Thinking About – Samhain, Bones and the Ancestors

Thinking About – Samhain, Bones and the Ancestors


I still find it amazing how quickly after the Autumn Equinox the season takes hold. Maybe it’s the angle of the Sun to the Earth but the shade of light blends with a touch of gold, whereas the Summer sunshine, to my eyes at least, sparkles with silver, and with that change in light the leaves turn also. There is still a lot of green across the Sussex countryside, but the red of the abundant Haws, and the yellowing leaves of the Horse-chestnut is now colouring the forests and Downs, painting a watercolour only Nature Herself can create. With those colours, and earlier evenings, my thoughts begin to turn to Samhain, as the rooks call outside my window.

Just as the turning tide of the waxing and waning Moon shows us the changing aspects of Magic, so the seasons reflect that also. The year is waning and, as the waning Moon opens us to reflect and consider, so too does the waning year. Of course life goes on as it always does, but if we are in tune with the cycles of Sun and Moon we can step beyond the Human constructs of commerce, entertainment, do-do-do and keep doing, don’t stop, be proactive, post that photo, make that Tweet, never stop, and be still. It’s a wonderful feeling. To notice the change in light, the Autumn colours, and step in tune, slow down, really observe. It can feel like you’re in one of those freeze-frame images, where you are in perfect focus, whilst the rest are a blur of activity.

Although I love the Summer, I also love the Autumn, and this opportunity to take stock, look back, reflect, and open to the new possibilities of next Spring. But I know that by mid-January, I’m done with reflecting. I want to put things in motion, get going again, and maybe that’s why my relationship with the Winter is a little strained. I’m not sure that the seeds of my creativity need ‘over-wintering’. They don’t need a frost to germinate, but they have to get one anyway. But now isn’t the time to think of Spring, nor Winter, it’s time to be present, right now, and enjoy the perceptible wind-down.

And Bones

Autumn and Samhain also bring with them a very deep, Earthy magic. Yesterday I put together this month’s episode of DruidCast. It won’t go live until the 20th, but I like to have the show ready nice and early. This month there is a talk given at this year’s AnderidaFest by the author and Witch Gemma Gary. I introduce her by saying that “there are those who would like a Wicca that can happily sit and have tea and cucumber sandwiches with the local vicar. This talk isn’t like that”. And it’s the perfect Talky Bit for this time of year, as we approach Samhain. Gemma’s talk is on the ritual use of human and animal bones, in Witchcraft, and in Folklore. As I put the show together I wondered how many Druids and Pagans still have animal bones on their altars. I do. Bones have always been a part of my Path, particularly when it comes to Magic.

I’ll give you an example.

During a very difficult part of my life I asked for the help of an animal. This help came in the form of Seagull. The freedom they show when they fly, their survivor attitude, was inspiring, and helped me deeply. As I went for a walk one day on the local beach I found the body of a Gull. I knelt and asked the Spirit of this bird if it would be ok if I took its mortal remains. I got clear approval. So I took it home, and buried it in the garden near an ants nest. Some days later I got out a trowel, and dug up the remains. The ants had done their job. Very little flesh remained. The skull was perfect, and I took the wing bones, and put them in my travel guitar case. I have always been a nervous flyer, and so I asked these bones to bless my guitar, to keep it safe when we flew off to distant countries.

But there was a problem with this…

As we came into Australia one year I was pulled over by customs and asked to open my bags. Of course everything would be fine. I opened my bags, they had a rummage, all good. Then I opened my guitar case. There were the wing bones.

“What are these?” asked the customs official.

“Seagull wing bones,” I replied.

“Why do you have bird wing bones in your guitar case,” she asked,

A fair question really.

“Erm. For luck,” I replied.

“You do know it’s illegal to bring animal remains into this country?” she said.

Gulp. “Er, no, I didn’t.”

She looked at her colleague. Between them they agreed that four Seagull wing bones didn’t constitute animal smuggling, and they let me pass through, but I still remember the looks on their faces – they obviously thought me very weird, very weird indeed. When I got home after the tour I took the bones out of my guitar case. I put them on my altar, and they’ve been there ever since. Now before I fly I close my eyes, place my hands on the bones, and ask that my guitar be safe.

I love bones, but respect is the key. I guess some would say that leaving the bones alone is more respectful. Well, that entirely depends on your own worldview, and if that’s you, I respect that, but it’s not how I work. If there is a powerful calling, I’ll listen, and follow where it leads, and if it leads to bringing home a victim of roadkill, then so be it. I look at other cultures (maybe you too saw the recent documentary with Grayson Perry where he looked at other cultures and their rituals around life and death) and see how some still have deep relationships with the remains of the dead, I totally get that. We are so shielded from death. The body is taken away, cleaned up, maybe filled with horrendous preserving chemicals, then the next time we ‘see’ it it’s in a box ready to go in the ground. I’m not at all sure our relationship with death is healthy, but it does explain why so many are squeamish when it comes to remains. I’d love to leave my skull for my family. I’m not sure they’d like it, but I wouldn’t be shocked or appalled if one of my sons asked if they could have a finger bone, or some other part of me, after I’d gone. I get that type of connection.

