When the Bones are calling

Recently, there’s been a lot of folks hopping on to the “trend” of bone divination and treating it like tarot cards and pendulums. Now before these people start spreading false information, I’m going to set a few things straight. While I can only speak for my way of reading the bones, there’s some givens in this divination method. In the past month, I’ve seen a sad handful of folks go from asking me about reading them to reading them for clients!!! This is a red flag. The bones take months, even years to get a good handle on them. So I’m gonna learn you a thing or two today.

First and foremost, you need a strong connection to your Ancestors in order to receive valid messages through the bones. Not just honoring them and remembering. You must feel them inside you, resting in your veins and seated in your bones. Learn to speak with them, visit their graves often, and give your offerings. And say please and thank you, yes ma’am and yes sir. They may be dead, but they still expect some manners.

I was always taught that you must be led to the bones. Otherwise, you won’t have an eye for them. It’s like art work. There’s gotta be something already to you for you to click with the bones.

Most folks collect things over the years seemingly for no reason, until their Ancestors show up and advice them to begin throwing the bones. The more traditional way among the mountain folk is that you have to be taught and learned in person with someone, and your set must be gifted to you or found. The Cherokee believed that bones or parts bought or sold was bad juju. The spirit of that animal would seek revenge for the meaningless treatment of its parts. When things are found, thanks is given and an offering left. Sometimes flesh for flesh.

If you must buy bones or pieces, respectfully sit with the animals spirit and offer thanks and give offerings. You must make this meaningful, not some half assed “thanks man” thought up in ten minutes. This is a ritual itself. Think of how you would like to be asked of the same, and follow suit from there.

I was very fortunate to receive an extensive collection of possum bones from a friend. At the time, I was simply in love with collecting odd things. Always an odd bird.  Then I learned this technique from a friend of the family. I first began with a few bones, stones and shells. I’ve recently decided to keep my bones in the set instead of switching them out with stones or shells when reading for clients. Not sure why I did that. Perhaps the bones were too special to me. But I got the feeling they were ready to stay and speak full time.

Each bone piece will have a special meaning or code between you and your spirits. It is through this code that the client’s messages will come through from their Ancestors. For this reason you should start off with at least 15 pieces that represent different aspects of human life, to give the spirits more ground the work with. Most pieces will have two marked sides to represent the polarity of each aspect: either increase or decrease, love-loyalty/cheating-lies etc. While not every piece will speak during the reading, you can make this easier to see by assigning certain “one-side” pieces with another side that just states it is silent and not speaking for the client now.
There will be bad news sometimes. Do not refrain from advising them, but word it in a respectful manner. It’s very rare that either party is cheating; most often the communication between them has diminished or one of them is simply closed off. I had a client who thought her husband no longer loved her, until she found out that he was dealing with personal health problems and didn’t want to worry her, which explained his depression and low-interest in intimacy.

I would also add pieces to show time: past, present, and future. This will help tell the client “when” during a reading.

Other meanings would be a piece to designate a warning or “pay attention”. This is then paired and read with the pieces around it: the health bone next to the “warning”, conjoined with a twisted path foretell of many health issues to come than will get in the way of the client’a path.

Clients name has been blotted out for privacy.

Now possum and raccoon bones (sometimes chicken bones, which were readily available to those farming folk) were traditionally used here due to these animals frequent sightings in graveyard at night. For good reason, as they are closely associated with the Dead.

Bone throwing is an ancient technique, practiced on every continent in one form or another. In China, the bones are broken pieces of Ox bone with symbols on them, while down in Africa the most popular is by reading cowry shells, chicken bones, etc.

The Norse have a similar practice in the throwing of runes, and still in Europe was the infamous Scapulomancy (the reading of shoulder bones in animals). Reading patterns is fixed into the chemistry of the brain. Man recognizes things in seemingly meaningless patterns, textures and even in reflections. This has brought forth divination methods such as palmistry, crystal gazing, etc.

When the bones are thrown, there’s many ways to read the lay out. You can read past, present and future by going from left to right; or near to far. Others will “scry” the bones for significant images, designs with meaning in this tradition, and initials. The spirits will assist you in finding a layout to read through.

By tradition, the animal the bones belonged to is thanked and honored during the process of blessing the bones. Some people work with the spirit of the possum or other animal, but I prefer to just let their spirit rest after blessing and working the bones.

Bone throwing is done on the ground instead of on a table. While some readers do it this way, I prefer the stability of Mother Appalachia. This way you and the client are connected to the earth, where the bones of your Ancestors are. The bones are cast on a rug, cloth or skin and read. Sometimes I cast them on the earth Herself into a circle drawn in the dirt. Usually anything that falls outside of the mat or circle is not read.

I collect these pieces first and place them in a pile to be added with the rest for cleansing when the reading is over. When cast on an animal hide, based on where pieces land (head, left paw, tail) then there are additional meanings paired with what the pieces are saying.

I also pay attention to the sounds as they fall as well as how scattered they get when throw. A good “clink” sound is best; a “thud” isn’t good. All cluttered up means the client has a lot on their plate and it’s your job to help unweave the tangles. Really scattered shows stress and that they feel “at the end of their rope” most of the time.

