Death whistle

Experimental model of the death whistle

This paper was presented in the Special Sessions on Acoustics of Ancient Sound Instruments of the 2nd Pan-American and Iberian Meeting on Acoustics. Cancún, México, 15-19 November 2010. 160th ASA meeting - 7o Congress FIA - 17o Congress IMA.

Roberto Velázquez Cabrera
Instituto Virtual de Investigación Tlapitzcalzin

Consultation document (1)
First version: July 26, 2011


The extraordinary death whistle was exclusively used in several zones of ancient México and belongs to a very singular family of Mexican resonators that are not well known and 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 and ceremonies by its decorated face of a skull and with the wind because two of them were found in the hands of a sacrificed male skeleton in front of the Ehecatl temple at Tlatelolco. Its archaeological context and iconography are associated with two divine concepts of ancient Mexican mythology: Ehecatl (wind) and Mictlantecutli (death. The study was initiated with the direct analysis of a fragment of clay whistle from the Mazatepetl (deer hill in the south of Mexico City. Morphology and acoustic characteristics of the death whistle and its sounds are discussed, and the main information and available data on the fragment found on the Mazatepetl, as well as its methods of construction and probable uses of its sounds are also discussed.


The death whistle belongs to an extraordinary organological family of Ancient Noise Generators (2) used in several cultures of México, from the Preclassical to the Postclassical eras. Unfortunately, the exact original use and purpose of the death whistle and many other ancient resonators were lost. There are some ancient death whistles made of clay in museums and collections, but very few of their studies and sounds were published. This is the first paper in English on the death whistle posted on the Internet. José Luis Franco published the first drawings of the death whistle and some of his Mexican organological family of "aerophones with spring of air". A drawing of Franco shows a death whistle with the decorating face of a skull (3, which points to its original purpose as death whistle. Another drawing by Franco shows the internal structure of a death whistle with the decorating face of an owl (4. In Mexican cultures the owl is associated with the comming of death. The main organological elements of the death whistle are shown in the cross section of this illustrative model.

The only known ancient death whistles with archaeological context were published by Salvador Guilliem (5. They were recovered from the hands of the skeleton of a sacrificed 20 year old man that was found in Burial 7, below Burial 20, located in front of the Ehecatl (wind) temple of Tlatelolco. This finding indicates that the whistles are associated with Ehecatl and the wind and Mictlantecutli (death, and they could be related with 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 to the famine of 1454.

If the whistles were associated with Ehecatl or the wind, the sounds of the whistles also have been requiered to simulate the sounds of the wind, because this natural phenomenon can not be generated whenever the occasion requires, as in a ritual or ceremony.

Ehecatl and Mictlantecutli are very important in the mexican mythology and iconography, as shown in the dual representation of Borgia Codex Lam. 56.

The only reference to the possible ancient use of this type of whistle comes from the following text "Toxcatl that was the most remarkable festival related to Tezcatlipoca (sun, held in the fifth month. In that occasion a youth was sacrificed, as an earthly representation of that God, adorned with their attributes, among them a whistle symbolical of the deity that produced a noise such as the weird winds of night makes when it hurries through the streets." (6.

Several conferences on the death whistle were requested in various academic forums. The last one was presented in the 2nd Pan-American/Iberian Meeting on Acoustics, Cancún, México. 2010. Its Lay Language Paper was posted (in Spanish) with other Mexican resonators in the ASA Press Room of the American Institute of Physics.

You can listen to the sounds of a death whistle model (mp3. They are from from an interview of Associated Press "Mechanical Engineer Recreates Sounds of his Pre-Columbian Ancestors" of 2008.

The dynamics of the sound system of the mexican noise generators is very complex. It could not be simulated with computerized mathematical models. However, a foot pump and baby powder were used to simulate the turbulent flow dynamics with pictures of a video.

Death whistle from the Mazatepetl

This short paper is a summary of the study on a ceramic fragment of death whistle from the surface of the Mazatepetl (deer hill, south of Mexico City. It may be from the Aztec II Transition of the Early Postclassical (1250-1380)of the Tepanecan-otomí epoch. It was found on the surface near the Structure A of an archaeological project of Francisco Rivas Castro. Since 2006, the consultation document of the study has been openly available (in Spanish) on my web site and it was presented in other conferences and several periodicals (7).

Analysis of the sounds

The sounds of the whistle could be analyzed, because its sonorous mechanism is still in working order. The noisy sounds from the ceramic fragment of the Mazatepetl (mp3)are not musical (in the modern western sense, they are similar to those of the winds. Their frequencies are shown in this spectrogram. The range of its fundamental frequency (F0) is between 1700 Hz and 2700 Hz. Frequencies in all the audible range are generated and the strongest of them are produced in the range of maximum range of hearing sensitivity of humans (1kHz-6kHz. Maximum radiated acoustic power = 0.3 Watts.

