What was the whistle used for?
The Aztec death whistle was most likely used as a spiritual conduit of sorts during religious practices and was also used (it’s widely believed) as a form of psychological warfare. It was probably used to terrify Aztec and pre-Columbian foes on the battle field.
The German Music Archeologist, Arnd Adje Both is credited as the man who first blew on the artifact in the 90’s. The video above is what made the whistle part of the mainstream consciousness.
This ‘whistle’ however, belongs to the mysteries of the Aztecs and other Mezo-American cultures, because truth be told, we don’t know much about it.
Where was it discovered?
The whistle was first discovered in the 90’s by modern archeologists, within the crossed arms of a man sacrificed to the Aztec god of the wind, Ehecatl.
The remains were laid ceremoniously in front of the temple of Ehecatl in Tlatelolco. The death ‘whistle,’ discovered was dual sided, and had death represented on one side and wind represented on the other.
The artifact is referenced by Salvador Guilliem Arroyo in 1999, and is the only ancient death whistle to be documented within an archaeological context. This leaves the subject of the Tlapitzcalzin (death whistle) open to debate. It raises more questions than we have answers. Let’s start with a bit of who’s who in the Aztec world and how they were associated.
According to Wikipedia, In Aztec mythology, Ehecatl (“wind”) was just one aspect of the god Quetzalcoatl. His name in the Nahuatl language means “feathered serpent” or “Quetzal-feathered Serpent”. The earliest known documentation of the worship of a Feathered Serpent occurs in Teotihuacan in Mexico, within the Late Preclassic to Early Classic period (400 BC – 600 AD.) Veneration of the god appears to have spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Classic period (600–900 AD). Quetzacoatl, according to thoughtco, was a creator god, also associated with the planet Venus. Quetzalcoatl was the patron god of the arts and of knowledge. He was one of the most human-loving of the gods in the Aztec pantheon. He was the god who met with an ant to provide humans with their first maize to plant, and he was responsible for saving all humanity at the beginning of the Fifth Sun.
The pre-Columbian people believed that the god’s breath (Ehecatl) moved the sun and pushed away rain. Other times they wanted rain and would sacrifice to Tlaloc to summon this rain god’s favor.
Legend says that Ehecatl (wind) fell in love with a human girl named Mayahuel, and gave mankind the ability to love so that she could return his passion.
But the Aztecs believed in death (sacrifice,) so that the humans could preserve the relationship with the gods and ensure that life as they knew it, would keep on going. The sun (god Huitzilopochtli) would rise another day.
Not an actual, ‘whistle’
The death whistles themselves, according to Roberto Velázquez Cabrera, the founder of the Mexico City-based Instituto Virtual de Investigación Tlapitzcalzin (death whistle), the extraordinary ‘death whistle’ wasn’t a whistle at all.
It 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 or the noise of the wind or storms.Roberto Velázquez Cabrera
*It is therefore not a common whistle nor a musical instrument. We will use the term throughout, however for the sake of continuity.
‘Wind and Death’ were known ‘associates’
Roberto Velázquez Cabrera also suggests in his writings on the subject, which can be found here, that the death whistles in addition to Ehecatl, were associated with (death) or the death god Mictlantecutli, which is why a skull or owl (death totem) would have been used symbolically, but the whistle made the sound of the wind. Death and wind were associated with each other (Borgia Codex snippet pictured below.)
The only other reference to the possible ancient use of this type of whistle comes in the form of a literary reference rather than archeological. In the book, ‘Myths of Mexico and Peru,’ by Lewis Spence you can find 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).
Playing in harmony
According to Roberto Velázquez Cabrera, more research needs to be done on the effects of the death whistle sound especially when more than one are played in unison.
“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 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.”
Psychological warfare or healing?
The death whistles are widely thought to be examples of psychological warfare used by the Aztecs. Imagine hundreds or thousands of these resonators being used at once to strike fear in the hearts and minds of your enemy.
The whistles could have also been used for healing?? The video above talks more about these subjects. What about you? What do you think the whistles were used for? Let us know in the comments below and as usual, happy writing!