The Venerable, Versatile Gourd

Of Phallocrypts and Pigeon Whistles

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If you had to move some elephants across water on a raft of logs, it might help to secure a lot of empty gourds underneath the craft to provide some extra buoyancy. According to legend, this is what the Carthaginian, Hannibal, did when crossing the Strait of Gibraltar during the Punic Wars.

If, on the other hand, you had a more mundane need — to devise the head for a scarecrow, say, or there was a bucketful of water you needed to transport from one place to another and you lacked a bucket — a dried and cleaned out gourd might answer to the need quite niftily.

A multi-purpose fruit

Gourds — the fruit produced from a family of vine plants called Curcurbitaceae — have been put to use throughout history for a wide variety of purposes. Like many of life's simplest things, gourds can be elegant and beautiful yet also decorative and unassuming, and people have always grown and harvested them. Some fruits grow in bold pear-like shapes, some long and narrow, others neat and round, and from these latter can be made bowls and containers of all sorts, used to store seeds and beads, to serve food and drink, or to cut in half and put on your head like a battle helmet; this last seen once at a fair in Oaxaca City, Mexico. In fact, in some cultures in Central America, also in Africa and the Native American southwest, wild masks are carved from large gourds and these are used in ceremonial dances to call forth powerful spirits. They are painted in astonishing colors and have feathers and fringes attached to them, making a marvelous display.

In Guatemala large gourds are sometimes used to hold the snakes featured in snake dances.

An emblem of knowledge and status

As salt carriers gourds have been seen in use in the southeastern United States, and all through Appalachia carved and polished gourds have served as water dippers and drinking cups.

When Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions crossed the North American continent on foot in the 1530s (something to do after having been shipwrecked), they saw a good many gourds in use by the natives. In addition to cups and containers, they were used as cook pots, rattles, and even carried about as emblems of knowledge and status. Headhunters in Ecuador and the Solomon Islands used gourds to hold the poison with which they coated their spears and darts.

There are small gourds that are carved and painted simply as decorative objects, fashioned into toys such as small birds or other figures, or used to hold incense on altars. Filled with pebbles, sand, dried corn or beans, gourds have been popularly used as rattles by peoples on all continents. Larger fruits have been cleverly made into drums, marimbas, and the bodies of sitars and lutes.

You can see how handy gourds can be, and why people have grown and appreciated them with such devotion, a devotion both sacred and profane. According to legend, it was with a gourd-shaped vessel that the biblical Noah was lured into drunkenness; and according to a different legend, Gautama, later called the Buddha, observed that from his long fasting toward enlightenment, the skin on the top of his head had wrinkled up like an old gourd.

So gourds have also tendrilled their way into cultures through language, metaphor and legend. The Pima Indians believed that the gourd plant was first given to people by Navitco, a deity whom they honored every eight years. And there are stories from the Neur of the Sudan and the Wa of Indo-China that have the first human beings issuing forth from gourds.

The gourd in myth and fable

To illustrate a point once, my friend Aesop told a clever one about a gourd and a pine. In one season a gourd grows up through a tree to the top of a tall pine. Feeling cocky about this, the gourd boasts to the tree about how quickly it grew to this great height, fewer days in number than the years it took the tree to do the same. Whereupon the pine replies that there it has stood long and fast through the heat of many summers and the cold of countless winters, yet the first frost will wither and topple the upstart gourd.

In the Popul Vuh — a pre-Columbian document of the Kiche people of Central America — a bomb is mentioned: a gourd filled with live hornets. We can only imagine, in a feud, how nice it would be to have a stash of those around the house.


One of the more unlikely and surprising of the uses that gourds have been put to, are the penis sheaths of New Guinea.

These are fashioned from very long (the longer the better?) curved fruits that are carefully hollowed out and then decoratively carved. They are then worn over the male member (hence their anthropological designation, phallocrypts). It's anybody's guess as to what status these impart.

Of all the objets d' gourd that have been created by the hands of clever persons, perhaps the most charming of all are the Chinese pigon whistles. The whistles are small instruments made from tiny bamboo tubes and little gourds scraped to paper thinness. These are then attached to the tail feathers of flocks of pigeons, so that when the birds fly through the air the wind moving through the tubes produces a delicate and enchanting music. One's soul longs to join in such a flight of imagination!

And we'll let this perfectly enchanting practice from Peking be the last word on the subject.

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Kohler, Peter. "The Venerable, Versatile Gourd." ThoughtCo, Aug. 23, 2016, Kohler, Peter. (2016, August 23). The Venerable, Versatile Gourd. Retrieved from Kohler, Peter. "The Venerable, Versatile Gourd." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 17, 2017).