Category Archives: Bones & Blood

2008_05100024

Mysteries of Beast, Blood and Bone

By | Bones & Blood, Featured, Folk Magic, Necromancy, Witchcraft & Magic | 8 Comments

Crow skulls, bones, and foot

© 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.


skulls 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.

Crow Claw TalismansThis 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.

Owl Skull

BONES

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

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.

Arthritic Crow Foot

EYES

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.

FAT

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

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.

Rook and Crow Fetish

HEARTS

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.

HIDES

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

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.

Fox and Bat skulls

TONGUES

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

Further Reading:


RESOURCES

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 1992. Princeton University Press.

Ellis Davidson, Hilda. Roles of the Northern Goddess. 1998. Routledge.

Harris-Logan, Stuart A. Singing With Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk Traditions. 2006. Grey House in the Woods.

Johnson, Buffie. Lady of the Beasts: Ancient Images of the Goddess and Her Sacred Animals. 1990. HarperCollins.

McIntyre Jorgensen, Grace Miri. A Comparative Examination of Northwest Coast Shamanism. 1970. University of British Columbia Department of Anthropology and Sociology.

toad3

The Toad in the Ointment

By | Black Arts Foundry, Bones & Blood, Entheogens, Flying Ointments, Witchcraft & Magic | 2 Comments

Western Toad (Bufo boreas)

It is warty, chubby, clumsy, adorable, and has a very long history of being associated with witches, the devil, and poison. The toad is a beloved symbol and familiar of we witches. I have long wanted a pet toad, just an ordinary little Western Toad (Bufo boreas, pictured), but have not wanted to tame one and keep it in a terrarium instead of its home in the wilds. I have instead been happy just to encounter them in nature whether saving one who was burying himself in the middle of a trail from being stepped on or catching a huge one by a river who was hiding under the large green leaves of false lily of the valley in spring.

“What d’ye lack? What d’ye lack? I can pound a toad in a mortar, and make a broth of it, and stir the broth with a dead man’s hand. Sprinkle it on thine enemy while he sleeps, and he will turn into a black viper, and his own mother will slay him.” ~ Oscar Wilde

“The toad is one of the shapes assumed by a demon when he sits upon a witch’s left shoulder. Thanks to the two tiny horns borne on his forehead, a toad was recognisable as a demon, and witches took infinite care of him. They baptized their toads, dressed them in black velvet, put little bells on their paws, and made them dance.” ~ Grillot de Givry

Once upon a time I heard a hint of a rumour that toads were used in flying ointments. Considering my reputation with flying ointments and my use of animal bits in magic, I of course found it necessary to research this curious idea and found not only documentation but modern scientific and experiential proof that the toxins contained within a toad’s skin and glands can indeed produce a psychoactive substance.

THE HISTORICAL EVIDENCE

In the Arras witch trials from 1459-60 clerics charged the witches with feeding toads wafers stolen from holy communion and then using the toads to make a sacrilegious flying ointment.

In 1487 the evil Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of the Witches”) was published and listed toads as one of the ingredients of witches’ flying ointments.

In 1606 William Shakespeare includes a toad in his witches’ infernal brew in Macbeth: “Toad, that under cold stone days and nights host thirty-one swelter’d venom sleeping got, boil thou first i’ th’ charnel pot.”

In 1611 an elderly Basque woman named Maria de Illara confessed the devil appeared to her as a mysterious man and taught her to pound toads with water and use the results to make an ointment which she and other witches rubbed on their chests, stomachs, and arm pits in order to fly to their sabbats.

In 1615 French doctor Jean de Nynauld noted in his work On Lycanthropy, the Transformation and Ectasy of Sorcerers that toads were often added to the flying ointment recipes of witches and lycanthropes.

In the mid to late 1600s this flying ointment recipe appeared (likely from a witch trial): make an ointment from belladonna, datura stramonium, monkshood, and celery seeds. Add to it one toad and simmer until the flesh falls off the bones. Strain and rub upon the body, arm pits, forehead, and broom to achieve flight.

Later witch trials tell of Spanish witches using toad blood in their ointments, English witches using whole live toads, Swedish witches using the toad’s fat, snake  venom, and herbs, German witches frying whole toads in oil for ointments, and similar tales reaching into the far corners of Eastern Europe.

This is all only European evidence of the use of toads as a psychoactive and ritual substance. There is much more evidence of peoples from South America and Africa also using toads as poison and entheogen, but for the sake of specificity I will keep this piece focused on European tradition.

