Of Hollow Bone Flutes and the Imperative to “Be That Empty”

on June 28, 2009

It was announced earlier this week that a Paleolithic flute, carved some 35,000 years ago from the hollow bone of a vulture’s forearm, has been discovered in Germany.

The discovery is being heralded as demonstrating the “high-level of musical and technological sophistication” present at that time. It is also being suggested that such flutes might have contributed to their makers’ evolutionary fitness by enhancing social bonding.

All of that may be perfectly true — but it may also fall far short of explaining the real intentions of the flutes’ makers.

Flutes have ancient mystical connotations. It is not the physical body of the flute that produces the musical sound, but the nothingness within it. A flute is of no value as an instrument until it is hollowed out and becomes receptive to the breath and will of the musician.

Because of these qualities, flutes provide a ready analogy for the subtle relationship between body and soul, as well as for the mystical directive to empty oneself of ego in order to be filled from outside.

The 13th century Persian poet and mystic Rumi opened his Mathnavi with the “Song of the Reed,” in which a reed flute proclaims:

At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it’s not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty.

Would the makers of even the most ancient of flutes have been aware of these same subtle philosophical concepts? There is no reason to doubt it.

The newly-discovered flute was found in the same cave that recently yielded several ivory carvings — including a waterbird and a human figure with the face of a lion — of a type which are traditionally associated with shamanism.

As long as humans have been human, some have been marked by a heightened awareness of their own inner lives — and by a desire to find analogies among visible things to convey that inner knowledge to their fellows.

For maximum impact, those analogies are typically drawn from the latest technological developments. People these days might attempt to explain the human mind by comparing it to a hologram or a computer network. A hundred years ago, Freud found his metaphors for the unconscious in the workings of a steam boiler.

For those reasons, it seems likely that the mystical analogy of the flute must go back as far as the physical flute itself. Then, as now, “few will hear the secrets hidden.” But for those with ears to attend, the flute’s message from the very start was always “Be that empty.”


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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