Custom and Myth/The Bull-Roarer

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A Study of the Mysteries.

As the belated traveller makes his way through the monotonous plains of Australia, through the Bush, with its level expanses and clumps of grey-blue gum trees, he occasionally hears a singular sound. Beginning low, with a kind of sharp tone thrilling through a whirring noise, it grows louder and louder, till it becomes a sort of fluttering windy roar. If the traveller be a new comer, he is probably puzzled to the last degree. If he be an Englishman, country-bred, he says to himself, ‘Why, that is the bull-roarer.’ If he knows the colony and the ways of the natives, he knows that the blacks are celebrating their tribal mysteries. The roaring noise is made to warn all women to keep out of the way. Just as Pentheus was killed (with the approval of Theocritus) because he profaned the rites of the women-worshippers of Dionysus, so, among the Australian blacks, men must, at their peril, keep out of the way of female, and women out of the way of male, celebrations.

The instrument which produces the sounds that warn women to remain afar is a toy familiar to English country lads. They call it the bull-roarer. The common bull-roarer is an inexpensive toy which anyone can make. I do not, however, recommend it to families, for two reasons. In the first place, it produces a most horrible and unexampled din, which endears it to the very young, but renders it detested by persons of mature age. In the second place, the character of the toy is such that it will almost infallibly break all that is fragile in the house where it is used, and will probably put out the eyes of some of the inhabitants. Having thus, I trust, said enough to prevent all good boys from inflicting bull-roarers on their parents, pastors, and masters, I proceed (in the interests of science) to show how the toy is made. Nothing can be less elaborate. You take a piece of the commonest wooden board, say the lid of a packing-case, about a sixth of an inch in thickness, and about eight inches long and three broad, and you sharpen the ends. When finished, the toy may be about the shape of a large bay-leaf, or a ‘fish’ used as a counter (that is how the New Zealanders make it), or the sides may be left plain in the centre, and only sharpened towards the extremities, as in an Australian example lent me by Mr. Tylor. Then tie a strong piece of string, about thirty inches long, to one end of the piece of wood and the bull-roarer (the Australian natives call it turndun, and the Greeks called it ρομβος) is complete. Now twist the end of the string tightly about your finger, and whirl the bull-roarer rapidly round and round. For a few moments nothing will happen. In a very interesting lecture delivered at the Royal Institution, Mr. Tylor once exhibited a bull-roarer. At first it did nothing particular when it was whirled round, and the audience began to fear that the experiment was like those chemical ones often exhibited at institutes in the country, which contribute at most a disagreeable odour to the education of the populace. But when the bull-roarer warmed to its work, it justified its name, producing what may best be described as a mighty rushing noise, as if some supernatural being ‘fluttered and buzzed his wings with fearful roar.’ Grown-up people, of course, are satisfied with a very brief experience of this din, but boys have always known the bull-roarer in England as one of the most efficient modes of making the hideous and unearthly noises in which it is the privilege of youth to delight.

The bull-roarer has, of all toys, the widest diffusion, and the most extraordinary history. To study the bull-roarer is to take a lesson in folklore. The instrument is found among the most widely severed peoples, savage and civilised, and is used in the celebration of savage and civilised mysteries. There are students who would found on this a hypothesis that the various races that use the bull-roarer all descend from the same stock. But the bull roarer is introduced here for the very purpose of showing that similar minds, working with simple means towards similar ends, might evolve the bull-roarer and its mystic uses anywhere. There is no need for a hypothesis of common origin, or of borrowing, to account for this widely diffused sacred object.

The bull-roarer has been, and is, a sacred and magical instrument in many and widely separated lands. It is found, always as a sacred instrument, employed in religious mysteries, in New Mexico, in Australia, in New Zealand, in ancient Greece, and in Africa; while, as we have seen, it is a peasant-boy’s plaything in England. A number of questions are naturally suggested by the bull-roarer. Is it a thing invented once for all, and carried abroad over the world by wandering races, or handed on from one people and tribe to another? Or is the bull-roarer a toy that might be accidentally hit on in any country where men can sharpen wood and twist the sinews of animals into string? Was the thing originally a toy, and is its religious and mystical nature later; or was it originally one of the properties of the priest, or medicine-man, which in England has dwindled to a plaything? Lastly, was this mystical instrument at first employed in the rites of a civilised people like the Greeks, and was it in some way borrowed or inherited by South Africans, Australians, and New Mexicans? Or is it a mere savage invention, surviving (like certain other features of the Greek mysteries) from a distant stage of savagery? Our answer to all these questions is that in all probability the presence of the ρομβος, or bull-roarer, in Greek mysteries was a survival from the time when Greeks were in the social condition of Australians.

