“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones
Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk a-roun’”
Bones are a type of fetish. A fetish is “an object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency (source)”. The word fetish originates from the French fétiche which stems from the Portuguese word feitiço meaning “charm” or “sorcery”. Feathers, bones, crystals, and stones are all types of fetishes. Skulls and bones have an appeal to witches who perform spirit work and are a necessary and simple way to connect with spirits of the dead and of animals. Working with bones is not just for necromancers and black magicians. Practitioners who work with bones are a wide range of healers, diviners, shapeshifters, rootworkers, witches, shamans, druids, and pagans.
The safest and easiest way to clean bones is maceration. Remove any remaining skin or flesh and place the bones in a container and completely cover with tapwater. Replace the water every few days with fresh water. You can pour out the smelly water in your garden as a morbid compost tea your plants will love. When the water stops becoming murky and as smelly you are ready for the next step. Rinse the bones again with plain water and scrub off any remaining tissue. Then submerge the bones in a container filled with hydrogen peroxide. This both sterilizes and whitens bone. It may take a few hours or a few days depending on the size of the bones and the strength of the hydrogen peroxide. Afterward remove the bones and give them one last rinse with water and allow them to dry. They are now ready to work with as you please. Never use bleach. It will cause bone to degrade at a very fast rate and can also cause fatty tissue to become trapped inside the bone resulting in greasy smelly bones that will continue to decompose. Here’s a great pdf of instructions from The Bone Room: Prepping individual skulls and bones using maceration.
Too squeamish to deflesh bones and leave them in a bucket of smelling rotting water? No worries, there are two other methods you can use to avoid that part. The first is to bury the animal. Bury it fairly deep so scavengers don’t smell it and run off with your precious bones. Depending on the size of the animal, skull, or bones you are burying, it will take three months to one year for all the skin and tissue to decompose and just leave the bone(s) behind. To make it easier to dig up a skeleton of a whole animal bury it it in a burlap sack. The bag has to be a natural coarse material and loosely woven in order for the bits to still decompose properly. Once you’ve dug up your bones, wash them with water and follow the same instructions above using hydrogen peroxide. The second alternative method is exposure. Some people have had success leaving dead animals they find on a hot sunny roof to decompose. This is an efficient method if you don’t mind the smell and toss a dark rubbermaid container over top to get the heat, but not the damage from the sun. Once again, the length of time it takes depends on the size of the animal or bone. Please don’t throw a deer on your roof! I’d only recommend this method for parts of a larger animal or whole smaller creatures like birds and squirrels. If you use the exposure method you’d have to live on a farm or in a more rural area. Suburban neighbours tend to frown upon decomposing animals next door.
Take red ochre
Fat and tallow
Rub my bones
And say your prayers
“Barrow Song” — Telling the Bees
Reddening bones is a practice found across countries, cultures, religions, and time. It is mainly performed by peoples practicing ancestor worship, but animal bones can be reddened as well. The process is literally making the bones red. This is meant to mimic the lifeforce, blood, and tissue that have since left the bones and give them life again. To redden human or animal bones you use, mix red ochre with red wine until it forms a paste and let it sit in a jar or bowl covered for a day or two. If you can’t get your hands on red ochre pigment you can substitute with old red brick dust as old bricks contain ochre. Then apply the mixture to the cleaned bones with your hands and cover the whole bone or skull with paste. Leave it on for another day (half a day at least). You can wrap it in plastic to keep the paste wet or spray it now and then with water or red wine to keep it moist. Keeping it moist allows the colour to leech into the bone just like henna into the skin. Then remove the paste and allow any remaining particles to dry. When the skull has completely dried, brush away any remaining red ochre particles. Do not wash the bones, but a gentle polishing with a soft cloth is okay. Store your newly reddened bones on your altar or in a beautiful box or cloth bag.
There’s a thousand things you’ve got to see to believe,
c’mon and lay them bones down at my feet
we’re going to look into your future see what we can see.
“Bangor Mash” — The Devil Makes Three
There are so many different types of bone divination, mostly belonging within a cultural context, that it is better to find a method that resonates with you or is found in the culture you base your magic and practices in. I’d even recommend coming up with your own system. Most bone divination practiced today is performed in Africa and Asia. The amount of lore on bone divination merits an article of its own. If I did write such an article it would solely be on Scottish bone divination methods. For the time being here are some more varied resources to explore:
- Ancient Bone Divination (video)
- Divination by Chicken Bones: A Tradition Among the Kammu in Northern Lao People’s Democratic Republic (article)
- Reading the Bones (video)
- The Oracle of the Bones (book)
- Throwing the Bones and Reading Other Natural Curios (article)
The possession and reverence of human bones is most commonly found in cultures who practice a long tradition of ancestor worship. It is still part of the mourning process in some Asian countries today to dig up the bones of your loved ones after a few years, clean them, reassemble them neatly in a box and find them a new home in a tradition called “second burial”. Despite misconceptions, it is not illegal to possess human bones in Canada and the United States. This doesn’t mean grave robbing is legal, but instead that it is legal to purchase human remains or to convince your parents or grandparents to let you have their skull after they die (that is, if you can talk them into it).
