Date: late 19th–early 20th century
Geography: Papua New Guinea, Gulf province, Purari River
Culture: Namau people
Medium: Wood, lime
Dimensions: H. 36 x W. 4 13/16 in. (91.4 x 12.3 cm)
Classification: Wood-Musical Instruments
Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number: 1979.206.1545
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.
In the Purari River Delta in southeast New Guinea, 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 embodied in large wickerwork effigies depicting monstrous animals kept in the men's ceremonial house. Sometimes called imunu viki (weeping spirit), bullroarers were also played at the funerals of prominent men where the sound represented the cries of a spirit (imunu) lamenting the person's death.