Unpopular opinion below. You’ve been warned.
There’s this new surge in lots of folks (read as pagan, witches, and other like folk) wanting to start bone collections. I’m totally for collecting bones just as a collector but I’m at the same time confused. Because I’m seeing a lot of witches and pagans expressing the desire to collect bones to put on their altars, shrines, walls, etc but not stating WHY. Obviously, what’s stated below’s my opinion and might not make me popular. Oh well.
I like bones. I went to school for archaeology and I intend to write my thesis, when I go back, on death rituals. I know bones. However, I don’t have a huge collection and here’s why:
- It’s expensive. Bones are often costly, especially when their ethically sourced, and need to be properly cared for. This is especially true of human bones because it’s disrespectful to possess human bones and not treat them properly.
- Space. That ox skull might seem awesome now but where are you going to store it? Where are you going to put it where you can clean it regularly from dust, put it somewhere it won’t get damaged accidentally, be away from the element, such as water and heat, and also be decorative? Do you realize how big an ox skull is? How about a ram skull with horns intact? Or a horse’s femur? Bones, like all things, take up space and when you start looking into deer bones (which seems to be a gateway to bone collecting) you’re going to quickly realize how big these bones are.
- Cleaning bones of the flesh is a time consuming, dirty, space-taking, and sometimes dangerous work. It’s really very disgusting and can’t be done around children or pets. In fact, there’s a long list of things you should be doing and wearing when you clean bones. You can also very easily get sick when trying to clean bones, especially the bones of roadkill. This can be from flesh-eating bacteria to bone dust in your lungs.
- No need for them. I don’t need bones. I don’t need to showcase a dead person’s bones when I didn’t know that person and have no connection to said person. This is a personal opinion, obviously, but why collect or display bones of a person or animal when I have no connection to them? If you feel a particular affinity towards cats, then I could see why you’d collect them. But just randomly having a bunch of bones for no purpose other than they’re bones and they feel “witchy” is playing to the stereotype of witchcraft (which is totally cool to do but admit that’s what you’re doing)
- I personally find using the bodies of the dead as decoration without any other purpose outside of that decoration is bordering on disrespectful of the dead. Again, personal opinion, but there it is.
- Local sources are hard to find and require a lot of searching. Representing your local forest which you work with spiritually by using a deer skull is actually really neat. But wouldn’t it be far more meaningful to scour the woods for a deer skull or ask for/buy/commission it from local hunters. You help out a local hunter and you get a skull from your area.
Now, I use bones for a wide variety of purposes in my witchcraft. For example, let’s say a family bought a roast chicken with the last of their money. Take a bone from the roasted chicken, clean it, break it chanting that with the breaking of this bone so are the sorrows from lack of money (or whatever), and then bury it at a crossroad. Small bones collected for various purposes are kept and tucked into charm bags. A coyote’s toe for cunning and intelligence, to help someone thrive with a new promotion or moving to a new urban city. Bones from Christmas ham and Thanksgiving turkey are cleaned and kept to use in spells to benefit the household and those that have eaten off those bones. Animal symbolism can be attributed to those bones and bones themselves are great as a “foundation” in spell work, a good starting point.
There’s a lot you can do with bones and the bones I collect for witchcraft aren’t, however, for display. They’re used almost immediately for a specific purpose or kept for specific purposes for the future. That being said, that doesn’t mean I don’t have bones in “decorative” places. I keep three cow bones hanging above my trash – to always keep the wolves at bay, to ensure that there’s always a place to start from and that the foundation of my life won’t be rubbish, will never go so low that I need to start entirely from scratch, from nothing. They appear very decorative but they’re there for a specific reason.
Ancestor worship is entirely different and falls well into the realm of “doing your own thing”. For example, I’m looking into acquiring a stag’s skull from Wales, as a tribute to my ancestors. It would be blessed, cleansed, and hung with care as a method of honoring my ancestors. Again, decorative, but serving the purpose of necrolatry.
Now, I’m not saying bones shouldn’t be used in art or education. There’s some gorgeous artwork that have been made with bones, but I always question whether those bones have been treated with respect and ethically sourced before really giving in to admiring them. And, outside of writing, I’m not an artist so I can’t really express a thorough opinion on that topic. I know it’s somewhat controversial but a ridiculously ancient practice. Seriously, bone art’s been around forever.
As for education and reference, that’s obviously an aside and still falls into the questions “do you really need bones or would a plastic anatomical skeleton be cheaper? (Most time they’re not). Often, people learn off skeletons that are older than their professors. A lemur skeleton at one of my old universities was seriously older than half of the buildings we were taught in. And sometimes you need to the real thing to reference for art or education purposes. They’re, again, not decorative. They’re there for a very specific reason: to help you learn. Because you intend to learn off of them, you’re likely going to treat them with the respect the dead deserve.
There’s no need to work with bones if you don’t want to. I feel like the community, especially on tumblr, has this thing where they go through fads of things that “everyone does” that sounds super cool and, in fact, not everyone does, even wants to do, or is particular safe to do, especially for beginners. For a while it was flying ointments, then astral travel, and now bones (at least, from what I’ve seen. YMMV.). Necromancy, necrolatry, and other like gramarye practices are specific fields that bones can be useful for but most people that I see on tumblr do not express their practices as such. I just don’t understand why people want to start collecting the dead when they don’t intend to use them in any manner other than to sit on a shelf. Again, that’s probably just me but I often see witches expressing how badly they want bones but don’t say WHY. Once someone said they wanted beaver bones because beavers they had a great affinity for them. They didn’t want other bones, just beavers. That totally makes sense to me. But I’ve had conversations with people that turn out like this:
Me: Why do you want bones?
Them: For witchcraft!
Me: Yeah, OK. But what are you going to DO with them?
And they never have an answer for that. They just kind of stare at me or abandon the post entirely. Some folks do say “to worship” or “represent X” X being a deity, spirit, or ancestor but more and more are just picking up collecting bones because it’s cool and witchy. I’m sorry but that’s not a good enough reason, in my opinion, to use the bones, the very foundation of a person or animal. I find that’s disrespectful. Again, my opinion but there it stands.
So I ask you: For what purpose do you want bones? What do you intend to do with them? Honor them? Worship them? Use them as representations of your deities or in spells? To create art and an artistic statement? Or is it just to look cool?