The abalone shell sits in my hand, cool to the touch and rough against my palm. Inside the ivory pieces lay this way and that-sticking out at sharp angles and creating a forest of small shadows. I take a deep breath, grounding, centering, and anchoring in my intention and my question as I approach this rite. And then a I reach in, grab a handful, and flick my wrist out casting them forth-and I sit down to consider what lies in store.
Reading with bones is not for everyone but I cannot think of a better oracle to consult during the season of life/death/life that is All Saint’s Day, Halloween, Samhain, or Dia de los Muertos. We appreciate those that have gone and we recognize that they still speak to us as long as we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Bones tell stories-our stories, the stories of our people and our experiences. Bones illuminate and remind us that life and death love to dance.
Consulting bones is an ancient form of Divination-one of the oldest in fact, dating from at least 1200 BCE and probably much older. In the Celtic lands of Scotland and Ireland as well as during the Shang dynasty in China a specific type of bone reading was performed with the shoulder bone (scapular) of an Ox, Sheep, Cow, or Pig.
When it comes to reading bones I prefer the sortilage method where bones, nuts, shells, and seeds are gathered in a unique ritual container. I use an abalone shell. Many bone divination systems make strong use of math and numerology so if you are drawn to such systems I recommend you explore them. I prefer sortilage because it’s easy and intuitive.
My practice is a combination of what my great aunt-a good Scottish Catholic-taught me and what my grandparents taught me. It relies heavily on the presence of the Ancestors making it especially appropriate for this time of year. Research into this system has led me to believe that it comes out of both South American and African Shamanic practices. My family is in Texas so my relatives could have picked it up from either group- both have strong influences in our local folk magic and divination practices. If you enjoy reading Tarot cards, palms, and especially tea leaves or coffee grounds you will probably like this sortilage system too.
Before we get into the how-to, I just want to say a few words about what I mean when I say bones: bones are parts of the skeleton of living things. Some animals do not have bones (like gastropods and crustaceans) but they do have shells or carapaces and these may also be used in bone readings. In reading with bones the first two things we want to notice about working with the remains is what kind of animal and part of the body the bone comes from. In some traditions those who divine with bones also use other objects that are derived from bones like dice or beads, seeds, nuts, or shells of nuts-especially if there is sacred resonance with a specific plant or fruit.
You will need:
Bones or other objects suitable for throwing
A container for your bones
A beautiful cloth, animal hide, or surface to cast your bones onto-I recommend something soft because bones are fragile and can break easily. If this is something that belongs to an ancestor you wish to honor all the better.
Something to represent or honor your ancestors at the altar.
A question…hold it in your heart, speak it off your tongue but we come to the bones with a question in mind.
I always like to have a fragrant incense burning when I do this work. I also like to record myself so that I can go back over it and consider my interpretation. For me bone reading is one of the “trance-ier” forms of divination so I don’t always have perfect recall as I usually do with Tarot. I also strongly recommend a bit of drumming before you throw the bones-it just helps.
Open Sacred Space.
Invoke the aid and presence of your ancestors.
Ask your question out loud: I asked,
“What do I need to be aware of as I enter into the dark part of the year?”
Reach your hand into your special container and pull out a few bones-whatever you happen to touch.
Toss them onto the prepared surface for the reading.
First study the overall picture – do the bones make a shape of any kind? A circle, question mark, or radiating sun? Pay attention to the “bird’s eye view.”
Next, notice if any bones are “outside” of the main crowd-if so what bones are they and where are they located?
If you are working with a collection of bones and non bones pay attention to what you drew-mostly bones or not? What unique items are present? Before you analyze pay attention to any messages that spirit may have to give you.
Read the bones:
Over the years I have adapted my system so that the layout accords with the cardinal directions and what they represent in Western Classical magic. I was taught to sit in the West as that is where the Ancestors speak to us from. So my back is to the West and I am facing East in the reading.
The bird’s eye view in my case reminds me of a campfire. There is a cluster of three vertebrate bones in the center and there are smaller outlying rib bones around this central cluster. The single non-bone I have is a preserved alligator claw – sitting directly in the South.
There is a fourth vertebrate bone by itself in the far northeastern corner of my cloth.
I know that the animals represented are a cat and an alligator – the bones are all from a family cat and the alligator claw was a gift.
The center cluster of three spinal bones tells me that hearth and home will be especially important as the wheel turns and the year grows darker and colder. That seems intuitively spot on and I hear as if on the wind advice to have my chimney cleaned out-for the winter will be cold. The fact that there are three of these bones is interesting because there are three of us in my immediate family – myself, my husband, and our son. The spine is considered the most “spiritual” organ in many cultures and it’s absolutely true that my family is the backbone of all I am and all that I do – so this resonates.
