BULL-ROARERS have been used as cult objects by various peoples from ancient times to the present day, usually in the context of male initiation ceremonies. They are generally made of wood (or ceramics, as in ancient Greece) and are generally flat, most commonly measuring sixty centimeters long and eight centimeters wide. Either through the whirring sound they make when swung or through the carved or painted marks they bear, they symbolize generalized powers of fertility, in particular those of male generative powers, of wind, and of rain.
In the mythology of ancient Greece, a bull-roarer was one of the toys with which the Titans distracted the child Dionysos before they slew him. As a cult object, the bull-roarer was used in rainmaking ceremonies, symbolizing Kronos as rainmaker, and in the Eleusinian mysteries, where the connection between Dionysos and Demeter as fertility deities was emphasized (Frazer, vol. 7, 1912). In present-day Europe the bull-roarer is still used among the Basques by boys to frighten women and girls during and after the Mass on Good Friday.
Through comparison with South American myths and rituals, where the bull-roarer's sound is associated with a giant snake, with the generative power of the phallus, and also with the period of food depletion and hunger, Lévi-Strauss (relying on the work of Otto Zerries and Geneviève Massignon) develops the following correlation: as the instrument is used during the absence of food and of fire (connected to European customs of extinguishing the fire before Easter), and thus with fasting, it indicates symbolically a time when man and nature are in close contact, a primordial time before the invention of fire, when food had to be consumed raw or warmed by the sun. The use of the bull-roarer's sound to separate women (nature-bound) from men (culture-bearers) seems to be corroborated by Australian Aboriginal usage of bull-roarers for fertility rituals or "increase-ceremonies" with secret-sacred character (Lévi-Strauss, 1966, pp. 354–357). However, there are also exceptions, as the Ungarinyin know of "female" bull-roarers. In general, Aboriginal devices of this sort are described under the Aranda term tjurunga, and in all tribal regions they embody the spirit, the essence, and the vital forces of the heroes and creator-spirits of the Dreaming. The spiritual power of these beings can be activated through ritual use of bull-roarers to affect procreation. Some tribal groups maintain that bull-roarers already exist in specific trees and have only to be "set free" through the ritual act of carving. Certain specific acts, such as shaving particles from a tjurunga and blowing them over the landscape or reciting and singing stories of the Dreaming featuring the totemic ancestors represented in and through a tjurunga, have the effect of continuing procreation of all nature (Petri and Worms, 1968).
Relying on New Guinean materials wherein bull-roarers symbolize phallic power, van Baal (1963) suggests that the secrecy surrounding the bull-roarer rituals in Australia points to the sacredness of the meaning of the sexual act. Without such rituals, sexual intercourse is too sacred to be practiced. As bull-roarer rituals take over the sacred meaning, intercourse can be performed as a profane act of pleasure.
Baal, Jan van. "The Cult of the Bull-Roarer in Australia." Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Landen Volkenkunde 119 (1963): 201–214. Provides an original interpretative framework for bull-roarer cults, relying on field experience in New Guinea and using Australian data for comparative purposes.
Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough. 3d ed., rev. & enl. London, 1911–1912. See especially part 1 (vols. 1–2), The Magic Art and the Evolution of Kings, an indispensable classic on means for the magical control of rain with primary sources on a global scale, and part 5 (vols. 7–8), Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild, an extensive discussion of fertility rituals in ancient Greece with cross-cultural comparisons.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Mythologiques, vol. 2, Du miel aux cendres. Paris, 1966. Translated as From Honey to Ashes (New York, 1973). An extensive structural analysis of myths and rituals of South American tribes in regard to culinary and musical coding.
Massignon, Geneviève. "La crécelle et les instruments des ténèbres en Corse." Arts et traditions populaires 7 (July-December, 1959): 274–280. The major European source of Lévi-Strauss's deductive hypothesis concerning aerophones and their symbolic connection with times of fasting, absence of fire, and male procreative powers.
Petri, Helmut, and Ernest A. Worms. Australische Eingeborenen-Religionen. Stuttgart, 1968. A comprehensive survey of Australian Aboriginal religious systems with a great amount of original data.
Zerries, Otto. "The Bull-Roarer among South American Indians." Revista do Museo Paulista 7 (1953). The main empirical data with which Lévi-Strauss supports his deductive theory that bull-roarers are instruments of darkness.
Peek, Philip M. "The Sounds of Silence: Cross-World Communication and the Auditory Arts in African Societies." American Ethnologist 21, no. 3 (1984): 474–494.
Testart, Alain. "Rhombes et des tjurunga: la question des objets sacrés en Australie." Homme (Paris), no. 125 (1993): 31–65.
Klaus-Peter KÖpping (1987)