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The Flutes and Drums of Antiquity

Author: Verda Smedley
Posted: November 28th. 2010
Times Viewed: 1,870

The woodwind and percussion instruments of ancient people were created from a wondrous array of species for an intriguing diversity of reasons. As with other hunter-gatherer medicine the flute makers and drum makers knew the intimate properties of the plants harvested and selection was never random. Animal clans often used the bones of the species they emulated for whistles played in ritual. Other instruments were designed for everything from attracting game and spirits to seducing lovers. Drums and rattles held similar magical properties that included both the plant medicine as well as the medicine conveyed in the creature’s hide that covered the drumhead and drumsticks.

Nothing in the Mesolithic world was chosen haphazardly. Not only were the details of the selected plants or animals expressly studied much thought and prayer went into ascertaining if a particular species was appropriate to the intent of a given ritual. Said differently, no one was indiscriminately buying a drum or flute on EBay. If an individual lacked the skill to create their own flute or drum they went to the medicine person that did. Ceremonial instruments were not industrial products manufactured with no particular expectation or destination in mind. The individual endowed with the inherent knowledge needed made them with purpose, invocation and often sacrament.

Because my life’s work was limited to the Mesolithic era of the British Isles I don’t want to in any way imply that the species that captured my devotion are the only species applicable. Flutes and whistles might have very specific and necessary qualities but I would venture to say that might not be all together true of drums. It is possible, I think even probable, that any windfall tree trunk could be made into a drum. And not all drums were created from hollowed out tree trunks. Many were made with relatively thin strips bent into frames. In my search through indigenous British species I found five used in the making of both woodwind and percussion instruments: Birch (Betula) , Pine (Pinus) , Willow (Salix) , Alder (Alnus) , and Juniper (Juniperus) .

Birch bark was once rolled and shaped into horns for calling game and its trunk was an excellent choice for creating ceremonial drums. Let’s examine the magical properties with which these instruments were endowed. Ancient people inscribed their history on the same bark making it a guardian of that imperative. Birch enhances clarity, motive and focus of attention. It strengthens the image of intent and guards against its diffusion. Birch is an aid or guide in remaining on ones chosen path, associated with rebirth and accepting the challenges of it. Birch summons an understanding that the circumstances of ones former life were necessary for personal growth and releases impediments that limit progress. As deer medicine it is allied to abundance, ancestral memory and access to other worlds. The ritual implications of birch are huge and either a drum or horn is endowed with these exceptional qualities.

Hollowed out pine logs make exceptional drums too. Its pitch is used in whistles and flutes, either wood or bone, to improve and modulate the sound. The same pitch is used to hold plumes onto the body and dabbed on foreheads for protection. Simmered or burned pine pitch is a sanctifying longevity medicine. Needled branches are spread in lodges to insure that malevolent spirits don’t ruin or corrupt the magic. Heated needles and pine nuts are linked to safe and peaceful, even celebratory passages into new lives. Pine is abundance medicine and reconciliatory by its nature. Smudging with pine on both equinoxes is thought to ward off the spirit of illness. Can you imagine how empowering the presence of a pine drum or bird bone whistle enhanced with pine pitch might be in a ritual?

Willow is another used for drums and its stems can be wrapped in buckskin (or any species relevant to ones personal medicine) for drumsticks. Willow stems and branches can be made into clappers and hollowed out for whistles. Willow affords inordinate protection for participants when it is used to enclose the perimeter of a ritual circle. It heightens intuition, restores harmony and abundance, and guards against disease and malevolent spirits. Willow is linked to both water and the moon making it illumination medicine, distinctly female and tied to sacred cycles. It is superb ritual medicine and any instrument rendered from willow will bring that medicine into a ceremony.

Alder, the quintessential guide through the underworld, makes up into ritual masks, rattles, and whistles. Alder flutes are used to conjure the wind with tones highly reminiscent of seagull songs believed to do just that when seagulls sing and chatter. Alder brings spiritual support to dreaming and transcendental states. It is exorcismal and facilitates serenity when one is faced with difficult decisions. It insures that one is not overcome by emotion and teaches that adversity creates opportunity for change while affording protection and enhancing clarity while making decisions. Alder is tied to vernal equinox making it resurrection or rebirth medicine and fortifies ones association with cyclical harmony. It is not at all difficult to grasp how alder flutes, whistles and rattles might exponentially bolster shamanic rituals.

Juniper is used to make rattles and strips of its wood are bent into drum frames. I rather liked discovering that the red heartwood is used to make love and courting flutes. Hands down juniper, often called cedar, is one of the most widely used plants in ceremonies. It is the medicine of many animal allies. The wood goes to extremely hot ritual fires. Juniper affords protection against elements as well as malevolent spirits of every type imaginable. It is widely entreated for exorcismal purposes. As smudge or steam juniper repels the spirit of illness or if illness is present empowers one to fight off the spirit of it. Juniper placates fear and strengthens reserves against distress, troubling dreams or the despair of having lost a loved one. It promotes rebirth into new lives no matter how challenging. Juniper is good luck medicine associated with empowering hunts, clearing away impediments, securing visions, and restoring strength and clarity. It holds a place in the most formidable of rituals called just about anywhere and for just about any pressing reason.

