Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.
Now hear the word of the Lord.
-from “Dem Dry Bones,” Traditional Spiritual based on Ezekiel 37
With Halloween just past, I thought it might be a good day to briefly look at one of the most commonly used magical tools in folk sorcery: bones (and their companion skulls as well). I recently received a letter asking specifically about the practice of “Tapping the Bone,” which I will touch on briefly here or in another post, though I will likely not delve too deeply into it as that ritual performed under that name belongs to the general heading of “Traditional Witchcraft.” There are many better resources on that topic than this website, so I’ll stick primarily to the magical folk practices of North America here.
Bones as magical tools have been around for at least 12,000 years, and likely longer than that. In the Paleolithic era (‘Old’ Stone Age), figures carved out of animal bone were likely used in religious ceremonies designed to ensure a good hunt, survival in adverse circumstances, tribal fertility, or any number of other goals. The people making such carvings were hardly ignorant of natural processes, as Alexander Marshack’s discovery of lunar calendars etched into animal bones in the late twentieth century demonstrates. Some estimates place such carvings at around 30,000 years old, so people have been using bones for magic for a while now, to say the least.
Instead of spending several paragraphs exploring the history of bones in magic—which would be easy to do, but would essentially involve me repeating over and over again that skeletal remains have been a part of sorcerous operations for a very long time and are still used today—let’s instead look at how these tools were put to use in the New World. In a very broad sense, bones serve a few very specific (and sometimes overlapping) magical functions: spirit vessels, divinatory tools, healing specimens, and charm curios.
The use of bones and skulls as a gateway to the land of the dead, or even in some cases to underworlds not inhabited solely by the dead, seems like a natural place to start a discussion. This is very much what “Tapping the Bone” is about, in that a witch or sorcerer can use a skull to summon up a dead person’s spirit or to travel into the otherworld and gain insight or information. A number of good examples can be drawn for this practice. Mexican American families, for instance, use sugar skulls as a way of interacting with their deceased loved ones during Dia de (los) Muertos celebrations. While such a celebration is hardly necromantic, it does seem to be a popular way to facilitate a relationship with the departed. The idea that bones harbor a connection to the dead and their realms also appears in Palo Mayombe, with the phenomenon of the nganga. This is essentially a pot filled with a variety of natural objects including bones which serves as a home for a patron spirit (nkisi). In Native American traditions of the Arikara, musical instruments made from human arm bones are used as a method for summoning the fearsome ancestral spirits known as Buffalo People (James Howard, “The Arikara Buffalo Society Medicine Bundle,” Plains Anthropologist (1974)). I have also seen references to the need to keep a skull on the altar of a working houngan, or Vodoun priest.
Whatever the specific application, the theory behind bones as gateways to the otherworld seems generally clear: they are the last remaining physical link between someone or something that has died and the world of the living. Using bones to house spirits also makes a great deal of sense, as their liminal nature (caught between life and death) makes them a comfortable space for the two worlds. The bones do not have to be human to facilitate communication, either. In The War of the Witches, narrator Timothy Knab mentions one of the curanderos with whom he is training bringing out a reed box full of “patches of fur, buzzard beaks, and claws from different animals,” which represent ancestral connections of various types, and which could be employed for divinatory and protective purposes (91).
If the remains of dead things are houses for the long-gone, keeping house is very important. Bones treated irreverently can cause all sorts of spiritual havoc. In Roger Pinckney’s Blue Roots, he mentions how African burial practices involved two funerals: one right after the death, and one several years later when bones would be disinterred, lovingly reverenced by the family of the departed, then put to a final rest to give them peace. When slaves could not perform the required funerary rites due to white sensibilities about the exhumation of the dead, it resulted in a lot of “trabblin’ spirits,” or ghosts roaming the land—which may explain why the South is so haunted (59-60).
With so many traditions recognizing the connection between ancestral and unseen spiritual forces and a pile of femurs, tibia, and clavicles, it should hardly be a surprise that the use of bones to communicate with the dead frequently leaves the altar and enters the hands of thesoothsayer.
If you’ve ever heard of someone “throwing the bones,” you know already that a little bundle of claws, teeth, and bones can be scattered to read events of the past, present, and future. If you’ve heard of the slight variation in phrase which goes “rolling the bones,” you may instead associate the items tossed with dice and not perceive anything divinatory, but rather a game of chance played for money, like craps. Yet the two different practices and phrases are very closely related. Both rely on fate to reveal an outcome, for example. The “bones” of the dice phrase is not metaphorical, either, as dice were frequently carved from bone until the twentieth century presented cheaper alternatives like plastic. The ankle-bones of sheep have a naturally dice-like shape, and were frequently used as substitute dice in medieval times. Likewise, dominoes were once carved from bones and can also be used for both gambling and fortune-telling purposes. Raymond Buckland, for example, alleges that Travelers (essentially the UK variant of “Gypsies,” though they are not always ethnically linked) had a domino oracle used for fun and divination.
One of the finest books on the use of bones in divination only came out in the past year or so. Cat Yronwode, who runs the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, put out a small chapbook-sized work called Throwing the Bones, which provides a brief survey of bone-based divination practices ranging from dominoes to dice to Sangoma-style bone casting. Yronwode makes a good case for understanding “bones” as including things like coins, buckeyes, doll hands, and even a stone or two. You can even buy a set of “starter bones” with the book as a kit, and learn some basics of bone-throwing that way. Another book with a good reputation (I’ve not read it myself, but have seen it recommended by a few reputable diviners) is Carlos G. Poenna’s Yoruba Domino Oracle. Juniper over at Walking the Hedge also has a great article on crafting your own “bone” system using a variety of objects (including, of course, bones).
Using bones for divination is a very old practice—it almost certainly was done in Ancient Greece and Rome, and may have been done even in Ancient Egypt. The “casting lots” found in the Bible (as in Psalm 22 or during the crucifixion of Jesus) would likely have been done with bone dice or something similar. While doing bone-based divination may seem to be a fairly simple way to work, it can also take on complex methodologies. An article published in the Journal of Experiential Education describes a Native American system called “The Bone Game,” which was used to settle disputes between warring tribes without resorting to outright violence. In this “game,” each tribe would establish high stakes (like potentially a large number of horses or weapons), then form teams which would circulate different bones (here used in Yronwode’s sense to mean small, deeply personal natural objects, including things like nuts or seeds in some cases). Each team would try to determine which object best represented them, and then engage in a very elaborate geocaching/hide-and-seek/scavenger-hunt like ritual which resulted in one team having a victory and claiming all the stakes.
I’ll pause here for today, and next time (hopefully) we’ll look at some of the healing methods and simple charms based on bones. I do hope that this very brief look at bones in their spirit-contact/divinatory capacity is useful. I’m sure there’s much more I could write on the topic (I have not addressed systems like runes, which may involve inscribing symbols on bone or antler pieces for fortune-telling purposes, for example), but for now I will just hope that this short article sparks your own curiosity on the subject of magical bone-picking.
Thanks for reading!