When not in use, the bones are stored in a burlap bag, a basket (which I don’t recommend as some pieces like to get stuck in between the grooves of the basket weaves). They are also kept by the Ancestor altar and fed every month with tobacco smoke. If you don’t smoke or prefer not to smoke the bones, you can sprinkle them with natural water, as in water from a lake, creek etc.

Now if I am doing a distance reading, I will have to clients name paper in the center and will call upon their Ancestors to guide me during the reading. I will not start until I know they are there. If it is an in-person reading, I don’t feel a need to call them as everyone generally has ancestors with them. They “know” when the person is going for a reading in order speak with them.

I recently had a client who, after the reading explained she was adopted and wanted to know if it was her adopted ancestors or biological. From what I felt, I advised her it was a mixture, as her adoptive family’s spirits seem to have adopted her also. There was love regardless.

     Grounding is extremely important with this kind of work, as you will be speaking with the Spirit world. This can have a negative impact on your personal reservoir of energy if you’re not grounded.

     Protection is also essential as you’re dealing with other people’s spirits, spirits foreign to you. If you don’t know someone from Adam, you won’t be running around naked. It’s the same here. Make sure you are guarded and protected.

One thing, I’ve learned in my time with the bones is that not everyone’s spirits wish to speak with you. Some will refuse to unless told by the client it’s okay. Even then, they are reluctant. And one simple prayer won’t always reach them if your the only one calling them. I’ve waited 20+ minutes for them to finally show up for the reading.

After doing so many readings, you should have a “sense” built up so you can feel if they are present. Because we are human and sometimes wrong, I use casting shells to tell if they are present. You may sometimes get images if it’s two men and a woman with a small child, for example. At these points, I make sure to let the client know this. They won’t always know who some of them are, as many of us are guided by family we never knew of life. But I still prefer to let them know, especially if a child spirit comes.

There are many precautions to take when reading for others, but start off with grounding and protection. You can also ask your other spiritual allies to help guide you. And make sure to keep your Ancestors happy with offerings as thanks for speaking to you through the bones, it ain’t just you doing the work.

Now when you have your bones gathered, they will need to be blessed and awoken. Before we Mountain folk borrowed Florida water from our Hoodoo cousins, they’d take the bones down to the Nolachucky or some other big river. They’d go down and petition the “Long Man” to cleanse and purify the bones. The bone were taken in a basket, with a cloth or towel inside. From then they are baptized and dunked in the river 4-7 times. An offering of tobacco was given to the River. Once home, the bones were then smoked with Tobacco while calling ones Ancestors.

The Cherokee viewed tobacco as the most sacred plant. It was believed that an offering of the crop to any spirit in creation would guarantee the spirits help. As man was the only one given the plant by the Creator, the other animals were envious and would do almost anything to possess a piece of it. The plant was also believed to be a “tree of life” of sorts, as the roots of the tobacco plant grow deep and sturdy while the plant growing high and tall. The tobacco connects us to our Ancestors. It is the life of the Red Man, which is why the bones are fed with the smoke. We sometimes awaken our dolls this way as well, to breath life through the sacred smoke.

Calling on the Ancestors in this manner is best. Once they are present, you and your spirits will determine the meaning for each piece and bless it with natural water or Florida water before placing it in its bag. This bag will be the one you use until your set outgrows it. Don’t constantly change the bag as this will affect the spirit of the bones as this is their “home”.

When you first begin, make sure you have a cloth thick enough so the bones don’t break if you’re working on hardwood floor. But also thin enough so the bones will tumble when thrown and not get stuck in the fabric. A lot of folks want to rush into this and cast the entire set, which is overwhelming and you’ll just get confused or frustrated. It’s best to cast a couple at a time and practice reading these first to gain an understanding of how they relate to one another.

Now y’all can continue with looking everywhere on YouTube on how to do this. But I recommend you follow what’s here so 1) you’re not cheated and lied to by someone who has no idea what they are doing, 2) so you can better pace yourself and work WITH your spirits. If you just start throwing and reading for people “professionally”, you’ll be doing a disservice for you and them. For you, because they’re gonna listen to your advice and make shitty life decisions which will come back and hurt your name. For them, because you don’t know what you’re doing and now they’re stuck with the consequences of your shit advice. People do follow your advice. Be aware of that.

For a thorough explanation on the ethics of doing readings please see May Auryn’s blog post Ethics of the Physic Witch

Now you have some guidance to read the bones. Trust the spirits, trust your gut, and be patient with yourself. It may seem simple at first, but it can get tricky. Build your relationship with the land and with your Spirits. Meditate with your bones before reading them. “Where has this leg walked?”, “How much did this vertebrae support?”. Build a relationship with them, let the bones become an extension of your own.

“I am a body of bones reading the bones of other, smaller bodies and calling out fates yet unnamed; twirling fingers through Secret’s hair; ears hearing ungodly tales of the folks in town, and feeling the hands of spirits upon my hands upon those bones.”  These Conjure Hands

I will be doing online video classes soon on reading the bones prices may be between $50-$80.

We will also begin carrying bone sets in our shop. Each piece of the sets will be gathered or traded, blessed and awakened in the Appalachian tradition. So be sure to stay in touch with us at Little Chicago Conjure.


Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia, available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below: Littlechicagoconjure@yahoo.com

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