Friday, January 20, 2012

PBP 02: Singing the Bones

As he [the crow man] went up the Kashunuk [river] in his kayak, he came to an igloo where there lived two women and a boy of about three years of age. The women and the little boy did not laugh when they saw him so he went into the igloo and told them he was hungry.

"Kill that little boy for me," he commanded the women. "Boil him in the pot. I am very hungry."

The frightened women did as they were told, though they were very loath to do so. When the boy was cooked to a turn the Crow Man sat down and devoured him, placing the clean bones in a wooden dish. After his repast he turned to the mother of the child and said:

"Take this dish of bones and go outside. Throw them as far as you can towards the Yukon river."

The woman did as directed. When she returned to her igloo, there she beheld her son again alive and well. He was as dirty-faced as ever, with the front of his kuspuk smeared with seal grease.

"This boy will never die," the crow-man told his mother and he left for his home, someplace near the Yukon. The lad grew to be a man and he did not die but always appeared to be about the same age.

--Powers Which We Do Not Know: The Gods and Spirits of the Inuit - Daniel Merkur
--Sourced from the Inuit tales of the Hooper Bay area (approx.)

The myth above, I thought, was fitting for topics on Boneworking. Being a Shamanic practitioner working with Inuit deities, I study a lot of the mythology when I can find it to corroborate things I experience and see, and to find clues on how such deities were worked with in the past.

The above story was likely a commentary on the cycle of birth and reincarnation; the statement here as I read it as "the bones are not who we are." We are not necessarily just our bones, so destroying our bodies does not "kill" us.

When I first went to visit Sedna (the Inuit Sea Goddess/Underworld Queen, though she goes by countless names within different tribes) I was given the task of singing bones to life. I had no idea what this meant at the time, mind you. Before me was a dark circular room, with 13 piles of human bones. Beyond where the shadows fell away, there lurked shadow spirits, all jagged claws and jaws and glowing eyes, prowling beyond the circle. I was afraid of them at the time.

"I can't sing," I protested, "and in any case I don't know the words." Certainly I couldn't sing well enough to sing something to life. The idea was preposterous.

No sooner could I protest than the creatures crept closer. Trial by fire, it seemed. I don't remember much between here and when I began to sing--and when I say I began to sing, it was as if an energetic wave welled within and just burst out in the world. That's what it feels like to sing bones to life. It feels like a wellspring of energy coming from the depths of the earth, and spilling all over the place like a river. The piles of bones moved, and reassembled, and grew flesh and muscle and fur and clothing. It was a combination of all of them. The Ancestor spirits joined the song, and it was a primal, old song not so much words as power put to music. They began to circle, faster and faster, and the shadow creatures joined each of them, one spirit to one Ancestor. They each became one being, dancing and spinning, and the song rose over all of us.

I later found that was her Initiation for me.

Those who are afraid of bones--usage in ritual, usage as Shamanic partners, usage as anchor points for working with one's path--are usually afraid, on some level, of expiration. Bones serve to remind us of our own mortality, and in the United States, at least, the funerary industry loves to dress our good friend Death up as something suspiciously, creepily similar to surrealist life.

At least in this country, we remove ourselves so far from death it shouldn't surprise anyone that there is so much fear directed towards boneworking, especially with Human remains. We deliver dead to funeral homes and nice men in suits keep us calm and 'dignified' and handle everything for us. So long as we live apart from death, it becomes something to be feared. Working with bones--and the spirits in bones--helps us everyday to really think about what this means.

I keep bones on every Shamanic altar I build, both as a reminder and because I work with the Spirits in the bones. I've found not every animal part (fur, feathers, bones) has a Spirit attachment--and I can't even steadfastly tell you why. Animals that die horrific fur farm deaths don't seem more likely than a natural death to stay within the skin. It seems to me to be the result of any circumstances or contracts the animal Spirit may want to make or have made beforehand that determines this. Basically there are not rules for why a Spirit stays within a skin or skull or other part. But sometimes they do choose to stay, at least for a while, and while they do stay they are wonderful allies. The fox skull pictured above chooses to stay because we have a reciprocal relationship--I feed her "stagnant" energy, and she converts it and recirculates it through my altar space.