In the first place, the bull-roarer is associated with mysteries and initiations. Now mysteries and initiations are things that tend to dwindle and to lose their characteristic features as civilisation advances. The rites of baptism and confirmation are not secret and hidden; they are common to both sexes, they are publicly performed, and religion and morality of the purest sort blend in these ceremonies. There are no other initiations or mysteries that civilised modern man is expected necessarily to pass through. On the other hand, looking widely at human history, we find mystic rites and initiations numerous, stringent, severe, and magical in character, in proportion to the lack of civilisation in those who practise them. The less the civilisation, the more mysterious and the more cruel are the rites. The more cruel the rites, the less is the civilisation. The red-hot poker with which Mr. Bouncer terrified Mr. Verdant Green at the sham masonic rites would have been quite in place, a natural instrument of probationary torture, in the Freemasonry of Australians, Mandans, or Hottentots. In the mysteries of Demeter or Bacchus, in the mysteries of a civilised people, the red-hot poker, or any other instrument of torture, would have been out of place. But in the Greek mysteries, just as in those of South Africans, Red Indians, and Australians, the disgusting practice of bedaubing the neophyte with dirt and clay was preserved. We have nothing quite like that in modern initiations. Except at Sparta, Greeks dropped the tortures inflicted on boys and girls in the initiations superintended by the cruel Artemis.[1] But Greek mysteries retained the daubing with mud and the use of the bull-roarer. On the whole, then, and on a general view of the subject, we prefer to think that the bull-roarer in Greece was a survival from savage mysteries, not that the bull-roarer in New Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa is a relic of civilisation.

Let us next observe a remarkable peculiarity of the turndun, or Australian bull-roarer. The bull-roarer in England is a toy. In Australia, according to Howitt and Fison,[2] the bull-roarer is regarded with religious awe. ‘When, on lately meeting with two of the surviving Kurnai, I spoke to them of the turndun, they first looked cautiously round them to see that no one else was looking, and then answered me in undertones.’ The chief peculiarity in connection with the turndun is that women may never look upon it. The Chepara tribe, who call it bribbun, have a custom that, ‘if seen by a woman, or shown by a man to a woman, the punishment to both is death.’

Among the Kurnai, the sacred mystery of the turndun is preserved by a legend, which gives a supernatural sanction to secrecy. When boys go through the mystic ceremony of initiation they are shown turnduns, or bull-roarers, and made to listen to their hideous din. They are then told that, if ever a woman is allowed to see a turndun, the earth will open, and water will cover the globe. The old men point spears at the boy’s eyes, saying: ‘If you tell this to any woman you will die, you will see the ground broken up and like the sea; if you tell this to any woman, or to any child, you will be killed!’ As in Athens, in Syria, and among the Mandans, the deluge-tradition of Australia is connected with the mysteries. In Gippsland there is a tradition of the deluge. ‘Some children of the Kurnai in playing about found a turndun, which they took home to the camp and showed the women. Immediately the earth crumbled away, and it was all water, and the Kurnai were drowned.’

In consequence of all this mummery the Australian women attach great sacredness to the very name of the turndun. They are much less instructed in their own theology than the men of the tribe. One woman believed she had heard Pundjel, the chief supernatural being, descend in a mighty rushing noise, that is, in the sound of the turndun, when boys were being ‘made men,’ or initiated.[3] On turnduns the Australian sorcerers can fly up to heaven. Turnduns carved with imitations of water-flowers are used by medicine-men in rain-making. New Zealand also has her bull-roarers; some of them, carved in relief, are in the Christy Museum, and one is engraved here. I have no direct evidence as to the use of these Maori bull-roarers in the Maori mysteries. Their employment, however, may perhaps be provisionally inferred.

One can readily believe that the New Zealand bull-roarer may be whirled by any man who is repeating a Karakia, or ‘charm to raise the wind’:—

   Loud wind,
   Lasting wind,
   Violent whistling wind,
   Dig up the calm reposing sky,
      Come, come.