The thinner, elegantly curved rib bones almost form a complete outer ring around the 3 central spine bones. These rib bones first make me think of asthma-something I have had since I was born-and remind me that I need to make sure I have the proper medications and treatment plans as we head into “cold season.” But the ribs are also the part of our bodies that protect our vital core organs-so these speak to protection and support. The fact that the circle is not perfect may indicate that during this time of year I need to be especially vigilant about making sure I have the right protection and support in place – that includes asking for help when it’s needed!
The alligator claw is employed in Conjure folk magic for prosperity work. Because it sits squarely in the south it tells me that my prosperity will come from my creativity, my artistry, and in my case, quite literally from working with the element of fire. All of this is true and its presence bodes well for me and my business.
The final bone I mentioned is a large spine bone like the three in the middle but it is sitting off in the north east corner. The first thing I feel when I see this bone is that a guide or ally will come in as Winter is giving way to Spring-this could be someone in the flesh or of the Spirit. Because its that strong spinal bone again it tells me that the individual will support me (and by extension my family) and assist me in the work that I do. During the dark part of the year it would be a good idea to prepare for their arrival.
As you can see the approach here is decidedly Spirit-led, intuitive, and subjective. If reading with bones appeals to you but this method feels too elaborate try a simpler process of picking three runes or three bones from a collection and contemplating their meaning.
What about skulls? Skulls are obviously bones and they are composed of several sections of bone. Because even mice and rat skulls are relatively large the sortilage system does not really work with them. However, you can take a part of the skull-like the jaw bone or teeth and include that in your bone throwing collection.
Found/gifted vs. Purchased:
You can purchase bones on the web in many places. There is no reason why you have to wait to find bones or have someone give you a set of bones before you begin to work with them. However, many people come to divining with bones after they discover bones of their own – in the wild, in their neighborhood, or walking through the city. There is also a growing number of men and women who either hunt themselves or know ethical hunters and/or ritually harvest and prepare animals that have been killed on the highways for various magical purposes-one of which is bone reading. If you do purchase bones I recommend that you work with a supplier whose bones come from ethical sources.
I don’t want to read with bones…but I like this method: Some of us come from traditions that do not believe in trafficking with departed spirits – these traditions believe that the world of the departed is fundamentally different than our own and that trying to communicate with spirits or work with the remains of the dead is an unclean and unsafe practice. For instance, many Native American tribes have beliefs along these lines as do Jews. This is not a good or bad viewpoint – it’s simply different from cultures that have a more friendly attitude towards the Dead. If you belong to a culture or tradition that has certain proscriptions against working with the dead or with remains of a deceased creature then bone reading may not be for you. Likewise, if you are Vegetarian or Vegan you may find the idea of divining with bones rather abhorrent. But the method I have described may still call to you – what to do? As mentioned above, you can use shells, seeds, nuts, and seed pods in this type of divination. You can also use found objects like: rocks, crystals, keys, coins, charms, and of course my personal favorite, milagros.
In many parts of the world this time of year was the time for casting oracles. It is believed that our Dead wish to speak to us and advise us. Working the ancestor spirits and bones is a wonderful way to enter into the space where we can hear them fully, allowing their wisdom to help improve our lives. May you be blessed with your bones!
What some of the more popular bones can mean:
-Whole Skull – mental processes, thoughts, wisdom, vision, intuition, communication, and magical potency-also the actual head
-Knuckle bone – strength, skills of your hands, a new stage in evolution
-Rib Bone – protection, support, defending what is vulnerable and precious, concerning the heart, lungs, and pulmonary system
-Knee Bone – flexibility, your physical knees, humility and pride
-Ankle Bone – travels and journeys
-Toe/Foot bone – overall health issues, sensitivity, and psychic awareness
-Finger/hand bone – skill, ways in which you make money and have prosperity, learning new aspects of your work and refining
-Arm bone – strength and endurance, the ability to manifest
-Leg bone – support and stability
-Shoulder (scapular) – what is carried, what you are yoked to for good or ill
-Wrist bone – what connects your strength to your skill, are they matched well, refinement of skill, erotic seduction
-Hip Bone – fertility, sex, and birthing babies and projects into the world
-Spinal Column – support, spiritual enlightenment and evolution, flexibility and grace
-Jaw bone – speech, talking, communication and sometimes gossip
-Teeth – ability to teach or time to go back and be a student
-Nails – search for something that has been hidden, reveal truths.
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