Witches prepare to boil a toad

SCIENCE (THE BAD NEWS)

Yes, today we know that some species of toad produce an alkaloid called bufotenin which is closely related in chemical make-up to DMT and psilocin (a relative of psilocybin). More interestingly, it is also present in fly agaric (amanita muscaria) mushrooms which may validate our ancestor’s association of toads and toadstools. The bad news is that the common European toad contains only a very tiny amount of bufotenin (0.3% of the dried secretions) and a much large quantity of bufagin, a steroid not an alkaloid, which is an anaesthetic and not a psychedelic. It would still be useful, however, for creating a sleepy, dream-like state when combined with the traditional solanaceous flying ointment herbs. The toads containing the largest amounts of bufotenin are found in the Southwestern USA, Northern Mexico, South America, and China. The only toad which supposedly creates enough bufotenin to be a strong psychoactive is the Colorado River Toad (Bufo alvarius).

As with herbs, the preparation of the toad is very important. Bufotenin does not work when ingested so no amount of toad licking or potion-making is going to show any results. Bufotenin is excreted through the skin of the toad and so the skin must be dried, powdered, and either smoked, snorted up the nostrils, or rubbed on the skin. Researchers report that some remote tribes cut or burn themselves and then rub a live toad into the wound – though I would not  recommend this method for health and safety reasons.

EXPERIENCE (THE GOOD NEWS)

Despite the disappointing evidence from the scientific community, experiential use has shown different results. One amateur researcher Adrian Morgan reports his successful, if unpleasant, experiments using the European common toad and the European green toad resulting in trailed images, light traces, colour saturation, saliva build-up, and general intoxication. Though he reports mild psychedelic effects with more pronounced anaesthesia, it is likely due to the species of toad used and also the sex as female toads produce twice as much bufotenin as males. He also reports that bufotenin and its relatives can survive temperatures higher than 125°C (257ºF) and therefore can survive being heated in a witch’s cauldron to make a flying ointment. This is very good news.

There are also those who have smoked the skin of Colorado River Toads and Cane Toads and have reported much stronger psychoactive effects. If one were to craft a flying ointment using a toad, it may be wise to use the species that have a larger amount of bufotenin over bufagin.

Western Toad (Bufo boreas)

TOAD PREPARATION

European witches and exotic tribesmen most likely scared or pissed off the toad as much as possible to get it to excrete as much toxins as it could before skinning it or boiling it for their concoctions much like the Haitian bokor would do in order to prepare the infamous zombie poison. One can also milk the glands of a live toad for the toxins instead of killing it, though I’m sure the toad is not appreciative of it. Toads are endangered in North America and increasingly rare due to habitat loss. It’s best to leave the living ones alone.

The most humane way to collect the bufotenin is to collect freshly dead toads. This isn’t as hard as it sounds if you go hunting for dead toads during breeding season or late autumn. Due to the way toads mate (in giant gang banging clusterfucking balls of male toads wrapped around a single female in a pond) many of them drown in the process (especially the female who they’re trying to impregnate but end up suffocating). In autumn, sudden cold snaps can kill off toads before they have a chance to hibernate and you can often find their frozen corpses. How do you know if a dead toad is fresh? Go by the smell.

Take your dead toad home, wash it, and carefully skin it. If the skinning is too much to handle, simply cut of the glands on each side of its head instead. Dry the skin completely and then grind it to a powder with a mortar and pestle. It is now ready for smoking, snorting, or infusing into a flying ointment. If you wish to keep the bones too, boiling the toad will be the quickest way, but also the smelliest – do this outside. The slow way would be to bury it wrapped in burlap in a pot of soil that will be left outside and well watered for 2-5 months (depending on the size of the toad). After this time exhume it, pick out the bones, and wash them.

Added (common sense) note: research the species of toad before you handle it with your bare hands and use it in any way. Some toads are very poisonous and contain more toxins than just bufotenin and bufagin, some of which can be very harmful.

Toad Flying Ointment

A MODERN TOAD FLYING OINTMENT

Using my own knowledge of traditional flying ointment herbs and their dosages, I have taken the 17th century recipe mentioned above and brought it to life by infusing aconite flowers, belladonna leaf and berry, datura stramonium seeds, celery seeds, fly agaric caps (for the association), and poplar buds in sunflower oil and beeswax and to this mixture adding the skin of an already dead cane toad (which are killed by the hundreds as an aggressive invasive species in many countries today).

The result is an updated and more traditional version of my previous toad ointment recipe that can be used for soul flight, shape-shifting, and to aid in work with a toad familiar or any toad magic or rites. It should not, however, be used by those with a serious morphine allergy due to the belladonna content. If you are interested in this ointment it can be purchased here: Black Arts Foundry.

 RESOURCES

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The Girl Who Found a Feather

By | Animism, Bones & Blood, Charms and Talismans, Spirit Work, Storytelling, Witchcraft & Magic | 8 Comments

A Journey into the Magic of Birds and Feathers

Originally published in issue 25 of Witches & Pagans Magazine, September 2012.

