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Reading Bones

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Reading Bones an Introduction to Osteomancy by SheloyaTo provide a bit of background for my Hoodoo Bones system, and to show the way to the next step for those who’ve bought or made their own set, I’ve decided to write a bit on reading actual bones.  There are many traditions from many cultures, but they all work well provided the reader is in tune with Eshu and Ifa or whatever the name is that they call them in their own culture.  By the way, the official terms for divination by casting bones are osteomancy and ossomancy.

In Yoruba and close cultures, they have diloggun, which is the reading of the cowrie shells, and other sorts of readings according to the Ifa system.  This is a very old and accurate system, and I encourage all prospective bone readers to at least learn the basic principles of it or amathambo, the southern African method of bone reading.  Then you’ll have a context for other diaspora or Hoodoo methods such as dice and domino divination as well as others.

Because I am of mixed African and Catawba ancestry, and I live in Israel, the Hoodoo way works best for me.  I live in an ethnically diverse area in the mountains of Elijah and near the sea, so I cannot ignore things in order to stay traditionally African.  You may get the most out of methods closer to your ancestry, but mind that you may also get more out of whatever your adopted heritage is.  It is not at all about race as in color, but about the combination of your genetic heritage and literally the earth from the environment that permeates your blood and flesh.  Especially if you eat naturally and usually locally, your body has joined with the ground you are standing on.  When you are working with natural forces, it is best to be natural, not overly traditional.

You may have a religion, but the Earth does not.  One must adapt to their environment in order to thrive and survive.  One must also not refuse connection with the local flavors of spirituality or the people around them who they serve.  If you put a barrier between yourself and the people you are reading for based on your own personal racist or elitist sentiments, you of course will not be able to give them accurate readings.

If you are learning to read bones, and would like to discuss it in a more private area than the site comments, go to Witch University.  It’s free, and you can learn a lot.

Selecting Your Bones

In the general Hoodoo method (traditions vary, mind you), the first time that you dedicate a set of bones, they should be the full or partial skeleton of an animal properly sacrificed to the Orisha of your head, or from your spirit animal who has died of natural causes or legitimate hunting.  By legitimate hunting, I mean someone went out to the woods, hunted it, and killed it, or it came to a human populated area and had to be put down.

You should avoid killing an animal that may belong to someone, including those who have new pups.  Also, be mindful of your local hunting laws.  If your animal is a feline or canine, you do not need to do the killing, and this is not recommended because even if they are stray, someone likely cares for them.  Simply wait until you encounter one who has died on the road.  If it is a chicken, go to a farm where these are raised and select your bird according to the offering/sacrifice rules of your Orisha, and have a priest of Ogun, a Jew trained in kosher methods, or a Muslim trained in halal methods do the deed.  Remember, we are all children of Yemaya regardless of our politics.

Cleaning and Consecrating the Bones

The best way to do the initial cleaning is to let nature do the job.  Bury them or leave them out in a place you know they won’t be carried off.  After six months or so, for sanitary purposes, you may want to bathe them in 35% or higher hydrogen peroxide.

After they are cleaned, they should be consecrated.  This varies by tradition, but as a general rule, Eshu, the ancestors, and Ifa should be called upon.  Then they should be passed through sacred water, sacred fire, sacred earth, and sacred air.  Then do the first reading to learn the animal’s name or what kind of name they would like to be called.

Reading and Rounding Out Your Set

The skeleton is your base set.  Each type of bone has its own meaning, and this varies by tradition.  However, generally, head bones belong to Orunmila, and the head is the container of the Ori.  So depending on the context, skulls or parts of skulls could refer to the Supreme God or to the state of the person’s soul.  Vertebrae belong to Eshu.  Just as the spine carries messages from the nerves to the brain and back, Eshu is the gatekeeper between the physical and spirit realms.  Humeri belong to Yemaya.  Phalanges and claws belong to Ogun.  Teeth represent specifically divine movement through a particular Orisha.   Canine teeth and upper beaks represent war or conflict.  Pelvic bones belong to Oshun and/or Yemaya.  The The baculum belongs of course to Shango.  Horn tips belong to Oya.  You get the point.

If your animal is a snake, you may have to go by where the ribs and vertebrae correspond to placement of various organs on the snake’s body.