In New Zealand[4] ‘the natives regarded the wind as an indication of the presence of their god,’ a superstition not peculiar to Maori religion. The ‘cold wind’ felt blowing over the hands at spiritualistic séances is also regarded (by psychical researchers) as an indication of the presence of supernatural beings. The windy roaring noise made by the bull-roarer might readily be considered by savages, either as an invitation to a god who should present himself in storm, or as a proof of his being at hand. We have seen that this view was actually taken by an Australian woman. The hymn called ‘breath,’ or haha, a hymn to the mystic wind, is pronounced by Maori priests at the moment of the initiation of young men in the tribal mysteries. It is a mere conjecture, and possibly enough capable of disproof, but we have a suspicion that the use of the mystica vannus Iacchi was a mode of raising a sacred wind analogous to that employed by whirlers of the turndun.[5]

Servius, the ancient commentator on Virgil, mentions, among other opinions, this—that the vannus was a sieve, and that it symbolised the purifying effect of the mysteries. But it is clear that Servius was only guessing; and he offers other explanations, among them that the vannus was a crate to hold offerings, primitias frugum.

We have studied the bull-roarer in Australia, we have caught a glimpse of it in England. Its existence on the American continent is proved by letters from New Mexico, and by a passage in Mr. Frank Cushing’s ‘Adventures in Zuni.’[6] In Zuni, too, among a semi-civilised Indian tribe, or rather a tribe which has left the savage for the barbaric condition, we find the bull-roarer. Here, too, the instrument—a ‘slat,’ Mr. Gushing calls it—is used as a call to the ceremonial observance of the tribal ritual. The Zunis have various ‘orders of a more or less sacred and sacerdotal character.’ Mr. Cushing writes:—

   These orders were engaged in their annual ceremonials, of which little
   was told or shown me; but, at the end of four days, I heard one
   morning a deep whirring noise. Running out, I saw a procession of
   three priests of the bow, in plumed helmets and closely-fitting
   cuirasses, both of thick buckskin—gorgeous and solemn with sacred
   embroideries and war-paint, begirt with bows, arrows, and war-clubs,
   and each distinguished by his badge of degree—coming down one of the
   narrow streets. The principal priest carried in his arms a wooden
   idol, ferocious in aspect, yet beautiful with its decorations of
   shell, turquoise, and brilliant paint. It was nearly hidden by
   symbolic slats and prayer-sticks most elaborately plumed. He was
   preceded by a guardian with drawn bow and arrows, while another
   followed, twirling the sounding slat, which had attracted alike my
   attention and that of hundreds of the Indians, who hurriedly flocked
   to the roofs of the adjacent houses, or lined the street, bowing their
   heads in adoration, and scattering sacred prayer-meal on the god and
   his attendant priests. Slowly they wound their way down the hill,
   across the river, and off toward the mountain of Thunder. Soon an
   identical procession followed and took its way toward the western
   hills. I watched them long until they disappeared, and a few hours
   afterward there arose from the top of 'Thunder Mountain' a dense
   column of smoke, simultaneously with another from the more distant
   western mesa of 'U-ha-na-mi,' or 'Mount of the Beloved.'

   Then they told me that for four days I must neither touch nor eat
   flesh or oil of any kind, and for ten days neither throw any refuse
   from my doors, nor permit a spark to leave my house, for 'This was the
   season of the year when the "grandmother of men" (fire) was precious.'

Here then, in Zuni, we have the bull-roarer again, and once more we find it employed as a summons to the mysteries. We do not learn, however, that women in Zuni are forbidden to look upon the bull-roarer. Finally, the South African evidence, which is supplied by letters from a correspondent of Mr. Tylor’s, proves that in South Africa, too, the bull-roarer is employed to call the men to the celebration of secret functions. A minute description of the instrument, and of its magical power to raise a wind, is given in Theal’s ‘Kaffir Folklore,’ p. 209. The bull-roarer has not been made a subject of particular research; very probably later investigations will find it in other parts of the modern world besides America, Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. I have myself been fortunate enough to encounter the bull-roarer on the soil of ancient Greece and in connection with the Dionysiac mysteries. Clemens of Alexandria, and Arnobius, an early Christian father who follows Clemens, describe certain toys of the child Dionysus which were used in the mysteries. Among these are turbines, κωνοι, and ρομβοι. The ordinary dictionaries interpret all these as whipping-tops, adding that ρομβος is sometimes ‘a magic wheel.’ The ancient scholiast on Clemens, however, writes: ‘The κωνος is a little piece of wood, to which a string is fastened, and in the mysteries it is whirled round to make a roaring noise.’[7] Here, in short, we have a brief but complete description of the bull-roarer of the Australian turndun. No single point is omitted. The κωνος, like the turndun, is a small object of wood, it is tied to a string, when whirled round it produces a roaring noise, and it is used at initiations. This is not the end of the matter.