The story of Raven stealing the sun was always my favourite as a child. The idea of that great black bird creating humans and stealing fire and light for us humans made perfect sense to my little head stuck in a book of Native folktales from the Pacific Northwest. There’s no proof, but I would highly suspect my early love of fairy and folk tales may be what led to me becoming an animist, worshipping nature and all its creatures with awe and wonder. That and my earthy backwoods parents who like to live away from cities and talk to plants and animals I’m sure.  Along with folktales, I fell in love with birds at a young age and quickly claimed my mother’s field guide to North American birds as my own. I remember memorizing their names and the colours and patterns of their feathers. I loved to watch them from my window and out in nature and listen to all their songs from the beautiful ones of robins to the cacophonous croaking of crows and ravens.

Birds are deeply magical creatures. They are reptiles who, instead of dying with the rest of the long-dead dinosaurs, transformed themselves by growing feathers, taking flight, and surviving to become an entirely new creature made of air itself with their feathers, hollow bones, and reversed lungs. Feathers are essentially the fur or hair of reptiles, reptiles who have been around millions of years longer than we humans with their sharp, ancient, reptilian brains which we are only just beginning to comprehend the intricacy and intelligence of today (although I think our ancestors knew better). There’s very ancient and powerful spirits flying above our heads in the form of these winged creatures of the sky. In some Pagan pantheons it can be difficult to separate a god from an animal such as Bran and Raven, Perun and Eagle, Thoth and Ibis. I like to think the worship of gods may have started out as animal worship and over time our wild shape-shifting animal deities evolved to be more human in appearance as we left the wilds and animism behind for cities and agriculture. If such a thing were true than birds would be the oldest of our ancestor’s gods.

The Feather Bearer by Sarah Anne Lawless

The Feather Collector

I don’t dare admit the size of my feather collection as it has become a large beast of all colours, stripes, and spots with long flight feathers, soft breast feathers, and beautiful wings. It all started innocently enough with a large feather I had found in the wilds of the North while hunting along riverbanks for bones and stones as a child. I didn’t know anything of feathers’ history of sacred use, but I knew they were special and treated feathers I found with much care over many moves across province and country collecting more along the way. It seems I am always collecting feathers; feathers of light, feathers of dark, feathers of song, feathers to carry prayers, feathers to banish, feathers to bless and heal, and feathers to fly between all three realms of earth, sea, and sky. Some feathers I found along my walks in the wild forests of impossible tall cedars and hemlocks along the Pacific Northwest coast; little hints of movement and colour against brown earth and dead leaves turning out to be feathers of tail, wing, or down shed from the many different birds haunting the woods. Other feathers and wings I sought myself from hunters and taxidermists.

The majority of my feathers came to me as gifts for, you see, once you tell people you collect feathers they tell everyone they know and suddenly feathers are slipped into cards for you or handed to you in bundles – the proud collectors beaming with smiles and saying “I found these for you”. My mother, who lives on an 83 acre homestead, sends me feathers from her chickens, from ducks that swim in the marsh, from wild turkeys and grouse in the forest, and from the birds that come daily to devour seed and suet at her bird feeders. My sister sends me feathers from her African Grey parrot tucked in birthday cards and now are tucked in one of my hats. My Pagan friends, who also collect feathers, trade and gift feathers and wings to me. People started requesting specific feathers from me for use in their own spiritual practices – which I usually just happened to have. Soon, what started as an innocent collection turned into a role and, before I knew it, I had become the feather collector.

The Bone Collector

Of course it’s only natural for people finding feathers for you to escalate into people calling you to say they found a dead bird and do you want it and if not what they should do with it. Shortly after this you end up as the very eccentric witch whose freezer becomes a temporary morgue for panicking dead-bird-finding members of your local Pagan community. I was already looking quite strange enough leaving chicken guts on my roof for the crows of my neighbourhood alongside the usual feeders of sunflower seeds and beef suet. Without looking or intending too, I started to find dead birds as well – apparently the gods and spirits heard I was collecting feathers and wanted to give me more of a challenge to see what I would do. When life gives you lemons, or dead birds, you make something of it. I decided I would honour these sacred creatures, who I had held in awe as powerful spirits for so long, and do right by them. I became a bone collector: not one who kills things for bones, but one who collects the bones of creatures already dead (whether naturally or killed by another animal or a vehicle), and reverences them through burial or the crafting of sacred ritual tools. I had lived on a farm and was used to burying animals who didn’t make it and I had grown up in the North with fishing and hunting. I was a cook for many years and trained in butchery and preservation. I made the possibly controversial decision to delve into death work and taxidermy as part of my spiritual practice.