In any case, when you throw the bones, you are looking to see how well your base set conforms to the actual skeletal anatomy of your animal.  The closer they are to it, the more okay things are.  It’s a “no news is good news” thing.  If they are more disarranged, this means there is an actual message that may be good or bad.

To help you to read more accurately, or for confirmation of what it is your base set is trying to say, or to boost their energy, you may want to add other objects, shells, or bones from other animals.  A rattlesnake’s rattle, for instance, can tell you whether or not there is a warning of danger.  An Oya’s mirror can tell you whether the reading is about the past and present or the future.  A piece of Obsidian (which belongs to Aganju) may tell of what lies ahead during travel or a journey.  Add whatever objects you and your guardian spirits deem necessary.

Caring For Your Bones

Your bones should be kept in a safe place, and not handled by people you don’t trust.  You should keep one of them with you as often as possible.  If you tend to lose things, keep it in the “you” section of your altar, but touch it often.

Aside of consecrating the bones themselves weekly, you should cleanse and purify your hands before touching them.  Never ever touch them with dirty hands.  Don’t leave them laying around in the bathroom or something unless you have to take them with you to protect them from someone you don’t trust.

Burying Your Bones

At some point, the bit of personal energy of the animal that is left in your base set or other bones you have added may tell you that it is time to let them rest.  At that point, you should give them a nice funeral.  Seriously, if you have made a lot of money from them, or gained some status from them, the expense and grandeur of the funeral should match this.  They should have a stone marker of their burial with their name on it.

Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Divination Bones

Can I buy a set of bones or do I have to acquire and treat all bones and artifacts myself?

Technically, you can buy a ready made set of bones, but it just won’t be the same.  Some fur traders and scientific supply stores have full skeletons, and if you ask for a specific type, they will get it for you.  The problem is that you wouldn’t know what kind of life the animal had or whether or not it was properly killed.

So if you’re going to buy, it is best to buy the whole animal and then you can say what is and is not to be done with the bones.  If your animal is a cow, then if you buy the cow, you get to say which bones or parts of the bones you want reserved, without an argument or uncertainty.

If your animal is more exotic, like a wolf or a bear, then you may have no choice but to buy from hunters or specimen supply stores.  In such a case, you will need to apologize to the animal spirits for anything wrong that was done to them by a human, and give them offerings.

My animal is very exotic, endangered, or extinct.  Can I use replica bones?

Yes you can, but they should be well crafted.  They should be made of a resin or polymer clay that contains some earth from the animal’s native land, or wood from an old tree or bush from there.  The head “bones” should come from near the roots.  The vertebrae should be from the trunk.  The limbs should be from the branches.  Take care when harvesting wood from a live tree.  You may kill it or make it vulnerable to disease.  I would use wood from a tree that has already fallen or has been freshly cut down for a good reason, such as to make way for younger trees to grow.

Can I use human bones?

Not without explicit permission from the person.  Animals in the wild and on farms are used to being prey or life and death competition.  You may at some point actually encounter the bones of an animal who resents having them used after their death, but those who’ve walked this path a ways have also encountered animals who didn’t want their bones thrown in the garbage.  Some have felt, while eating an animal, that one in particular, especially roosters or “alpha” members of their herd or group wanted some amulet made from their bones.

Humans usually definitely don’t want their bones harvested, but then some do.  Some people donate their organs so that others can survive physically, and some people may well donate a part of themselves to help others survive emotionally and thrive spiritually.

Another thing to take into account is that humans are your own species.  There is such a thing as being way too in touch with your mortality.

Some well regarded priests and nuns of eastern faiths do donate their skulls or other bones to use as spiritual tools.  Usually this is done so that their body becomes a statue to the deity of their head.  They are giving all, including their body, to their deity.  One should consider that when this is done, the area they are housed in becomes a sacred shrine.  You may have heard stories about how some westerner unwittingly bought a Tibetan or Indian priest or priestess’s skull and now will not let anyone touch it, underwent a personality change, etc.

Humans and possibly other intelligent animals can consciously direct their energy, so any human (or dolphin or whale, or…) artifacts should be handled with the utmost care.  It is not something you should do to be cool or out-goth your friends or something.

If your path is that of a warrior who is in actual wars, this is a good reason to accept a human bone that comes to you.  In this case and ONLY in this case are you to accept a part of your actual enemy that has become dislodged during the battle.  Taking trophies on purpose is illegal though.

