Buried beneath the streets and plazas of modern-day Mexico City are the ruins of ancient Aztec temples where human sacrifices were routinely performed to appease the gods. In the late 1990s, while excavating a circular temple dedicated to Ehecatl, the Aztec wind god, archeologists uncovered the remains of a 20-year-old boy, beheaded and squatting at the base of the temple's main stairway.
What made the Mexico City discovery so remarkable was that the skeleton of the human sacrifice was found clutching a pair of musical instruments in each hand. They were small, ceramic whistles decorated with a menacing skull's face. As the archeologists quickly realized, the skull image represented Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the underworld and of death itself.
And with that, the world became fascinated with a mysterious new instrument known as the "Aztec death whistle."
Today, if you Google "Aztec death whistle," you'll find articles claiming that the "haunting shrieks" of the death whistle were used to "terrify" the Aztecs' enemies in battle or to mimic the agonizing cries of sacrificial victims as their living hearts were torn from their chests. You can also watch this popular video clip of the late musician Xavier Yxayotl conjuring blood-chilling sounds from an oversized death whistle.
But the sober truth, experts say, is that we know very little about how the Aztecs really used these intriguing instruments or even how the instruments actually sounded when played by an ancient Aztec priest or musician. What we can safely infer from the find in Mexico City, is that death whistles undoubtedly had ritual and ceremonial significance, and that they may have been used to guide the spirits of the dead through the afterlife.
An Instrument That Defies Classification
Arnd Adje Both is a music archeologist, which means that he examines ancient musical artifacts and attempts to reconstruct the musical culture in which they were played. Both is fascinated with the pre-Columbian musical instruments of Mesoamerica, where three advanced civilizations once flourished: the Olmecs, the Maya and lastly the Aztecs.
In the early 2000s, he had the honor of being the very first person to play the two death whistles excavated from the temple site in Mexico City. If it was a Hollywood movie, sounding those ancient whistles would have summoned an army of the undead to ravage Mexico City. In real life, the death whistles made a slightly distorted, wind-like sound, not the shrill cries of the damned.
For further study, Both took CT scans of the death whistles to understand their internal structure and acoustics, and then he built replicas. He discovered that the Aztec death whistles were a type of "air spring" whistle first invented by the Mayans around 700 to 800 C.E. When air is blown through the intake tube, it interacts with a well or "spring" of air inside a rounded internal chamber, creating distortions. An additional opening on the bottom of the whistle can be covered with a cupped hand to shape the tone of the sound.
"These air spring whistles don't fit into the Western classifications of wind instruments — trumpets and horns, flutes or reed instruments — which means that they're singular worldwide and only produced in pre-Columbian America," says Both. "For me as a scientist, that's much more interesting than the fantastic tales told about death whistles on YouTube."
How Death Whistles Fit into Aztec Beliefs
According to Both, it's not a coincidence that a human sacrifice laid at the feet of the wind god Ehecatl was holding a pair of death whistles. There is a strong connection in Aztec mythology between the wind god and Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the underworld.
The most striking evidence comes from a remarkable pre-Columbian document called the Codex Borgia, an illustrated manuscript that depicts the Axtecs' complex pantheon of gods, as well as Aztec history, their studies of the stars, botany and more.
One page of the Codex Borgia shows two gods standing back-to-back: Mictlantecuhtli and Ehecatl. Both says that the gods are guarding the entrance to the underworld and represent two parts of a whole: death and life.
"There's this notion in the Aztec tradition that when someone dies, they have to walk a very dangerous path to the underworld," says Both. "During that journey, certain rituals are carried out by the living in order to give strength to the deceased, so they can safely arrive in the underworld."
In one level of the underworld, for example, the dead need to cross a large field while being whipped by fierce, ice-cold winds. In the Codex Borgia, those cutting winds are represented by obsidian blades, the sharpened black stones used by the Aztecs to make human sacrifices.
Both says that at the Mexico City temple site, a ceramic bowl containing obsidian blades was found next to the body of the young man. And like the back-to-back image from the Codex Borgia, the boy was sacrificed to the wind god holding whistles bearing the image of Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the underworld.
"All of these elements start to fit together like a puzzle," says Both. "There's a possibility that these instruments were played inside the temple as part of a ritual performance related to death and sacrifice. They were meant to simulate the cold night winds of the underworld."
Both's theory lines up well with the description of an Aztec festival dedicated to Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night sky. In 1913, the folklorist Lewis Spence wrote a book called "Myths of Mexico and Peru," and described Toxcatl, a festival held in the fifth month of the Aztec year:
If that description is accurate, then the young man sacrificed in the Mexico City temple may have sounded the death whistle right before he lost his head.
Were Death Whistles Used in Battle?
When the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernan Cortes, clashed with Aztecs in 1521, they described the Aztec warriors using drums, conch shells and other musical instruments during battles to communicate with each other and possibly to unnerve their enemies.
The Spanish friar Tomás de Torquemada wrote that one Aztec general "carried a drum on his shoulders which he played at the start of a battle, while others blew large shell trumpets."
But what about the claim, made by the indigenous musician Xavier Yxayotl and others, that the Aztecs terrified their enemies by sounding hundreds of screaming death whistles at one time?
"There's no proof, but it's still a possibility," says Both. "Up to this point, we haven't excavated an individual classified as an Aztec warrior with such an instrument [a death whistle] around their neck. For now, it seems to be more of a ritual instrument."
Another reason to question the battlefield theory is that the death whistles recovered from the temple site in Mexico City are less than 2 inches (5 centimeters) long, compared to the much larger replicas played by Yxayotl and others. The smaller ancient whistles fail to produce the same ghastly screams of the large, modern replicas.
A New Tradition Inspired by the Ancients
As a music archeologist, Both has to shake his head and laugh when he thinks about the wild theories that he's seen on the internet about the origins and otherworldly properties of the Aztec death whistle. But in a way, he only has himself to blame. In the early 2000s, he and some colleagues were among the first to publish papers about Aztec death whistles in English.
"From then onward, this new tradition emerged of artists, musicians, Aztec dancers and Mexican nationalists incorporating the death whistle into their own, in many cases, new stories," says Both. "It's a new layer on an ancient tradition."