Construction and use of experimental models

Several effective procedures for the construction of the death whistle were tested and many experimental models were produced to analyze functional and organological hypotheses and to be used in conferences and demonstrations, because the ancient resonators cannot be used for those porposes, when their morphology must be changed.

For example, an experimental model made without the tubular wind path does not change the produced sounds. The models with a wind way can be used to free the hand for other purposes, because they can be sustained between the teeth and lips.

It seems that the death whistle migth have been used in the sacrifices of slaves, because chichtli (in Nahuatl) was an instrument that could produce the sounds chich and it was used in the banquets of traders where slaves were killed and chich was the signal to pull out the hair from the middle of the head (8. To analyze the possible relation the spectrogram of chich voice and the sounds of the death whistle model were produced and compared. Considering this finding and the relation with Ehecatl the death whistle could be named Ehecachichtli to honor him.

Many ancient designs of mexican resonators may be used to recreate a beautifull and extraordinary art/technology of sonorous jewelry, as this beautiful death whistle of silver.

Ancient "music" was lost, but the sounds of death whistle can be used to create new compositions. For example, Enrico Chapela used several of my "skull whistles" model to create a composition "Trio_Cadensa" (Enclypted Poetry), that was inspired by the poem "The Raven" of Edgar Alan Poe, but it was necessary to create special instructions for the player, because the normal musical notation can not describe the complex sounds of those whistles.

Experimental models of death whistles also can be used in other events associated with death. Bertha Sandoval uses some of my models in her representations of "La Catrina" of Jose Guadalupe Posadas, in celebrations of the Mexican of the Dead days in November. Her representations are impressive, specially to young people.

Some research remains to be done in be future, related with the effects of their sounds. For example, it is known 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 generated beats or phantom sounds. If the beats are infrasonic (with an F0 of less than 20 Hz) they may alter the state of consciousness. Several death whistles played at the same time can generate very complex beats, because their noisy signals are produced in a range of frequencies and the effects on humans is impressive due to the intensity and range of their main frequencies, but their effects on health were not analyzed formally. An experimental dual model of the death whistle with decoration faces of Ehecatl and Mictlantecutli was already used to test the hypothetical possibility of using at the same time the two whistles found at Tlatelolco. The generated sounds are similar to those of a storm. The produced frequencies are more complex (see spectrogram) and of more intensity (maximum acoustic power about 0.6 Watts, than those of single whistle models.

Notes and bibliography

1. This lay paper was posted to be used for educational purposes in English. It was recommended by Ian Mursell from England, because he has a singular and interesting educational web site system on the Aztecs: Mexicolore.
2. Velázquez Cabrera, Roberto. Ancient Noise Generators. Conference for the 4th Symposium of the International Study Group on Music Archaeology at Monastery Michaelstein, 19-26 September 2004. Studien zur Musikarchäologie V, Orient-Archäologie 20. Rahden/Westf.
3. Del Río, Marcela. Instrumentos musicales prehispánicos. Diorama. Excélsior. 14 de octubre de 1962.
4. Franco, José Luis. Musical Instruments from Central Veracruz in Clasic Times. Ancient Art of Veracruz. Los Angeles. 1971. Fig. 44.
5. Guilliem Arroyo, Salvador. Ofrendas a Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl. Proyecto Tlatelolco 1987-1996 1999. México. p 118, p 354 Foto 44, p 494 Lam 2 Foto3
6 . Spence, Lewis, The Myths of Mexico and Peru. 2008. 64
7 . Other similar papers were presented in: Seminario de Investigación del Centro de Investigación de Computación, IPN. 28 de Septiembre de 2007, ENAH. octubre 5; Simposio Vida y Muerte. Del mito a la Realidad. Auditorio del Museo Regional de Querétaro. 24 octubre 2007; Colegio de San Ignacio de Loyola Vizcainas. 30 de octubre de 2007 y; VI Jornadas Permanentes de Arqueología 2008. Coordinación Nacional de Arqueología. Dirección de Estudios Arqueológicos y Museo del Templo Mayor del INAH. Auditorio del MTM. 28 de marzo de 2008. It was published in Acústica del Instituto Mexicano de Acústica, A. C. No 28, noviembre 2010 and it was published in Arqueología No. 42 del INAH. Sep. - Dic. 2009
8 . Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia de las cosas de la Nueva España. 1947. p. 512.