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Games and Pastimes of the Maori

The Bullroarer

The Bullroarer

We have now come to a most primitive form, but one that has been used in almost all parts of the world. Though it may appear to be a somewhat anomalous proceeding, these rude sound makers are included under the head of musical instruments. From one point of view, they may be termed wind instruments.

In his Study of Man, Professor Haddon has brought together in one paper notices of the use of the bullroarer from many lands, and gives an interesting table of the uses to which the implement was put, and curious beliefs connected with it, among these being:—

  • Sacred implements used in the mysteries.
  • In initiation ceremonies.
  • To summon spirits.
  • To frighten away spirits.
  • The voice of a god.
  • For producing wind, or rain, or thunder, or lightning.
  • Tapu to women.
  • Used as a toy.

It is an interesting fact that the bullroarer was used in the most cultured period of Greek civilisation during the performance of page 294sacred mysteries, even as it is employed by Australian savages in initiation ceremonies. Prof. Haddon concludes his chapter on this instrument with the words:—"This insignificant toy is perhaps the most ancient, widely spread, and sacred religious symbol in the world."

The bullroarer is known to the Maori as a huhu, purorohu, turorohu, rangorango, wheorooro, and purerehua. It consists of a thin, flat piece of wood, usually heart wood of matai (Podocarpus spicatus), 12 in. to 18 in. in length and an elongated oval in outline. To one end is attached a cord about 4 ft. in length, the other end of which is secured to a rod about 3 ft. long, which serves as a handle. Grasping this rod, the operator whirls it and the attached slat round with gradually increasing swiftness, until it begins to produce a whirring sound, which deepens in volume until, perhaps, it may be best described as a whirring boom. Some natives state that this sound is caused by the wairua, or soul, of the operator.

The bullroarer was called a turorohu, or huhu, by the Ngati-Porou folk, who formed it from a piece of matai wood. Tuta Nihoniho explains that this implement was used in a curious ceremony performed in olden times in order to bring rain. When rain was needed, as for crops, an adept would, during the evening or night, proceed to demand rain. He would go forth with a bullroarer and a handful of ashes, throw the ashes toward the south (the rainy quarter) and commence to sound his huhu by swinging it round, at the same time turning his back on the south in an insulting manner, so that it would become angry and send a storm (a ka whakapo-hane i tona whew ki te tonga, kiapukuriri hoki te tonga; a ka hapainga mai nga marangai, nga hau, nga ngaru, nga aha). As he swung his huhu round, he repeated the following charm:

"Kaore koa te whenua nei ka ruia ka nekea
Taku taonga nei he taonga iti hoki
Taku taonga nei ko hotu maunga
Te tuku ai, e tuku a runga
Te whakaiho ai tuku a rangi
Ka wha te moana rau ririki
Ka kati ki tari." (Tari for taringa).

This curious performance, we are informed, would certainly produce a rain storm from the south. The bullroarer was swung with a handle like the Tuhoe one. Children would be chided if they sounded a bullroarer, and told that such an act would cause a rain storm. "Kati te mahi; he taritari marangai tena mahi!" This looks as though this implement was not used as a toy, but only in connection with ceremonial usages, which reminds one of its use in the ritual of Australian natives, and other peoples.

page 295

Fig. 102 Four Bullroarers and one Whizzer A. A specimen in the British Museum B. A carved specimen in the Dominion Museum C. A plain specimen D. Taken from Maori Art. See p. 296

page 296

In Vol. 34 of the Transactions of the N.Z. Institute is a description of an implement made from a piece of whale's bone, that was found at the Chatham Isles, and which is spoken of as a bullroarer. It certainly may have been so used, but the matter rests on supposition only.

In Vol. 8 of Spolia Zeylanica, A. A. Perera has a note to the effect that boys in Ceylon use the bullroarer to keep cattle away from the paddy fields. "It is made of a thin, oblong piece of wood or bamboo, attached to a stick by a string, and swung rapidly round; its humming sound is said to resemble a cheetah's growl."

This simple instrument was used in ceremonial performances in New Guinea, and the fact that they were sounded in order to make the yams grow, was possibly coupled with the peculiar belief held by those natives that the sound was caused by spirits. In the New Hebrides and Australia the bullroarer was also used ceremonially, and held by the people to be a tapu and uncanny object.

In Fig. 102 (p. 295) are shown four of these Maori bullroarers, as also a specimen of the kororohu or wairori, the 'whizzer' of the small boy, of which instrument more anon. A is an old specimen of bullroarer in the British Museum that is l1½ in. in length. B represents a specimen in the Dominion Museum that is attached to the whirling stick. This is a well-carved specimen, and has a few shell discs inserted. C shows a plain form, entirely unadorned, while D appears in Maori Art.

Two bullroarers from New Guinea in the Dominion Museum (Nos. G 1523 and G 1525) are adorned on one side with carved designs consisting of grotesque representations of the human figure. One of these specimens is slightly over 2 ft. in length, and a little under 3 in. in width. The other is 1 ft. 10 in. long and 3 in. wide. Thus they are much narrower in proportion to their length than are our local specimens.