© 2013 Sarah Anne Lawless – Originally printed in Serpent Songs: An Anthology of Traditional Craft curated by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold and published by Scarlet Imprint. Do not copy or use any portion of this text or its images without the express permission of the author, but sharing the link is very welcome.
kulls line the windowsills. Skulls float in jars on top of cupboards. Bones boil in pots on the stove, the flesh melting away. Hidden among the drying herbs and roots there are hearts and tongues and eyes. It is not Baba Yaga’s hut I describe, but my kitchen. Bone collector, bone washer, animal necromancer, deathwalker, shapeshifter, poisoner, witch… these are the words people whisper of me and my practices. Some whisper with fear and others with desire. I am an animist, a folk magician, and a rootworker. It is not just herbs I work with in my folk magic, but also skulls and bones, hearts and tongues. I practice the lost art of working with beast, blood, and bone in order to rebirth the ancient nature of Witch as a wild and primal creature; surrounded by spirits, anointed with blood, dressed in hides, and adorned with talismans of bone, tooth, and claw.
The magic of beasts is sympathetic magic, fetiche magic, and death magic, but it is also sensual magic. It is the feel of the Saturn finger dipped in warm blood, of softest fur on barest skin, of sharpest tooth and talon biting in, of a raw heart on the tongue, and the scent of decay deep in the lungs. It is the rendered fat of a flying ointment like smooth silk across the brow, and it is the tactile, dirty, grounding sorcery of the here and now. It is an amoral, carnal, fleshly, and sensory feast of visceral magic combining the sacred and the profane. The magic of beasts belongs to the wild sorcerers who are part human, part spirit, and part animal; the ones who dance the knife’s edge between the worlds of life and death, the incarnate and disincarnate.
It is only practical to work with the animals and spirits who share the land where I live, for they have a closer relationship with me than any romanticized exotic animals across the sea. On my altar you will find the spirits of the Pacific Northwest: Orca, Salmon, Black Bear, Black Wolf, Mountain Lion, Mountain Goat, White-Tailed Deer, and wings of the birds who haunt our skies and the tree tops of Hemlock and Red Cedar. Old Woman and Old Man of the Woods whispered to me their names in dreams and one by one the beasts came to me. On my altar are their antlers, horns, bones, skulls, teeth, hides and feathers. The ones I did not find myself ended up in my care through bone collectors, shamans, and hunters.
It is important to state that I do not kill the creatures who come to me; instead, they are brought to me after death by conservation officers, hunters, taxidermists, and from friends as road kill. This is my choice and yet in the future I hope to go with my animist friends who hunt in a sacred manner and help them skin and butcher and then take of the bones and flesh they will not eat or use. When I receive dead beasts, plastic is rolled across the table, knives laid out, and gloves and a mask are worn. The still bodies are smudged with fragrant herbs, anointed with holy water, and blessings of cleansing and release are whispered over them. The bodies may be still but their spirits are not. Sometimes it isn’t enough and the animal’s spirit must be bargained with; some demanding to be buried whole with nothing taken, some who will only give up a few parts for sacred work and no more, and some who demand an offering or a working before you may proceed. It is best to respect their remains and their demands for they can curse you better than any witch if you anger them. Folly alone will lead you to curse yourself: butchery and preservation require training as dead animals carry disease, bacteria, parasites, and legal issues –it is not something to walk into blindly.
This path is not for everyone; it is not for the weak of stomach or for those who think it is immoral. I grew up with hunters and fishers. I’ve lived by the sea, I’ve lived on a farm raising livestock, and I’ve lived deep in the wildest forests. I was once a professional butcher and cook. It is how I can do what I do. Why follow this path? It should compel you and feed your soul in some way. What is the reward of such bloody work? It is simple, if you want to be a shape-shifter and a walker between worlds, if you want to learn the tongues of beasts, if you want to align yourself more closely than you could ever believe with your animal familiars and the genius loci, then you will also need to work closely with death, blood, and bone. Our ancestors were not soft or squeamish and we must not white-wash their memory by imagining they didn’t kill the deer used to make their ceremonial costume, the raven for their feathered headdress and cloak, or the bear for its hide to craft their drums and rattles. We must approach our Mighty Dead in full knowledge they killed the swans buried in their sacrificial pits, they killed the mare buried beneath the feasting hall, and they killed the hornless bull for its hide to wrap around their seer so he may dream of invaders’ ships. Long have we as the human race worked with animals, their deaths, and their spirits in our rites and ceremonies. Long will our descendants do so after we are dead.