From there the species fall into two groups. I am including here the hollow tubes of Scirpus or deer grass used to draw out the spirit of illness. Not dissimilarly elder stems (Sambucus) are not only hollowed out for flutes the tubes are used as both containers for carrying herbs and blowing tubes for medicine. The same hollow stems are made into elk and wolf whistles. Deer grass is most often entreated in the spring to remedy illness, stop the loss of spiritual energy and restore strength. It is nourishing, peaceful, thirst quenching and good love medicine. Deer grass restores the power to sacred songs. Elder differs in that it is summer solstice medicine that affords protection from lightning, unexpected danger, and malevolent spirits. As a powerful tool in dreaming, elder opens communication with spirits and ancestors. It is specifically associated with the ends of cycles and subsequent rebirth. It resets sanctity, balance and abundance. Elder is exorcismal and enhances endurance. Ritual flutes created from elder are unsurpassed.

Blackthorn or cherry bark (Prunus) is used to make the reed found in wolf whistles. Blackthorn is divinatory intrinsically tied to water and salmon medicine. It affords empowerment when faced with the unexpected or subjected to distraction. Blackthorn fortifies inner resolve while awaiting outcomes. Its spirit is believed to ward off illness or intervenes in behalf of someone already sick. Blackthorn protects against predatory spirits while attracting desirable ones. It is perhaps the finest medicine to handle when ones rebirth into a new life has been traumatic.

Box (buxus) is the hardest European wood and rendered into flutes, I imagine, with some effort. That animals will not touch it is a clue to its extreme toxicity. Only an experienced practitioner should handle box in any form other than an object like a flute. Either way box is a formidable spirit to invoke for exorcismal purposes when severe spiritual pain or loss of control or identity is believed caused by malevolent spirits.

Shavegrass or horsetail (Equisetum) is another candidate for a whistle. It is highly exorcismal in circumstances where strength, protection and sense of vision have been lost. Shavegrass is water medicine and therefore feminine and tied to sacred cycles. It has a peculiar faculty of repulsing undesirable people present and sends them on their way.

Perhaps my personal favorite is reed grass (Phragmites) . Like elder it goes to medicine containers and blowing tubes. Its stems are used as clappers to sustain the rhythm of ritual singing and dance. But reed grass flutes are pure magic on which can be played remedies. These flutes are believed to convey the messages carried in the wind. Reed grass is the medicine of secrets, inner depths, strength, and endurance to weather life’s storms. It is the peerless magic of air, thought, ideas, sense of direction, flexibility and adaptability. Reed grass ties us to the vibratory forces of the universe.

Honestly, I was hard-pressed to find a single reference to oak (Quercus) being used to make drums. Maybe it doesn’t resonate well or maybe it just eluded me. Seems improbable. However I can say that oak is used to make drumsticks. We all know its link to solstice as the keeper of the season from winter to summer. It is sanctifying and burned on summer solstice to fuel the sun and the ashes are spread in fields to empower new growth. Smoldering oak coals are carried from house to house exorcising and blessing homes in the new season. Oak wreathes are worn by ritual lovers to foster the fertility of the Earth. Oak is the symbol of endurance. It promotes the courage to exceed ones perceived inability, guards against the limits of logic and fuels the energy needed for achievement. These properties are certainly vital to the transcendence needed in ceremonies. Oak is a boundary or gateway marker to the spirit world. The extraordinary scope of oak makes it easy to understand why the entire range of its components were handled in rituals that included prophesying, divination, spirit handling, ancestral invocation, perhaps anything for which one could imagine a need. The absolute power with which oak drumsticks are endowed is a profound catalyst in ceremony.

Dogwood (Cornus) is used to make drumsticks too. It enhances awareness and expels the spirits of infidelity, mental anguish and the fear of making new decisions. Dogwood is an agent of empowerment, carried for potency, engaged in casting spells, and highly exorcismal. It is also bear medicine. Dogwood drumsticks are indispensable tools in any ritual called with the intent of addressing issues such as those mentioned.

The dried berries of bearberry (Arctostaphylos) are used in rattles. The name clearly tells us that it is bear medicine too, linking it to both abundance and the ferocity of a mother bear protecting her cubs. It is also deer medicine, the matchless guardian of birth and rebirth. Bearberry is used in ritual fires when bright light and lasting coals are desired, enhancing and promoting profound dream states. It is the keeper of harmony and comfort, and protects against malevolent spirits. When there are rattles present in ceremonies I often wondered if they contained bearberry berries that brought its attributes to the ritual. We tend to disregard things like the drumsticks or the unknown pieces inside rattles that drive our energy. We are awed by the drums and the pageantry of plumes while forgetting that the items “behind the scenes” are often the triggers of profound ritual medicine.