If you are afraid that some bones may go into the wrong hands and be disrespected, you may acquire or purchase them to bury or enshrine.  Ask the spirit what you should do with them.  Even though some may have asked to have their bones preserved and repurposed before their deaths, they may be ready to rest now.  Respect that.

Misinformation and Mudslinging

Update November 6, 2014: Since I wrote this article, many more bone readers seem to have come out of the woodwork.  Some are coming from older traditions, and some are using my innovation, Sheloya’s Hoodoo Bones, while others have made or discovered their own ways.

Of course, some were quick to start calling everybody frauds, without actually looking into each reader to see if their methods were sound.  Even though I was one of the main writers responsible for reviving this style of divination on the internet, I think this is very bad form.

You see, even though I helped to bring it to the attention of more diviners and rootworkers, I certainly didn’t invent osteomancy, nor do I or have I ever claimed that my way is the only way there is.  African and diaspora spirituality covers a very wide range, and we live in many different climates and environments, and come in many different mixtures.  So there is no one way that is the only way for everyone.

I can’t tell you who is real and who isn’t specifically, because I don’t spend a lot of time looking for others to berate or belittle.  I can tell you though, that it doesn’t matter how they came into the knowledge, as long as they have it.  I don’t care if they got it from reading my articles, someone else’s, a book, a video, or a friend or mentor.  It is truly irrelevant, so long as it’s spiritually and metaphysically sound.

My only real worries when it comes to this is whether or not the diviner knows their method well, is a good spiritual counselor overall, and most importantly, if they respect the Spirits/forces of Nature they are working with.  A lesser, but still important concern, is with the trending aspect.

The bones require someone who is very aligned with Nature, and this is whether we’re talking about literal bones or tiles/runes.  One has to be able to visualize in more than two dimensions, consider multiple possible time streams, and differing perspectives, all at once.  It requires a certain level of maturity, experience, and consciousness that one is helping people to get through real life issues.  One can neither afford modernist over-idealism, nor postmodernist cynicism.

I suppose this may be one reason why some traditional adherents and conjurers may panic when looking around and seeing a proliferation of bone readers.  Moreso than the tarot or other more straightforward methods using the Odu Ifa, Bible verses, etc. one has to be more than a reader.  One must be a seer.

Seeing what has become of the Nordic Runes, I share some of their concerns.  I will stop short of calling someone who is sincere and has the technique a fraud, but I will express concern with any traditional or culture/ethnicity heavy method being taken too far away from its origins.  In order to truly understand the Nordic Runes, it definitely does help to have some Nordic ancestry, as well as Nordic traditions passed to one through heritage.

Crossover and overlapping is fine, but stripping of the culture from the method is not fine at all.  This has happened in far too many cases, where people apply whatever meaning they like to a rune, despite its actual meaning, and don’t understand that they’re also magickal, not just symbols.

So it is my hope that as bone reading becomes more popular, those who stay with it take the time to speak to the elders and traditional practitioners of established, living faiths with unbroken or less broken lines.  One may be good enough at reading to give a reading, but one needs to be good enough at life to give a good reading.

Vodun F.A.Q. Where Do I Start?

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Orisha Online Altar is moving to a new domain, Orisha.me

Please update your bookmarks and links. This site will be up until April or May of 2023 to give everyone who is linking to us time.

These days, many people of many backgrounds are finding their way to Vodun.  Where to start depends on your own background and tendencies.  People of recent African ancestry may find it easier and more “instinctive” than people of more distant African ancestry.  This does not mean that the person of more recent African ancestry will advance more quickly or have a better understanding.  It does however, help when someone has a genetic connection to Mami Wata practitioners or priesthood, especially concerning practical matters.

Someone with more distant African ancestry may have inhibitions that someone of more recent ancestry does not.  However, someone of recent ancestry may take things for granted that someone more distant would not.

Because of some confusion, I’m moving this instruction up to the third paragraph. Once you take all of these things into consideration and your soul gets that this is the right direction for you, get an Ifa reading. If you’re already at that point, do it now. If you’re still undecided, read on.

