Bullroarer, the English name for an instrument made of a small flat slip of wood, through a hole in one end of which a string is passed; swung round rapidly it makes a booming, humming noise. Though treated as a toy by Europeans, the bullroarer has had the highest mystic significance and sanctity among primitive people. This is notably the case in Australia, where it figures in the initiation ceremonies and is regarded with the utmost awe by the "blackfellows." Their bullroarers, or sacred "tunduns," are of two types, the "grandfather" or "man tundun," distinguished by its deep tone, and the "woman tundun," which, being smaller, gives forth a weaker, shriller note. Women or girls, and boys before initiation, are never allowed to see the tundun. At the Bora, or initiation ceremonies, the bullroarer's hum is believed to be the voice of the "Great Spirit," and on hearing it the women hide in terror. A Maori bullroarer is preserved in the British Museum, and travellers in Africa state that it is known and held sacred there. Thus among the Egba tribe of the Yoruba race the supposed "Voice of Oro," their god of vengeance, is produced by a bullroarer, which is actually worshipped as the god himself. The sanctity of the bullroarer has been shown to be very widespread.
There is no doubt that the rhombus ῥόμβος which was whirled at the Greek mysteries was one. Among North American Indians it was common. At certain Moqui ceremonies the procession of dancers was led by a priest who whirled a bullroarer. The instrument has been traced among the Tusayan, Apache and Navaho Indians (J.G. Bourke, Ninth Annual Report of Bureau of Amer. Ethnol., 1892), among the Koskimo of British Columbia (Fr. Boas, "Social Organization, etc., of the Kwakiutl Indians," Report of the U.S. National Museum for 1895), and in Central Brazil. In New Guinea, in some of the islands of the Torres Straits (where it is swung as a fishing-charm), in Ceylon (where it is used as a toy and figures as a sacred instrument at Buddhist festivals), and in Sumatra (where it is used to induce the demons to carry off the soul of a woman, and so drive her mad), the bullroarer is also found. Sometimes, as among the Minangkabos of Sumatra, it is made of the frontal bone of a man renowned for his bravery.
See A. Lang, Custom and Myth (1884); J.D.E. Schmeltz, Das Schwirrholz (Hamburg, 1896); A.C. Haddon, The Study of Man, and in the Journ. Anthrop. Instit. xix., 1890; G.M.C. Theal, Kaffir Folk-Lore; A.B. Ellis, Yoruba-Speaking Peoples (1894); R.C. Codrington, The Melanesians (1891).