What follows is my research from a talk given to Ravens Rest Moot in April 2021
A (very) brief history of animal remains in magic
Animals have been used in magical and ritual context from time immemorial. From age to age and culture to culture the way humans have engaged with animals has evolved and changed, reflecting the way that the natural worked was viewed at the time. Some practices, such as sacrifice and haruspicy (divination by animal entrails), are particularly challenging to modern sensibilities whilst others, such as wearing of pelts to evoke the spirit/energy of an animal, are challenged by law and environmental ethics.
That being said, lets look at a limited number of historical examples from Britain and beyond.
The Antler Headdresses
A number of explanations and rationales attached to antler headdresses found at Star Carr, North Yorkshire. The antler and partial skull of male dear are preserved and holes drilled into the remaining skull bone apparently to create an anchor for creating a headdress which incorporates a full animal skin. On a mundane level they have been described as hunting disguises, though their practical value is debated. Alternatively, they have been described as a form of ritual dress which were worn as part of a ritual “hunt” performed by hunters and religious persons to ensure a successful hunt.
Mummified cats form part of the hidden objects tradition, with over a hundred examples of cats placed into dead spaces of a home such as a in wall cavities, under floorboards or in other crawlspaces. Folklore associate’s cats with a sixth sense and it is assumed that in some cases there has been a deliberate placement of the animals remains, for example in a hunting pose, or in association with vermin remains has led to the understanding that the cats were places in the capacity of a vermin scarer either of actual vermin or of a magically sent pest such as a witches familiar. This might have been enacted after the death of a beloved pet, as a way of drawing on their loyalty to the family, or purposeful killing intended to bind the spirit of the animal to the home either as a foundational offering or as a counter-magical response during a time of threat.
The term sacrifice derives from the Latin sacrificium, derived from the words sacer “to set something apart” and facere “to make”. In other words sacrifice is a process of setting something secular/profane aside so it may enter the sphere of the spiritual/ supernatural. For example, an animal may be made sacred in offering to the divine in order to initiate communication (divination). Once upon a pastoral time, animals were a high value item which were necessary to survival. Offering a prized breeding animal to deity as a form of request of fertility and prosperity, particularly when its absence may lead to starvation or other forms a lack if things do not going well, would be viewed as a form of reasonable exchange between deity and devotee. I give you this and you give me the thing I ask for.
Another variation of animal sacrifice can be seen in the practice of haruspicy, the reading of animal entrails. The practice usually involves a domestical animal (cow, sheep etc) or birds and seeks guidance on a variety of subjects, from whether to go to war or what is causing the illness of a man. For example, Babylonian clay models of sheep livers dated between 1900 and 1600 BC suggest animal livers, specifically sheep, were commonly used by Mesopotamian priests and seers looking for information about a person’s illness.
Some modern witches feel it isn’t possible to overcome personal ethics and objections regarding the use of animal remains, citing “golden rules” such as the Wiccan Rede as justification or personal ethical choices around their diet and consumption as a consumer. The aim of this discussion isn’t necessarily to challenge these sensibilities, but rather offer those who are interested in learning more about how to source, process and use animal remains in their magical practice.
Though unpleasant in a number of ways the salvaging of animal victims of RTA’s is one way of ethically obtaining animal remains. Animal remains are usually collected by local councils and highway maintenance crews and whilst some effort is made to trace owners of domesticated and pet animals but where this fails, or the animal is a wild species, the remains are destroyed.
It is important to do this safely, and with an awareness of the law. For example – incidents involving large animals such as horse, cattle, ass, mule, hinny, sheep, pig, goat or dog must be reported to police. Certain animals, like badgers and foxes, may need special handling due to being carriers of diseases and parasites dangerous to humans, and given you can’t always be certain how long something has been dead foraging the meat in addition to remains such as feathers and bones may not be advisable. X X
Foraging in nature is another way to obtain animal remains. In the case of most animals and wild birds it is legal to keep bones and feathers so long as you can prove that they were obtained following a natural death (ie it wasn’t killed by a human) or from natural shed ie natural feather loss. This can be a nightmare to prove, and in the case of birds of prey and protected species it’s a good idea to take photos of the finds context before you move it. As an example, read this blog from Jakes Bones about his experience with a “mystery bird skull”.
