dawn concerts in London 2014.
Australian Aboriginal cultureBullroarers have been used in initiation ceremonies and in burials to ward off evil spirits, bad tidings, and especially women and children. Bullroarers are considered secret men's business by all or almost all Aboriginal tribal groups, and hence forbidden for women, children, non-initiated men, or outsiders to even hear. Fison and Howitt documented this in "Kamilaroi and Kurnai" (page 198). Anyone caught breaching the imposed secrecy was to be punished by death.
They are used in men's initiation ceremonies, and the sound they produce is considered in some indigenous cultures to represent the sound of the Rainbow Serpent. In the cultures of southeastern Australia, the sound of the bullroarer is the voice of Daramulan, and a successful bullroarer can only be made if it has been cut from a tree containing his spirit.
In 1987, Midnight Oil included a recording of a bullroarer on their album Diesel and Dust (at the beginning of the song "Bullroarer") inadvertently causing offense to the Aboriginal people of Central Australia from whom the recording was taken.
As a point of clarification on the preceding paragraph, the book "Midnight Oil" by Michael Lawrence (copyright 2016; Melbourne Books; pages 171-172) cites an interview that Rob Hirst (Midnight Oil's drummer) did with Modern Drummer where Hirst states "...it's a sacred instrument...only initiated men are supposed to hear those sounds. So we didn't use a real bullroarer as that would have been cultural imperialism. Instead we used an imitation bullroarer that school kids in Australia use. It is a ruler with a piece of rope wrapped around it."
The bullroarer can also be used as a tool in Aboriginal art.
Bullroarers have sometimes been referred to as "wife-callers" by Australian Aborigines.
A bullroarer is used by Paul Hogan in the 1988 film Crocodile Dundee II. John Antill included one in the orchestration of his ballet Corroboree (1946). See: Corroboree.
In Ancient Greece, bullroarers were especially used in the ceremonies of the cult of Cybele. A bullroarer was known as a rhombos (literally meaning "whirling" or "rumbling"), both to describe its sonic character and its typical shape, the rhombus. (Rhombos also sometimes referred to the rhoptron, a buzzing drum).
Britain and Ireland
In Britain and Ireland, the bullroarer—under a number of different names and styles—is used chiefly for amusement, although formerly it may have been used for ceremonial purposes. In parts of Scotland it was known as a "thunder-spell" and was thought to protect against being struck by lightning. In the Elizabeth Goudge novel Gentian Hill (1949), set in Devon in the early 19th century, a bullroarer figures as a toy cherished by Sol, an elderly farm labourer, who being mute, uses it occasionally to express strong emotion; however, the sound it makes is perceived as being both eerie and unlucky by two other characters, who have an uneasy sense that ominous spirits of the air ("Them") are being invoked by its whirring whistle.
Scandinavian Stone Age cultures used the bullroarer. In 1991, the archeologists Hein B. Bjerck and Martinius Hauglid found a 6.4 cm-long piece of slate that turned out to be a 5000-year-old bullroarer (called a brummer in Scandinavia). It was found in Tuv in northern Norway, a place that was inhabited in the Stone Age.
MaliThe Dogon use bullroarers to announce the beginning of ceremonies conducted during the Sigui festival held every sixty years over a seven-year period. The sound has been identified as the voice of an ancestor from whom all Dogon are descended.
Māori culture (New Zealand)The pūrerehua is a traditional Māori bullroarer. Its name comes from the Māori word for moth. Made from wood, stone or bone and attached to a long string, the instruments were traditionally used for healing or making rain.
Native North AmericanAlmost all the native tribes in North America used bullroarers in religious and healing ceremonies and as toys. There are many styles.
North Alaskan Inupiat bullroarers are known as imigluktaaq or imigluktaun and described as toy noise-maker of bone or wood and braided sinew (wolf-scare).