The bull-roarer consists of a thin flat piece of wood suspended from a string at one end. It is whirled round and round at arm's length, turning on its axis and making a whirring sound that grows louder the faster it is swung. Because of the reverence in which they were held, it was customary for them to be decorated with paint usually with incised totemic designs in which spirals were a dominant feature.
Smaller bull-roarers were known as "woman-drawers" and were termed nurmi. In this way men used spirit powers to draw women to them; but the purpose of bull-roarers was far more important than this.
To the Australian Aboriginal it was the voice of a great ancestral spirit. The bull-roarer was a sacred object which was hidden from sight and used only during initiation rites and other important ceremonies. Only men who were fully initiated were allowed to use them; only the wisest men were able to understand what the voice of the bull-roarer said.
At the time of initiation, the candidate left the women's part of the camp when he heard the bull-roarers wailing in the distance. The sound was the voice of the spirit to whom he was to be dedicated, who would swallow him and reject him; this was the ritual of death and rebirth into the sacred life of a grown man.
These sounding instruments which did not sing but spoke with the voices of the Dreamtime, served several purposes. They warned off the uninitiated from the bora grounds, expressed feelings of friendship between initiated men thereby proclaiming a unity and purpose in common life and symbolised the totemic ancestors of the tribe or of the Creator spirit himself.
Michael J Connolly