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Roberto Velázquez Cabrera, Mexicolore contributor on ancient Mexican music

The ‘death whistle’

This article has generously been written specially for Mexicolore by Roberto Velázquez Cabrera, a mechanical engineer by profession who has made a life-long study - including the physical reconstruction - of ancient Mexican resonators and other wind instruments. He is the founder of the Mexico City-based Instituto Virtual de Investigación Tlapitzcalzin.

Pic 1: Experimental model of the death whistle
Pic 1: Experimental model of the death whistle (Click on image to enlarge)

The extraordinary ‘death whistle’ was exclusively used in several zones of ancient Mexico and belongs to a very unusual family of Mexican resonators that are not well known and which can produce special sounds imitating animal calls and the noise of the wind or storms. It is not a common whistle or musical instrument. It has been associated with death rituals by its decorated face of a skull and with the wind because two examples were found in the hands of a sacrificed male skeleton in front of the Ehecatl (wind god) temple at Tlatelolco. Unfortunately, the exact original use and purpose of the death whistle and many other ancient resonators have been lost. There are some ancient death whistles made of clay in museums and collections, but very few of their studies and sounds have been published. This is the first paper in English on the death whistle posted on the Internet.

Pic 2: Drawings of death whistles by José Luis Franco
Pic 2: Drawings of death whistles by José Luis Franco (Click on image to enlarge)

It was José Luis Franco who published the first (1971) drawings of the death whistle and his family of Mexican “aerophones with springs of air”. A drawing by Franco shows a death whistle with the decorative face of a skull (pic 2, left), which points to its original purpose as a death whistle. Another drawing by Franco shows the internal structure of a death whistle with the decorative face of an owl (pic 2, right). In Mexican cultures the owl is associated with the coming of death. The main technical elements of the death whistle are shown in the cross section of this illustrative model (pic 3).

Pic 3: Cross-section of death whistle model
Pic 3: Cross-section of death whistle model (Click on image to enlarge)

The only known ancient death whistles with archaeological context were published by Salvador Guilliem Arroyo in 1999. They were recovered from the hands of the skeleton of a sacrificed 20-year-old man that was found buried in front of the Ehecatl (wind) temple of Tlatelolco (pic 4). This finding indicates that the whistles are associated with Ehecatl and the wind and Mictlantecutli (death), and they could be related to the ritual of sacrifice. Many other ancient skeletons were found in the same ceremonial complex of Ehecatl. Guilliem proposed that the ritual of the ceremonial complex could be associated with the famine of 1454.

Pic 4: Skeleton of man buried at wind god temple, Tlatelolco, with death whistle (indicated)
Pic 4: Skeleton of man buried at wind god temple, Tlatelolco, with death whistle (indicated) (Click on image to enlarge)

If the whistles were associated with Ehecatl or the wind, the sounds of the whistles have also been required to simulate the sounds of the wind, because a strong wind cannot simply be summoned whenever the occasion requires, as in a ritual or ceremony.
Ehecatl and Mictlantecutli are very important in Mexican mythology and iconography, as shown in the dual representation of the Borgia Codex (pic 5).
The only reference to the possible ancient use of this type of whistle comes from the following text: The most remarkable festival in connection with Tezcatlipoca was the Toxcatl, held in the fifth month. On the day of this festival a youth was slain who for an entire year previously had been carefully instructed in the role of victim... He assumed the name, garb, and attributes of Tezcatlipoca himself... [as] the earthly representative of the deity.... He carried also the whistle symbolical of the deity [as Lord of the Night Wind], and made with it a noise such as the weird wind of night makes when it hurries through the streets. (Lewis Spence, Myths of Mexico and Peru, London, 1913, pp. 69-70).

Pic 5: Mictlantecuhtli back-to-back with Ehecatl, Codex Borgia (lam. 56)
Pic 5: Mictlantecuhtli back-to-back with Ehecatl, Codex Borgia (lam. 56) (Click on image to enlarge)

Several papers on the death whistle have been requested in various academic forums. The latest was presented at the 2nd Pan-American/Iberian Meeting on Acoustics, Cancún, Mexico, 2010. Its Lay Language Paper was posted (in Spanish) with other Mexican resonators in the ASA Press Room of the American Institute of Physics.
A few models of Mexican ancient noise generators and of other kind of resonators with their sounds are posted on the internet in videos such as “Mechanical Engineer Recreates Sounds of his Pre-Columbian Ancestors” (on the web site of Associated Press since 2008 - link below).
The dynamics of the sound system of the Mexican noise generators is very complex. It could not be simulated with computerized mathematical models.

