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Mexican ocarinas used in Mexicolore school history workshops on the Maya and the Aztecs

The ocarina in Mesoamerica

In our history workshops in schools on the Maya and the Aztecs children have been merrily playing ocarinas (pictured, right) for many years. Plastic ocarinas are a popular resource in primary school music rooms in England. If you google ‘ocarina’ you could be forgiven for thinking that the instrument has its origins in 19th century Italy. In fact it has a much more ancient pedigree, stretching far to the east and west of Europe... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

‘Imitative music’ - short clip of Roberto Velazquez Cabrera playing a frog-shaped ocarina

Pic 1: A ‘classic’: four-hole bird ocarina. Costa Rica. PM# 17-3-20/C8064 © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
Pic 1: A ‘classic’: four-hole bird ocarina. Costa Rica. PM# 17-3-20/C8064 © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (Click on image to enlarge)

The word ‘ocarina’ is certainly Italian in origin: in the Bolognese dialect of the Emiliano-Romagnolo language it means ‘little goose’. The Italian Giuseppe Donati invented the modern ‘sweet potato’ style ocarina in his workshop near Bologna, transforming what had, in Europe, been little more than a toy into an eight-holed musical instrument.
What exactly IS an ocarina? First and foremost, it’s a wind instrument or aerophone. Secondly, it belongs to the flute family. Within that it’s a kind of ‘duct’ flute (‘Duct flutes... have the upper end blocked except for a small duct into which the player blows and which directs his breath to the sharp edge of an opening cut into the tube’ - Jean Jenkins). Finally, since duct flutes can be tubular or globular, the ocarina falls into the second category, sometimes called a ‘vessel flute’.

Pic 2: Models of the insides of Mesoamerican whistles and other simple flutes, showing the air duct in each
Pic 2: Models of the insides of Mesoamerican whistles and other simple flutes, showing the air duct in each (Click on image to enlarge)

Duct flutes, then, are flutes that have air ducts, channelling the air towards a sharp edge, as opposed to ‘end-flutes’, ‘notched flutes’, ‘transverse flutes’ and others that don’t. Interestingly, duct flutes are easier to blow and less wasteful of breath than the other types.
Unfortunately, as Karl Izikowitz pointed out early in the 20th century, ‘no other group of instruments... has caused so many difficulties for ethnographers as flutes’. Whilst he was referring specifically to the Americas, the same could be said about instrument research all over the world...

Pic 3: Modern reproductions of ancient ocarinas: pear-shaped Chinese ‘xun’ (left) and (mother-and-baby) frog-shaped Mesoamerican vessel flute (right)
Pic 3: Modern reproductions of ancient ocarinas: pear-shaped Chinese ‘xun’ (left) and (mother-and-baby) frog-shaped Mesoamerican vessel flute (right) (Click on image to enlarge)

Evidence for ocarinas goes back several millennia, particularly in ancient China, where clay ocarinas from the Shang Dynasty pre-date 1100 BCE, and in pre-Classic Mesoamerica (some of Dennett and Kosyk’s Greater Nicoya examples date from 500 BCE). The trouble is, archaeologists may not be musicians and vice versa. In the Americas, where ‘every known type of flute construction in the world was also known by the [South American] Indians’ (Izikowitz), ‘the terms whistle, ocarina and sometimes flute have been carelessly and often synonymously used’ (Norman Hammond). Hammond points out that most of the whistle-figurines recorded in scholarly literature are actually ocarinas, having a small hole at the mouthpiece ‘and one or more stops in the walls of the chamber’.

Pic 4: Store of musical instruments in the emperor’s palace; Florentine Codex Book 8. Note the whistle-like instrument top left...
Pic 4: Store of musical instruments in the emperor’s palace; Florentine Codex Book 8. Note the whistle-like instrument top left... (Click on image to enlarge)

What sort of evidence do we have? The Spanish invaders mixed and matched words like ‘whistle’ and ‘flute’ liberally, so whilst the chroniclers used phrases such as flautillas mui agudas (‘very shrill tiny flutes’ - Torquemada) we have very little to go on by way of detail or even iconography. The closest we get to an illustration of a Mexica (Aztec) ocarina is in the Florentine Codex (pic 4). Mexican expert Guillermo Contreras identifies it as a ‘twin-diaphragm whistle’. We should point out at this stage that there is little evidence of ocarina playing at all among the Mexica - in Robert Stevenson’s inimitable words ‘the idea must be surrendered that either the Aztecs themselves or their close allies took fondly to the ocarina...’