Human bones are used in magic and ritual as a fetish or vessel to house the spirit of the dead person and enable them to ground better in this realm so a magical practitioner can better communicate and work with them. The spirits of the dead are not servitors to be bound and ordered around. Instead they are allies to help and guide us. Place your skull or bones in a place of reverence either on an ancestral altar or in a beautiful container like the reliquaries of churches in the Middle Ages. Leave your bones regular offerings. Find out if the spirit has any preferences of alcohol, tobacco, flowers, foods, candies, or objects. You can invite them to share in the essence of your meals ever day at dinner as well. The person the bones belonged to in life can become a familiar spirit to you in your art. They can help you commune with the dead and send messages back and forth. They can travel places you cannot and be your eyes and ears. Always make sure to work with a spirit out of love and respect. If you work with bones not of a family member be sure to build up a friendship with the spirit as you would with a real person. Do not ask too much of them too soon, but instead be consistent in your offerings and communion with them first.
Human bones can also be used in necromancy. Necromancy is a form of divination working with the spirits of the dead. One summons them and presents them with questions about the past, present, or future. It is believed the dead are not bound by time and are excellent oracles and advisers. For more information on working with spirits of the dead see my article on Ancestors in Modern Witchcraft.
“All shells and bones
the spey-wife enters,
Kathleen Jamie, Atoms of Delight
Animal bones are used in witchcraft and folk magic to commune and work with animal spirits as familiar, guides, and protectors. Like human bones, the bones of animals can be also be used to ground a spirit animal in this realm. Bones act as a spirit vessel for animal familiars to dwell in when you work with them. This doesn’t mean that the spirit lives in the bone(s) all the time, but instead it is their home when you call upon them. Animal bones and skulls can be placed on an altar or carried in a medicine or crane bag to work with them outdoors or on the move. Animal bones can be used to call upon mythological creatures as well. To do this you need only to combine bones from the different animals that make up the creatures. For example, bind together parts from an eagle and lion to summon a griffon or combine snake, lizard, and the bones or feathers of a bird of prey to summon a dragon.
Animal bones can be incorporated into ritual jewelry for direct contact and easier communion with the spirits the bones belong to. Ritual jewelry using bones is the most practical and direct way of bringing your animal familiars into rituals and spellwork. If you only have very small bones or a delicate insect to work with than you can place the parts in a glass vial and either use it as a vessel on your altar or attach a chain or leather thong to it to wear around your neck. By wearing animal bones you can take on the attributes and powers of the animal they belong to such as fox teeth for cunning, owl bones for seeing in the dark, or snake bones for the ability to renew and change your life. Bones can also confer an animal’s magical abilities. Many animals are “shamanic” in nature enabling the practitioner to whom they are familiar to adopt their ability to travel between worlds. Such creatures known to travel between the realms of earth, sea, and sky or have extraordinary powers of transformation include frogs, toads, snakes, all birds (especially water fowl), alligators, crocodiles, turtles, beavers, otters, dragonflies, spiders, beetles, butterflies, cicadas, and more.
Animal bones can be used to craft ritual tools. Many traditional rattles are made using skulls, turtle shells, or little bones tied closely together for the sound of their rattling against one another. Bones can also be tied to staffs or stangs, wands, or even sewn onto ritual robes. Animal bones, especially chicken and other bird bones, are used for traditional divination methods in many cultures. This can also be incorporated into European practice by carving Futhark or Ogham runes onto animal bones or using slices of deer antler instead of the usual materials of wood and stone.
Animal bones, hides, and feathers have yet another important use in magic — shapeshifting. These parts can be worn as jewelry or donned as a costume while going into trance to leave your body so either your spirit takes on the form of the animal or you are led to a living (and willing) animal to possess temporarily. Another method of using animal parts for shapeshifting includes making a magical salve or potion with bones, hairs, skin, or feathers to rub on your skin or take internally before attempting to shapeshift. If you are making a salve, include herbs and/or fungi associated with that animal as well as bits of your own hair or nail clippings in the recipe. If you are making a tea or tincture as a potion, make sure to do the same. In my experience tinctures are much more palatable than a tea of bone shavings and hair. For more information see my article: On Shapeshifting.
- Andrews, Ted. Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small. Llewellyn, 1996.
- Andrews, Ted. The Art of Shapeshifting. Dragonhawk Publishing, 2005.
- Baring-Gould, Sabine. “Skulls”. A Book of Folk-lore. London: Collins Clear Type Press, 1913.
- Searfoss, Glenn. Skulls and Bones: A Guide to the Skeletal Structures and Behavior of North American Mammals. Stackpole Books, 1995.
- Thompson, C.J.S. “The Folk-lore of Skulls and Bones”. Hand of Destiny: Everyday Folk-lore and Superstitions. London: Senate, 1932.
- Yronwode, Catherine. Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic. Luck Mojo Curio Co., 2002.