Sounding horns are one of the oldest instruments in the world. Most brass and woodwind instruments can trace their ancestry back to them. Similar to the conch seashell, ancient hunter-gatherer humans saw the horns of their slaughtered cattle and thought to themselves, “I wonder if I can make a really cool noise out of that?” These horns took on symbolic and spiritual meanings in many different cultures around the globe. Let’s look at some of them.
Ancient and Indigenous Horns
If you think the Vikings invented the sounding horn, you have another thing coming. Nearly every hunter-gatherer AND agricultural society in the world have some kind of horn. In fact, Scandinavians typically made their horns out of wood since they didn’t really keep large animals like cows, until later on in history. Horns made of actual horn or bone were very rare all the way through the Viking Age.
The ancient Jewish people of Israel used a horn to signify important events, from feasts to holy ceremonies to wars. These horns were called shofar. In fact, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish month of penitence, literally means, ‘memorial month of blowing.’ A rabbi blows the shofar, often in certain rhythms and songs, to signify the beginning of this month. The shofar is typically accompanied by silver trumpets, although on the Jubilee years, it is blown alone. The shofar also has a long and storied history in the Bible. It was a horn made of horn, not a metal trumpet, that brought down the wall of Jericho. King David also liked the shofar, and added it to his orchestra.
The dungchen is a Tibetan Buddhist horn. As you can see in the picture below, they are typically not made of actual horn, and are gigantic, but the concept behind it is the same as a sounding horn. This horn has distant relatives in the famous Ricola horn of the Alps, which are actually called alphorns.
In India, the shanka has been used for centuries in Hindu religious life. They are made out of conch shells, since cows are sacred to the Hindu religion. These instruments are holy symbols of Vishnu, and like sounding horns, can be used to declare war. But they are also used for luck and longevity, the cleansing of sin, and the giving of fame.
The waqru phuku is a traditional cow horn used by the Inca and other indigenous people of Peru and the Andes mountains. These horns have been around since ancient times, long before Europeans came to the west. They’ve a long and storied history of being used for fertility rites.
And our other favorite culture here at AleHorn, used the carnyx. While these horns very closely resemble the sounding horns we know and love today, they were usually made from brass or bronze. The Celts carved these horns to look like animals, like the
And what about the Vikings? Well, like many of these other cultures, they used horns to call cattle. This was traditionally a woman’s job. Also, they didn’t just use horns– eventually they created horns with finger holes, like you might see in a modern tin whistle or other instrument. Called a Vallhorn or a Prillar horn, these were a specialty in Norse Scandinavia, beginning in the ninth century and onward.
The sounding horn is experiencing a revival. Remember the 2010 World Cup in South Africa? Does one particular sound come to mind when you think of it? Vuvuzelas are the plastic, modern sounding horn. You’ll find them everywhere from sporting events to protests.
And real, horn-made horns are also experiencing a revivial, as we see every day at AleHorn. Want one of these noisemakers for yourself? Check out our XL Gjallerhorn. Your roommates and family might regret it. You won’t.
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