Pic 5: What appears to be an ocarina player follows two trumpeters in a processional band of Maya musicians, Bonampak murals (reconstruction)
Pic 5: What appears to be an ocarina player follows two trumpeters in a processional band of Maya musicians, Bonampak murals (reconstruction) (Click on image to enlarge)

We don’t have much for the ancient Maya either. There’s a scene in Room 1 of the famous Bonampak murals depicting a ceremonial Maya band circling clockwise round the player of a large stationary vertical drum (pax). At the back of the procession is a single musician who appears to be multitasking, shaking a rattle, holding a hand drum, and blowing a small wind instrument most scholars believe is an ocarina (pic 5).

Pic 6: Pre-Hispanic Gayraca style ceramic ocarina, Tairona culture, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia
Pic 6: Pre-Hispanic Gayraca style ceramic ocarina, Tairona culture, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia (Click on image to enlarge)

What we DO have is a surprisingly large number of original vessel flutes found by archaeologists in sites not only throughout Mesoamerica and the Caribbean, but also beyond, through Central and way down into South America (pic 6) - adding weight to the conclusion that ‘the sheer wealth of instruments gives the impression of the enormous importance of music-making in the lives of these people’ (Peter Crossley-Holland). The vast majority are ceramic (the occasional bone ocarina has been found). Although pottery is not commonly a material associated with music - for a start, it shatters even more easily than glass - it DOES survive, when fired, far longer than say wood or gourd when buried in the earth.

Pic 7: Maya ceramic ocarina made of 3 connecting spheres, the top sphere being a portrait head of a woman
Pic 7: Maya ceramic ocarina made of 3 connecting spheres, the top sphere being a portrait head of a woman (Click on image to enlarge)

Characteristic of agricultural societies worldwide, the use of clay has important implications: most of these instruments were moulded carefully and symbolically (think integration, oneness...) out of a single piece of material, being either ‘zoomorphic’ (representing living creatures) or ‘anthropomorphic’ (representing the human form) (pic 7). From the musical standpoint, clay warms slowly, requiring the player literally to warm up the instrument: ‘Flutes tend to sound their best after a good warming by the player’s breath and hands’ (Crossley-Holland).

Pic 8: Pottery 4-hole parrot or macaw-shaped ocarina, catalogued as Aztec, with traces of paint. British Museum no. Am1865,0610.9
Pic 8: Pottery 4-hole parrot or macaw-shaped ocarina, catalogued as Aztec, with traces of paint. British Museum no. Am1865,0610.9 (Click on image to enlarge)

By far the most common type of ocarina from ancient Mesoamerica was the 4-hole bird-shaped variety (pix 1 and 8), measuring roughly 4-7 cms., called huilacapitztli in the Aztec language Nahuatl. The ubiquity of these (they were so common) led 19th- and 20th-century scholars to make a number of false assumptions: that these were -
• just toys made for children to play with
• limited to a simple pentatonic (5-note) scale
• symbolic just of the four sacred quarters of the world...

Pic 9: Four pre-Columbian ocarinas
Pic 9: Four pre-Columbian ocarinas (Click on image to enlarge)

Since then, however, scholars - including serious musicians - have discovered that Mesoamerican ocarinas:-
• came in a huge variety of shapes (Rodens, Both and Sánchez catalogue over 150, and that’s just one particular type, ‘poly-globular flutes’ with two or more connected globular chambers - instruments unique to Mesoamerica; picture 7 shows a good example)
• have up to six finger holes (see picture 16) (or ‘stops’ as Izikowitz called them), and can measure up to 20 cm or 7 inches in length
• could produce a wide range of notes/pitches: even a 4-hole model could generate up to 16 or even 18 pitches (Stevenson, Martí)
• were played for serous purposes, particularly in rituals, and often accompanied songs and chants. With their gentle musical qualities, it’s unlikely ocarinas would have featured in mass performances/ceremonies, and more likely they would have been played, for example, by court musicians, perhaps accompanying songs praising the ruler’s exploits and victories.

Pic 10: Frogs featured strongly in Mexica/Aztec sculpture and iconography
Pic 10: Frogs featured strongly in Mexica/Aztec sculpture and iconography (Click on image to enlarge)

Frog-shaped ocarinas would almost certainly have been played by groups of musicians mimicking the croaking sound of frogs heralding rain, effectively ‘calling’ the gods for rain; just as rattlesnake-shaped rainsticks were shaken to the same end (rattlesnakes are always much more active in the rainy season) - what Kurath and Martí call ‘imitative music’. Mesoamerican peoples were very closely in touch with nature, and expressed that relationship through their senses and in the arts. Choice of materials was important: a clay resonator produces the most authentic sound for mimicking a frog’s croaking voice...

