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And bull-voices roar thereto from somewhere out of the unseen, there are fearful semblances... From an image as it were the sound of thunder underground is borne on the air heavy with dread."
Aeschylus, describing the sound of the bullroarer in the rituals of the Orphic-Dionysian mystery cult.
Although widely thought of as an Aboriginal Australian instruments, the bullroarer is one of the few musical instruments known on every continent. Bullroarers of tremendous antiquity have been found, and it must be considered part of our common human heritage.
How to Make
Find a fairly well seasoned log or branch at least 8" long, and up to 2' long. A tree that has died standing up, or a branch that has fallen but has been caught up in other branches and kept off the ground are good things to look for. Alternatively you could use bought timber, but it will have less soul. I used a piece of birch wood someone had cut down by the roadside, sawn to length. (fig 1)
Split the log slightly off centre with an axe, or better still a billhook, cleaver or splitting froe, and then split it again to make a thin billet of wood from the centre of the log. I'm using a billhook (fig 2).
The thinner you can make this now, down to a minimum of about 1/3", the less carving and sanding to do later. Obviously be careful with sharp tools. Hopefully you'll end up with a thin billet (fig3).
Pare the billet roughly flat, narrow it and shape the ends into a pleasant curve with a knife or drawknife. The finished bullroarer should be between 6" and 2' long, and between 1" and 2 1/2" wide, and between 1/4" and 1/2" thick (fig 4).
Make a hole at one end with a hand auger, knife tip, bow drill, hand drill or power drill (if you must!), or alternatively burn a hole with a small poker. The hole should be big enough to get your chosen cord through. I used the point of my knife to make a hole. If you wish, sand the bullroarer as smooth as you like, starting with 60 or 80 grit sandpaper and working your way through 120, 180 to 240 will make it very smooth quite quickly. Alternatively use dogfish skin as our ancestors would have done, or simply pare it as smooth as you want with your knife, as I've done. Decorate it if you wish by carving or pressing a design into it with a knife or chisel, or burning it in with a hot piece of iron. A carved design can be picked out with paint made from soot or earth colour mixed with fat or oil.
Make or buy some cord. A thin flexible cord works best, but must be strong enough not to break when continually twisted and untwisted. I have found hemp string is best. Fine string may need to be pre-twisted before the bullroarer will sound. Tie the bullroarer to the end of the string with a knot that will allow it to turn freely, and won't pull off centre. Perhaps tie a wrist loop in the other end, or secure it to a piece of wood to use as a handle. I decorated my bullroarer with a design showing the god Ull, and made a string from thin plaited red-deer rawhide. (fig 5)
How to Play
First some thoughts on health and safety. The bullroarer is whirled with considerable force and speed. Although even a large bullroarer is not heavy, it has a thin edge that can hurt. Always make sure you have enough space around you. Strong winds stop the bullroarer from sounding and can make it blow into you. Make sure that you grip the string firmly, if it slips out of your hands the bullroarer can fly a considerable distance! Perhaps tie a loop around your wrist if you are in any doubt. Lastly inspect the string for wear, and check that the knot securing it to the bullroarer is secure. Replace a worn string before using the bullroarer.
To start swing it in a circle. The bullroarer probably won't sound immediately, it will need to gain some twist first, but if it doesn't sound after 30 seconds or so stop and put about a dozen turns of twist into the string. You can roll the bullroarer over in your hand, or roll it along your thigh to twist the string, start it spinning quickly before all the twist is lost.
It is easiest to keep it going for a long time by twirling the bullroarer in a circle beside you, but a large bullroarer may need to be twirled above your head. Watch out, because as the twist winds and unwinds, the bullroarer will tend to angle first towards you, and then away. Keep it at arms length.
Speeding up and slowing down, along with the length of string you give it will affect the sound you get, as will the general acoustic, the wind and any other bullroarers around. If you are feeling adventurous try twirling one in each hand, in the manner of poi. It makes quite a sound.
How to Use
With its unearthly sound the bullroarer has commonly been used in ritual to signify the presence of spirits, whether this be a Turndun played during an Australian Aboriginal initiation, a Rhombos played in ancient Greek rituals, a Maori Purerehua, or a Basque Toulouhou played during a Catholic festival to symbolise the presence of the Devil...
The ultra low frequency sound generated by a bullroarer is known to have effects on brainwaves and the instrument can be used as a tool to help produce an altered state of consciousness. The combination of rythmic movement, the strobe effect of the string passing in front of the eyes, and of course the sound itself with its characteristic doppler 'whoop' all combine to make the bullroarer very hypnotic for both the 'whirler' and the 'audience'. A medium sized or small bullroarer can be sounded continuosly for a long time, although adding a wooden handle to the end of the string reduces wear on the fingers!
Try using your bullroarer at the beginning of a ritual to mark the transition into Sacred Time. Alternatively whirl it for the duration of a guided visualisation, it is a useful alternative to the drum. One of the bullroarers First nation names translates as 'Spirit Caller', so use it to call to the spirits at Samhain or at any other time when the presence of the Ancestors is needed.
Corwen is a musician and musical instrument maker, specialising in the ancient instruments of Northern Europe. He also plays with his partner Kate Fletcher in the duo Rigantona.
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