Owl Fetish by Sarah Anne Lawless

The birds that had been dead too long and were a danger to health were reverentially buried whole in the woods or in planters if their bones would be kept and cleaned.  Protected and threatened species were also buried whole to return to the wild forest they belong to; their bones left alone to turn to dust  and then to forest earth. Birds that had been dead only a day or two I processed like I would a chicken or turkey on the farm after first being frozen to kill any mites and other pests. After performing a ritual of release of the soul and smudging the little creatures with smoke, wearing gloves, a mask, and an apron, I kept the wings, tail fans, and some feathers from the body and put them between layers of borax, cornmeal, salt, or a mixture thereof to dry. If the skull wasn’t damaged I buried it with the rest of the body, in a ritual with offerings of the bird’s preferred foods, to be dug up months later for the bones which would then be whitened and sterilized in hydrogen peroxide for a couple of days before they were ready for ceremonial use. I met other collectors of bones and feathers and together we shared our rites and different practices of cleaning, preservation, and crafting. I felt a little less creepy and eccentric knowing there were others out there with a love and passion for birds who had also become bone collectors and ritual tool makers thanks to what was at first an innocent collection of feathers. Spending time with them was, and still is, dear to me and working together we found more birds and I amassed even more feathers.

The Ritual Tool Maker

What was I to do with all these feathers I had collected from childhood into adulthood? Some of you may be asking that very same question about your own feathers. Ever the practical witch, I knew I had to discover their sacred uses, their magico-religious history, and put them to work – for it is in the doing and the practice of magical things that I truly learn my art. I read every book and article I could get my hands on about ancient and modern ritual tools and ritual costumes. I looked at endless images of the sacred art of Animistic and Pagan cultures. And I found feathers everywhere: feathers buried as offerings to gods and spirits by the Native tribes where I live and by my ancestors across the pond in Scotland; feathers painted onto frame drums and cave walls; ancient art and sculptures of winged supernatural beings called psychopomps; feathers stitched onto the ritual robes, headdresses, and masks of shamans from the British Isles across to the Far East and from the Pacific Northwest down to the jungles of South America; feathers tied to shamans’ staffs, wands, drum beaters, and ritual pipes; and feathers crafted into fetiches and charms like dream catchers, spirit traps, and the handspun witches’ ladder curses of English and Italian witches. Wherever I looked I saw that I was not alone in holding birds as sacred and having strong desires to incorporate their feathers into ceremonial tools to be used in my magic and ritual. I was only doing what every other animistic magician across cultures and times  had done: surrounded themselves with feathers.

I took up charm making and ritual tool making becoming a skilled carver of wood and bone. I hung feathers from spirit traps, rowan crosses, and other charms of protection. I tied feathers to wooden staffs and wands I carved from sacred woods which I had ritually harvested in the forest. I started crafting fetiches of bird skulls, bones, and feathers for other magicians to tie to their staffs and beloved ritual tools. I hung feathers from ritual masks or painstakingly covered their faces in layers of feathers. I designed smudge fans of feathers and wings attached to handles of bone and wood. Most importantly, I began using feathers as tools in my own magic and ritual.

The Feather

Wood and Wing Smudge Fan by Sarah Anne LawlessI use a feather in my ceremonies to invoke the element of air in place of the usual athame, sword, or wand. The long and razor-tipped flight feathers are the best-suited to be used in ritual in place of an athame or sword for casting a circle and cutting it down again as well as to protect from and banish spirits and to cut energy as with a ritual blade.  Along with the feather, I use earth collected from the forest to invoke the earth element, local spring or sea water to invoke the water element, and a candle flame for the fire element. I find having all the elements themselves present in ritual over symbols of them leads to powerful experiences full of spirits, especially when I perform rituals outdoors.

For a simple prayer, breathe on a feather to activate and charge it and then whisper your petition or blessing across its surface. Set the feather free into the wind to carry it to the spirits like you would blow the down of a dandelion wish into a breeze.

A traditional offering to nature spirits is the feather down of a bird covered with red ochre or a red juice like pomegranate or beet, to mimic the blood that would’ve once been used, and left in a shallow pit in the earth. It is also an excellent offering to ancestral spirits and underworld deities.

The Smudge Fan

The smudge fan can be just a simple but beautiful wing or feather up to an elaborate tool with a wood, leather, bone or stone handle and sometimes carvings or gemstones. They aren’t just used for fanning the smoke of incense and smudging herbs – wing or feather smudge fans can be used to cleanse and bless sacred space for ritual in place of sweeping with a besom. Feathers and smudge fans can be used to energetically cleanse and heal people by running feathers over their body to sweep away what needs to be released or by using the feathers to control the flow of smudge smoke around their body so it touches and fumigates every part of them and their spirit, not overlooking the soles of the feet. Smudging with feathers can also be used to cleanse objects (talismans, ritual tools, statuary, etc), altars, temple rooms, an entire house, an outdoor ritual space, and even your car to cleanse and purify to remove any past or present negative influences, and, of course, to chase away any evil spirits.