As when working with any Spirit, working with bones and bone Spirits requires respect and the will of the Spirit. Always ask before taking bones (if found in the wild) and be sure of your sources if buying remains. I wouldn't suggest working with pelts sourced from fur farms and trapping simply because of the intrinsic disrespect shown to the Spirit during its death, but that's your moralistic quandary to think on. For the record, all of my bones and furs come from trusted Taxidermic sources that receive the animals as Roadkill and process them accordingly. I purposely do not patronize hunting and fur farmers. (The exception I sometimes make is vintage fur, from 40+ years ago sourced in thrift stores, where obviously the animal Skin Spirit is not being put to good use or respected.)

Sometimes the Spirit will strike a deal with you--as in, I will guide you on such and such a path, but you own me funerary rights when my term is up, which is in X months. Or, you can take my skull provided it is cleaned and given a place of honor on your space. Some Spirits may want you to purposely alter their remains in some way--a skull may want to be painted or carved, but please make sure that is the will of the Spirit beforehand. Never use a bone in ritual or in crafting you did not secure permission from the Spirit to use. And be sure to use your regular Respectful Discretion when working with Spirits of any sort. No giving out of proper names or important information if you don't have to, etc.

Sometimes Spirits you already work with may request to take up residence in an "empty" bone/skull/hide/feather/part. It's not uncommon a Totemic spirit you work with takes up residence in a fetish or an item of the same image, so why would it be strange to do so with bones? (I work with a Bear deity who inhabits a small ceramic bear figure thrifted from Goodwill.)

And hey, sometimes the remains you buy DON'T contain spirits. Like I said, sometimes they move on and desert their skins, like the myth above. There's nothing wrong with using Spirit-less skins or bones, either. I might still request permission from the Spirit, on the Astral if you can find it, before using the parts though.

If you're willing to listen, bones are excellent teachers. Also be sure to check your local laws on possession of animal parts before beginning to work with them.

Lupa's List of Parts Laws

An Ethically Sourced Parts Dealer (via etsy)


  1. Love your post! Within my workings I have skin, fur, wing, antler and bones from Deer, Reindeer and owl. A very deep and personal practise, thank you for your insights x

  2. Kristin I feel so blessed to have found You as a friend ! studying traditions and keeping them as they are is so important and is when they will become ours in a new way by honouring the old first ☺
    I love bones too and so many cultures even the catholics carried on that pagan tradition !
    I am really feeling the need to sew a dress for the ghost dance and I want to use all natural seeds , beads of trees and bone too .
    my ds and I are taking a skin tanning course and I told the man offering it we really need to learn hunting skills too so we can then do the whole thing . Then bones teeth etc. can be used and we can also prepare them for others properly so people can use them for ritual traditional jewlery etc.
    You are far more studious then I Kristin !
    again I really enjoyed this read .

  3. @ Sam I am dying for some reindeer/caribou antlers--I really want to make a formal altar for Sedna and my practice. Glad to hear someone found this helpful :)

    @ Rox You're too kind! And absolutely right. Catholic reliquaries used to be all over Europe, given places of honor in churches and sanctuaries. Pilgrims used to travel thousands of miles just for the chance to be in the presence of a Saint's bones or ashes, in hopes of healing or miracles. :) Bones are powerful allies. I lack the heart to hunt animals for myself (vegetarian) but I'm sure to patronize people who use ethical sources! I'd also love to get a taxidermy license someday, so I can process roadkill. Glad you enjoyed.

    @Witchfire Thanks :)

    @Keltikmystique Glad you enjoyed!

  4. This is a great post, very instructional and with a powerful vision involved. I do not generally work with bones, but there's this wonderful place called the Bone Room in reach of our home and we have gotten some things for my guy's Bawon/Ghede altar from it. We also "inherited" a fricking steer skull (hoooge). I think I should show him this article too, so he can work with the bones he has more effectively!