The primary laws you should be aware of in the UK are
The Conservation (Natural habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994
In particular Section 3
Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
You may also find this article from Ben Dolphin useful, as well as this booklet on identification from the National History Museum in the UK
Meat by products
Where animals are killed for food salvaging anything for additional usage is a win so make friends with your local butcher. Anything obtained this way is going to come with a lot of meat still attached so you will want to be familiar with ways of processing and cleaning skulls and bones and have enough space to undertake this. Though it is possible to salvage bones after cooking the heat changes the quality of the bone and they will not necessarily look as aesthetically pleasing.
Sustainable and Responsible Hunting/Culls
Culling as part of population control and sustainable hunting practices are entirely acceptable ways to obtain animal remains as a subset of meat by products. The animal has been killed in a humane and mindful way for the purposes of food or to ensure that the population remains sustainable where there may not be natural predators to maintain the population naturally.
This does not include hunting for “sport” or which uses unnecessarily cruel means as in the case of fox hunting, illegal activities such as hare coursing, culls based in inadequate science such as the Badger/TB Culls, poison bait.
Vintage Objects and Taxidermy
The ethics of our parents and grandparents are not necessarily our own. Fur coats, stoles and wraps were once all the rage, as were stuffed animals and bone / ivory ornaments and jewellery. We can’t undo the past, but we can honour the lives of these animals through our practice. Vintage sales boom and taxidermy is still a thriving trade which operates within the law and are entirely ethical.
Not everyone has a friendly butcher, hunter or lives somewhere where they can make awesome foraging finds, or have the space to process roadkill in their kitchen. There are many people out there on site such as eBay and Etsy participating in vulture culture and selling items online. That being said it is important to be mindful when buying things from others. Ethical members of vulture culture are usually very transparent about how they source their items, either on a case-by-case basis or on their seller’s profile and will only sell items which don’t require a special license.
Bones and Skulls
Bones are essential to life – without them we would be a mushy puddle of flesh on the floor. Bones provide structure as well as protection to soft organs such as the lungs and heart. They provide a site for the attachment of muscles enabling movement, though in the case of the skull this also provides us our individual identify and characteristics and protects the seat of consciousness, our brain.
The skull can therefore be used as a vessel which holds the spirit of the animal originally associated with it, a collective ancestral spirit of the species or some other spirit entirely. Once a spirit is housed within the skull, either on a permeant and ritual basis, it can than aid your spell work. The energies and qualities associated with the animal are there to be drawn on, to be invited to act as mediators, messengers and guardians in spirit communication and even ancestral work.
There are a number of different ways that this can manifest in praxis, mostly driven by personal praxis and UPG. For example, Lupa GreenWolf, an American vulture culture artist, has developed a series of praxis including her Bone Tarot and scrying processes. Lupa particularly focuses on gazing into the skull cavity from the base of the skull, though other praxis will use suggest the eye sockets. Lupa doesn’t provide a specific ritual but provides enough guidance.
Bones are the foundations of our structures and as such can be used as the foundation of our magical work, with our energies securely attached to them. Smaller bones and skulls can be perforated and worn as charm or included in pouches, jars and sachets. Bones have also historically been used for protection, good fortune etc. For example, people have carried a rabbit’s foot for good luck over generations, what is this but a fetishes? Even if they don’t have a magical purpose attached skulls and bones can be worn as ritual adornments, incorporated into ritual tools or incorporated into altars.
Furs and Pelts
Definitions first. A fur is no longer attached to the skin where as a pelt is both fur and skin. Snake skin falls within the same category as leather. Wool is a fur, fleece is a pelt. Simples.
The skin is our connection to the outside world, hundreds and thousands of nerve endings bring messages about our external world to our brains so that we can adjust to our environment.
Most of what we know regarding the use of pelts and furs comes from cave paintings and writings on indigenous cultures. Most often pelts and furs were used as garments or soft furnishings, particularly during winter, but they can also be used as contains both of objects and liquid. The practical uses of leather/pelts/fur are endless, and are easily incorporated in to the practical side of magical practice, such as pouches, bags, the ritual adornment etc., but what about magical uses?
Lets look at an ingenious example in the Navajo skinwalkers, yee naaldlooshii which translates to “by means of it, it goes on all fours”. In this the yee naaldlooshii is the antithesis of the community healer (medicine man), manipulating magic and creating a pervasive version of practice which serves personal gain rather than community development. Yee naaldlooshii are said to be able to assume animal form by wearing the pelt of an animal, particularly that of the coyote or those associated with death or bad omens. They are also said to be able to possess the animal associated with that skin, or even other humans.