The Staff

Magician's Staff by Sarah Anne LawlessThe staff is a symbol of the World Tree the bridge or axis between the worlds found in man cultures’ mythologies. It is used to aid in travelling between worlds acting as a shaman or spirit-worker’s horse to the Otherworld granting them the ability to travel anywhere between the upper world, middle world, and underworld. Not a literal horse, but a horse as in a symbol of transportation, in this case to the spirit world. Think of the staff as having your own personal World Tree or, at least, a key to the real one. Feathers are tied to the staff to symbolize wings and flight – the spirit-worker’s soul taking flight and leaving the body. Birds and the air element rule travel and communication and the staff is used to aid in communion with the spirit world and for one’s soul to fly there. Feathers and bells also just happen to look gorgeous streaming from a wooden stave on leather or ribbons maybe with your main animal guide’s head carved at the top or a fetiche of a bird skull with feathers tied to it… but I digress. Hold on to your staff when you invoke your gods and spirits, when you pray, and when you wish to stand between worlds and see and hear spirits. Tap your staff on earth, stone, or water to open doors to the Otherworld.

The Headdress

The shamans of many animistic cultures wear headdresses of feathers to symbolize their mind’s connection to their soul, the higher level of awareness and intelligence that comes with it, the attainment of divine wisdom, and to aid in their communication with the supernatural beings of the spirit world (2). To mimic this practice tuck a feather in your hair when meditating at your altar, when invoking spirits and gods during ritual, and when travelling between worlds. If you have short hair or no hair, hold a feather to your forehead over your third eye after charging it with breath instead. Another option is to craft a bird mask with feathers to use in your rituals of spirit work and shape-shifting. Or, to kill two birds with one stone, you could make a hooded feathered cloak for yourself.

The Feather Cloak

In my chasing down of animistic ritual tools I found feathered ritual costumes are common in shamanism around the world. The feathers are sewn or tied to clothing still symbolizing the shaman’s connection to the spirit world and ability to travel there. There are ancient Irish legends describing the feathered cloaks of shaman-like magicians, layer upon layer of white and black feathers covering hood and shoulders, and their spotted bird masks which they together used to leave their bodies and shape-shift into birds to travel far distances quickly, to spy on their enemies, and to travel to the Otherworld (3). Make your own feathered cloak by sewing feathers onto a wool cloak or ritual robe.

The Witches’ Ladder

A witch’s ladder, or witches garland, is a fetiche charm from folk magic and examples of its use have been found in England and Italy by folklorists in the late 1800s (5). This charm is thought to be traditionally used for cursing, but can be applied to blessing and other spell work too. It’s name gives away its purpose which is to allow the intent of the witch’s spell to “climb” to the spirit world via the feathers so it may be heard and manifest in our world. The process of creating one involves spinning a thick cord with feathers twisted into it during the act of hand spinning on a drop spindle. If you have no idea how to hand spin it is a common practice today to braid a witch’s ladder instead. In your magical working you can use any colour of thread and feathers to correspond to the purpose of your spell, such as peacock feathers with blue wool to protect from the evil eye or black chicken feathers with black wool for a curse. To stop the charm’s effectiveness you must unravel your spinning or braiding or throw the charm into running water.

Witch's Ladder by Sarah Anne Lawless

The Dream Walker

Now that I had my feathered ritual tools and knowledge of the sacred meanings and uses of feathers, it was time to work with them.  For me magic and ritual are mainly an internal thing. I do most of both in the Otherworld so the most natural next step for me was dreams. I am a dreamer. I dream of messages and the future for myself and others. I also practice dream walking: using dreams as a bridge to travel between worlds when one is between the states of consciousness and unconsciousness.  I go dream walking to speak to spirits but also to shape-shift and to fly. Feathers aid in all these things; feathers hanging from the dream catchers over my bed and feathers tucked under my pillow. I started dreaming of birds and feathers, of finding impossible large and soft Raven feathers, of grooming a family of thrushes, and of being surrounded by a council of owls. One of my most memorable dreams was when three birds native to the forest where I lived visited me. The messengers came to me together and gave me of their feathers; the softest silence of Screech Owl feathers, the jewelled blackness of Crow feathers, and the camouflage cloak of Red-Tailed Hawk feathers.

Screech Owl left its feathers on the stone wall of a cave for me. Owl is the messenger of the underworld. Owl belongs to Old Woman as the White Bone Mother, guardian of the gate and crossroads of the underworld. Owl serves her as messenger of death and psychopomp for the spirits of the dead. Owl is silent as a ghost; revelling in the darkness of night and its mysteries. Owl brings messages from her mistress and from the dead. Owl helps you to travel to and from the underworld safely and its ability to see in the dark can light your way in the blackest depths.