There is the question of whether or not certain later developments in belief systems are an evolution or devolution of Mami Wata Vodun.  The original elders, shamans, and esoterics saw things a certain way, but politics, changes in the environment, migrations, and the necessities of life outside of Africa caused many shifts.  Some may make the mistake of abandoning perfectly good practices in favor of things that they think are Vodun, but their abilities of understanding may be limited.

For instance, an African American of mixed ancestry may come to think that working with Norse runes is somehow wrong because they are “getting back to their roots”.  They may take up diloggun as a replacement for runes rather than simply an addition to their knowledge and repertoire.  If runes were working for them before, then there is no reason that they wouldn’t still.  Unless the Orishas specifically tell them to abandon runes, they should not take it on themselves to do so.

Another common problem is in the conflation of Orishas with specific roles with the Creator.  On the one hand, there is a part of the Ultimate Unfathomable in the Orishas and in every created being or thing, but on the other, the Orishas are not the same thing as the Original or First Will.

This confusion exists because post Jewish faiths either place Jesus or another prophet as a stand-in for the Creator, or have rules against idolatry that were made to combat competing ideologies and corrupt state religions.  They don’t really understand Vodun, so they may co-opt Eshu because they worship Satan, or reject Eshu because they don’t want to be worshipping Satan.

Some people legitimately cannot think in terms of a Universe with a Creator who is called by different names according to the language and culture the idea came from.  Some cannot think of a Universe where people don’t automatically decide that the deity in charge of a particular force of Nature is not the top of the spiritual hierarchy just because a lot of people adore him/her.  They are used to limited or politicized religions.

This is not their fault, and it is not your fault if you are unable to adhere only to west African Mami Wata only or Haitian Vodou only.  There is nothing wrong with being or remaining eclectic so long as you are understanding of people who aren’t.

Some people should be solitary, and some people should not.  If you’re a person who feels they might go astray if they are left alone, or who simply enjoys the comfort of community and stricter dogma, then you should find a priest or priestess under whom to study.  Organization is good for some people, and bad for others.

If on the other hand, you have always been an independent thinker, you may prefer to stay on your own and learn directly from the Orishas themselves (not recommended because without cultural context you risk your sanity), or learn under the tutelage of another relatively solitary elder.

All three paths are legitimate, and have their pros and cons.  Choose the one that is right for you.

But how do I choose?

Simply ask Eshu.  Eshu is the gatekeeper, and will tell you exactly what you should do.  It may take some time, but he will show you through tests.

He is the Orisha most people start with.  Unless another Orisha chooses you when you know nothing of Vodun, Eshu is literally the gateway.  You can talk to Eshu like talking to anyone else.  Depending on how you prefer to think of it, he is either in or a line to him is in every living being.  One can think of him as the bridge between what we know as the physical universe and higher dimensions.  It is helpful though, to make or acquire an Eshu figure or build an Eshu altar.  It just helps as a visualization tool and beacon or presence, and to keep you mindful.

If you are stubborn and hard to deal with, and won’t listen to others, or have too many people telling you too many different things, and don’t know who to turn to, go directly to Eshu to clear things up.

Here are a few links that should help you get started getting both information and supplies.  They’re low on hype and high on information and perspective.

Papa Jim’s Botanica

This has been my favorite shop since I used to order their paper catalogue in the early 1990’s.  Their products are the real thing and most are made by hand by actual practitioners.  They will also give you advice on what to get if you have a special problem.  They saved my friend’s and many of his neighbors’ lives when they had “snakes in the stomach” because the same sort of toxin that is used for that curse got into his town’s water supply.

Santeria at Tribe.net

This a main community center on the net, not just for people specifically in the Santeria branch of Vodun.  Almost everybody ends up stopping by eventually.  You can make some good contacts and get lots of good advice and perspective.  Many older and lifelong practitioners are there, and you can find information you just won’t see anywhere else in English.

Ewe Resources

Learning at least some of a west African language is very helpful in learning Vodun and reconnecting with your home cultures if you’re African American.  This page from the University of Iowa has links to many good resources for getting started learning the basics of Ewe.  One of my favorites is UCLA’s phoenetics lab page with sound files of Ewe words and phrases.

Sacred Texts African Religion Archive

Reading the stories as close to the original as has been recorded thusfar, is very useful.  Many things have been lost, but what hasn’t been is very good to know.

Once your soul is settled with the idea, get an Ifa reading. The babalawo will be able to guide you from there.

Blessings and Ashé!