I know of witches who whistle at different pitches, calling things that don’t have names.
Helen Oyeyemi, White is for Witching
Whistling is a common power attributed to the historical Witch, whether it be linked to the calling of spirits or the brewing of storms and winds. Like anything attributed to a witch it is described as being a power which can bring both great harm and great good depending on the intent of the person who wields that power.
Whistling Up a Wind
Sailors and farmers alike lived at the mercy of the winds and the storms they might bring. A warm gentle wind might be exactly what the land needs in order to dry out a sodden landscape in order for the crop to grow but equally an ill wind may be whipped up to drawn down a dreadful storm to flatten flatten a crop and bring ruin and famine in its wake. Equally a sailor’s live/livelihood was entirely dependant on the wind. A wind, or lack of it, at the wrong moment could spell disaster.
My favourite, albeit fictional, description of a Witch whistling up a wind can be found in Philippa Gregory’s book the White Queen, where Elizabeth Woodville and her mother Jacquetta of Luxembourg whistle up a storm to trouble the Duke of Clarence as he flees to Calis. The scene is fiction but the storm, and the labour of Isabel Duchess of Clarence at sea which resulted in the death of the child, were very real events and both Jacquetta and her daughter were accused of Witchcraft in their own time.
Calling the Spirits
Whistling was the kind of activity which could get a woman in to trouble, particularly in Puritan circles. Such a noise making was considered unseemly and the preserve of men and at best it was the act of a woman thumbing her nose at the god given authority of the men around her. At worst the whistling as a sign that she was using Witchcraft, particularly malicious magic intended to cause harm.
On a sympathy level the association of whistling and wind makes a great deal of sense. Like calls like, and by imitating the wind with their own breath the operator draws the wind towards them. The other reason that whistling works so well is the attention getting nature of the piercing pitch of a well blown whistle, and by whistling the Witch is perceived as summoning familiar spirits to do their bidding, whether that be to drive the wind or carry their spells.
Whistle Up a Wind
The process of whistling up a wind is almost as easy as Gregory depicts in her book. Pick the direction from which you wish the wind to come from, pucker up and blow. The whistle should imitate the kind of wind you are trying to generate. Long, low and gentle for a soft breeze or high, sharp and loud for a windstorm.
Directionality is also important on two fronts. Firstly, it is important to face the direction from which you want the wind to blow. It is like calling a dog to you, you are more likely to get their attention if you are facing them when you issue the summons. Secondly, direction is also an important consideration when deciding on what kind of wind you want to generate. This is going to largely depend on your locality but for myself in middle England I would whistle to the North for a cold wind, the West or East for something wet or South for a warm wind etc. If I wanted to dry out the land I wouldn’t be whistling up the North, East or West.
Don’t worry if you never mastered whistling, you can use actual whistles, or even penny whistles, to achieve the same and there is always the bullroarer.
The Roar of the Bull
It’s amazing what you can achieve with a stick on a string, which effectively all a bullroarer is. The ‘stick’ is usually a rhombus shape (from which the Greek word for the tool is taken, rhombos) and when twirled on a long string it produces a noise which is a long low roaring whirr which is likened to the bellow of a bull, hence the name given to it in English. The rhombus was famously used in Dionysian rituals;
“And bull-voices roar thereto from somewhere out of the unseen, there are fearful semblances… From an image as it were the sound of thunder underground is borne on the air heavy with dread.”
Aeschylus, describing the sound of the bullroarer in the rituals of the Orphic-Dionysian mystery cult.
Thought the design and use may vary this ritual tool appears all over the world, from Australia to American. For example the Tupi culture of South America uses the hori hori in religious rituals whilst the Māori use the pūrerehua for healing and bringing rains. A number of aboriginal groups in Australia use this tool in their rituals and initiations to ward away bad spirits and their use is restricted to initiated men, with their handling by women, children and non- initiates being deeply taboo. On the flip side various North American tribes allow these tools to be used as toys by children as well as using them as ritual items.
As such it is possible to divide the use of the bullroarer into four main categories;
- Weather Control
- Spirit Calling/Aversion
It is hard to say if the bullroarer had a presence in the lands now known as the United Kingdom. Certainly it isn’t until the age of the antiquarian that we find written and literary references of natives of Britain and Ireland making use of bullroarers or “boomers” as either toy or ritual tool. Alfred C Haddon makes mention of the bullroarer in Britain twice in his book The Study of Man, firstly as a method of averting lightening and also as a “sacred thing” but only after concentration (pages 222 and 225).
Whether their use is an ancient one or something that same about after the age of colonialism, and the collections that emerged as a result of this is not clear.
Today there are some witches that use the bullroarer in their own practice and do so in a way consistent with older practices from around the world. In particular they are used to to raise up the spirits of the land, create sacred spaces and/or send spells upon the wind.