Saturday, May 28, 2011


Flute-playing armadillo, on a private ranch north of Santa Fe, NM.
Photo: Peter Faris, 1994.
Field sketch of flute-playing armadillo.
Peter Faris, 1994.

I photographed this illustration on a private ranch North of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It has been interpreted as a flute-playing armadillo, which I have no argument with since it looks like that more than anything else. There are extraneous figures on the rock that confuse the image somewhat (apparently two crude anthropomorphs among others) so I have included a black and white field sketch as well.

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, New Mexico.
Photo: John and Esther Faris, 1988.

The second petroglyph is from Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico, and is often called a rabbit because of the long ears. If, however, you look at a photograph of an armadillo you will see that they have quite long ears as well. Additionally, this figure has a long, narrow, pointed tail and I cannot think that it is truly meant to be  a rabbit. It has a patterned body that might indicate the pattern of an armadillo’s scales, and indeed is also holding a stick or flute in its forepaws much like my other example.

Researching the armadillo in Native American mythology gives one a number of symbolic meanings for this creature.  According to the Legends of America website armadillo represents “Safety oriented, grounded, and has boundaries”. Support Native American Art stated that armadillo “Understands personal boundary and respects the boundaries of others; carries protection at all times; understanding of vulnerabilities; empathy; discrimination.” None of this carries any musical connotation at all.

Perhaps the most interesting result of my search, however, is the following myth from Latin America found on referring to “The Armadillo’s Song”.
Armadillo's Song, A Bolivian Legend retold by S.E. Schlosser.
There once lived an armadillo who loved music more than anything else in the world. After every rainfall, the armadillo would drag his shell over to the large pond filled with frogs and he would listen to the big green frogs singing back and forth, back and forth to each other in the most amazing voices.
"Oh," thought the armadillo, "Oh how I wish I could sing."

The armadillo would creep to the edge of the water and watch the frogs leaping and swimming in a frantic green ballet, and they would call back and forth, back and forth in beautiful, musical tones. He loved to listen to the music they made as they spoke, though he didn't understand their words; which was just as well - for the frogs were laughing at this funny animal that wanted so badly to sing like a frog.
"Don't be ridiculous," sang the frogs as they played. "Armadillos can't sing."

This experience was repeated with crickets that moved into a house near him, and they also ridiculed his desire to sing like them.
Then one day a man came down the road carrying a cage full of canaries. They were chirping and flittering and singing songs that were more beautiful even than those of the crickets and the frogs. The armadillo was entranced. He followed the man with the cage down the road as fast as his little legs would carry him, listening to the canaries singing.
"Oh," gasped the armadillo, "Oh how I wish I could sing." Inside the cage, the canaries twittered and giggled. "Don't be ridiculous," sang the canaries as they flapped about. "Armadillos can't sing."

The poor tired armadillo couldn't keep up with the man and the cage, and finally he fell exhausted at the door of the great wizard who lived in the area. Realizing where he was, the armadillo decided to beg a boon of the man.
Timidly, the armadillo approached the wizard, who was sitting in front of his house and said: "Great wizard, it is my deepest desire to learn to sing like the frogs and the crickets and the canaries."
The wizard's lips twitched a little in amusement, for who had ever heard of an armadillo that could sing. But he realized that the little animal was serious. He bent low to the ground and looked the creature in the eye. "I can make you sing, little armadillo," he said. "But you do not want to pay the price, for it will mean your death."
"You mean if I die I will be able to sing?" asked the armadillo in amazement.
"Yes, this is so," said the wizard.
"Then I want to die right now!" said the armadillo. "I would do anything to be able to sing!"

The wizard and the armadillo discussed the matter for many hours, for the wizard was reluctant to take the life of such a fine armadillo. But the creature insisted, and so the wizard finally killed the armadillo, made a wonderful musical instrument from his shell, and gave it to the finest musician in the town to play. Sometimes the musician would play his instrument by the pond where the frogs lived, and they would stare at him with big eyes and say: "Ai! Ai! The armadillo has learned to sing." Sometimes the musician would play his instrument by the house where the crickets lived, and they would creep outside to stare at him with big eyes and say: "Ai! Ai! The armadillo has learned to sing."
And often the musician would visit the home of his friend who owned the cage full of canaries - who was also a musician - and the two men would play their instruments together while the little birds watched with fluttering wings and twittered in amazement: "Ai! Ai! The armadillo has learned to sing." And so it was. The armadillo had learned to sing at last, and his voice was the finest in the land. But like the very best musicians in the world, the armadillo sacrificed his Life for his Art.

This myth refers to the creation of the Latin American musical instrument known as the charanga, and it is most definitely not prehistoric. According to Wikipediathe charango is a small South American stringed instrument of the lute family traditionally made with the shell of the back of an armadillo. It typically has 10 strings in five courses of 2 strings each, though other variations exist. The instrument was invented in the early 18th century in the Vice-Royalty of Peru (nowadays Perú and Bolivia).” Are we entitled to conjecture that there may have been prehistoric roots linking armadillos with music that later were manifested in this myth? In other words where could the origins of the singing armadillo be?

We know of myths and legends in the American southwest that seem to have been adopted as a result of influences from Central America. So could this myth from 18th century Central America explain these prehistoric petroglyphs? No, of course not. Are these animals actually even armadillos, well perhaps.  If any of my readers have a suggestion I am very interested in hearing it, but until then it is an interesting story and a charming myth.


1 comment:

  1. I love the armadillo story, it brought tears to my eyes. I have always been fascinated by petroglyphs and archealogy and it has been a constant influence in my art (paintings and rock carvings). I'm new to the blogging scene so I was excited to find you. Please come visit my blog, it would be nice to have someone with your knowledge and input! I love the lizard ones from Dinosaur Nat Mon, right? We visited there a few years ago. Fantastic site! Deb