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I would like to ask you as a reader to embark with me on a personal journey that has led me to my scientific questions and theories about vortexes. Significant transformations in my work of over thirty years on this subject took shape as I journeyed back to health from a debilitating encounter with Lyme’s disease. At the center of this journey is a mechanism known as the “bullroarer”, a flat slat of wood, bone or stone, swung overhead from the end of a string, to create an intense vortex of sound and vibration around the person swinging it. This sound, but more the contemplation of 40,000 years of worldwide bullroarer-making, healed my body and left me in awe at the enduring aspects of our common humanity.
I spent more than a year researching, shaping, carving, sanding, painting, and generally obsessing over bullroarers, and created upwards of 200 reproductions of both ancient and relatively modern instruments. Somewhere in the process, I realized that although I had put away in shame the “UVG grid”, with a deep sense that I had duped myself into actually believing what I had written years before, I had now embraced earth energy vortexes. Before, I had always steered away from this idea, much preferring geometrics, stress models, and Plato’s theory in Timaeus.
In many ways, my insights will be obvious. Vortexes are creativity – the energy that motivates every aspect of life. They are as magical and as frightening as water going down the drain in the bathtub is to a child. Collectively, we are discovering vortexes in an expanding context of situations and metaphors, many of which do not align with each other and are blatantly contradictory. Yet blessed as humans are with “a certain consciousness,” vortexes fascinate and perplex and carry away our spiritual energy into ecstatic oneness with the Possible – “good and bad.” Inspiration, thinking, awakening, discovery, contemplation, intention, action, loss of control, surrender: a human creative vortex, so powerful that we hopefully, and sometimes tragically, form communities to mutually protect each other from our own power.
The bullroarer and magic wheel spinner (more on this below) were well-known and well-loved by early anthropologists who were untroubled by theories of Atlantis and cultural appropriation and who brought home artifacts in amazement at the exotic rituals in which they were used. Well into the 20th century, both instruments were seen as symbols of the innocence of “the primitive” and were quickly adopted as Western toys. They were anthropological “hallmark artifacts” that symbolized the cultural relativist commitment to independent invention even as evidence about them (the undeniable similarities of size, shape, meaning, uses, symbols, rituals) stretching tens of thousands of years across human history pointed to diffusion across the globe. In virtually every part of the world, even today, these artifacts continue to be “invented” and re-symbolized in many of the ancient ways.
I still remember the light in my professor’s eyes when he spoke of them. They were not to be seen by women, so of course I had to see one. I could find only a small, grainy illustration in a textbook. Many years later, the director of the National Museum in Papua New Guinea refused my request to photograph their incredible collection of bullroarers because I was female, but came up with a workaround. He waved his hand, smiled, and said, “You’re a ceremonial man!”
I was awestruck by the Indiana-Jones-like storeroom that held thousands of bullroarers, spinners, and skull racks. I know now that there is a connection between bullroarers, Orion, the earth’s axial pole, and lightning; but at the time, I only suspected this. The museum’s collection includes bullroarers made of human breastbones. What we in the northern hemisphere see as the sword (or penis) of Orion (the Orion Nebula), those in the southern hemisphere can also visualize as a breastbone – shield of the heart. The gender of the bullroarer itself, as with the young boys exposed to them in traditional initiation rituals, apparently spins through a polarity vortex of masculine and feminine, elevating the spirits of the boys into their community and then beyond in timeless oneness with ancestors who preceded the ritual present.
Often identified as both the earliest human toy and the first musical instrument, the bullroarer has a verified existence in what is now France (40,000 BC), Çatalhöyük (ca. 7000 BC), and Tutankhamun’s tomb (ca. 1000 BC). It has likely remained in continuous use across human cultures, though evidence is fugitive, and most bullroarers simply disintegrate. They immediately capture children’s attention and are great teaching toys to “call” Creative for solutions to practical, personal, social and environmental problems. They are believed to alleviate pain, boredom, drought, love-sickness and shortage of game or crops. Their sound accompanies the human spirit at transitions such as birth, marriage, death, initiation, or injustice. Bullroarers are swung in rituals to invite “phase change.” Their sound and vortexes of spin are the Creative and signal that a fundamental inter-dimensional threshold has been crossed.
