Instruments of Macabre Origin

Ken Moore
July 7, 2014

Lyre. Central Africa, 19th century (89.4.1268)
Lyre. Central Africa, 19th century. Human skull, antelope horn, skin, gut, hair; L. 36.5 cm, W. 14 cm, D. 13 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889 (89.4.1268)

«A highly unusual musical instrument in the Museum's collection is a lyre fashioned from a human skull. Although the piece has not been exhibited since before 1980, it gained fame in Jerzy Kosinski's 1982 best-selling novel Pinball—a rock 'n' roll mystery written for George Harrison—and perennially draws attention

Not much is known about this instrument. It was purchased from an unnamed dealer at the end of the nineteenth century and was originally thought to have come from South America when it was cataloged in 1906, but was later reattributed to Central Africa. There is no known tradition to which this instrument may be assigned, although some have suggested it may have a symbolic or clandestine ritual use. Most likely it is a sensational item made by a clever indigenous entrepreneur for trade and profit with Europeans.

Human and animal remains, bones, and skulls have long been associated with musical instruments, either as decoration or as, in the case of this lyre, one of the key components. The oldest playable instruments in the world are red-crowned crane-bone flutes—relics dating to the Neolithic Age, some 7,500 to 9,000 years ago. Skulls of warriors slain in battle were once hung on Ashanti (Asante) royal drums in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Human or animal thigh-bone trumpets (rkangling) and skull drums (damaru) were used in Tibet in connection with meditation traditions focused on the impermanence of life and material existence. They were also thought to be powerful tools for protection against evil.

Damaru. Tibet, 19th century (89.4.213)
Damaru. Tibet, 19th century. Skull, cloth, wax; H. 18.6 cm (7 1/4 in.), Diam. 16.6 cm (6 9/16 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889 (89.4.213)

Ken Moore

Ken Moore is a curator emeritus in the Department of Musical Instruments.