Thursday, February 21, 2019

Bone Magic Series: A Brief History of Animal Remains in Magic

A Brief History of Animal Remains in Magic

Animal remains have traditionally been used in witchcraft and other magical practices since the dawn of man, whether it be through animal sacrifice, bone divination, spirit summoning, or for protection from evil spirits. Our ancestors had to make do with what they had, which meant animal remains were often used for magical and mundane purposes. The complete history of animal remains used in magical practices is far too vast to cover in a single article, so my goal here is to cover the basics, specifically animal sacrifice and bone divination. While many other animal parts have been used in a variety of way, these are two are the most important animal remain uses in regards to this series. Without a brief history, the use of bones in your magical practice will seem disconnected. Let's get started, shall we?

The term sacrifice derives from the Latin sacrificium, which is a combination of the words sacer and facere. Sacer means something set apart from the mundane, while facere means "to make." In other words, sacrifice means to make something secular or profane, specifically for something spiritual or supernatural. Sacrifices can take many forms, one of which includes destroying what you are sacrificing, whether through burning or slaughter. In the case of animal sacrifice, the animal is "liberated" of life which is then made available to the deity. At the time when animal sacrifice was most common throughout cultures around the world, food was scarce, making an animal sacrifice a true sacrifice in that they were giving up perfectly good food that could be the difference between starving or surviving the winter months. There have been a variety of theories as to why animal sacrifice arose, including that by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871. Tylor proposed sacrifices were originally a gift to the gods to secure favor (source). William Roberston Smith, however, proposed that sacrifices were originally conducted to bring groups of people closer together, as a way for them to commune with each other and their deity (source). Later, Sir James George Frazer, the author of The Golden Bough, suggested sacrifices were performed as a magical ritual in which the slaying of a god was performed as a means of rejuvenating the god (source). Think Oak vs Holly King. Whatever the reason, most people agree that animals were sacrificed as a tribute of some form to a deity for the betterment of the clan or tribe. The earliest known animal sacrifice is from Ancient Egypt, dating between 4400 to 4000 BC. Animal remains, especially of sheep and goats, have been found buried in their own graves, while gazelles and other wild animals have been found buried at the feet of humans, likely as a sacrifice to those who died or as a tribute to bring with them to the afterlife (source). Later, Egyptian animal sacrifice became restricted to livestock, such as sheep, cattle, and pigs, each with set rituals and rules describing how the animal was to be sacrificed (source). By the end of the Copper Age (3000 BC), animal sacrifice is seen across the world, particularly in Gath, Sardinia, and Crete (source). Many cultures sacrificed the entire animal, but the Greeks tended to eat the edible parts, leaving the remains in honor of the deities. After the animals were sacrificed, the entrails were often read by a haruspex, a person trained in the art of divining from animal entrails known as haruspicy. This tradition is directly derived from Etruscan religion and the method continued well into the Middle Ages. Thomas Becket even partook in the practice, seeking a reader prior to a royal expedition against Britanny (source). According to Walter Burkert, ritual animal sacrifice of livestock may have developed as a continuation of hunting rituals. As humans moved away from hunter-gathers toward agriculture, domesticated animals likely replaced wild animals as tribute (source). As for Anglo-Saxons, the most common animal sacrifice was blót, the term for "sacrifice" in Norse. These sacrifices included livestock and even human prisoners and were made to honor any Norse deity, the spirits of the land, and even the ancestors (source). Animal sacrifice is still practiced today in a variety of cultures, including some forms of Hoodoo and in parts of Africa. In West Africa, the Talensi people have a shrine, Tongnaab Yaane for the deity Tongnaab where animals are still ritually sacrificed today to gain favor for fertility, stability, and prosperity (source).

Bone Magic Series: A Brief History of Animal Remains in Magic

Apart from animal sacrifice, the parts of animals, especially domesticated ones, have been used for divination purposes. As mentioned above haruspicy, the reading of animal entrails was practiced well into the Middle Ages. The practice is first mentioned in the Book of Ezekiel 21:21, "For the king of Babylon standeth at the parting of the way, at the head of two ways, to use divination; he shaketh the arrows to and fro, he inquireth of the teraphim, he looketh in the liver." (source). Babylonian clay models of sheep livers dated between 1900 and 1600 BC suggest animal livers, specifically sheep, were commonly used as a divination tool. The clay models are believed to have also been used during divination by Mesopotamian priests and seers looking for information about a person's illness (source). The most well-known form of animal remains divination is "throwing the bones" or bone divination. Bone divination, especially scapulimancy and plastromancy, was practiced by cultures around the globe. Plastromancy is the use of turtle shells dor divination while scapulimancy is using the scapula or shoulder-bone of an animal. Oracle bones, as practiced in ancient China during the Shang dynasty, used the plastrons of turtles and the shoulder-bones of pigs and oxen to answer questions regarding future crop planting, weather, military endeavors, and the fortunes of the royal family. The question was carved into the bone or shell in oracle bone script, a specific language for this type of divination, and then intense heat was added using a metal rod until the bone or shell cracked. The reader would then read and interpret the crack patterns (source).