Crow Stang by Sarah Anne LawlessCrow shed its feathers for me on the green grass beneath the trees. Crow is messenger of the middle world. Crow belongs to Old Woman as the trickster witch-hag lost in the ancient woods. Crows are creatures of the daytime and scavengers eating the leftovers of hunters and warriors. Crows are not of death and darkness (though they follow it closely for scraps), but are tricksters, humour, curiosity, family, and fellowship. Crows are reflections and shadows of we humans. They are territorial guardians and watchers for the other creatures of the earth warning of dangers, predators, bad weather, outsiders, bad luck, and misfortunes. This is where their bad reputation comes from, but they’re just trying to help. Crow is messenger of the creatures and spirits of the middle world; of the animals, plants, wights, and elemental forces all around us every day.

Red-Tailed Hawk dropped its feathers for me from high in the sunny blue sky and they slowly floated down to my feet. Hawk, flying ever so high, is messenger of the upperworld and of is deities and spirits. Hawk belongs to the Sun and Mercurial spirits. Hawks deliver messages pertaining to the bigger picture, ones that will affect your life and your spiritual path. When hawk brings you a message it is time to borrow its sharp all-seeing eyes and fly high enough with its strong wings to view a situation or path from above and understand the full picture – the past, present, and future. Other times Hawk delivers messages to and from the gods and spirits of the upperworld. Belonging to the upperworld doesn’t mean sweetness and light though; Hawk is a predator and a warrior after all.

All three messengers belong to the crossroad and World Tree. Winged mercurial beings are they. Now, thanks to this dream, when one of the three come to me with news of the three realms I will know what kind of message they bring and from where and whom it comes. Now when one of the three comes for me I will know for whence we ride.

When you dream of finding a feather, or of a bird gifting you of its feathers, it can mean many things: that you need that magic or medicine of that bird in your life right now (or alternately that you’ve mastered their particular medicine), that the bird is offering to be a spirit guide, or that the bird has a message for you from gods or spirits. When you have such dreams pay attention to what specific species of bird the feather is from, where you found the feather, and what you do, if anything, with the feather in your dream whether it be actions, rituals, or the crafting of magical tools. To receive messages in dreams from your spirits or to have prophetic dreams, put a bundle of your spirit guide’s feathers under you pillow or mattress at night when you go to sleep. The feathers of underworld and water birds are the most-suited to this for their connections to the subconscious and the emotions which are linked to the dream world.

The Psychopomp

The psychopomp is a bird shape-shifting magician who acts as a guide or transporter of the souls of the dead. In my magical work with birds I had become a psychopomp of their dead with my rites aiding in the release of their souls to their underworld journey by treating them with love and reverence in death and by using their feathers to aid in the underworld journey of other spirits.

Psychopomps are a very ancient idea found in many different mythologies as magicians and supernatural beings. In myths, folktales, and legends around the world birds most commonly enact the role of messenger between our world and the spirit world, mortals and deities, the living and the dead. Many culture’s folklore describes birds as being the spirits of the dead visiting this world or travelling on their way to the underworld and so were held sacred because any bird could possibly be housing the spirit of one’s ancestor. Their role as psychopomps gives our feathered friends an association with the ancestors as well as deities – the underworld and the upperworld – death and rebirth. Further associations with this death-role can be found in myths of bird women harvesting the souls of the dead as the Valkyrie of the Norse, the Russian Rusalka, the Slavic Vila, the Greek Harpies and Sirens, all often associated with ravens and swans, who also share similarities with the Baobhan Sith, Badbh, and The Morrigan of the Gaels who are female crow and raven spirits associated with death and soul-harvesting. These supernatural psychopomps can often be found serving chthonic goddesses like the Norns, Persephone, and Baba Yaga.

I swear when I collect the small light bodies of dead birds, and carry out my funerary rites for them, that I can hear the flapping of wings following me and sometimes I wonder if they are the swan and raven wings of these psychopomp spirits or the deities they serve.

The Bird Woman

And so here I am still on my journey with birds surrounded by feathers, still ever learning from them of their languages, their behaviours, their omens and messages; still working with them to strengthen my practices of bone collecting, spirit-flight, dream walking, shape-shifting, psychopompery, and the creation of sacred ritual tools. My feather collection will never dwindle as, even though some I gift and some I turn into tools for other magical practitioners, my friends the birds will always lay more feathers across my path. Next time you pick up a feather on your journey through this life, I wonder, where will it take you?

References

  1. Andrews, Ted. Animal-Speak. Llewellyn Publications: St. Paul, MN, 1994.
  2. Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2004.
  3. Harris-Logan, Stuart A. Singing With Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk Traditions. Grey House in the Woods: United Kingdom, 2005.
  4. Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits. HarperCollins: New York, 2009.
  5. Valiente, Doreen. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. St Martin’s Press: New York, 1973.

Appendixes

I. Disclaimer and Legal Note

Do not attempt to handle dead wildlife with your bare hands, especially if you do not know how long the animal has been dead. Animals can carry diseases and parasites that may be harmful to us if touched or breathed in and much care should be taken. Educate yourself and children about how to handle dead wildlife to avoid illness and legal issues.