Very similar, if not identical phase change requests have been made across time within megalithic structures and other sacred energy vortex sites that continue to be identified by human experience. The human mind is a vortex, and perhaps resonance is the mechanism by which these other vortexes are detected. I wish I knew. I have never been able to detect them, but have realized that this may be because I am literally caught in them all the time: everywhere I am feels like a vortex, though sometimes the feeling becomes more intense when coupled with the exhilaration of play. Csikszentmihalyi believes that play is critical to developing an experienced sense of creative flow, and bullroarers and magic wheels reinforce that experience by generating continuous spiraling vortex timbres (rhythmic, monotonous spin pulsings) that establish sonopoetic spaces (architectures composed of sound that are individually experienced and culturally defined and codified).
The body itself is a sonopoetic space. I’m especially interested in the “magic wheels” that form the etheric chakras (spinning wheels) that are activated by the spiraling loop of each in-breath and out-breath. The planar spin of the seven chakras – each of which is traditionally illustrated in a very strict, ascending geometry from base to crown – is the yogic equivalent of the “magic” that toy spinners and bullroarers hold for children. At an unpredictable moment after a person begins the rhythmic spinning or swinging, when the string is wound tightly enough, the magic wheel begins its heavy sexualized breathing and the bullroarer begins to roar. That moment is the “liminal” threshold – when the “now” and the “next” are equally ambiguous in identity. Rhythmically, approximately every five seconds or so, as with breath, the sound falters as torque on the strings stops the spin of the instrument for an instant. It vocalizes again as the string begins to unwind and the instrument spins in the opposite direction.
The range of sizes, shapes, carvings, notchings, and weights of bullroarers generate a banquet of sounds, possibly including infrasonic frequencies below 20 hz. that match brainwaves and planetary frequencies, detected not by the ears but by the midbrain. The specific effects of these shaped timbres appear to have been discovered and rediscovered across our species history, just as contemporary researchers of virtually every persuasion are now doing.
The archetypal timbre of breath and voice which carries Creative is a living thing, not merely a metaphor. It is multi-dimensional breath, fused with our own, and synonymous with all-encompassing mysteries of metamorphosis – birth, growth, fertility, sexuality, swallowing, excretion, decay, death, rebirth. Breath – or wind – is in this way a fertilizing and consuming or cleansing principle. The pulsed breathing of the bullroarer or magic wheel is the timeless connection between Ancestral Being and human being.
The timbre of the two instruments which so fascinate me are the creative energies of spin as axis (bullroarer) and as plane (magic wheel). As sonopoetic space, breath, unites all creative cosmic spinners – be they weavers, potters, dervishes, fire-makers, cyclones, researchers, planets, DNA, galaxies. All of them analogously enact the drama known in classic Greek mythology as the tasks of the Moirae: the three Fates who spin, weave, and snip the thread of life – of breath. The point I am making is that timbre is not something detached and disembodied, it is sonopoetic imagery which is experienced, mirrored and echoed in every single inhalation and exhalation an individual makes.
Used simultaneously, these instruments can be thought of as “community magic utilities” that safely mediate spiraling, transformative energy in sonopoetic (culturally controlled) safe space. In Papua New Guinea, hundreds of bullroarers were traditionally swung to create wave sound effects (as in a football stadium) during initiation rituals. An entire lifetime in bullroarer timbre brings ever more subtle, highly personalized experiences and understandings of social and mystical dimensions of ecstasy, fear, talent, lust, pain, deprivation, ethics, and oneness of body in cosmos. Of flow.
If the space is safe, the instruments themselves are not. . .exactly, but are regarded with a certain wariness characteristic of sympathetic magic; this may be the recognition of the unpredictability and potential for personal danger in situations that require bullroarer intervention. One would not like to invite sickness, infertility, or lost love by associating too casually with that which calls it away. I think there is great potential here for cross-fertilizing bullroarer and magic wheel research with emerging work on plasma vortexes and the electro-magnetic field of the heart.
