The received image of the Aztecs, with their savage battles and frequent acts of human sacrifice, tends to imply a violence-saturated, death-obsessed culture. Given that, it will hardly come as a surprise to learn of an Aztec musical instrument discovered in the hands of a sacrificed human body, or that the instrument has come to be known as the “death whistle.” Not that it was an especially recent find: the excavation in question happened in Mexico City in the late nineteen-nineties. But only over the past decade, with the creation of replicas like the one played by the late Xavier Quijas Yxayotl in the clip above, have listeners around the world been able to hear the death whistle for themselves.
“The sound of the death whistle is the most frightening thing we’ve ever heard,” writes Reuben Westmaas at Discovery.com. “It literally sounds like a screeching zombie. We can only imagine what it would be like to hear hundreds of whistles from an Aztec army on the march. We’re not entirely certain what the whistles were used for, however.”
Whatever its application, the distinctive sound of the death whistle is created by blown air interacting “with a well or ‘spring’ of air inside a rounded internal chamber, creating distortions,” as Dave Roos writes at How Stuff Works. In his analysis of the death whistle’s inner workings, mechanical engineer Roberto Velázquez Cabrera gives that component the evocative name “chaos chamber.”
That the death whistle would be used in war and human sacrifice certainly aligns with the reputation of the Aztecs, but the instrument has also inspired other historically informed speculations. In the video from Gizmodo just above, professor of Mesoamerican and Latino studies Jaime Arredondo even suggests that it could have had its therapeutic uses, as a tool to create a “hypnotic, sort of soothing atmosphere.” It could well have been designed to imitate the sound of the wind, given that the sacrificial victim had been buried at the temple of the wind god Ehecatl. And though the death whistle may seem the least likely tool of relaxation imaginable, put your mind to it and just hear it as sounding less like the screech of a zombie than like the fifteenth-century equivalent of a white-noise machine.
via Boing Boing
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.