Such things need to be approached with caution by western magical practitioners as it can be very easy to stray into cultural misappropriation. The concept of the object representing the animal in a sympathetic manner is fairly universal, and does appear in western traditions so it is less the wearing and more what you are doing whilst wearing which may bring you in to troubled waters.
Feather, Fangs and Claws
Feathers are keratin filaments that cover the outside of birds, making up the plumage, providing warmth and water resistance and facilitating flight. Like animal pelts and skins, feathers do not preserve well over time so much of what we know of their historical magical uses stem from indigenous cultures, cave paintings and ancient mythology. Feathers have long been used as ornamentation on ceremonial garb, particularly headdresses, and other forms of ritual adornment.
Birds are believed to connect the material world with the spiritual world and have been used in different ways to aid this kind of communication. With Feathers the association with flight is used to facilitate the movement of the wearer/holder, between these two worlds.
As with animals each bird has different associations, which vairy from culture for culture. Eagles, for example, are associated with the sun as well as strength, wisdom and protection. For example, in Celtic tale of Culhwch and Olwen, Culhwch is tasked with finding the magical child Mabon. He asks a number of animals to help him in his quest, the eagle being the animal who tips him off as to where Mabon is.
Feathers are sometimes included in Witches Ladders, a magical string of feathers and other objects and charm hung in the home, usually as a form of magical protection. Withes Ladders were common in the late 1800s, hung in the eaves of homes or in some other hidden places. Occasionally finders of such hidden objects will associate them with ill wishes, with each feather/object being through to be an individual ill-wish or curse, which could only be broken if the ladder was doused in water and the feathers loosened, not untied) from the knots. Modern applications are usually turned to more positive ends such as reinforcing positive intent and drawing, with each feather representing a wish.
Teeth and Claws
Like feathers claws are also made out of keratin whilst teeth are made from a combination of tissues, outwardly having a similar appearance to preserved bone (nb they are not bone as they are not a living tissue unlike bones when we are still alive and using them). Animal teeth and claws have been found in the archaeological record, usually appearing to take the form of jewellery and amulets. This may imply that they were valued in some way, either for their spiritual and magical properties or as an expression of wealth or some other status.
Teeth and claws have been used both as a form of magical protection or sympathetic magic in relation to children and child birth. For example; The Medici family used teeth as a worn charm to encourage the development of their children’s teeth whilst in ancient Rome wolf claws were carried by an expectant mother to invoke the protection of Lupa, the wolf that nursed Romulus and Remus, for both mother and unborn child.
In ATR contexts animal teeth and claws are included in mojo bags to bring protection, good luck or bind a person and incorporated into divination alongside small bones, shells and other curios. The use of animal remains such as teeth and claws are less attested to in a written western magical tradition, though it is present in the Greek Magical Papyri. Today witches use teeth and claws in decorative settings, such as personal and ritual adornment, or in magical context such as bags.
Blood, guts and other gore
I am going to opening this section with a caveat – I am not against the use of wet animal remains in ritual. I am also not necessarily against animal sacrifice in ritual but I firmly believe if you are going to do this you should be trained in such matters. If you have not been trained, either within a tradition or a slaughterhouse, put down the knife and walk away from the chicken.
I personally take the approach that if I can pick it up from my traditional butcher then I will use it in spells and as offerings to deity. Lungs, livers, hearts and the occasional arsehole, all of these can be picked up for a surprisingly reasonable price with only minimal odd looks. Given some of these, particularly organs such as the liver, are glorified bags of blood that means that you also have animal blood on hand.
I mentioned a chicken – we generally associate the use of wet animal remains with ATR’s, like vodun, but this is not exclusively true. The practice also appears in the later grimoires of the 1800’s, and it is something that we see in the archaeological record even here in the British Isles. Cunning folk like Issac Rushworth were using bull hearts in their workings, particularly in relation to love magic, in addition to other items. There is also an association with the heart and anti-witchcraft rituals either as a way to connected to the animal to a protection spell or as a way of identifying a witch. They also appear in older writings, such as the PGM and whilst not all the items listed will be available in your local western butcher substitutions may be made based on the sympathetic connection of the item. In short – If we are performing a love spell, then any heart will do.
What I am trying to do here is provide you a jailbreak to help you avoid cultural appropriation. Whilst we may associate the use of animal offal and wet remains with vondu and other similar traditions there is no reason that we as non-ATR practitioners can’t pick this up in our own practice. Don’t just look at an ART practice and think “I’m gunna do that”, look to the sympathetic connection and place it within your own tradition and practice.