Death will show you a side of your character as yet unknown and your reaction will either gladden you or horrify you. We are so far removed from death in our modern, sterile, clinical world that it is more important than ever as spirit workers to reconnect ourselves and others with death, blood, and bone. I work with death so I can be close to it. Being close to death reminds me I too am a spirit, walking around in a suit of flesh which I may come and go from as I please. When you are close to death you are close to spirits and more easily able to see and commune with them. When you are close to spirits, you are closer to the other worlds where they reside and therefore more easily able to transverse them.
FORMULARY OF THE BEAST
I share my ancestors’ belief in sympathetic magic and, when I wish to work more closely with an animal spirit, I need to also work with its remains whether it is a claw, its hide, or its whole skeleton. To practice this magic one must be able to seek out death; for bone collectors and necromancers can sense bones and remains when they pass nearby, be it in the forest or the flea market.
You are what you eat. Sympathetic magic takes this common phrase to a deeper level. To acquire the keen hearing, quick reflexes, and agility of a deer, one would eat venison. To acquire keen eyesight or the ability to fly like a bird, crossing between the other worlds, one would eat poultry. Our ancestor believed to eat a thing is to absorb its powers, spirit, and knowledge into yourself to making you more powerful or wise. To kill a thing is to take its spirit. Hunters of old would usually let the spirit go and return the bones of a fish to the river it was caught and the bones of a deer to the forest of its death as a sign of respect so the creature could be reborn again and eaten again.
Not every animal was let go. Some animals were hunted solely for their spirits: for their hides, their bones, for their claws and teeth, for their power, and for their help as an ally, totem, or familiar. Such spirits are asked to willingly offer themselves and stay with you until it is your turn to die. Our ancestors asked permission, not merely of the animal spirits themselves, but of the ruling genius loci, before they hunted or harvested as is evidenced in the hunter’s invocations in the Kalevala, ancient Latin spells petitioning Artemis, and oral Scottish tales of disrespectful hunters being found dead, killed by a wild shape-shifting crone.
When you bring home any part of an animal with the intention of enlivening it as a fetiche, keep in mind that like any living creature you would have be your pet, you must also be responsible for any spirit you take home – you must accept its wildness and instincts, sate its hunger and thirst, clean it when it becomes soiled, and give it of your love, your energy and your time. The respect, reverence, and care you give a familiar spirit and the fetiche it inhabits is what you will gain in return.
Each part of an animal can be used as a fetiche, a spirit house, a ritual tool, and as a spell ingredient. As a bone collector I save the bones, but as a witch I save the blood, eyes, fats, feet, hearts, skins, teeth, and tongues as well.
He layeth corpses at my feet;
not dead slain by warrior’s hand
or creatures fit to eat,
but brings me tongue and heart,
skull and bone, tooth and eye
– all to work my grisly witch’s art.
Fresh bones wet and greasy with fat and blood, smooth white bones stained with earth, dry rough bones eroded by wind and water… no matter their condition the bones and skulls of a dead animal connect us directly with the creature’s spirit and the spirits of all their kind, living and dead. Collect the bones and skulls of animal familiars to ease communion and interaction with them. Gather the bones of animals each from the realms of land, sea, and sky if you wish to better transverse between the worlds and shift between shapes. Become an osteomancer by throwing the bones to divine secrets, foreknowledge, and the keys to your questions. Carve and paint the bones with runes and sigils. Become a charmer and wear a baculum for fertility, virility, sexual prowess, and protection.
The empty eye sockets of skulls watch and guard, apotropaic and undead they never tire of their duty. Hang the skulls of sharp-toothed predators over garden gates and chicken coops to keep out unwanted beasts. Hang them over your own door to keep out unwanted spirits and energies and let them be your fanged bouncers, your hunting hounds. Hang the skulls of horned beasts above a stable, outbuilding, or gate for protection and also to ensure the health and fertility of any livestock or wild game on your land.
The skull is where awareness and the senses dwell. Skulls are the most suited part of a skeleton for a spirit house. Magically cleanse your skull in a ceremony and ask if its spirit wants to continue to dwell in it or if another beast of its kind wishes to volunteer. I prefer the spirit the skull once housed as the connection between the two is much stronger. Consecrate the skull to its purpose as spirit vessel and a tie for that spirit to our middle world. To summon and work with the spirit you can chant:
Black is the colour of womb and tomb;
we meet at night on the dark of the moon.
White is the colour of bone and ash;
to speak to the dead we bathe and fast.
Red is the colour of blood and death;
we rub the bones and give them breath.