Hazelnut (Corylus) is another excellent choice for drumsticks, bringing understanding, inspiration, and acute focus of attention and creative energy to ritual. It is the tree of wisdom, arbitration and harmony, and brings attunement to the rhythm and subtle influences of cyclical nature. Handling hazelnut requires taking responsibility for oneself and the needs of others, critical components to the most powerful ceremonies. Like juniper, hazelnut is the medicine of many animal allies. Its nuts are believed to have an enormous impact on human wisdom and are catalysts to prophesying and agents of divination, especially in matters of love. Hazelnut is ancestral. It supports strength and stamina, soothes loneliness, and binds clarity and ambition to ideas and goals. It is quite evident why hazelnut would be chosen for ceremonial drumsticks.

The poplar family (Populus) that includes poplar, aspen and cottonwood is selected for lots and lots of drums. It enhances practitioners’ ability to perceive the subtle causes of illness and other pressing problems vital to the intent of most any given ceremony. Poplar facilitates the collective power in ritual, empowering resolve and fortitude. It affords inordinate protection against malevolent spirits. Poplar is purifying for practitioners and their tools, and sustains harmony in ceremonies. By doing so during doctoring rituals balance and wellness are reconstituted and debility dissipates. Poplar drums are formidable and essential to most any ceremony.

Yew (Taxus) is another made up into drum frames. It is an ancestral agent associated with wisdom and casting spells for knowledge. Yew is tied to empowerment, hope and longevity. Its link to these elements supports personal evolution including spiritual releases and attitude adjustments that lead to appropriate changes in the course of ones life. Yew affords inordinate protection during these types of challenging times and places ones objectives within easy access. It also provides safe harbor for the spirits of continuity, strength, clarity, and invokes dramatic change regarding forgotten lessons. Yew is handled during initiations reinforcing protection against complications and fortifying ones attunement with cyclical nature. A ritual concerning these particular characteristics will certainly benefit from the presence of a drum tied up on yew.

Linden or lime wood (Tilia) is carved into sounding boards. It distinguishes itself because of its association with the language and behavior of animals. It is therefore easy to understand why linden is entreated for the knowledge needed for shape shifting. Included in its attributes are the comprehension of trickster medicine, the magical handling of flowers and aromas, and the foreknowledge of prophets. Linden offers immeasurable access to other worlds. It is protective, empowering, and exorcismal, fostering a willingness to move forward out of ones previous inability to do so. All of these properties are critical components to serious rituals.

Elm wood (Ulmus) can be steamed and bent into drum frames. In ritual it enhances endurance and heightens empathy towards the needs of others. Elm teaches that compassion shown towards others is returned equally. It is the medicine of harmony, confidence, balance, regeneration, and fidelity. If these characteristics aren’t present in a ritual, that ritual isn’t on the level. Elm drums insure that these qualities are indeed there.

It would be something of an oversight at this point to leave out the drummers, flutists, and singers. We definitely can’t leave out the singers. Foremost in their minds while preparing for ritual are good songs, strong voices and endurance. All of them know as well that spirits are notorious for stealing songs and voices, remedied by a tea brewed from dogwood bark.

Wormwood tea (Artemisia absinthium) is perhaps the premier medicine for singers insuring that neither songs nor the ability to convey them will be lost or stolen. Nothing says exorcism quite like wormwood including its ability to summon ancestral intervention, guidance and support. It enhances psychic ability, guards against accidents and protects against malevolent spirits.

Nor can we forget the intrepid souls that play those drums. Beech is quite thought provoking for me. Some drummers eat its nutmeat because beech is a guardian of wisdom and a door to reflective knowledge. Such a reference encapsulates the ancient understanding that knowledge sustains the human spirit. This is among other things is the key to enhancing ones ability to avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly. I can well comprehend why drummers would ingest beechnuts as they prepare for sacred ceremonies.

In conclusion, the next time you consider acquiring a drum, flute or whistle, do your homework and study up. The effort is tremendously important. Know a species’ peculiarities and know your intention in detail before selecting one. Be familiar with the instrument and what it is rendered from; this is very, very important and never random or whimsical. Equally important is the animal’s medicine, the creature that gave over its life to a drumhead, drumstick or bone whistle. Wisdom about the characteristics of animals, like plants, is critical knowledge to the creation of a ritual instrument, your relationship with that instrument and its relevance to a particular ritual.

Material about animal allies can be found on my website Please help yourself to the information in those files if you wish to know more.

Ancestral Airs

The Compendium for Spirit Handling

A full bibliography and species appendix can be found on my website. Shorter pieces can be found on my Facebook page.

Copyright: I am the copyright holder on all of my work.


Verda Smedley

Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico


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