Thursday, July 10, 2008

Aztec Death Whistle

Sometimes, dear readers, a weblog post is mainly an excuse for a striking title.

Anyway, the title of today's blog entry refers to a story which appeared on MSNBC late last month: a feature on the whistles and noisemakers which the Aztecs, Mayans, and other pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico used in funerary rites and to accompany human sacrifices. Julie Watson, the author of the MSNBC/Associated Press story, notes that the Aztecs also played conch shells, ocarinas, and flutes, using these musical instruments in religious ceremonies, as animal lures, or (possibly) to induce medically-useful trance states. They also probably played music at diplomatic occasions, like the Inuit dancer and timbrel-player I mentioned in an earlier post.

As I recall, conch shells were also employed on ritual occasions by some of the Indian peoples of southeastern United States, including the Creek (or Muskogee) Indians of present-day Alabama and Georgia. A graduate-school professor of mine observed that after their removal to Oklahoma the Creeks found conch shells difficult to come by, and gradually the old shells they had carried with them were lost or broken. In the mid-20th-century, however, an adventurous Muskogee man discovered that one could generate the same sound by blowing through the axle of a 1934 Chevy pickup truck - which several Creek communities subsequently decided was an acceptable alternative, at least when they weren't trying to impress white tourists.

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