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Rattles and the Fire Circle

by V. Josselyne Price

Rattles made by Josselyne  Price

Rattles are the only instruments found in every musical or ritual tradition around the world. While the physical forms of the rattles vary greatly, the prominence and uses of them are highly consistent. Most cultures have some form of rattle that is given to infants as a toy or a protective magical tool; Shamanic traditions found in Asia and North America all include rattles as powerful instruments that are used for ritual purposes; in African traditions rattles form as a vital part of many musical ensembles; South Americans, such as Amazonians, view rattles as one of many instruments which can speak in the voice of surrounding nature spirits or deities.

Why is the rattle so important and so prominent around the world? While each culture has its own explanation and mythology behind the rattle, there are some commonalities that can be seen — and applied to what we do around the fire. First is an explanation of how rattles contribute to the fire circle ritual; following is some information and Web site links for a look at rattles in traditions around the world.

The Fire Circle

After exploring the different mythologies and uses of the rattle around the world, it is not surprising to see that the instrument forms an important part of our work around the fire. We use rattles to accompany our drummers, to signify magical space and intent at the beginning and end of the fire circle evening, and to do individual and group work around the fire. To further elaborate how rattles are part of these situations, we can look at rattles for the fire circle in two ways:

1. As Musical Instruments

Rattles form one of the instrument types on the "high end" of the percussion ensemble we usually use (the others being the bell and clapping sticks or claves). As a high-end instrument, the rattle helps to keep the drummers, dancers, and singers aligned with a consistent pulse or beat. Like in other traditions, the constant and regular, unchanging sound of the rattles are a large part of what helps people to enter into an altered state of consciousness (ASC) such as trance, meditation, hypnosis, catharsis, groove… you name it.

Rattles also give an individual a non-athletic way to stay engaged at the fire outside of drumming or dancing. Remaining connected/engaged in the process is a vital part of the fire circle ritual, and sometimes it is not unusual to want to find a way to contribute to the process while conserving energy. Those who do not sing or dance can give a huge gift to the others of the circle by walking the "rattle tracks" (rings inside and outside of the fire circle); this helps to keep the music together, but it also helps to keep a constant flow of energy during the evening.

2. As magical Tools

Rattles are, as you have seen in some of the Web sites and in descriptions of various mythologies, a very powerful tool. They are sonic markers of magical intent and space. The sound of the rattle can be a protective barrier, a marker of time, and an activation of intention. The materials inside a rattle often are only known to the owner, and are a personal statement of the issues or magic that are being worked. Rattlers form a major part of a fire circle ritual. You can bring a rattle with you into the dance track and give yourself a quieter sound to entrain to in order to access an ASC, or you can provide this for another person. In fire circles around the country, rattlers often gather around a person in trance, a dancer, or a drummer to give sonic support, acknowledgement, and safety to their work.

Hopefully, the information here will help you to see the importance of rattles at the fire circle, and what the intended function is of the Rattle Temple. If you have questions or are interested in exploring the rattle further, contact Josselyne at joss@u.washington.edu. Also, see Joss’ rattle Web site at www.heartmagic.com/Rattleweb.html

Rattles Around the World

In many traditional mythologies, rattles have been viewed as:

1. Divine Gifts

Divine gifts from ancestors, deities, totems, and the earth itself. There are many legends that include the origins of the rattle. Most of these stories also explain why the instruments are to be used in very specific occasions for by specific people. Those myths can change or adapt over time, so that a complex and beautiful history of a culture or musical tradition can be witnessed. In the reverse situation, rattles have been made/used by humans to please or placate deities. In ancient Greek mythology, many instances of rattles being played in rituals exist. Some examples of the rattle as a link between the divine and humankind can be found on the Web:

Greek Mythology Link — Rhea

Native American
Tracking Rabbits in the Sky — Describes a Navajo tradition of putting star maps on rattles

2. Markers of Identity

Rattles distinguish people of power in many societies, such as Shamans and Chiefs. They also can signify that a person has passed through a particular ritual transformation, or that they are in the midst of one. Here are some Web sites which include information on rattles as markers of identity:

Native American Traditions
Minneapolis Institute of Arts — Chief's Rattle
Bella Coola Mythology
Native American Tip War Rattle

3. Tools of magical Intent

Rattles are used to heal, to speak as the voice of a deity, and to activate the properties of magical objects such as herbs, beads, stones, etc. by sounding them. Haitian Vodun, derived from West African traditions, views the rattle as a container of magical items as well as a musical instrument.

In Greek mythology, Hercules completed one of his 10 labors for his cousin King Eurystheus of Mycenae with the aid of the rattle. The sixth labor demanded of Hercules was to kill the man-eating Stymphalian birds. Athena came to Hercules' aid by giving him a pair of rattles made by Hephaestus to frighten the birds out of their nests. Once up in the air, Hercules was able to take aim and shoot the birds with his Hydra-poisoned arrows.

4. Musical Instruments

Rattles are played to accompany drums, the voice, or by themselves in so many traditions, it would be impossible to represent them all here. Some interesting variations of rattles include Cocoon Rattles of the Pascola of Mexico. Pascola dancers wear leg rattles, or teneboim. These rattles are made from the cocoons of the giant silk moth. The moths attach the cocoons to shrubs where the Mayo and Yaqui people gather them in the spring. Pebbles and sand are put into the cocoons to make them rattle. Small gourd rattles are worn on the legs of dancers in Zimbabwe in order to underline the rhythm of the feet in counterpoint to the drums. In Native North America, many dancers wear rattles on their legs as both decoration and as a type of rhythmic accompaniment to the singers and drummers during ceremonial dances. Ewe women of Ghana, West Africa play gourd rattles called "Axatses" with the drum orchestra played there, and while they sit they perform very energetic body movements to show off a stylistic form of playing that is amazing to watch.

It is interesting to note how in Western Christian culture, rattles (and drums or other percussion) were regarded as instruments of the devil and banned from use in religious events. As instruments of celebration, however, their reputation as the devil’s instruments was disregarded!

Other Sites of Interest

A Rattle for the Goddess About sistrums, a type of jangling rattle found in Africa, Europe, Native America, and the Middle East

Text and photo: ©2001 V. Josselyne Price
No part of this may be reproduced in any form without express written consent of V. Josselyne Price.

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