skullsproject

The Mystery Behind the Ancient ‘Death Whistle’

‘Death Whistles’ appear as skulls – models created by Roberto Velázquez Cabrera

Last week, I discovered a fascinating video clip through Facebook featuring the ‘death whistle’ that creates some very unsettling or disturbing sounds that immediately convinced me to down the volume on my computer. This YouTube video features Xavier Quijas Yxayotl holding a skull shaped whistle and I was completely surprised when I listened to the noises from this particular instrument and I was alarmed by the loud, unpleasant sounds.1

There is something fascinating, yet mysterious about this instrument and the noises convinced me to undertake some further research in order to discover the purpose behind the Aztec ‘death whistle.’ This is something I haven’t seen or heard of before until now and I decided to delve deeper in the spiritual, cultural and historical speculations relating to the death whistle. 

I have recently discovered a very interesting article from Mexicolore featuring a Mechanical Engineer, Roberto Velázquez Cabrera who reproduces ancient, Aztec instruments in order to evaluate various sounds or noises.2

Xavier Quijas Yxayotl with a death whistle

Over the past couple of days, I have wondered why the death whistle features the shape of a skull? Cabrera explains that the skull shaped whistle may feature a connection to certain “death rituals,” as well as ancient aztec mythology, including Ehecatl (the wind god) and Mictlantecutli (the god of death)3 There is limited information in regards to this ancient instrument and it has been rather difficult to find academic research that is written in English, however Cabrera cites the only ‘archaeological’ publication that was produced by Salvador Guilliem Arroyo in regards to these death whistles.4

In reference to Cabrera’s written article from Mexicolore, these death whistles were extracted from the skeletal remains of a sacrificed victim and the young man was “buried in front of the Ehecatl (wind) temple of Tlatelolco.” Cabrera suggests that these ‘archaeological’ discoveries may feature a connection to certain Aztec gods including Ehecatl, as well as Mictlantecutli and the whistles may have been used for “the ritual of sacrifice.”5

Sacrificed victim buried with death whistle

After further research, I discovered a historical image featuring Ehecatl and Mictlantecutli side by side that has invited me to question the relationship between these two ancient gods. In ‘A Pocket Dictionary of Aztec and Mayan Gods and Goddesses,’ Clara Bezanilla suggests that Ehecatl travelled down to the underworld and ‘tricked Mictlantecutli’ in order to gather the skeletal remains from the people that have died from the ‘fourth sun.’6

According to Bezanilla, Echecatl “mixed these bones with his blood and gave life to the humans who inhabit the fifth sun or the present world.”7 I’m not entirely sure if these stories or mythologies feature a connection to the whistle, however it is interesting to uncover the stories behind Ehecatl and Mictlantecutli.

I have also wondered whether the ‘death whistle’ was used for anything else in particular and Cabrera’s article compares the noises from the death whistle with the Chichtli that is believed to create a ‘chich sound’ and this particular instrument was used during ‘banquets’ where slaves were sacrificed. Cabrera suggests that the ‘death whistle’ may have been used during these ceremonies or banquets.8

Image featuring Ehecatl (god of wind) and Mictlantecutli (god of death)

I tried to search for an audio recording of the sounds from the Chichtli; while I have discovered some articles and books online, I was unable to find any recordings. I have found this discovery rather interesting, as I’m able to listen to the Aztec Whistle through the internet, although I struggled to find any written information.

Cabrera suggests that many ‘resonators’ have disappeared and the ‘death whistle’ is quite a rare instrument; I have wondered whether the lack of information or research regarding the ‘death whistle’ were destroyed during the Spanish Inquisition, this is just a speculation I have anyway.9 Cabrera’s article also features an audio recording from the ‘death whistle’ that successfully produces some disturbing sounds and the noises remind me of a person screaming for help.

I decided to revisit the youtube video clip with Xavier Quijas Yxayotl who suggests that the ‘death whistle’ was used by tribes in order to scare their rivals during war.10 I tried to search for additional information online, however I was unable to find any other sources relating to the use of the ‘death whistle’ in warfare.

Youtube clip featuring Xavier Quijas Yxayotl playing the ‘death whistle’

I decided to compare Cabrera’s audio recording of the ‘death whistle’ with Xavier Quijas Yxayotl video clip and I have realised that the sounds are slightly different. From a personal perspective, Quijas Yxayotl ‘death whistle’ does sound very sinister or intimidating compared to Cabrera’s recording and I have wondered whether each individual ‘death whistle’ creates a different sound.11

I also noticed that Yxayotl’s instrument features a different shape compared to Cabrera’s models. According to Yxayotl’s website, the musician recreates the whistles in order to provide a sinister or ‘intimidating’ appearance.12 

Examining the ‘death whistle’ provided some very interesting, yet fascinating research that I haven’t discovered before. I was surprised that I discovered this ancient instrument through Facebook and I’m hoping to find some additional information in the future. Please click on the links below for further details.

References

1.Quijas Yxayotl, ‘Death Whistle,’ Jan 15 2013, Youtube, accessed 15/12/14, http://youtu.be/I9QuO09z-SI
2.Roberto Velázquez Cabrera, ‘The Death Whistle,’ Mexicolore, accessed 15/12/14, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/music/death-whistle
3.Cabrera, ‘The Death Whistle.’
4.Cabrera, ‘The Death Whistle.’
5.Cabrera, ‘The Death Whistle.’
6.Clara Bezanilla, “A Pocket Dictionary of Aztec and Mayan Gods and Goddesses” (United Kingdom: The Trustees of the British Museum, 2006) p.10
7.Bezanilla, “A Pocket Dictionary of Aztec and Mayan Gods and Goddesses” p.10
8.Cabrera, ‘The Death Whistle.’
9.Cabrera, ‘The Death Whistle.’
10.Yxayotl, ‘Death Whistle.’
11.Cabrera, ‘The Death Whistle.’
12. Xavier Quijas Yxayotl, ‘Instrument,’ accessed 15/12/14, http://www.yxayotl.com/instruments/

Image References

Images can be found through the Mexicolore website via Cabrera’s article, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/music/death-whistle

http://www.somosprimos.com/sp2008/spnov08/spnov08.htm