This guide discusses the huaco silbador, or whistling vessel, as used on the north coast of Peru. These whistling vessels have become well known thanks to the writings and workshops of Daniel Statnekov, but studies in Peru bring his speculations about them into question. Among other things, the vessels are used by contemporary Peruvian shamans to call spirits and have little or nothing to do with binaural beats or psycho-acoustical effects.
The area around Chicalyo in present-day northern Peru has long been the center of one of the most important Peruvian shamanic traditions. This area is well situated to provide entry to all three of the main zones of Peru. Chiclayo is in the narrow coastal desert not far from the sea. The high Andes are not far away and access to the Amazon rainforest on the other side of the mountains is relatively easy here.
This part of Peru has been occupied for many centuries and a series of important pre-Hispanic civilizations developed here. The Vicus (1000 BC-300 AD) lived a little to the north. They were partially contemporaneous with the Moche or Mochica (200 BC- 700 AD) and were followed by the Chimu (1300-1470), who were conquered by the Inca only about 60 years before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived.
The huaco silbador (whistling artifact) or botella silbadora (whistling bottle) was used by the Moche but was invented much earlier and was used by pre-Hispanic cultures in a wide distribution, from Panama to southern Peru. The earliest known ones in Peru were made by the Vicus. They continued to be made by all cultures in this region up to the Inca before the Conquest.
Although this guide refers to shamanism, northern Peruvian practioners prefer curanderismo to denote a healing tradition and shamanism to denote what is more often referred to as sorcery. They admit, however, that these terms are not hard and fast and that some curanderos may use their powers for ill and shamans for good. Both shamans and curanderos in this typology have mesas (altars) and rely on many of the same power objects, among them the huaco silbador, and interact with spirits. These are hallmarks of shamanism in the terminology of anthropology and to avoid confusion this terminology will be adopted here.
The huaco silbador or whistling vessel has become well known, thanks to the writings and teachings of Daniel Statnekov and Donald Wright. Statnekov became intrigued by these vessels, learned to produce similar ones, and developed a theory about them. Statnekov believes that they had a psycho-accoustical effect on the brain when played in groups. He and Wright produce replicas in groups of five or seven tuned in order to create the optimal effect when played together. Statnekov developed his theory in the United States largely on the basis of museum collections and although he visited Peru and played silbadores in Machu Picchu, he evidently never investigated their use "on the ground" in Peru. As it turns out, all of his speculations--which have been widely disseminated around the Internet and in workshops--are questionable.
Statnekov assumed that the whistling vessels went out of use with the Spanish arrival in the 16th century. However, they are used in moden Peru in shamanic mesas, especially on the north coast and in the Lima area. There are reports of them also in the Cusco area. It does seem that the originals stopped being produced with the Conquest and their use very probably went underground. Today, reproductions called "replicas" are used in the place of originals, although originals themselves may be used and are considered to be particularly powerful.
Statnekov is wrong also in insisting on their use in a group setting, with several played together, perhaps in ceremonies but apart from any other context. Instead, these vessels are used today--and very likely have always been used--as part of a collection of power objects on the mesa.
Statnekov may have been misled by his assumption that the vessels had a psycho-accoustical effect on the brain. In fact, Peruvian shamans use them to call spirits to the mesa to protect it or assist in curings. When asked for their opinion of Statnekov's theory, contemporary Peruvian makers, vendors and practitioners consistently denied an intended psycho-accoustical effect.
Statnekov does not seem to be aware that there are silbadores with two whistles, usually on opposite sides of the vessel, with different pitches. The two-hole and two-pitch vessels would appear to fit well with his theory, because a single vessel might be used to deliver the binaural beats required for the brain to react in the postulated way. We cannot rule out the possibility that these vessels do have this effect, though that is not their purpose. Rather, two-hole silbadores call two spirits and are used to bring a couple together. The higher pitch is said to summon the spirit of the man and the lower pitch the spirit of the woman.
A huaco silbador with two whistles, one on either side of the head, intended to unite a man with a woman. A third hole, in the center bottom of the stirup handle, has no effect, and its purpose is unknown.
Statnevkov is not the only writer to have speculated wrongly about these vessels. Brian Ransom claims that double-chambered ones were used with water.
A double-chamber Chimu replica silbador representing a shaman playing an antara panpipe flute standing on a pumpkin.
Ransom devised an elaborate explanation of how the whistling vessels work. Again, his ideas appear to be based exclusively on the inspection of museum collections. The makers, vendors and practitioners interviewed in Peru have never heard of silbadores filled with water, and in fact, the double-chambered replicas work equally well with and without water. Around Cusco there are reportedly silbadores that are intended to be used with water, but these are different from those treated in this guide, and are unknown on the Peruvian coast today.
The construction of the north coast silbadores varies widely. Most have a stirrup handle and spout and outwardly resemble similar bottles that are presumed to have stored water or chicha corn beer. Many depict shamanic or mythic scenes or creatures or have animal shapes. The latter are used to call the spirits of the animals represented and are thought to house the spirit of the animal.
This owl silbador calls spirits of owls which take up abode in the vessel.
Others represent sea shells and are used to call the spirits of the sea.
This unusual trumpet-shell-shaped Moche replica silbador is used to call spirits of the sea.
There are also silbadores in the shapes of coffins that are used to contact spirits of the dead.
This coffin-shaped Chimu replica silbador is used to call spirits of the dead. The blow hole is in the end above the body's head with the whistle cavity above the head inside the vessel.
Silbadores do not need to be large and elaborate. Many are much smaller and more compact, but considered equally effective in summoning spirits.
The front and back of a small Moche replica silbador. These smaller whistles produces sounds similar to the larger ones and are considered equally effective in calling spirits.
Huaco silbadores of all types are constructed with a small whistling chamber at varying distance from the spout or hole into which one blows. The pitch of the vessel is determined by the characteristics of the whistle chamber. These whistling chambers generally are visible on the outward surface of the vessel as a small bulge next to the air hole, but in the case of the coffin silbadores, it is inside.
This guide is based largely on questioning makers, vendors and practioners "on the ground" in Lima and in northern Peru in 2005, 2006 and 2007. However, a variety of published sources were also consulted. The Bibliography includes the more important of these.
James G. Matlock, Ph.D.
Ransom, Brian. 2000. The Enigma of Whistling Water Jars in Pre-Columbian Ceramics. http:// home.eckerd.edu/~ransombc/enigmaofwhistlingwaterjars.htm
Statnekov, Daniel K. 2003. Animated Earth: A Story of Peruvian Whistling Vessels and Transformation. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Wright, Donald. 1998. Peruvian Whistling Vessels . . . The Doorway Re-opens. http: www. newfrontier.com/1/peru795.htm.
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