If the bullroarer vocalizes change, its companion the magic wheel breathes life into new being. Both instruments are little known today, but are still symbolically quite alive in religion, myth, philosophy, and ritual practice. Witness the present fascination with crop circles, labyrinths, DNA, earth energies, the galactic center. It is just that their meanings are disconnected and fragmented. How might we reconnect this panhuman ecological vision? Re-experience being swallowed, consumed, and excreted by the spin of the universal cosmic spiral, Ouroboros? And at the same time, as Heron has written, avoid creating perennial truths “in vain denial of the inherent unpredictability of the divine womb of time”.
I’m suggesting that we investigate the sonopoetic space of all vortexes as the collective enactment of the living, dynamic energy that inhabits the psyche, the body, the cosmos, and more particularly, the immediate physical environment that we are beginning to see again in old ways as we re-imagine Gaia.
Four obvious and easily understood environmental manifestations of the vortex archetype very closely match the sonopoetic ritual spaces and symbolic domains of bullroarers and magic wheels:
(1) The spinning of Earth on its polar axis, visualized as spiraling stars, planets, sun, and moon. Santillana and Von Dechend (Hamlet’s Mill) saw a vortex framework within ancient myths across the world’s cultures: daily polar spin and the 26,000 year gyroscopic wobble of earth’s axial pole expressed in story using explicitly sexual, generative imagery of a grinding mill. Pole (power, penis) grinds Earth in spin. The morpheme (or linguistic meaning unit) po is a key metaphor in many of these mythologies. The fish-shaped bullroarer of the Dogon of Mali, for one example, is Po. The Greek word for bullroarer, rhombos, also means fish, penis, rhomb, and womb. Po is also a grass seed (fonio) that traditionally provided the Dogon with their main sustenance. The Dogon swing the bullroarer in a metaphor of broadcast-seeding po, of potentizing the spiral dance around the sun. Imagine a world in which grass is a miracle analogous to the task of the bullroarer. Natural theologian Paley wrote in 1802 that the grass seed’s “extraordinary means and powers of preservation and increase, their hardiness, their almost unconquerable disposition to spread, their faculties of reviviscence, coincide with the intention of nature concerning them.” At the two places where the spinning plane of sun, moon, and planets (the ecliptic/zodiacal belt) is crossed by the spinning plane of the Milky Way, the Dogon see two cosmic granaries (seed storage units) that connect them to ancestors, to Creative. Po is also a powerful dark star they have traditionally believed orbits the brightest star in the sky, Sirius. In Indo-European lore, Sirius is “The Roarer.”
A complete solar eclipse is another phenomenon of spin encoded in mythology. It is a source of chaos and fear because sun and moon appear to be moving in opposite directions along a single vortex plane. As moon “eats” the sun, the vision of an “obsidian blade bullroarer” initiates and closes the action. In Aztec cosmology, the mother creator is impregnated by the obsidian blade and gives birth to the moon. In Greek mythology, Gaia finally liberates her children when Time (Chronos) castrates Ouranos with a flint blade.
(2) Cyclones, hurricanes, tornados, whirlwinds, and waterspouts. These unpredictable, powerfully destructive phenomena of the cyclic flow of wind and water are experienced across most all the earth. Whirlwinds, the least problematic, appear in myth as “fertilizing.” Pregnancy accompanies whirlwinds. In Papua New Guinea, a woman gives birth to the primordial bullroarer itself as she sweeps her floor and creates dust devils.
Across traditions, the bullroarer’s timbre is most consistently likened to distant thunder, or the oddly disturbing roar of wind during a storm or hurricane. The most common image cut into or painted upon a bullroarer is a snake merged into a lightning bolt. Imagine a mammoth spiraling hurricane or cyclone reaching land and, as is so often the case, spinning off groups of smaller tornados, lightning flashing up and down their funnels. In eastern Australia, the most common name for the bullroarer is turndun. As with consorts of turnduns, tornados may turn back upon each other and merge into a roaring monster as is sometimes done in traditional initiation rituals.
Hesiod writes in Theogony that Gaia bore to Ouranos the three one-eyed Cyclops who gave Zeus thunder and lightning bolts. “In all else they were like gods, but one eye only was set in the midst of their foreheads. As soon as each was born, Ouranos forced them back into Gaia’s womb, causing her great pain.” Ultimately Gaia released the vortexes by means of Ouranos’ castration. This cutting of genitalia, and the splitting of the body with a bullroarer-blade to sustain larger vortex energies of life is found in widely separated mythological traditions from Greek to Aztec to 19th century peoples in southeast Australia.