Bone Magic Series: A Brief History of Animal Remains in Magic

Scapulimancy, the reading of the scapulae or shoulder blades of animals, was more common throughout the rest of the world, particularly in Europe. Historically, sheep and ox are the preferred bone source, but deer and pig scapulae are known to have been used during the Korean Protohistoric Period between 300 BC to 300/400 AD (source). In Europe, scapulimancy went by many names, including Slinneanachd in Scotland. Chaucer mentioned the practice in the Parson's Tale (1395) where he described the divination using "the shoulder-bone of a sheep." Gerald of Wales, in Journey Through Wales (1188) wrote:

"A strange habit of these Flemings is that they boil the right shoulder-blade of rams, but not roast them, strip off all the meat and, by examining them, foretell the future and reveal the secrets of events long past. Using these shoulder-blades they have the extraordinary power of being able to divine what is happening far away at this very moment. By looking carefully at the little indents and protuberances, they prophesy with complete confidence periods of peace and outbreaks of war, murders and conflagrations, the infidelities of married people and the welfare of the reigning king, especially his life and death."
There is further mention of bone divination in Ireland, as recorded by Drayton in his Polyolbion, as described below:

"A divination strange the Dutch-made English have
Appropriate to that place (as though some power it gave),
By th' shoulder of a ram from off the right side par'd,
Which usually they boil, the spade-bone being bar'd,
Which when the wizard takes, and gazing thereupon,
Things long to come foreshowes, as things don long agone."

This passage is very similar to that from Gerald of Wales, both of which describe using a speal bone to divine the future. Other methods have also been recorded, including by peering through the semi-transparent bone as a form of scrying or grinding the bone into a power, dissolving it in water, then drinking the liquid (source). Yuck! This practice of shoulder bone divination as described in the passages above continued through the nineteenth century in Europe. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the shoulder-bone began being used in love divination to reveal a future spouse or persuade a reluctant lover (source). During the Renaissance, scapulimancy was eventually classified as one of the seven "forbidden arts." (source). Despite the change in European magical circles, scapulimancy continued to flourish among Native American tribes across North America. Like early European and Chinese peoples, Native American tribes, including the Algonkian and Innu, would heat the scapula until cracks formed. However, they relied heavily on caribou, deer, rabbit, and very seldom sheep scapula's to determine where they should hunt, instead of foretelling their futures, commonly referred to as the "shoulder-blade path" (source, source, source). They also used beaver tibias and bear patellas to determine hunting success while fish mandibles and clavicles were thrown to answer yes (teeth upwards) or no (teeth downwards) questions (source). There are dozens of other bone divination practices used by Native American peoples that survive to this day. I suggest reading through Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula by F.G. Speck to learn more.

Bone Magic Series: A Brief History of Animal Remains in Magic
From Source
Throwing the bones is a more modern Hoodoo practice with traditional roots in African culture, especially among the Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa, and Ndebele traditions in southern Africa. African practices mingled with those of Native American and European to become the tradition we see today. Hoodoo bone divination usually includes chicken or opossum bones mixed with shells, pebbles, dice, or other found objects (source), but I will touch more on this in a later post.

While not every witch today uses bones in witchcraft, there is no denying their historical use. From sacrifices to divination, animal remains have been used by magical practitioners around the globe and for many of us, they still play a crucial role. We use them to work with animal spirits, as a spirit vessel, to summon mythical creatures, incorporate them into ritual jewelry, craft ritual tools, aid us in shapeshifting, divining the future, and even in tinctures! The purpose of this series is to get you started on your journey with working with animal bones and other animal remains in your practice.

Again, this is by no means a complete history. Honestly, I didn't even put a dent in the vast amount of research available in books and online, but hopefully, this is enough to pique your interest and garner a better understanding of the topics we will be covering in the future. Until next time!

Interest in the rest of the series? Here's what's to come!

Bone Magic Series

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