Pic 11: 6-hole peccary-form ocarina, Greater Nicoya (Central America), 300 BC-AD 500. Denver Art Museum: Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1995.787. Photograph © Denver Art Museum
Pic 11: 6-hole peccary-form ocarina, Greater Nicoya (Central America), 300 BC-AD 500. Denver Art Museum: Gift of Frederick and Jan Mayer, 1995.787. Photograph © Denver Art Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

By blowing into a frog-shaped ocarina, the musician performed a ritual act on several levels: he (it was usually a he) blew breath - ie life itself - into the instrument and frog, he drew out its voice (the Mexica spoke of musicians being ‘singers’ of their instruments; the Maya considered even percussion instruments to be animated by wind/breath), and also he invoked the association with rain that the frog represented. Ocarinas have also been found in the shape of armadillos, dogs, birds, felines, serpents, peccaries (pic 11), turtles, owls, tapirs, monkeys, bats, scorpions, lizards, and, rarely, turkeys and fish... In the vast majority of cases, the animal depicted faces AWAY from the musician when the instrument is played. The ocarina shown in picture 11 is a rare example where the animal image is oriented TOWARDS the musician.

Pic 12: 4-hole armadillo-shaped ocarina, University of Calgary collections, alongside a rolled-up three-banded armadillo
Pic 12: 4-hole armadillo-shaped ocarina, University of Calgary collections, alongside a rolled-up three-banded armadillo (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 12 shows another rare example. Dennett and Kosyk explain how it works: ‘The mouthpiece is part of the armadillo’s snout. The airduct is directed towards a rectangular aperture on the animal’s throat between the vessel chamber and mouthpiece. The resonating chamber is almost perfectly spherical; only alternating in shape with the extension of the armadillo’s tail and head which are not solid and are part of the inner chamber as well. There is a single hole that goes through the tail that may have been used for suspension.’

Pic 13: Pottery ocarina from Guatemala with the modelled representation of a figurine with a human face. British Museum no. Am1930,F.172
Pic 13: Pottery ocarina from Guatemala with the modelled representation of a figurine with a human face. British Museum no. Am1930,F.172 (Click on image to enlarge)

If the Aztecs only played ocarinas on a small scale, FAR more evidence exists of ocarina playing in the Gulf of Mexico region, among the Classic Maya, and down into what is today Central America (as far as modern-day Costa Rica). We know from the Central American region that ocarinas were - and still are today - part of the ‘toolkits’ of shamans, used to communicate with the dead and supernatural. We can only assume the Mexica used them in similar contexts. Examples have been found that combine human with animal features - indicating the depiction of nahuales or spirit guides. Healy has noted that male ‘figurine ocarinas’ from Belize usually emit lower pitches than female ones. Dajer, in his richly illustrated study of pre-Columbian instruments from Michoacán, catalogues sets of three ocarinas with different pitches: deep, medium and shrill.

Pic 14: Two ocarinas with the same colour and finish, Instituto Michoacano de Cultura
Pic 14: Two ocarinas with the same colour and finish, Instituto Michoacano de Cultura (Click on image to enlarge)

When played together today, they exhibit a ‘considerable tonal range’ and produce ‘unusual and rich harmonies’, and Dajer wonders if the ancients followed this practice. A pair of matching ocarinas that dramatically illustrates the two ends of this mini spectrum is shown in picture 14.
Crossley-Holland suggests possible cultural differences for these pitches: ‘It may well be that deep sounds were especially sought-after in West Mexican antiquity’. We should point out that the concept of ‘pitch’ was not as important in ancient Mesoamerica as rhythm and timbre; after all, it was almost impossible to make two ceramic instruments that matched each other exactly in pitch.

Pic 15: Two poly-globular ocarinas, the lower one with motifs resembling hallucinogenic plants. Instituto Michoacano de Cultura
Pic 15: Two poly-globular ocarinas, the lower one with motifs resembling hallucinogenic plants. Instituto Michoacano de Cultura (Click on image to enlarge)

Just as figurines depict both individual musicians and ensembles, it seems likely that ocarinas were played both solo in every-day life (such as accompanying a chant to a deity within the family home, or a shaman carrying out a healing, or to mimic bird or animal calls while hunting) and - more commonly - in groups as part of fertility, rain and other rituals, or possibly in funeral processions, and - beyond - to call upon the dead, often to help the living. The ocarina’s role in helping priest, shaman and nahual (animal companion spirit) to cross over between these worlds, whilst noted many years ago for South America by Izikowitz, has yet to be fully explored and documented in Mesoamerica. Dajer suggests, from seeing depictions of hallucinogenic plants on some ocarinas (pic 15), that the instruments may well have been used in hallucinatory rituals and ceremonies.