Roundup of Uses
The core concept attached to the use of animal remains in witchcraft is that of sympathetic magic. The presence of the remains are intended to invoke the energy of the animal or the correspondence of the item. Most of the time you are going to be drawing on a set of collective correspondences everyone will connect with but don’t forget that your associations also count.
- Divination: skulls, small bones, fangs, shells or feathers can be used in a variety of ways for the purpose of divination, particularly thrown oracles. This is a good space for exploration because you can mix bones with other forms of curios as well as using developing you own bones only method. You can focus on the species for your meanings as well as the type or appearance of the bone. There aren’t many books out there to help with this but curio based divination is highly personal. You can also scry using the skull so long as the cranium is complete and enclosed. For more information on this I recommend Skull Scrying by Lupa Greenwolf.
- Ritual Adornments: Fangs, shells, small bones (including small skulls), claws, or feathers can be incorporated into jewellery and other forms of ritual adornment. They can be intended to draw in the qualities of the animal spirit they represent, hard items like bones, shells etc may also cause ambient noise through movement which can aid trance, or they can just look pretty.
- Ritual Tools: Various bones, fangs, antlers, and shells can be used to adorn ritual tools or they may be used as object rituals in and of themselves. Some bone, horn and antler can be worked into handles for knives and wands, or even as wands themselves. Fans made of wings or tail feathers will help with lifting messages on the incense of ritual. Skulls can become spirit houses and the focus of a bond being built between the practitioner and the spirit animal.
- Spells, Pouches and Bags: You can use bones, feathers, fangs, and shells in any number of ways in spells and pouches either as a way of carrying the spirit of the animal with you or to bring the quality of the animal to your working. They may be useful in helping ensoul the spirit of the animal into a shrine that is not in of itself part of the animal (like a statue) or to form part of a dedicatory offering for a vessel intended to be worked with deity.
In all of this the only real limit of usage is you imagination.
Working with the Spirits of Animal Remains
Build a relationship with the spirit animal the remains belong to, their deities, messages, lore etc. Context is important. If you are working in a specific tradition focus upon the animal within that context.
Begin the process of building this relationship before you bring them into a ritual setting. If you are cleaning your own bones begin the process at this point otherwise as soon as possible as soon as they have been acquired. This process is known as “reading” the bones, and there is no right or wrong way to do this so it is important to trust your instincts. Is the spirit awake or dormant? Do they resonate with you? Do they consent to be used in magical settings? You may encounter pain and suffering, consistent with the way that the animal passed, which can be worked through using ritual and offerings.
Though the initial reading of the bones may be a direct and meditative the process of formalising the magical relationship is far more ritual in nature. When using animal remains as a form of spirit house it is important to set the remains apart for this purpose. One way of doing this is through decoration. These might be universal symbols of life and death, which can help bridge a gap between yourself as a living practitioner and the spirit world, or symbols associated with your purpose and practice. One simple and very ancient practice is to redden the bones using red ochre. When mixed with water red ochre forms a paste which will colour the bone, mimicking the colour of blood and the vitality associated with it.
Moving forward, you are building a relationship with the spirit, and this will require a degree of quid pro quo on both sides. In return for acting as a messenger to the gods and/or ancestors or providing protection for yourself and space the spirit will expect something from you as the practitioner. Honour and veneration are the bread and butter of such things. This might be very direct, such as regular ritual dedications to the spirit at its earthly tether (food, flowers, incense etc). This will be something that occurs as a foundation act, which may include a written charm and spell pouch, which is added to regularly and replaced on an annual basis. Maintenance may take on a more indirect expression, such as in the form of donations of time, money, belongs etc. to charities associated with that animal. The important thing, like any agreement with deity or spirit, is that what ever you agree with the spirit of the animal is honoured and that their space is not neglected.
All good things come to an end, and if you have bothered to spend the time to cultivate and maintain a relationship with spirit it is important to bring it to an end in an acceptable manner. Avoid simply allowing your practice to slide and put out of sight and out of mind. At best, failing to end this kind of relationship well will result in it being harder to establish new relationships with similar spirits, or reactivate the spirit communication at a later date. At worst you’ll manifest some unhappy spirit activity in your life.
Conduct a final ritual, give thanks and make a final offering, pack away so that it will be safe from damage and undisturbed etc.