Clean the fetiche and leave its spirit offerings on a regular basis for the rest of your life until you pass it on to another or you die. If you must, you can desecrate a spirit vessel in ceremony and release the spirit from the bone.
Blood is a sacrifice that feeds the hungry spirits and the insatiable earth. Blood ties us to life and death for we are born in blood and we die when our blood flows through the earth instead of our veins. Blood is holy water, life force, heat, and metal. The spirit dwells in the blood and when you drink of it you are possessed by it, bound to it, and it to you. The earth hungers for blood; the ancient battlefields long to be soaked in red, the mountains cry out for human sacrifice, and the herb garden hungers for dead crows. How they flourish when painted red, how green and juicy the plants grow when fed off of the blood of mortals and beasts alike. The whole of nature feeds off of death and decay. Leave out offerings of blood or raw meat to the genius loci, to the plants, to the black earth, and see how greedily the spirits claw and bite and devour it. The hungry earth is the easiest way to clean bones. Bone collectors learn to feed their gardens the unwanted flesh of their work so only pure osseous matter is left.
Blood will tie you to living beasts, it will cleanse you like holy water, protect you like an amulet, and lend you increased power and life force for your ceremonies. Blood can heal – trading a life for a life, sickliness for health. Blood can bring you closer to death and your ancestors. Blood can curse too; spilled and spat upon, a life taken in an enemy’s name.
“Fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of a Christian man,” says the giant. “I smell Russian blood,” says Baba Yaga. The spirits can smell our blood and by it know that we are human. They will want to drink your blood like the hungry earth for not all spirits are amicable towards us mortals. Animal blood will distract them from your scent and feed their hunger… for the moment. Blood spilled on feather down seems to be a favourite. Is it not why we bathe in cold spring waters, rub and smudge ourselves with fragrant herbs, and adorn ourselves in animal hides? We disguise ourselves as forest creatures to safely travel in and out of the territories of dangerous spirits..
CLAWS AND FEET
Claws click, dig, and bite deep, shedding blood. Sharp claws and talons have long been worn as protective amulets – wear them about your neck to prevent attacks from the familiar spirits of other magicians and to chase away the evil eye like an owl hunts down a mouse with its eyes upon a corn field. In a trance straddling the worlds shamans use a sharp-clawed bird foot to tear illnesses or elf darts out of a patient’s body, to chase away the evil eye, to shield and protect, or to send forth biting curses to rend apart a rival or enemy. Keep the feet, toes, and nails to walk in a beast’s footsteps and wear them about your neck for rites of shape-shifting.
Save the eyes to see the unseen, to have visions, and dream dreams. Preserve them and keep them to see like the animal and better shift your shape into feather, fur, or silver skin. Eyes to spy: wear them around your neck or place them under you head to see through the eyes of their living kind far away.
Eyes to send the evil eye. Eyes to bind and blind. Eyes to stab and curse. An eye to repel the evil eye. Add to a protection talisman to carry or hide in your car or home. Eyes to watch and warn of dangers. Hang over your door for the worries of this world and place on your altar for dangers from the otherworld. Eyes as offerings to seer spirits and deities of the divinatory arts. Burn them and bury them, the eyes to see the future.
Creamy, luscious, succulent fat – it makes such a good and pleasing offering to the gods and spirits. The rendered fats of beasts can be transformed via alchemy into flying ointments, tallow candles, protective ritual grease paints, and potent medicines. Hallucinogenic plant poisons insidiously infuse more thoroughly into animal fats and into your bloodstream than through a vegetable medium. My ointment of bear fat and henbane seed serves me well in my rites of shape-shifting and seership. When I use it I anoint my bear skull as well as myself. I do the same for my crow and owl skulls with my ointment of bird fats infused with feather ashes, the dust of bird bones, solanceae and artemisias – it aids me in spirit flight and travelling through the worlds in the form of a bird.
Burn down a tallow candle of bear to invoke its spirit or to give offering to a deity or nature spirit whom bear is sacred to. Fat is the food of the gods; burn the fat of pig, goat, deer, bear, cow, and bird as a grand offering. Bury it raw in the woods for the spirits of the wild. Rub fat on a statue to feed its inhabiting spirit.
Mix rendered fats with potent magical herbs, charcoals, and natural pigments to create grease paints to protect your body and soul for your rites of spirit work – especially those of possession and shape-shifting. Rub sacred fats into your untreated wooden ritual tools to feed them, darken them, and strengthen them.
