The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone The Hoodoo told me to get a black cat bone And shake it over their heads, they’ll leave your man alone
-Ma Rainey, from “Louisiana Hoodoo Blues”
In the last post, we looked at bones as vessels for housing spirits and as divinatory tools, both methods relying on the ancestral side of bone magic to some degree. Today I’ll be going through some of the uses for bones which are less apparently ancestral and a bit more left-of-center when it comes to reasoning why the bones do what they do. A number of the spells call for animal bones of different types, some of which are of questionable legality or morality in terms of collecting them. I DO NOT RECOMMEND VIOLATING ANY LAWS—LOCAL OR FEDERAL—TO ACQUIRE BONES. The information here is intended to provide a folkloric framework for understanding magical practices in North America which feature the use of bones. Likewise, while some of these uses explicitly state their efficacy for healing illness, THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG AND THIS INFORMATION IS NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. Please leave medical decisions in the hands of qualified professionals, and do not attempt to cure your great-aunt’s glaucoma with leftover buffalo wing scraps. It will end badly for all concerned.
Now that the big-letter typing is out of the way, let’s look at some of these last two categories of bone magic, healing and charming. I should say that there will be some overlap between these categories (and maybe a bit of overlap with divination, too), but as much as possible I use the term “healing” to refer to practices centered on curing bodily ailments of man, woman, or beast, and “charming” as a way of reversing or treating conditions like luck, love, vengeance, etc. I hope that distinction is generally clear, but if it is not, my apologies.
For the most part, the bone cures I’ve found are related to preventatives or healing superficial and minor disorders like headaches. In this latter category, the magic revolves around carrying the bones as a talisman against the illness, as demonstrated in the examples below:
To prevent headache, carry in your pocket bone out of a hog’s head. (Farr)
You can cure a toothache by carrying the jawbone of a mule or donkey in your teeth and walking backwards . Likewise a “white bone button” can be held in the mouth to help cope with toothache or headache. (Randolph)
The bones of the turkey vulture, hung around the neck, are supposed to keep headaches at bay. Powdered eagle bones are supposed to be useful for headaches as well, and possibly depression (McAtee).
In some cases, as in the powdered eagle bones mentioned above (DO NOT EVER KILL AN EAGLE! IT IS SO VERY ILLEGAL!), the administration of the bone-medicine may be taken internally. Vance Randolph mentions a similar—if slightly eerier—method for treating epilepsy: “A human bone, pulverized, is sometimes given internally for epilepsy just a pinch of the powder stirred into a hot toddy, or a cup of coffee.” What makes this even more unsettling is a follow-up paragraph from Randolph on the next page: “Old sores, syphilitic lesions, and skin cancers are sometimes treated with powder made from the bones of a person long dead. In order to obtain this material the hillfolk dig into Indian graves and Bluff Dweller burials under the ledges. The Hillman always tells strangers that he’s digging for arrowheads and the like, which can be sold to tourists ; but I have seen these old bones broken into small pieces with a hammer and ground up to be used as medicine.” Now, I’m not saying that Poltergeist (the film) is a gospel to live by, but digging around in Native graves seems like a great way to get into all kinds of trouble—legally and spiritually—in a hurry. Does no one remember the tree and that creepy clown doll attacking the kids? And why? The house is built on an “Indian burial ground.” Bad juju. Jeffery Anderson, in his marvelous overview of African American folk magic called Hoodoo, Voodoo, & Conjure: A Handbook, says that “Human bones are particularly powerful and have historically been highly sought-after items. Many have placed special value on the bones of Native Americans.” Whether this is all due to a cultural ascription of spiritual power to Native Americans, or some deeply-felt sense that the bones of Natives are somehow more “ancient” and powerful, I do not know. It does, however, seem to be a once prominent practice that has (hopefully) been on the decline for some time now.
After that digression, let’s look at other ways in which bones allegedly can be used to cure illness. In many cases, touching the bone to an affected body part would bring about magical healing. This principle was effective for treating humans or animals, as in the examples below:
TO CURE ANY EXCRESCENCE OR WEN ON A HORSE. Take any bone which you accidentally find, for you dare not be looking for it, and rub the wen of the horse with it, always bearing in mind that it must be done in the decreasing moon, and the wen will certainly disappear. The bone, however, must be replaced as it was lying before (Hohman)
To remove a wart, get a dry bone and rub it over the wart, then throw the bone away without looking back (Farr)
To remove a wart, pick up a beef bone and rub the warts with the side that was next to the ground; put the bone back just as you found it and your warts will go away (Farr)
As a method for losing a birthmark: go to the cemetery before sunrise, find a human bone, and rub this upwards three times over your birthmark while saying In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Hyatt)
If a person with big neck (goitre) walks through a field, picks up the first animal bone found, rubs that over his swelling, buries it at its original location, departs without glancing back, the ailment will fade away as the bone decays (Hyatt)
To cure a tumor or abscess, get a human bone from a graveyard and rub it over the tumor or abscess, then bury the bone under a waterspout of a roof where neither sun nor moon can shine on it (Hyatt)
Several of these cures are remarkably similar, possibly betraying a common origin (most likely European). Again, we see the bones of dead human beings being used as a way of implementing magical cures, but the somewhat more curious method is the “found bone” method. Since the coincidence of finding bones, having the appropriate illness, and being able to dispose of it properly all involve an exceptional amount of serendipity, I have an easy time imagining myself being caught up in the magic of such a technique.
With a fair glance at curatives behind us, let’s now turn towards some of the most outlandish uses for bones in magic: charms.