In the part of the Dionysiac mysteries at which the toys of the child Dionysus were exhibited, and during which (as it seems) the κωνος, or bull-roarer, was whirred, the performers daubed themselves all over with clay. This we learn from a passage in which Demosthenes describes the youth of his hated adversary, Æschines. The mother of Æschines, he says, was a kind of ‘wise woman,’ and dabbler in mysteries. Æschines used to aid her by bedaubing the initiate over with clay and bran.[8] The word αποματτων, here used by Demosthenes, is explained by Harpocration as the ritual term for daubing the initiated. A story was told, as usual, to explain this rite. It was said that, when the Titans attacked Dionysus and tore him to pieces, they painted themselves first with clay, or gypsum, that they might not be recognised. Nonnus shows, in several places, that down to his time the celebrants of the Bacchic mysteries retained this dirty trick. Precisely the same trick prevails in the mysteries of savage peoples. Mr. Winwood Reade[9] reports the evidence of Mongilomba. When initiated, Mongilomba was ‘severely flogged in the Fetich House’ (as young Spartans were flogged before the animated image of Artemis), and then he was ‘plastered over with goat-dung.’ Among the natives of Victoria,[10] the ‘body of the initiated is bedaubed with clay, mud, charcoal powder, and filth of every kind.’ The girls are plastered with charcoal powder and white clay, answering to the Greek gypsum. Similar daubings were performed at the mysteries by the Mandans, as described by Catlin; and the Zunis made raids on Mr. Cushing’s black paint and Chinese ink for like purposes. On the Congo, Mr. Johnson found precisely the same ritual in the initiations. Here, then, not to multiply examples, we discover two singular features in common between Greek and savage mysteries. Both Greeks and savages employ the bull-roarer, both bedaub the initiated with dirt or with white paint or chalk. As to the meaning of the latter very un-Aryan practice, one has no idea. It is only certain that war parties of Australian blacks bedaub themselves with white clay to alarm their enemies in night attacks. The Phocians, according to Herodotus (viii. 27), adopted the same ‘aisy stratagem,’ as Captain Costigan has it. Tellies, the medicine-man (μαντις), chalked some sixty Phocians, whom he sent to make a night attack on the Thessalians. The sentinels of the latter were seized with supernatural horror, and fled, ‘and after the sentinels went the army.’ In the same way, in a night attack among the Australian Kurnai,[11] ‘they all rapidly painted themselves with pipe-clay: red ochre is no use, it cannot frighten an enemy.’ If, then, Greeks in the historic period kept up Australian tactics, it is probable that the ancient mysteries of Greece might retain the habit of daubing the initiated which occurs in savage rites.

‘Come now,’ as Herodotus would say, ‘I will show once more that the mysteries of the Greeks resemble those of Bushmen.’ In Lucian’s Treatise on Dancing,[12] we read, ‘I pass over the fact that you cannot find a single ancient mystery in which there is not dancing. . . . To prove this I will not mention the secret acts of worship, on account of the uninitiated. But this much all men know, that most people say of those who reveal the mysteries, that they “dance them out.”’ Here Liddell and Scott write, rather weakly, ‘to dance out, let out, betray, probably of some dance which burlesqued these ceremonies.’ It is extremely improbable that, in an age when it was still forbidden to reveal the ορyια, or secret rites, those rites would be mocked in popular burlesques. Lucian obviously intends to say that the matter of the mysteries was set forth in ballets d’action. Now this is exactly the case in the surviving mysteries of the Bushmen. Shortly after the rebellion of Langalibalele’s tribe, Mr. Orpen, the chief magistrate in St. John’s Territory, made the acquaintance of Qing, one of the last of an all but exterminated tribe. Qing ‘had never seen a white man, except fighting,’ when he became Mr. Orpen’s guide. He gave a good deal of information about the myths of his people, but refused to answer certain questions. ‘You are now asking the secrets that are not spoken of.’ Mr. Orpen asked, ‘Do you know the secrets?’ Qing replied, ‘No, only the initiated men of that dance know these things.’ To ‘dance’ this or that means, ‘to be acquainted with this or that mystery;’ the dances were originally taught by Cagn, the mantis, or grasshopper god. In many mysteries, Qing, as a young man, was not initiated. He could not ‘dance them out.’[13]

There are thus undeniably close resemblances between the Greek mysteries and those of the lowest contemporary races.

