Divination through the use of bones, osteomancy, is an old and diverse style of reading that some still practice today. Now as an aside, the art of bone reading does go hand in hand with the consumption of meat and though some of us may shun the consumption of meat, we need to understand that we are not to impose our current world views nor our personal judgment of their cultural practices. We in the modern day have certain privileges and options that some did not have in olden days, so we must keep an objective mind to it, and understand it is a matter of cultural perspective and preservation that we discuss this topic.
Historically, we have a few different forms of bone reading that were common and varied culturally. Scapulimancy was a wide spread style of reading that often used the shoulder blade bones of animals. This was done by either removing the bone from the animal and interpreting the markings or characteristics of that particular bone. Some read it after cooking the animal while some sacrifice the animal and read the bone after.
Another very old style of reading involved the use of turtle shells, called plastromacy which was very common in early Chinese history. Typically these were done by elite nobles and royalty and involved inscribing the shell, though sometimes oxen shoulder bones were used. After inscribing it and summoning their deity and ancestors, they would poke it with a hot rod and depending on the cracks, the diviners would interpret their answers. This was also thought to be the origin of the Chinese language.
Though these two styles of bone readings are either no longer practiced, like the plastromancy, or are not commonly practiced like the scapulimancy, that doesn’t mean there are no bone readings. Like with time, these evolved into different styles or methods of reading. We see the use of bones in readings by casting lots, aspects we see in a lot of African Diasporic traditions through the use of cowrie shells, coconut shells, and kola nuts. While these nowadays do not directly use bones, like with the coconut and kola nut, they share a lot in common with bone reading.
Now the style of Bone Reading that takes place in some traditions in post-colonial North America vary but the echoes of older style do still take place. Some families and traditions read bones from specific animals, chickens or badgers were common, and interpret them depending on how they were thrown.
As times changed, and new traditions meld together, this style of reading developed. For example in my practice, due to my experience, herbs and roots play a heavy role alongside the bones being deployed, and along those two key players, the use of trinkets and symbolic tokens are also utilized. Each herb, root, bone, and symbolic token holds a specific meaning that is ascribed by the reader to represent an aspect, direction, or meaning within that readers’ preference and experience. For example, in my set of bones, I have a garnet bracelet to represent action needing to be taken, an alligator tooth to represent risks, a trinket of a bicycle to represent travel, just to list a few within my tool set. Some readers have more, some readers have less, it is a matter of what your intuition or spirit tells you to do. Taking these items, they are thrown onto a surface and depending on how they fall and interact with one another, the reader will then interpret them according to their ascribed meanings and intuitive guidance. This style of reading can be seen as casting lots of course, but some view this as almost a clairvoyant reading or more like a reading led by one’s higher self or spirit to articulate the story the bones tell.
More uniquely, thanks to modern day access to multiple modes of divination, this style of reading and others as well, can be incorporated into one another to provide a more intricate and holistic reading. For example, some bone readings will throw bones onto an astrology chart to interpret what the bones mean by where they land on the astrology chart. Some will use playing cards or tarot cards in a spread and throw bones on top of that configuration to provide more direction. If you utilize more ancestral connections, which was common in this style of reading, you can use this as a tool to connect through mediumship as well.
For those of you who are interested in learning this art, a caveat I do have is that if you choose this path to source your bones sustainably and cruelty free. If you are unsure of the source of your bones, and it’s good practice in general regardless of the source, you should cleanse and honor your bones through smudging and setting them to charge on your altar.
Though not everyone is called to this kind of work, there is something to be said about the long lasting nature of bones and the power they give us and hold over us. Hopefully this sheds light on an unique style of reading that is rich with history and dispels some of the fear associated with the macabre nature of bones.