Feathers lend us wings to fly out of body and between the worlds, tucked in the hair or stitched onto the collars and sleeves of cloaks. Feathers connect us to the world of the spirits and can deliver messages between them. Feathers tied to staffs, stangs, wands, ritual pipes, drums, and rattles used in spirit work. Feathers to slice and cut or feathers to caress and heal. Feathers hung for protection when travelling and feathers tucked under the mattress to receive true dreams. Wings to sweep away what doesn’t suit us and wings cleanse our bodies and souls. Wings wash away emotions and parasitic spirits like a fierce wind. Smudge with a tail fan to help redirect energies so things flow smoothly once more.
The heart is one of the seats of the soul. A poet would say a soul is not free from the body until the heart rots, eaten by the earth. To keep a heart is to collect a soul and its power. To hide one’s heart like a sorcerer in an ancient tale is to cheat death. To wrap a poultice around a heart is to heal a heart that still beats. To stab a heart is to tear into a soul and let darkness in.
Bake a heart into a salt dough poppet. It is your choice whether the dough contains healing or baneful herbs and whether you cover it in healing poultices or stab it with ill intent. Give a heart the name of your enemy and feed it to your pet or eat it yourself to gain power over them. Prick a fresh heart with pins, needles, or thorns to curse another or to reverse a curse laid upon you. Burn a heart on a fire or bury it in a pit as an offering to your gods or spirits whose currency is souls. Hearts can be dried and saved for later use like any herb in an apothecary. Reanimate a dried heart with red wine and red ochre until it is swollen and bloody once more.
Our ancestors wrapped themselves in fur hides to bring on prophetic dreams, to shape-shift into an animal, to journey into the other world, and to call upon their familiar spirits for their power and aid. Bear hides for dreaming, deer hides for transvection, wolf hides for hunting and battle, and seal hides for navigating the mysterious ocean. Furs are tools of magic and can be used as altar cloths, ritual costumes, and sacred blankets.
The rawhide of beasts is the body of our ritual drums and our rattles. We transform skin into musical instruments so the spirits will hear the song of their own flesh and come to us in our time of need. Any creature with skin can become a drum. The hide of each beast sings a different song in a different tune: deer and elk are high and resonant, bear is a deep and thundering roar, and cow and buffalo are soft and deep like their dark liquid eyes.
Save the leather for ritual costumes, for binding your book of arte, and for the crafting of amulets, fetiches, and sacred medicine bundles. Save the skin of a bird to craft from it a crane bag where you will store all your tools, fetiches, and talismans you wish to take with you into other worlds and other forms.
Teeth to bite and gnaw and scare. Teeth to devour curses, attacking spirits, and meddlesome folk. Teeth to chew and spit back out. Teeth to warn an unruly cub and teeth to put a trickster back in line. Teeth to rip and rend and bloody an enemy. Teeth to give bite to those who lack it and need it. My what big teeth you have, bigger than mine, predator to my prey. A fool stands against one armed to the teeth, but a wiser beast runs away. A tooth carved with a sigil and sung with a rune, carried to protect one from harm. A tooth dipped in venomous herbs to energetically stab and dig in like a serpent’s fang – the tooth of a bear, lion, whale, shark, or wolf.
Tongues to speak benevolence or malevolence, tongues to bind or cut out, tongues to sweeten others to your cause or to ruin another’s. Are there tongues in the crane bag on your altar that you may speak and understand the languages of beasts of land and sea and sky? Do you possess tongues to exchange for your own in the otherworld so the animal spirits will understand you when you speak? I collect the tongues of birds, messengers between the worlds and ferriers of souls, that my own tongue may speak prophecy and knowledge from the other side and that the spirits may hear me when I call out.
I offer this knowledge to those students of the mysteries who truly wish to deepen their relationship with the animal world. Animals have a lot to teach us about magic and wisdom. Long have they been viewed by the human race as guardians, protectors, and teachers proficient in magic, shape-shifting, and communication with the supernatural world. Animals are our familiars, our messengers and intermediaries, our dream companions, our omens, the skulls and feathers on our altars, the skin of our drums and rattles, the antler and bone of our tool handles, the tooth and claw of our fetishes, the tallow in our candles, and the leather of our crane bags. They are furred and feathered gods in the trees, on our dinner plates, and in our homes deserving of our respect, reverence, and a change in our attitudes towards them.
- Bone Collecting: Cleansing & Consecration
- Dem Bones: Skulls and Bones in Magic & Ritual
- Introduction to Animal Familiars
- On Shapeshifting: A History and Guide for Shifters
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