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National Museum of American History

National Museum of American History

The other day I was chatting with a friend about my long-ago job as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian history museum and we began to muse about what the quintessential artifacts of today will someday be. When historians of the future try to represent our time will they display a bunch of obsolete computer kit (which can not be made to works after a couple of years—much less decades or centuries), or Britney Spears memorabilia, or Segue scooters, or “as seen on TV” junk like salad shooters and such? What is the quintessential object which shows who we are and how we live? We came up with all sorts of answers—most of which did not paint contemporary culture in a wholly positive light—but the one which struck me as the truest was the simple disposable air horn.

An Air Horn

An Air Horn

An air horn is a plastic noisemaking reed attached to a jar of compressed air. When the player (possessor?) presses a button, the infernal device issues a hellish shriek of ear-piercing volume. I do not mean that last descriptor as a metaphor: air horns, like firearms and jet engines, are very capable of causing serious irreparable hearing damage. These horrid novelty items are available everywhere for next to nothing. People use them at sporting contests to distract the opposing team or sometimes in cruel pranks to make an unwitting victim panic. Mostly they are just used to call attention to the loutish person with the horn. Air horns have only one note, but that note is so loud it drowns everything else out—a perfect description of today’s celebrity personalities, advertising tactics, and political discourse.

Air horns evolved from the whistles of trains and the mighty horns of ships. These horns used compressed gasses from engine function in order to warn of eminent departure or collision. They had a real purpose. Yet, while it is possible that Alfred Hitchcock or Tom Clancy (or some other master of contrived suspense) could invent a scenario where a disposable air horn saved the day, I doubt it has ever happened. These objects exist only to make insufferably loud noise. If someone on the street was blowing one to warn of North Koreans, Godzilla, or zombie attack I would ignore it in the belief that it was just some drunken oaf showing off.

or we could just rename it the "fun horn"

or we could just rename it the “fun horn”

Worst of all, I think an air horn speaks directly to the reptile/Kardashian part of the brain which lurks in us all. I do not like air horns, but if someone gave me one I would be fascinated by it and would want to push it. It would sit there menacingly, like Chekov’s gun, just waiting till I could resist no longer and gave it a tiny test. I wish it were not so, but I would have to push it, despite the deleterious effect it would have on my personal relationships and happiness. Because they bear this unwholesome power, I would be shocked if air horns do not end up in a “late 20th/early 21st century” display case highlighting the nature of our times. They will sit there with other loud self-aggrandizing artifacts like Nascar jerseys, Jeff Koons art, MySpace, and Kanye West.

"I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice."

“I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice.”  [Actual Quote]

Air horns do indeed draw attention to us and tell everyone exactly who we are. It is a very well-made item—at least until someone invents something even louder and more annoying.   Or you could ignore my cranky jeremiad and write to tell me what you would choose as the quintessential object of this age!

The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of harvest abundance.  It is commonly represented as a woven spiral basket overflowing with fruit, grains, vegetables, and other agricultural products.   In America it is one of the symbols of Thanksgiving time (second only to the magnificent turkey).  The wicker basket stuffed with fruits has become such a familiar image, that it is easy to overlook the Greco-Roman roots of the horn of plenty.

According to Greek legend, the cornucopia is the horn of Amalthea, the goat which served as foster mother to Zeus.   In the benign version of the myth, young Zeus, unaware of his own strength, accidentally broke the horn off of the goat while he was playing with her.   In the darker version, he slaughtered the goat when he reached manhood.  From her hide he fashioned his impenetrable aegis.  He gave her horn to the nymphs who had raised him, and this horn provided a magical eternal abundance of farm-raised food.  In memory of her generosity, he set her image in the stars as the constellation Capricorn.  There is yet another version of the cornucopia myth which Hercules broke the horn off of a river god and this became the original horn of plenty.