Using bones as talismans for luck and other conditions may actually be the most widely disseminated method for employing bodily remains in magic. This is a case of “magic in plain sight,” where several methods for using bones have become simple popular culture tropes. The best example is, of course, the wishbone:
Whoever in pulling a wishbone gets the larger part should put it over the kitchen door for luck. (Hyatt)
The wishbone from a canary may be worn for luck. (Hyatt)
When a chicken is on the menu, pull the wishbone in two with another person. The one who gets the shorter piece may put it over the front door, and the first person who walks under it will be the one whom the person is to marry. (Farr)
A wishbone may be hung in one of the following places for luck: over a door, over the kitchen door, and in the clothes closet. (Hyatt)
Lay a wishbone over your door on New Year’s Day and the first person to enter the house will be your friend that year. (Hyatt)
“Another old saying: if you can break a wishbone with someone and get the largest part, put it in your mailbox and you will soon get some good news in the mail. I did this last week and got a letter with a big check in I was not looking for.” (Hyatt)
Here we see the wishbone used primarily for luck, although it can also have a fortune-telling aspect as well (as in the New Year’s-friend and marriage-prediction charms). Of course, there are a number of bones other than wishbones which can prove magical or lucky. In the Ozarks, Vance Randolph claims that Hillfolk in Arkansas allegedly will hunt for large crawdaddies (also called crayfish or crawfish), which are reputed to contain two large circular “lucky-bones” that can be used to ward off syphilis. Children are sometimes given the snipe-hunt-like challenge of burying lucy-bones with the promise that they will turn into nickels in two weeks. As a parent, I would gladly pay a nickel-per-bone for such magical charms if it meant keeping my kids busy for a few hours hunting crayfish in creeks. In this case, the “lucky-bones” really act more as a magical cure, carried to ward off illness. Another Ozark tradition tells of how girls keep dried turkey bones in their bedrooms or in the rooms where they meet their lovers to inspire proposals of marriage or at least increased displays of affection. Randolph tells one story of “some village loafers ‘greening’ [sending up] a young chap because some turkey bones had been found behind the cushions of his Ford, the supposition being that they had been placed there by women who had ridden with him” (Randolph 167).
Other methods for using bones as magical curios:
A charm against evil spirits, made from “the breast bones of kingfishers and jays and small holed stones” (Hoadley).
Good luck at cards is had by touching the skull of an infant’s skeleton (Hyatt)
Two bones from the head of a white perch, one lying just behind each eye, are considered lucky; unusually lucky when worn by a fisherman (Hyatt)
You can become lucky by carrying either the jawbone or breastbone of a tree toad (Hyatt)
Keep a turtle bone in your pocket for luck (Hyatt)
Of couse, I can’t talk about magical bones without talking about perhaps the most controversial one: the Black Cat Bone. This bone, taken from the body of a boiled black cat, supposedly has a variety of mystical powers, the best known being the power to make the carrier invisible. The Black Cat Bone is actually just one among many different types of highly empowered bone charms taken from ritually killed animals. Toad bones from the natterjack toad may once have been used in a similar fashion in England (check out Andrew Chumbley’s “The Leaper Between” or Robin Artisson’s “Toad Bone Treatise” for some esoteric and mind-expanding explanations of these traditions). In North America, the black cat became the primary focus of this practice, though, largely due to the dissemination of its existence by writers like Zora Neale Hurston. In her article “Hoodoo in America,” Hurston outlines the basics of the Black Cat Bone:
To be invisible. You have to catch a black cat in the evening and boil him and close the lid down on the pot tightly. At twelve o’clock at night you pass every bone through your mouth till you get to the bitter bone, and that’s the one. You have to sell yourself to the devil first. Then you can walk out of the sight of man (Hurston 387).
Similar stories exist in recorded tales from the Appalachians, as in Hubert J. Davies’ The Silver Bullet or in Patrick W. Gainer’s Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. At one time, it seems, having a Black Cat Bone was the mark of being a deeply “serious” sort of practitioner of arcane arts and sorcery. While I have no doubt that there are some individuals who would still engage in acts of animal cruelty to acquire allegedly astounding powers, the practice of boiling a cat alive for its bones at least seems to be on the wane. In fact, many places claiming to sell “Black Cat Bones” are selling nothing of the sort. Cat Yronwode sums up the current situation nicely:
“The reputation of the Black Cat Bone spell is so great thaI even today, when animal sacrifice is not condoned by society, several hoodoo supply companies offer Black Cat Bones. Out of curiosity, I bought a so-called Black Cat Bone mojo bag and a vial of Black Cat Oil from one supplier and was amused to see that the bone was the broken end of a chicken thigh bone spray-painted black, while the oil was simply mineral oil. I was relieved to learn that no cats had been killed to satisfy my curiosity – but amazed at the arrogance of the lie that was being perpetuated by the seller, who also offers so-called Bat’s Hearts, Cat’s Eyes, and Swallow’s Hearts for sale – undoubtedly all gallinaceous in origin” (Yronwode 49).
I, for one, am glad that there’s not a mass market for the actual Black Cat Bone, or rather, that the companies doing the mass marketing are at least not making a habit of boiling cats alive. Frankly, while I don’t have a problem with animal sacrifice or slaughter (I remain a farm-boy at heart), the Black Cat Bone ritual disturbs me pretty deeply. If you are reading this and considering performing that rite, let me beg you here and now to reconsider, and instead to think about creating spirit vessels using already-dead cat bones or finding someone (like Sarah Lawless) who makes bone-based charms and unguents that can do much of the same magic without the need for boiling anything alive.
With all of that being said, I hope that this has been an interesting look (a glance really) at the incredibly rich and diverse methodology behind bone magic. If you have other ways of using bones in magical practice, I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to leave a comment or send an email with your thoughts on the topic!