The Horse-Head Fiddle – The Morin Khuur

Photo by Eric Pouhier/Wikipedia Commons

What could HBO’s series “True Blood” possibly have to do with the Mongolian musician on the right?

Over Christmas week, Rod and I watched HBO’s re-airing of the first season of its wildly popular Southern vampire miniseries “True Blood.”

While we were refreshing our southern accents after living <cough>ty years among the Yankee infidel ;), we picked up on details one misses during the first season’s first airing.

And, even though this series is about vampires in northern Louisiana, what we saw and heard led us to find something horse-related.

First, what’s True Blood about?

The TV series True Blood is based on Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series of novels where vampires are real and “out of the coffin.”

The HBO series is largely about the romance between Sookie, a telepathic waitress, and Bill, a vampire. His Bon Temps neighbors refer to him as “Vampire Bill.”

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the show because you can catch up here on “True Blood’s” HBO website. However, if your computer is on the slow side, here’s a Wikipedia entry to give you background.

FWIW, if you’re one of my child readers, this show is waay too adult for you. And if you have delicate sensibilities, it will likely still be waay too much for you.

But this blog post is safe for work, for children and, well, everyone. 😉

Set up for the scene in question

Anyway, during Bill and Sookie’s first car ride together, Bill’s music selections on the car stereo cause strife between the new couple.

Bill has been a vampire since shortly after the Civil War. He’s probably been around the world, too, so his taste seems to run toward world music.

Sookie works in a rural Lousiana local watering hole where burgers and onion rings are served up along with drinks and bluesy country rock on the jukebox.

So, she is less-than-enchanted by her introduction to Bill’s musical taste, which include what he tells her is Tuvan Throat Singing.

Tuvan Throat Singing

So, my husband promptly looked it up online. Even though the performance featured in the show seemed to be voice-only, horses appear to have a connection to the art.

Or at least to the accompaniment of one particular performance of Tuvan Throat Singing that we found on YouTube. (Links to the video are below.)

Let’s take a closer look at the stringed instrument, especially the head.

Click here for video of Tuvan Throat Singing

Did you see the horse head carving on the fiddle’s head? The instrument is called a “horse head fiddle” or, more properly, a morin khuur.

As with the American Plains Indian tribes, horses were important to Mongol culture. The morin khuur – “mor” is the Mongol word for “horse” – is the national instrument.

Origin legends (and facts) about the horse-head fiddle

According to the Mongoluls.net site’s page on the morin khuur, a number of legends have been given as the inspiration for the instrument.  Both tales involve grief for a lost steed and a desire to keep the horse with the mourner forever..

The recycling of the beloved horse’s remains into an instrument leads me to believe that original morin khuur’s were made entirely of remains from a horse. Perhaps instruments were made from the remains of beloved or otherwise special horses so that memories of them could live on in music?

Instead of sounding ghoulish, the idea sounds rather poignant, lyrical and practical from the standpoint of a nomadic people.

Nowadays, both the body and neck of the  morin khuur are often made of wood. The modern instrument still contains some contributions from horses – specifically, tail hairs for strings on both the fiddle and the bow.

The bow is said to be horse hair with a coating of larch or cedarwood resin.  The strings on the instrument itself are of particular interest.

The longer string is considered the male string and is made of 130 hairs from the tale of a stallion.  The female string is shorter and thinner, 105 tail hairs, and come from a mare.

You’ll need to scroll down after clicking this link to an instrumental performance with the horse-head fiddle.

Sookie might have enjoyed listening to the instrumental in Bill’s car more than she did the singing.

If you’re interested in more Mongolia-related material on this blog, don’t miss my book review of Rupert Isaacson’s The Horse Boy.


3 Comments
  • Marti
    January 8, 2010

    Might I also suggest a simply amazing disk that was recorded in the 1990’s with Mongolian throat singer Kongar-ol Ondar, as well as Willie Nelson and some noteworthy others (see the link for details). Here is a spot-on review of the disk for you:

    “5.0 out of 5 stars A great way to warm up to Tuvan music, February 12, 2009
    By Carol Klavon
    This is a sort of novelty CD that you probably never would have heard of if you were not into the writings of the late Richard P Feynman (a bongo playing Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project), had never heard of Mongolia, and was not a fan of country music. All at the same time. Fortunately, as I fall under this rather unique category, I can say that this is the most “fun” recording of traditional Tuvan throat singing I’ve ever heard.”
    Here it is on Amazon:
    http://www.amazon.com/Back-Tuva-Future-Kongar-ol-Ondar/product-reviews/B00000GC1U/ref=cm_cr_dp_synop?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending#R35G2V5PDFH1Y

  • rhond7
    January 8, 2010

    Wow! What a cool, mixed genre, meeting-of-the-creative minds CD. Thanks for the tip, Marti.

  • Marti
    January 8, 2010

    🙂 – and Rhonda if you send me your email I’ll send you over an mp3 from the cd I have of this disk that somehow didn’t make it to the online versions. It is THE best song of the whole disk, hands – and hooves – down. You’ll see. Reach me at merryhorses@gmail.com.
    And are you a member of EquineConnection.org yet? You should be! Cheerio!

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