Bone casting and divination. Throwing, casting, or reading the bones is an ancient technique for divination. The use of bones for divination, sometimes called “osteomancy”, has been performed by different cultures around the world for thousands of years. Personally, I have always been fascinated with bones, always collecting them from the wilderness… therefore, throwing the bones is one of my favorite methods of divination, and I use it often.
In this ancient system of “casting the bones” we are using organic divination tools for reading and communicating with the spirit world. We use animal bones, teeth, claws, horns, ribs, hand bones, leg bones, etc. to attain personal gnosis. Throwing the bones is deeply rooted in Animism (from Latin anima, “spirit, breath, life”) which is the belief that all beings, plants, animals, places, rocks, rivers, lakes, etc. have a spirit that can be communed with. Often, bones are also mixed in with other items, such as stones, shells, coins, feathers, etc. and placed in a basket, pouch, or bowl. This is a common practice e.g. in some Hoodoo traditions and African spiritual systems.
There are two basic shamanic methods of bone divination, “Casting the Bones” and “Fire Oracle Bones”, and next, I will give you a short overview of both.
Casting The Bones
In some traditions, the bones might be shaped, painted or marked, or just left in their natural state. I usually use mine in their natural state. Personally, I tend to use nine pieces of bone, because the number nine (9) is sacred to our Nordic spiritual traditions. Firstly, when you start collecting and working with your first bone set, you will have to create a relationship with them.
What I personally do, is talking to them, giving tobacco and my blood as an offering, periodically smoking and “watering” them, keeping them under my pillow when I sleep, touching them and meditating with them, working with them often, carrying them with me during the day… and so forth. The more attention you’ll give to them, the more powerful they will become. Your bone casting set is a living, breathing thing, so it is important to treat them with care and respect.
The bone energies and meanings differ according to what animal they belong to and what type of bone it is. Working with the bones is a very personal thing, always remember to listen to your intuition… and what the bones are telling you when you toss them on the ground. Bones are a powerful tool of penetrating the veil to the spirit world, and the primal energies and forces the animal represents hold immense power.
In many shamanic traditions, before throwing the bones, the sorcerer, shaman or which invokes the ancestor spirits by clapping, drumming, rattling, dancing or chanting (e.g. a “joik” or “yoik” is a traditional form of singing by the Nordic Sámi people), etc. It is believed that it is the ancestors and guiding spirits that are providing the information through the bones. Hence, you’ll need a strong connection to your ancestors in order to receive valid messages when working with the bones. In other cases, you are invoking the animal spirit (or Totem) the bones belong to and asking for its guidance and assistance. It is believed that the bones of the deceased still hold spiritual energy that may be used for guidance and magickal operations.
Personally, before I start my bone casting ritual, I draw a circle on the ground. You can also use e.g. a red ribbon or rope to create the circle or draw the circle on the table or floor with chalk, or you can use a pre-made cloth having a circle printed on it… it’s up to you really.
Then I ground and center myself, begin a light meditation and entering an altered state… calling upon my ancestors and spirit guides to assist me. Next, what comes to the bones, I hold them in my hands, and I shake them a little bit. Then I breathe on them to wake them up and giving life to them (Old Norse “önd” meaning breath, life force, divine spirit). I Speak to my bones and allow my breath to touch them as I speak aloud my question. Then I toss the bones into the circle.
How To Interpret The Bones
Now comes the part that I cannot really teach you per se, this part you must learn by yourself. I can only give you guidance.
Reading the bones is a personal thing and it is a little bit different for everybody. When casting the bones, observe how the bones fall, are they widely scattered or not? Does most of the bones fall on the right side of the circle or left? Are there more sticks pointing to the North or South? What does these things say to you? What do you “feel”?
Simply let your mind fall blank. Don’t overthink it. Be still, listen and wait for the answer. See if anything pops up. If you don’t get anything from the bones at first, don’t worry about it and get frustrated. Like any magical skill, it takes time to master this technique… the key is to read your bones often and build a relationship with them… and your ancestors and guiding spirits are also there to aid you. Bone divination is really an intuitive process, and when you get good at it, you will “just know” and “feel” the right answers the bones are giving to you. It is common to get “visions” in your mind’s eye as well.
Fire Oracle Bones
This is my own personal term, and it is sometimes also called Pyro-osteomancy. According to this technique, a huge variety of bones, different shapes, and sizes are used. The bones are placed in a fire, and then by the guidance of the spirits, the witch, sorcerer, shaman, etc. will interpret the bone cracks and crack shapes that will form by the heat and fire… and also the sounds coming from the bones.
“Oracle bones were used to practice of a form of divination, fortune-telling, known as pyro-osteomancy. Pyro-osteomancy is when seers tell the future based on the cracks in an animal bone or turtle shell either in their natural state or after having been burned. The cracks were then used to determine the future. The earliest pyro-osteomancy in China included the bones of sheep, deer, cattle, and pigs, in addition to turtle plastrons (shells). Pyro-osteomancy is known from prehistoric east and northeast Asia, and from North American and Eurasian ethnographic reports.”
— Archaeology expert Kris Hirst
Remember that these are just overall ideas and guidelines on how to use bone divination. Let your intuition be your guide and you will have the most success.