Many migratory songbirds, raptors, and endangered species are protected and the possession of their feathers can be regulated or prohibited with penalties of fines and jail time. Permits for legally scavenging and possessing dead bird parts are given by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. In Canada  permits are dispensed by the Provinces’ individual ministries of wildlife and natural resources.


II. Caring for Feathers

Feathers found in the wilds, farms, and cities should be cleaned before being put to sacred use. I put feathers and wings new to my collection in the freezer first for 2-3 days to kill any mites or other unwanted pests. Some feathers may need a bit of washing to remove dirt and bird droppings. Gently wipe them with a soft, warm, damp cloth until clean and then carefully brush them back into place if disarrayed before leaving to dry. After being frozen and cleaned, put your feathers into a mix of borax and salt to sterilize and completely dry them; start with a layer then lay down the feathers on top and gently add another layer of the mixture so as not to harm the feathers to keep their shape. The feathers of wings should be fanned out before drying so the wings remain open. Some people pin the wings open on a wooden board and others weigh them down once spread open with borax, salt, or cornmeal or a mixture thereof. After a couple of weeks for individual feathers or a 1-2 months for wings, remove them from the mixture and carefully shake out and brush off all remaining particulates. Now your feathers are ready to use for magic and ritual.

Feathers can be stored in a vase or lidless jar of a suitable height. When your most sacred feathered tools wrap them in a cloth of a natural fibre such as linen, silk, cotton, or wool, and place them in a wooden box or drawer laying down. Cedar is an excellent wood for feather storage as it naturally repels insect pests, but you can also craft a sachet of cedar wood chips as well as other insect repellent herbs like mugwort and yarrow to store with your feathers and protect them. With proper care and storage your feathers might even outlast you.


III. Birds & Deities

  • Crow/Raven – Apollo, Athena, Baba Yaga, Badbh Catha, Baobhan Sith, Bran, Branwen, Lugh/Llew, Macha, Morrigan, Nephthys, Odin, and the Valkyrie
  • Crane/Heron/Egret/Ibis – Aoife, Ariadne, Esus, Frigg, Hekate, Manannan mac Lir, and Thoth
  • Dove – Aphrodite, Hera, and Yemaya
  • Eagle – Lugh/Llew and Zeus
  • Goose – Aphrodite, Hathor, Holle/Hulda, and Nicnevin
  • Hawk – Freyja and Horus
  • Owl – Ares, Athena, Baba Yaga, Blodeuwedd, Ereshkigal, Lakshmi, Lilith, and Santa Muerta
  • Peacock – Hera and Yemaya
  • Robin – Green Man, Puck, Robin Goodfellow
  • Swallow – Aphrodite and Freyja
  • Swan – Aphrodite, Brighid, Caer Ibormeith, Norns, Rusalka/Vila, and the Valkyrie
  • Vulture – Ares, Athena, Brighid, and Nephthys

Article and illustrations © 2012 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use this article or its artwork without the express permission of the author.

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A Serpent Sings of Bones and Blood

By | Animism, Bones & Blood, Books, Witchcraft & Magic | 7 Comments

Thud! I sat up quickly in bed, hearing the strange sound outside my door. Upon getting up to discover its cause I find a parcel from Scarlet Imprint containing a hard cover copy of Serpent Songs: An Anthology of Traditional Craft curated by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold and full of the writings of familiar practitioners. Normally receiving one Scarlet Imprint’s works in the mail alone would be exciting, but this time my own words sing within the pages for I am one of its serpents and I sing a song of bones and blood in the final chapter. I stroked the olive grey cloth and admired the shining serpents, undulating endpapers, and pages of gilded letters. I cleansed and blessed the tome with holy water and suffumigations of sandalwood incense. Like all of Scarlet Imprint’s hard covers it is a beautiful book with a beautiful design, beautiful fonts, and beautiful thick paper filled with beautiful words. In the world there are few quality collections containing the writings of modern Traditional Witchcraft practitioners. This one is full of the voices of hedge riders, folk magicians, cunning men, seers, and witches. We are all so very different and yet the heart of our magics share a similar rhythm.

“Because of its diversity Traditional Witchcraft remains misunderstood. Some even see it as a vacant term that can be filled with whatever one chooses. That is not my intention. Even if Traditional Witchcraft varies — sometimes dramatically — in its expression, there are vectors of commonality to be found. It is those vectors that brought together this gathering of serpentine voices under the Traditional Witchcraft landmarks: blood, night, land and crossroads.”

