A Cry on the Wind: The Bullroarer

Friday Folklore

If you’ve watched Crocodile Dundee II, then you’ll remember that scene when Mick takes a flat, oblong piece of wood, wrapped with string, out of his pack. When Sue asks him what it is, he replies he’s going to “make a phone call”.

He then goes to stand on a precipice, unwrap the string, and begins twirling the oblong wood. An eerie, deep-throated buzzing sound fills the late evening air. Bathed in reddish light of the setting sun, Mick Dundee is suddenly transformed into an otherworldly character, a mythic creature made flesh and bone.

(I liked that movie, as you can tell.)

What Mick pulled from his pack is colloquially known as a bullroarer. It appears in various cultures throughout history but is best known as being a part of Australian aboriginal lore.

The uses of the Aboriginal bullroarer, as far as I can tell, are uncertain. It’s believed that they’re used as part of initiation ceremonies, to ward off evil spirits (as well as women and children), and to communicate over long distances. It’s also said that women and outsiders are forbidden to see the instrument or even hear the sound it makes.

Though, if the sound is supposed to ward off women, how can they be warded away unless they hear it? And how can they hear it when they are forbidden to hear it? It’s this slightly contradictory information that gives the bullroarer an extra layer of mystique.

Or, perhaps it’s not even contradictory. Perhaps the taboos concerning the bullroarer (also called the “voice of God”) merely vary from tribe to tribe.

Since there are taboos regarding women and children, the device is said to be used in initiation ceremonies, and because of it’s shape, it’s been suggested that the bullroarer is a phallic symbol. And if you’re any student of folklore and mythology, you know how well-loved phallic symbols are. (I almost linked to an image to Pan in all of his, ah, glory but there were honestly too many to choose from and not all of them ancient.)

Anywho, here is a video of the bullroarer in action:


If you want to watch the scene from Crocodile Dundee II, click here. I couldn’t find it on YouTube but rather glad I didn’t. There’s some great commentary about the scene on that page.

The Aboriginal bullroarer is carved from wood. When I tried to find an image of the bullroarer that was decorated, I noticed that an Australian museum called it “tourist art”. So, it’s probably possible that the bullroarer isn’t heavily decorated but may only have geometric designs. I don’t know. I couldn’t find any hard evidence of an authentic bullroarer that also wasn’t protected by a license, which is why you’re not seeing any images of it in this post.

I also tried to find a legend that deals with the bullroarer. However, I couldn’t find one that mentions the instrument. The one I did find didn’t seem to have anything to do with the bullroarer. It was merely a tragic story about the damage one man’s hate caused.

But, perhaps it only seems to not make sense because I am not one of the initiated, like how the men in Dundee II didn’t understand the whirring sound they heard. For the uninitiated, some things will remain mysteries.


“The Bullroarer: An Instrument that Whirls Through Cultures and Time”

“Aboriginal Bullroarer”

“Sacred Sound Tools: The Bullroarer”

Also published on Medium.

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