As to the bull-roarer, its recurrence among Greeks, Zunis, Kamilaroi, Maoris, and South African races, would be regarded, by some students, as a proof that all these tribes had a common origin, or had borrowed the instrument from each other. But this theory is quite unnecessary. The bull-roarer is a very simple invention. Anyone might find out that a bit of sharpened wood, tied to a string, makes, when whirred, a roaring noise. Supposing that discovery made, it is soon turned to practical use. All tribes have their mysteries. All want a signal to summon the right persons together and warn the wrong persons to keep out of the way. The church bell does as much for us, so did the shaken seistron for the Egyptians. People with neither bells nor seistra find the bull-roarer, with its mysterious sound, serve their turn. The hiding of the instrument from women is natural enough. It merely makes the alarm and absence of the curious sex doubly sure. The stories of supernatural consequences to follow if a woman sees the turndun lend a sanction. This is not a random theory, without basis. In Brazil, the natives have no bull-roarer, but they have mysteries, and the presence of the women at the mysteries of the men is a terrible impiety. To warn away the women, the Brazilians make loud ‘devil-music’ on what are called ‘jurupari pipes.’ Now, just as in Australia, the women may not see the jurupari pipes on pain of death. When the sound of the jurupari pipes is heard, as when the turndun is heard in Australia, every woman flees and hides herself. The women are always executed if they see the pipes. Mr. Alfred Wallace bought a pair of these pipes, but he had to embark them at a distance from the village where they were procured. The seller was afraid that some unknown misfortune would occur if the women of his village set eyes on the juruparis.[14]

The conclusion from all these facts seems obvious. The bull-roarer is an instrument easily invented by savages, and easily adopted into the ritual of savage mysteries. If we find the bull-roarer used in the mysteries of the most civilised of ancient peoples, the most probable explanation is, that the Greeks retained both the mysteries, the bull-roarer, the habit of bedaubing the initiate, the torturing of boys, the sacred obscenities, the antics with serpents, the dances, and the like, from the time when their ancestors were in the savage condition. That more refined and religious ideas were afterwards introduced into the mysteries seems certain, but the rites were, in many cases, simply savage. Unintelligible (except as survivals) when found among Hellenes, they become intelligible enough among savages, because they correspond to the intellectual condition and magical fancies of the lower barbarism. The same sort of comparison, the same kind of explanation, will account, as we shall see, for the savage myths as well as for the savage customs which survived among the Greeks.


  1. Pausanias, iii. 15. When the boys were being cruelly scourged, the priestess of Artemis Orthia held an ancient barbaric wooden image of the goddess in her hands. If the boys were spared, the image grew heavy; the more they were tortured, the lighter grew the image. In Samoa the image (shark’s teeth) of the god Taema is consulted before battle. ‘If it felt heavy, that was a bad omen; if light, the sign was good’—the god was pleased (Turner’s Samoa, p. 55).
  2. Kamilaroi and Kurnai, p. 268.
  3. Fison, Journal Anthrop. Soc., Nov. 1883.
  4. Taylor’s New Zealand, p. 181.
  5. This is not the view of le Père Lafitau, a learned Jesuit missionary in North America, who wrote (1724) a work on savage manners, compared with the manners of heathen antiquity. Lafitau, who was greatly struck with the resemblances between Greek and Iroquois or Carib initiations, takes Servius’s other explanation of the mystica vannus, ‘an osier vessel containing rural offerings of first fruits.’ This exactly answers, says Lafitau, to the Carib Matoutou, on which they offer sacred cassava cakes.
  6. The Century Magazine, May 1883.
  7. Κωνος ξυλαριον ου εξηπται το σπαρτιον και εν ταις τελεταις εδονειτο ινα ροιζη. Lobeck, Aglaophamus (i. p. 700).
  8. De Corona, p. 313.
  9. Savage Africa. Captain Smith, the lover of Pocahontas, mentions the custom in his work on Virginia, pp. 245-248.
  10. Brough Smyth, i. 60, using evidence of Howitt, Taplin, Thomas, an Wilhelmi.
  11. Kamilaroi and Kurnai, p. 214.
  12. Περι ορχησεως, c. 15.
  13. Cape Monthly Magazine, July 1874.
  14. Wallace, Travels on the Amazon, p. 349.