(3) Spiraling growth of seeds, vegetation, and trees. One of the most common forms of the bullroarer is an elongated eye/vesica/seed shape such as Tecpatl, the Aztec obsidian knife used in blood sacrifice to bring new life. The tongue at the center of the monumental Aztec Sun Stone symbolizes Tecpatl in interconnected ways: the tongue (vocalizer) is the glyph for Tecpatl, the seed-shaped knife of sacrifice and new birth. The knife itself is represented as a fish/bullroarer, pointing down between day glyphs for dog and monkey (Sirius and Orion/Thoth). This bullroarer, at the center of the Stone, is metaphorically activated into spin by a surrounding image of the glyph Ollin, which stands for movement and is the most common pattern for Meso-American magic wheels
The spirals of golden mean rectangles and Fibonacci numbers in seed patterns of plants such as the sunflower connect living vortex energies to human rationality: to our fascination with order and purpose. Leaves often emerge around a stem along a predictable regular spiral, as do branches from the trunks of many species of tree. A bullroarer is spin – and is often believed to await a carver who will release it from inside a tree.
Spiraling tendrils emerge from vines such as peas to cling to support structures at exactly the moment the plant needs them. Clusters of supporting tendrils, like consorts of bullroarers, can ultimately enable the emergence of a huge, choking, spiraling vine.
(4) Spiraling flight paths of birds of prey. Bullroarers are swung at death, to invite Ancestors who will call the spirit of the deceased away from the mundane time of the living. Eagles and hawks, circling birds of prey who survive primarily on dead meat, are prominent in bullroarer mythologies.
I wonder, how will future humans join their unique and inevitably eccentric encounters with vortexes? Hopefully they will have dispensed with the idea that humans are somehow “not Nature”. Bullroarers and spinners are just my tools to open my heart to intelligent life outside academia, to respectful acknowledgement of the power of spin. The base frequency of a bullroarer (approximately 100-110 hz.) is quite low and has no upper partials (harmonics) to distract attention. 110 hz. is an exact harmonic frequency of 440 hz., the “A” to which I daily tune my violin. It’s been proposed that 110 hz. is a threshold resonance frequency in megalithic architectural structures for relative deactivation of language centers and a shift in prefrontal activity that may be related to emotional processing. Is this the invitation to the dance beyond words?
Some Useful References
Cook, I. A., S. K. Pajot, and A. F. Leuchter. 2008 Ancient architectural acoustic resonance patterns and regional brain activity. Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture 1: 95-104.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1990. Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.
Haddon, A. C. 1898. The study of man. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
Hagens, B. 2005. Timbres of the Spheres: The Bullroarer and the Magic Wheel. In Proceedings: Conference Internationale Musicologique, edited by C. Traube and S. Lacasse. OICM/UMontreal. www.missionignition.net/bethe
______. 2004 Bullroarers. Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History. Boston: Berkshire Publishing Group.
Heron, J. 1998. Sacred science: Person centered inquiry into the spiritual and the subtle. Ross-On-Wye, UK: PCCS Books.
Johnston, S. I. 1990. Hekate soteira: A study of Hekate's role in the Chaldean Oracles and related literature. Vol. 21, American Classical Studies.
Mathews, R. H. 1896-1897. The Keeparra ceremony of initiation. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute 26:320 - 340.
Morley, I. 2006. The Evolutionary Origins and Archaeology of Music. Darwin College [Cambridge University] Research Report DCRR-002. Cambridge University. Accessed March 20, 2009 www.dar.cam.ac.uk/dcrr
Paley, W. 1802 (1837) Natural Theology. Edited by T. Smibert. Edinburgh: William and Robert Chambers.
Puterbaugh, J. 1999 Between a place and some location: A view of timbre through auditory models and sonopoietic space. Dissertation, Princeton University.
Salvatore, G. 1991. Can archetypes be heard? Musicworks 49 (Winter).
Tuzin, D. 1984. Miraculous voices: The auditory experience of numinous objects. Current Anthropology 25 (5):579 - 596.
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