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Aztecs Played Death Whistle While They Worked

Making the rounds on the Internet this week is a video of a Mexican musician playing a hot tune on what he calls an “Aztec Death Whistle” made from jade in the shape of a human skull. It’s believed that Aztec priests blew these whistles before performing human sacrifices.

The Aztec death whistle is played on the video by Xavier Quijas Yxayotl, a world music flutist known for his Aztec and Mayan music recreations. The name “Yxayotl” means “tears” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and aptly describes one of the responses people have when they listen to the sounds of the death whistle, which some say is meant to imitate the cries of screaming corpses.

It’s only been within the past few decades that archeologists have begun finding death whistles, with the first drawings being published in 1971. They got their sinister name from the skull shapes and because two were found in the hands of a sacrificed male skeleton in front of the temple of wind god Ehecatl at Tlatelolco, a pre-Columbian town that is now an archeological site in Mexico City.

Drawings of a death whistle showing the internal structure

Drawings of a death whistle showing the internal structure

Engineer Roberto Velázquez Cabrera has spent years studying the history and structure of the death whistle, which he believes sounds like the wind and links it not only to the wind god Ehecatl but also to the “Wind of Mictlantecutli,” a wind that blew wind that flesh-scraping knives at the dead in Mictlan, the Aztec underworld ruled by King Mictlantecuhtli.

Cabrera analyzed a death whistle from between 1250 and 1380 and found the sound to be close to that of a howling wind and within the range of human hearing. That means it was most likely used for special occasions, says Xavier Quijas Yxayotl.

We call this the ‘death whistle’ that the Aztecs used for special ceremonies – for day of the dead celebrations, and also they use when they have a war, when they fight with other tribes. They play over a hundred instruments, a hundred death whistles marching to cause a big psychological effect to the enemy.

Based on the samples in the videos, Kenny G doesn’t have anything to worry about.

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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