General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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Article suitable for Top Juniors and above

The ‘crying boy’ whistling jug

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Harry Bradbeer: Please help - my son was shown an aztec object which he thinks was called a “crying boy” during your display at his school. His teacher has told him to research it on your website, but we cannot find it anywhere. He thinks you pour water in, tip it sideways, and it looks as if the boy is crying. Can you help? Many thanks. Harry. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Water is poured into the bowl on the left of the instrument
Water is poured into the bowl on the left of the instrument (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst we have a lot of ancient Mexican wind and percussion musical instruments on our website, ‘Crying Boy’ isn’t one of them! To make up, here’s a little background information... Yes, we take copies of two ancient Mexican ‘whistling jugs’ - sometimes called ‘whistling jars’ - to schools in our regular Aztecs workshops. They work essentially by water and air ‘playing’ together, the water pushing the air out of the hole at the opposite end to the ‘bowl’, where the water is placed...

Can you see the tiny hole under the eye, where drops of the water come out as ‘tears’?
Can you see the tiny hole under the eye, where drops of the water come out as ‘tears’? (Click on image to enlarge)

Ancient clay whistling jugs or jars are in fact more commonly found in South America (Peru, to be exact), in graves, suggesting that they may have been objects associated with the afterlife. Little is known of their uses: they may have been ‘magic’ objects. In Mexico they’re associated less with the Aztecs and more with other ancient cultures (the Mixtec, Maya, people of Teotihuacan and the people of Western Mexico).

There is some ‘anecdotal’ evidence (what we would call ‘hear-say’) that whistling jugs were tied by string from the roofs of houses or (more likely) trees to whistle gently in the wind and lull people off to sleep... How do they work?

Basically, the instrument is made up of two vessels or chambers, one open (into which you pour water), one enclosed (often in the shape of an animal, human head or bird), joined by a level tube along which the water flows. As you tip the instrument up, the water ‘displaces’ the air inside the sounding chamber, pushing it up, across the edge of a whistle and out of a hole usually around the top of the figure. As you look at the front of our ‘Crying boy’ one, you can see both the little hole for the tear and a larger hole higher up at the back, where the sound comes out. Ingenious!

If you follow the link below you can see diagrams of how these instruments work (but the article is a bit academic!)

Professor Brian Ransom’s article on Peruvian whistling water jars (PDF)