Hear the Haunting Aztec “Death Whistle,” the Instrument That Made Sounds Resembling a Human Scream

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

Relat­ed con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Appre­hen­sion Engine: Bri­an Eno Called It “the Most Ter­ri­fy­ing Musi­cal Instru­ment of All Time”

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.

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