The Fascinating Story Behind the Rarest of Liturgical Devices: the Crotalus

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The Holy Triduum is the shortest – but most important! – liturgical season of the year. Beginning with the liturgy on the evening of Holy Thursday, it lasts three days until Easter Sunday.

Due to some unique rules for the Triduum, if you attend Triduum liturgies, you may hear one of the rarest of liturgical instruments: the crotalus.

The what? Here’s an explanation.

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In the Roman Rite, altar bells are not supposed to be rung after the Gloria in the liturgy on the evening of Holy Thursday, and are supposed to remain unused until the Gloria on Holy Saturday. This is supposed to make things more somber as we remember the passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But, during this short period of time, is anything supposed to take its place? That’s where the crotalus comes in. The Church’s liturgical rubrics don’t prescribe a replacement for altar bells, but there is a long-standing tradition of using a wooden clapper or noise-maker in its place. This serves to both mark the same events as the altar bells, but in a less “sweet” way and thus maintain the somber tone.

The term “crotalus” is a Latin term that comes from the Greek word “krotalon” (κροταλον), which means “rattle.”  (As a result, “crotalus” is also the name of a genus of rattlesnakes.) Crotaluses can come in many different designs (see the pictures and videos at the end of this article for examples).

The crotalus used to be universally used, but fell out of use in the last few decades. It seems, however, to have made a little bit of a comeback lately due to an increase of interest in traditional liturgy.

Here are a few examples of what crotaluses can look like:

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In this video, you can hear a crotalus being used:

You can hear another kind of crotalus being used in this video (starting at 3:07):

What do you think of the crotalus? Should we bring it back? Let us know in the comments!

–> What to read next: The World’s Largest Crotalus? Watch This Church’s Triduum Bell-Replacement