Infant Jupiter Fed by the Goat Amalthea (Jacob Jordaens, print)

Whatever its origin, the cornucopia remained a part of the classical pantheon.  It is most frequently seen in the hands of Ceres/Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and grains.  In Roman iconography the cornucopia was sometimes an attribute of Fortuna, the goddess of luck, and of the underworld god Pluto (who controlled the ground and thus was responsible for the gifts of the harvest).

Demeter holding a Cornucopia

I like the Hercules/river-god myth because it reflects on how important water is to agriculture, but I greatly prefer the myth of Zeus and his foster-mother which seems to embody the moral quandaries (and the promise of civilization) which are inherent in agriculture. The story—like that of Cain and Abel–hints at the replacement of hunting with herding and farming (indeed goats were the original domesticated animal).  Some cornucopias are now made of baked goods which makes the symbolic transition even more apparent.  The horn of plenty is an admirable symbol of humankind’s fundamental dependency on agriculture–which lies at the root of our civilization and our prosperity.  I am glad the cornucopia has kept its relevance for all of these thousands of years and has not been replaced by some tamer symbol.

A Conch Used as a Trumpet

Conches are large sea snails.  True conches are from the family Strombidae, but there are a number of other large marine snails which are also colloquially called conches including horse conches (Fasciolariidae), crown conches (Melongenidae), and the “sacred chank” (a member of the Turbinellidae family).  These powerful marine snails are fascinating organisms in their own right—but today’s post is not about biology, rather it concerns music. When properly prepared, conches can be made into lovely and powerful wind instruments. Such shell trumpets have been found in use by cultures from around the world and specimens have been found dating back to the Neolithic era (although the musical use of shells might predate even that).

3000 year old Strombus galeatus shell modified as a musical instrument by pre-Inca people of Peru

Different cultures obviously use different shells for their trumpets and the instruments also serve varying purposes.  The magnificent big pink queen conch (Lobatus gigas) from the Caribbean was used as a trumpet by the Carib, the Arawak and Taíno peoples.  In India, the shell of the big predatory sea snail, Turbinella pyrum has long been crafted into the shankha, a religious musical instrument emblematic of the Hindu preserver god Vishnu (who last appeared in Ferrebeekeeper slaying the demon of Lake Lonar).  The shankha (also known as the sacred chank in English) can be intricately carved.  Though initially used as a charm to ward off the dangers of ocean travel, it long ago came to be associated with Vishnu worship and with nagas—water serpent deities.  Buddhists from the subcontinent also esteem the same instrument  as one of the eight auspicious symbols of that faith.  The Tibetan Buddhists call such a trumpet a “Tung.”

Vamavarta shankhas, c. 11-12th century

The Triton shell, Charonia tritonis, is used as a wind instrument throughout its Pacific range.  In Polynesia the instrument is called a “pu” whereas in Japan the horn is known as the horagai.  Likewise the Triton’s shell is a military instrument in traditional Korean music (where it is known as a nagak).

A Korean Bugler plays a Nagak

The cultures of the Mediterranean also made extensive use of conch-horns as foghorns and signaling devices and it is through Greek art and literature that conch horns made their way into mainstream Western art of the last two millennia.

Triton blowing on a Conch from the Bailey Fountain in Brooklyn

There seem to be two major ways of crafting a wind instrument from a large gastropod– both of which essentially involve creating an aperture in the whorl of a large gastropod shell. Mitchell Clark summarizes them with admirable clarity in his excellent article about shell-trumpets writing:

 There are two basic places this hole may be placed, and so there are two basic approaches that can be taken for making a conch shell into a shell trumpet. A hole is made either at the apex (the tip of the spire) of the shell, or, alternatively, in one of the whorls to the side of the spire…. In some cases the hole itself forms the mouth hole; in others, a mouthpiece is added.

The sound of such a trumpet is a rich rumbling primal roar—but it is usually only one note in one key.  Although pitch can be modified with finger holes or embouchure, such an approach is unusual.  But enough talk about shell trumpets!  Below is a Youtube video of a um…contest-winner playing one.

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