An ancient instrument found in many parts of the world, the bullroarer typically consists of an oblong slat of wood with a hole bored in one end through which a long string is tied. To play it, the slat is swung rapidly in a circular motion through the air by the string. This causes the slat to rotate rapidly on its long axis, producing a deep, undulating, whirring sound. In some areas of the Pacific, bullroarers are secular instruments, even children’s toys, but in many cultures they are ritual objects.
This particular bullroarer comes from Papua New Guinea. It was carved by the Namau people who lived in the Purari River Delta in southeast New Guinea. There, bullroarers were highly sacred objects known only to a select group of initiated men. Played during male initiations, their eerie sound was said to be the voices of the kaiaimunu, powerful spirits. Bullroarers would also be played at prominent mens’ funerals, where the sound represented the cries of a spirit (imunu) lamenting the person’s death.