Pic 16: Two bird-shaped ocarinas, one with 4 fingerholes, the other with 6; reproductions by Taller Pozos, Guanajuato
Pic 16: Two bird-shaped ocarinas, one with 4 fingerholes, the other with 6; reproductions by Taller Pozos, Guanajuato (Click on image to enlarge)

All sound is communication. Wind instruments have always been employed to send messages, both in war and in peace. Some scholars believe ocarinas and whistles were used in part for the mundane purpose of communicating back and forth between (distant) households (Nielsen & Helmke, Both & Giles). (This would presumably have involved smaller instruments, since lower-pitch sound waves don’t reach as far as higher-pitch ones). Others suggest one-way message-sending, such as calling family or community members to prayer. Communication with spirits is a two-way process. An ocarina might be played in one context to call a person’s animal spirit or nahual but in another to scare away an unwanted bad spirit.

Pic 17: Collage of pre-Hispanic frog-shaped ocarinas/whistles from Colima
Pic 17: Collage of pre-Hispanic frog-shaped ocarinas/whistles from Colima (Click on image to enlarge)

In the case of rain rituals, instruments might have been played not only to invoke rain, but also to thank the appropriate deities AFTER the rain has come. As Miller succinctly put it ‘Wind begets rain, and rain begets maize...’ Following research on 1325 clay aerophones held by the Museo de Antropología e Historia, San Pedro Sula (Honduras), Campos suggests ocarinas may have been played ‘in chorus’ (pic 17), reproducing the celebratory murmur of frogs and other creatures to be heard every evening after a heavy storm in the Sula valley. The Sula collection, incidentally, contains several ceramic ‘stamp-ocarinas’, indicating a dual - decorative/musical - function.

Pic 18: Small self-standing avian ocarinas from West Mexico (Crossley-Holland collection, University of Bangor)
Pic 18: Small self-standing avian ocarinas from West Mexico (Crossley-Holland collection, University of Bangor) (Click on image to enlarge)

The decorative potential of some zoomorphic ocarinas is raised by Nielsen & Helmke: a set of five hand-modelled small Maya avian (bird-shaped) ocarinas from Belize has been found in the form of a necklace; the instruments are of incremental sizes, suggesting that ‘the wearer of the necklace could easily switch between the various suspended instruments to play melodies more elaborate than those produced by a single ocarina. While only the one necklace has been identified at Pook’s Hill [Belize], it is conceivable that such necklaces were widespread, given the number of similar small effigy ocarinas with suspension holes. If such necklaces were indeed commonplace, musical activity with these instruments could have been highly social with multiple wearers of necklaces producing music together’.
Ocarinas may have decorated not just the human body, but also the physical environment: as the authors point out, in addition to suspension holes, ‘most ocarinas also exhibit small supports or nubbin feet so that these can stand as small statuettes or effigies’ (pic 18).

Pic 19: Female pottery figurine-ocarina, decorated in red on the face and legs; apparently there was a child on the back which has now disappeared. Chiriquí, Costa Rica. British Museum no. Am1965,04.24
Pic 19: Female pottery figurine-ocarina, decorated in red on the face and legs; apparently there was a child on the back which has now disappeared. Chiriquí, Costa Rica. British Museum no. Am1965,04.24 (Click on image to enlarge)

Maybe it’s fitting to end this introduction to Mesoamerican ocarinas on the theme of aesthetics. Several scholars have commented on the exquisite look and feel of some of these diminutive instruments - most notably Samuel Martí, who gave his highest vote to the ‘enchanting whistle-figurines’ from the Central Mexican region of Tlatilco. We hope you will agree that some of the musical artefacts shown on this page are genuinely beautiful, and would proudly grace any museum or art gallery’s display cases. Yet the artists knew they were imbuing them with a living spirit - a ‘breath-soul’ in Taube’s words - which would be animated and brought to life, in real and spiritual domains, through skilled musical performance...

