Flute Magic: Resurrection and Rebirth

  November 17, 2021   Read time 3 min
Flute Magic: Resurrection and Rebirth
Whatever object brings rebirth is used in funeral rites, either in the burying ceremony or as a gift to the dead. Aztec slaves played bone flutes before being sacrificed to their dead princes, and boys also played the flute as they climbed up the steps of the pyramid, at the top of which the priest cut out their hearts and offered them to the sun.

Archaeologists often find a flute at the side of a mummy or skeleton when excavating ancient tombs, and mistakenly believe that they have uncovered the remains of a musician, whereas the flute was probably placed there because it was a life charm. Similarly, one of the southern East Indian tribes, the Toda, who never make or play flutes, have special flutes made by a neighboring people as amulets for their dead tribesmen, to guarantee a fortunate rebirth.

The same life-giving power which connects the flute with death and rebirth connects it with love as well. Young Cheyenne men played the flute in order to help them in their courtship. Some flutes had a special power to influence girls. A young man might go to a medicine man and ask him to exercise his power on a flute, so that the girl he wanted would come out of the lodge when she heard it. The young man began to play the flute when he was at a distance from the lodge, but gradually approached it, and when he had come near to the lodge he found the girl outside waiting for him.

The same charm still exists in Europe. In A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway quotes an example from the Abruzzi: “When the young men serenaded only the flute was forbidden. Why, I asked. Because it was bad for the girls to hear the flute at night.” We will speak in a later chapter of a virginity test connected with Greek pan-pipes. A similar ordeal exists with the Cuna Indians in Panama. At a girl’s initiation two cane flutes are cut, tied together, wrapped into a leaf and given to a player. If they are still in their original position when he unpacks them, the girl is a virgin; if they have turned, she is not.

Nose flutes, blown through the nostril instead of through the mouth, occur in all five continents and even in Bavaria. Form and type do not matter; there are tubular and globular nose flutes as well as cross and vertical nose flutes. It would be difficult to fix a date of origin; but distribution goes far to prove that the nose flute was spread over the world by one of the last Malayo-Polynesian migrations. In terms of history this means about the end of the neolithic age and the beginning of the early metal age. It is more interesting, however, to know how than to know at what time it originated. Several stupid suggestions have been made to explain this strange, and rather incomprehensible, method of blowing. One of them attributes the “invention” of the nose flute to Hindu nose rings which by chance were loosely soldered and accidentally struck by the nose breath. Other authors have claimed that blowing through the nose prevented the mouth from touching a spot which a low-caste’s mouth might have defiled. These explanations are so foolish that they are not worth contradicting.

The answer to the origin of the nose flute is found in the association of nose breath with magic and religious rites. In Melanesia and Polynesia, where the nose flute is chiefly found, the nose breath is supposed to contain the soul and has, therefore, more magic power than mouth breath. Native doctors pinch the nose of moribund patients to keep the soul from escaping, though the victim of this cure may die prematurely by suffocation. When occidental people pinch their nose before sneezing, this in itself meaningless gesture seems to be a remainder of that old idea; and the German Gesundheit! called to a sneezer is founded on the same conception that such a violent explosion might force out the soul. The Dogon in the French Sudan have but one word for both the soul and the nose.