Pic 6: Spectogram of the sounds of the Mazatepetl ceramic death whistle fragment
Pic 6: Spectogram of the sounds of the Mazatepetl ceramic death whistle fragment (Click on image to enlarge)

This short article is a summary of the study of a ceramic fragment of a ‘death whistle’ from the surface of the Mazatepetl (deer hill, south of Mexico City) - pic 6, left. It probably dates from the Early Postclassic (1250-1380) era. It was found in an archaeological dig led by Francisco Rivas Castro. Since 2006, the consultation document of the study has been openly available (in Spanish) on my web site and it has been presented at other conferences and in several journals.
The sounds of the whistle could be analyzed, because its sound mechanism is still in working order. Though not ‘musical’ (in the modern western sense), they are similar to those of the winds. Their frequencies - the strongest of which come within the maximum range of hearing sensitivity of humans (1kHz-6kHz) - are shown in this spectrogram (pic 6, right).

Pic 7: Experimental models of ‘death whistles’
Pic 7: Experimental models of ‘death whistles’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Several effective procedures for the construction of the death whistle were tested and many experimental models were produced (pic 7) to test hypotheses and to be used in conferences and demonstrations, because clearly the original ancient resonators cannot be used for those purposes.
For example, an experimental model made without the tubular wind path does not change the produced sounds. The models with a wind path can be used to free the hand for other purposes, because they can be held firmly between the teeth and lips.

Pic 8: ‘Death whistle’ models in the hands of engineer Roberto Velázquez
Pic 8: ‘Death whistle’ models in the hands of engineer Roberto Velázquez (Click on image to enlarge)

It seems that the death whistle might have been used in the sacrifices of slaves, because chichtli (in Nahuatl) was an instrument that could produce a chich sound and it was used in the banquets of Aztec merchants where slaves were killed: according to the Florentine Codex, chich was the signal to pull out the hair from the middle of the slave’s head. After comparing the spectrograms of the chich sound made by a human voice with that of the death whistle model, and bearing in mind the connection with Ehecatl the wind god, the death whistle could aptly be named Ehecachichtli in honour of the deity.

Pic 9: Solid silver model of a ‘death whistle’ by Roberto Velázquez
Pic 9: Solid silver model of a ‘death whistle’ by Roberto Velázquez (Click on image to enlarge)

The ancient designs of Mexican resonators may be used to recreate the beautiful and extraordinary art of sonorous jewellery, such as this beautiful silver death whistle (pic 9).
Although ancient “music” has been lost, the sounds of death whistles can be used to create new compositions. For example, Enrico Chapela used several of my “skull whistle” models to create a composition Trio Cadensa (Encrypted Poetry), inspired by the poem “The Raven” by Edgar Alan Poe, but special instructions for the player had to be invented, because normal musical notation cannot cope with the complex sounds of these whistles!

Pic 10: Dual faced ‘death whistle’ model by Roberto Velázquez
Pic 10: Dual faced ‘death whistle’ model by Roberto Velázquez (Click on image to enlarge)

More research remains to be done in the future on the effects of their sounds. For example, we know that when two or more similar ancient whistles or their models are played at the same time special effects can be produced, due to the vibrations generated or ‘phantom’ sounds. If the beats are ‘infrasonic’ (too low for the human ear to detect) they may alter states of consciousness. Several death whistles played at the same time can generate very complex vibrations, because their noisy signals are produced in a range of frequencies and the effects on humans is significant due to the intensity and range of their main frequencies, but their effects on health have not yet been analyzed formally. An experimental dual model of the death whistle with the faces of Ehecatl and Mictlantecutli (pic 10) has already been used to test the possibility of the two whistles found at Tlatelolco being played at the same time. The sounds generated are similar to those of a storm. The produced frequencies are more complex and of greater intensity than those of single whistle models.

NOTE: For detailed academic references, please contact Mexicolore.

Pictures supplied by Roberto Velázquez, except Pic 8 (photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore) and Pic 5 (scanned from ‘The Codex Borgia: A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript’ by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, Dover Publications, New York, 1993).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 18th 2011

Learn how a Mexican composer today is incorporating the death whistle into her compositions

“‘Death whistle’: cremated example (re)discovered”

Roberto’s website, in English

Hear Roberto play examples of death whistles...

Hear, without commentary, examples of ancient Mexican ‘noise generators’, demonstrated by Roberto at the Bellas Artes palace, Mexico City, 2016

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Thanks, Leila, for this intriguing piece of information...
Mexicolore replies: Thank YOU, Kritzia, for this very positive feedback. This is precisely what our website - and Roberto’s experimental work - is for, to inspire and encourage others. Good luck with your own research, and let us know how you get on...!