Pic 20: Large horned toad-shaped ceramic ocarina (reproduction)
Pic 20: Large horned toad-shaped ceramic ocarina (reproduction) (Click on image to enlarge)

Sources/references (‘in order of appearance’):-
• Jenkins, Jean (1970), Musical Instruments, Horniman Museum, London
• Izikowitz, Karl (1970) Musical Instruments of the South American Indians, S R Publishers, Yorkshire; (first published in Sweden, 1934)
• Dennett, Carrie L. and Kosyk, Katrina C. (2013) ‘Winds of Change: Ceramic Musical Instruments from Greater Nicoya’ in Flower World/Mundo Florido, vol. 2, General Editor Arnd Adje Both, Ekho Verlag, Berlin
• Hammond, Norman (1972) ‘Classic Maya Music Part II: Rattles, Shakers, Raspers, Wind and String Instruments’ in Archaeology 25, 222-228
• Contreras Arias, Juan Guillermo (1988) Atlas Cultural de México: Música, SEP/INAH/Grupo Editorial Planeta, Mexico
• Stevenson, Robert (1968) Music in Aztec & Inca Territory, Cambridge University Press, London
• Crossley-Holland, Peter (1980) Musical Artefacts of Pre-Hispanic West Mexico, Monograph Series in Ethnomusicology, no. 1, University of California, Los Angeles
• Rodens, Vanessa, Both, Arnd Adje, Sánchez Santiago, Gonzalo (2013) ‘Las flautas poli-globulares de Mesoamérica’ in Flower World/Mundo Florido, vol. 2, General Editor Arnd Adje Both, Ekho Verlag, Berlin
• Martí, Samuel (1968) Instrumentos Musicales Precortesianos, INAH, Mexico City
• Kurath, Gertrude Prokosch and Martí, Samuel (1964) Dances of Anáhuac, Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology no. 38, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, New York
• Healy, Paul F. (1988) ‘Music of the Maya’, Archaeology 41, 24-31
• Dájer, Jorge (1995) Los artefactos sonoros precolombinos desde su desbubrimiento en Michoacán, Empresa Libre de Autoeditores, Mexico
• Nielsen, Kristina and Helmke, Christophe (2015) ‘A Case Study of Maya Avian Ocarinas from Pook’s Hill, Belize’ in Flower World/Mundo Florido, vol. 4, General Editor Arnd Adje Both, Ekho Verlag, Berlin
• Both, Arnd Adje and Giles (2017) ‘Los artefactos sonoros de Xochicalco’ in Flower World/Mundo Florido, vol. 5, General Editor Arnd Adje Both, Ekho Verlag, Berlin
• Miller, Mary (2017) ‘Sounds and Sights: Sweeping the Way at Bonampak’ in Flower World/Mundo Florido, vol. 5, General Editor Arnd Adje Both, Ekho Verlag, Berlin
• Campos, Teresa M. (2012) ‘Los aerófonos de barro del Valle de Sula, Honduras’ in Flower World/Mundo Florido, vol. 1, General Editor Arnd Adje Both, Ekho Verlag, Berlin
• Taube, Karl A. (2004) ‘Flower Mountain. Concepts of life, beauty, and paradise among the Classic Maya’, Res 45, 69-98.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic and pix 2, 3(R), 10 (except codex illustration), 16 & 20: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 1: photo courtesy Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology
• Pic 3(L): photo from Amazon.ca (Sound-of-Mountain)
• Pix 4 & 10 (bottom R): images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 5: Image scanned from our copy of Ancient Maya Paintings of Bonampak Mexico, Supplementary Publication 46, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1955. Painting (detail) by Antonio Tejeda
• Pic 6: photo from Wikimedia Commons (Ocarina), original in the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
• Pic 7: photo by, courtesy of and ©Justin Kerr, mayavase.com; cat. K7285
• Pix 8, 13 & 19: photos © 2018 Trustees of the British Museum
• Pic 9: photo downloaded from https://www.skinnerinc.com/search?s=Ocarina
• Pic 11: photo courtesy Denver Art Museum
• Pic 12: photo (L) from University of Calgary collections (Cat. no. UCAD 2.29; permission to use granted by Arnd Adje Both. Photo (R) by Mark Payne-Gill/naturepl.com (permission sought), downloaded from https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25716-devils-claw-looms-over-world-cups-armadillo-mascot/
• Pix 14 & 15: photos scanned from Los Artefactos sonoros.... (see above)
• Pix 17 & 18: original photos by and courtesy of Christina Homer, Bangor University.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 04th 2018

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