~ Prelude by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold

Perhaps by reading the experiences, practices, and research of other magicians we can better grasp the ever-growing and changing entity that is modern Traditional Craft and discover what kind of creature it has become. Few agree on its definitions, but its hands-on praxis cannot be disputed when left to the beliefs and rituals of an individual magician.  Traditional Witchcraft can be subversive, controversial, visceral, and dark when compared to other forms of the Craft. It is not everyone’s cup of tea, though some try to sweeten it and use the term to their own ego’s needs, as Nicholaj hints at in the prelude. A wolf in lamb’s clothing is still a wolf and Witchcraft will forever be its true self no matter how much we dress it up and redefine it.

For this anthology I chose to write of  the Mysteries of Beast, Blood and Bone. Animal necromancy and the use of animal parts for magic and ritual tools is something seldom spoken of in modern Craft and modern publishing. Because of this, it is the thing I get asked the most questions about. The majority of people hide from the ethical quandaries and odious work with death. Others glorify it and think they must process a pile of corpses in order to be a witch. Death is a cruel god and, I think most learn quickly, one they don’t want to work closely with. If you want to make a living from death, become a funeral director. If you want to make sacred ritual items as your ancient ancestors would have for yourself and your coven, then become a bone collector.

“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.”

~ Excerpts of ‘The Mysteries of Beast, Blood and Bone’ from Serpent Songs

My essay contains a “Formulary of the Beast”, offering knowledge of how to use eyes, tongues, hearts and bones in rites of folk magic and witchcraft. It is a dirty and poetic piece peppered with black and white photographs of my work with skulls and bones. Its content is not for everyone, but its purpose is to simply be a window into the life one Witch and her practice free of white-washing that it may help to show what the fully fleshed body of Traditional Craft is composed of.

The fine Serpentine edition of Serpent Songs has sold out, but the Sylvan and Bibliotheque Rouge editions are now available for order through Scarlet Imprint.

copper-wood-smoke

Of Copper, Wood and Smoke

By | Bones & Blood, Woodworking | 11 Comments

Steel awl with carved Western Red Cedar handle

I’ve been busily working away at ritual tools (when I’m not brewing more flying ointments and packaging orders for the Poisoner’s Apothecary). The second creation I finished is the steel awl pictured above with a carved Western Red Cedar handle, inspired by fiddleheads and ram horns. I just couldn’t resist playing with the beautiful grain of this beautiful wood I ritually harvested last winter with The Shaman who forged the steel awl.

Cutting copper with a fretsawThe boys came over on Friday and we all sat in my kitchen with tea and our crafting projects. The Poisoner (aka The Whyrrd) sat patiently filing away the rough edges of mammoth tusk pieces for a set of runes he’s making. He’s old fashioned like me and likes to do as much as he can by hand, putting intention into a piece as he works (he sometimes carves wood and bone, but is a silversmith). The Shaman brought his vice and carefully cut out small boline shapes out of copper with a fretsaw and then filed, sanded, and polished them up after. He crafted handles for them out of yew wood I’d harvested two winters ago on the full wolf moon.

Unfinished bolines, knives, and awls

We finished crafting the handles for all the knives, bolines, and awls out of alder, blackthorn, cedar, hazel, and oak. I put corks on the awl tips and wrapped them with masking tape to prevent me from stabbing myself when carving the handles.  As these are meant to be working tools, I’ll be keeping the carving fairly simple.
Wood blocks drilled to make pipes

While the boys worked on their projects I worked on some smoking pipes for the apothecary. I drilled two holes in each piece of wood: a large shallow one for the bowl and one for the stem. Once they were drilled, I set to work shaping them with my boxcutter and new chisels. I went to Lee Valley and the Vancouver Flea Market last week with The Poisoner to pick up proper tools for all the crafting I want to do. I brought home a wood-handled folding saw, small Japanese chisels, a carving knife, and two sets of fine small files (for bone carving).

Olive wood pipes with fox bone stems

Handcarved pipes of ebony, rosewood, and olive wood with bone stems

Of course, I had to pick the hardest woods for the pipe bowls, so carving was slow going, but well worth the reward as the wood sanded and polished beautifully – so smooth and shiny! A touch of linseed oil on the sides to finish and they were gorgeous. I like a bit of length to my pipes and so cut some stems from fox leg bones, filing, sanding and polishing them to a sheen. I fitted the rosewood and olive wood pipes with the fox bone stems and crafted a crow bone stem to go with the black ebony pipe. I’m rather pleased with how they turned out – I keep stroking their smooth bodies…

Rough copper ring with three unfinished alder wood skulls

The Shaman also made some ring prototypes from copper, simple and engraved with runes. We’re toying with making rings and bracelets engraved with bindrunes for magic; protection, prosperity, luck… Today I finished the rosewood and ebony pipes and so started carving some small skulls this evening from a branch of red alder wood. I’m going to use them to make poison spirit vessels (I’ve been collecting specimens). They’re still rough and I have many more to make, but I sliced my thumb open and so am taking a break until tomorrow.  Sharp knives are sharp and red blood is red.