CAFE offers a “Fascinating Flutes” demonstration that highlights flutes from around the world. This article was written by Dr. Kathleen Joyce-Grendahl, Executive Director, World Flute Society, for the National Flute Association. It provides overview of how flutes are used in various cultures, with some surprises!
Like many instruments across the cultural spectrum, the sole purpose of the flute is not just to play pleasing melodies in a pre-planned musical setting. Often, musical instruments are attached to myths, legends, folktales, supernatural associations, mystical spirituality, and other extra musical ideas and functions.
The flute is imbued with many thoughts and ideas outside of its purely musical function. For example, in both Japan and India, the flute is thought to have the ability to mesmerize snakes. According to a Japanese legend, a flutist of great renown perpetrated a particularly heinous transgression. To escape punishment, he escaped and concealed himself within the inner recesses of a dank, obscure cave. While in hiding, a large snake approached the flutist, who shook with thoughts of his impending doom. Believing the situation to be quite hopeless, he soothed himself by playing his beloved flute. Much to the flutist’s astonishment, the snake ceased its forward progression and listened, seeming to enjoy the music. Eventually, the snake withdrew, leaving the flutist alive and greatly relieved.
In various parts of Native America, the flute is a courting instrument or a love flute. Traditionally, a young man wooed the woman of his desire, expressing his love and longing for her by playing lovely, enchanting melodies on his flute. The music was a means to win her attention and, ultimately, her heart. The young man would play outside of the woman’s home, as she lived with her parents, and would continue to play until his amorous attentions were either accepted or he was shooed away. Once his romantic intentions were accepted, the young man’s flute melodies took on a different meaning. The flute songs became codes that only the two sweethearts would understand. He might play a melody that meant that he loved her and was thinking about her, or perhaps another melody that meant for her to meet him by the river to talk and perhaps canoodle. In essence, the lilting flute melodies became a secret love language.
!!!!! Unfortunately, the flute was not an honorable instrument, according to the ancient Greeks, because it produced overly sensuous sounds that brought out the baser human behavioral traits. Aristotle stated that the flute “was not a moral instrument … such as is proper for the sober purposes of education” (Fitzgibbon, 1928). Plato eliminated the flute completely from society.
The flute has a long association with Pagan beliefs, rituals, and folklore, as well as an association with the devil himself. Because of this, the churches in various ways regularly shunned the flute and its players. For example, because of its Pagan and evil associations, flute players were denied sacraments of the church like communion and baptism. St. Epiphanius of Salamis (ca. 310-403), an archbishop in the Catholic Church, stated that the flute “was modelled [sic] from the serpent in Eden, and compares the gestures of a flute player to those of the devil himself when blaspheming,” a view wholeheartedly shared by the early English Puritans. (Fitzgibbon, 1928).
However, the flute also has positive cultural identities. For example, Krishna’s flute possesses a significant, positive spiritual sound and message within Hinduism. Krishna is the personification of divine love, the god of love.
If you want to learn more about CAFE’s “Fascinating Flutes” hands-on demonstration of flutes around the world, please visit Fascinating Flutes program page. This 1-hour presentation is available with or without powerpoint slides weekdays and weekends.