The Ancestors

Maybe that reads as a little odd, but I don’t think it is. Go back far enough and our ancestors here on this island would place the body of the deceased in a passage grave (sometimes after stripping the bones of the flesh), and then every year they would be taken out once more. We don’t entirely know why, but it must have been an honouring, a remembrance, a connection with the ancestors. I have no problem with that idea at all, in fact I think its lovely. But then I want a sky burial when I go, and as far as I’m aware that isn’t an option for me. It’s either go in the ground, or up in smoke, neither of which appeal. There’s good protein on this body of mine. Give me to the birds and animals. The Gods know I’ve eaten enough of their kin in my lifetime. Then collect my bones and do with them what you wish.

And this is not just a Pagan thing. Consider the countless Christian reliquaries around that are venerated as the containers of the bones from Saints. The veneration of bones runs deep.

Our ancestors understood the power and connection of bones. Our turning Wheel of the Year, and the cycle of the Moon reflect life, death, and rebirth. Folklore is littered with tales and customs of using bones in magic. Is the honouring of bones a part of your practice? If so, what do you do?

8 responses to “Thinking About – Samhain, Bones and the Ancestors”

  1. Hi Damh, just recently I was in my local park visiting my favourite tree which seems to be especially loved by Crows. As I got nearer I saw a beautiful black feather lying next to a piece of animal bone. It may have been dropped during a fight or discarded by the Crow but it felt like a strong message that even at the height of Summer, the darkness will inevitably follow, as it does for us all one day. I waited a long while to see if the Crow would return for the bone before I picked it up, along with the feather, and brought them home. They are on my altar as a constant reminder that dark follows light and that death is inevitable and that we are all part of this beautiful finely tuned balance. It brings me closer to my ancestors and the bones of the earth too. For that reason I also have a piece of flint that I picked up in my uncle’s garden the day of his funeral, a piece of earth bone from my home county and a connection with my forbears and the land’s. I hope this makes some kind of sense 😀 Blessings to you xxx

  2. Oh good grief- I have a LOT of bones in my house. More than makes most people comfortable. And I carry an owls foot with me wherever I go, so I’m perhaps not the best person to ask this question to. Instead I’ll tackle the human bone thing. I agree that we have shut death off from our culture in an appalling way. Death is a part of life. It was not so long ago that a person came home to die, they were surrounded by friends and family during the dying process. And it is a process. Often times a grueling and unpleasant one, but part of life none the less. The body was dressed by the old women of the village or town, and Was buried by the family. Corpses by their very nature are repulsive. There is something very visceral in our aversion to them. Especially when it is someone we love dearly. My personal opinion is that being in close proximity with the body of a deceased loved one helps to cement the idea that what made them alive is truly gone. I think that is why so many traditions allow a corpse to be around the living. It makes death real. The person can have closure because they know that their loved one is truly gone. The idea of using human bones kind of creeps me out. I understand the concept, and if the bones are old enough It does not seem so… disrespectful? Intrusive? Morbid? But I personally like the idea that you leave the dead alone. And handling parts of their body is… just not comfortable for me. But I personally like the idea that you leave the dead alone. And handling parts of their body is – just not a comfortable concept for me. Why I do not feel that way about my animal kin I cannot explain. I can personally say I would never want a bone of one of my family. Best to remember them in spirit. But to each his own.

  3. I too have a connection with bones. All of my dogs and cats who have gone before me come home again once they are cremated. I ask the crematorium to leave the urn open so that I may take out their bones when I feel the need to be close to them. Morbid? I don’t think it as morbid. I look at it as respect. I feel connected when I have their bones in my hands. I echo Rebecca’s thoughts – I am comfortable with the animal bones but do not think I could do human bones. I wouldn’t hesitate to have my loved ones cremated remains in the house, but not on display or for touching.

    Maybe I have a deeper connection with animals rather than humans? Interesting thought.

  4. When my husband passed I put a couple of small pieces of bone from his ashes in a little leather medicine pouch and wore it around my neck. I felt the bones were my luck and inspired me to think clearly and look at problems from different angles to find creative solutions as he would have done. It kept him close to me. I haven’t worn the medicine pouch for a few years but I still keep it on my altar and it stays in my heart. Thanks for this wonderful post that has let me know I’m not alone in my practice.

  5. When my Gran died, my Granddad was so distraught I suggested him keeping some of her ashes to keep her close to him, and I promised that when he died, I would place her ashes with his. This I did 5 years later. It just all felt the right thing to do…

  6. Made me think of the Nanticoke Indians indigenous to an area near here. When they were forced to leave their homeland, they dug up the bones of their ancestors and took them all along with them in wagons.

  7. One spring after the snows had finally melted, we found the bones of a possum in the alley behind a neighbor’s yard. The jawbone is still part of our altar and we’ve felt honored to have been able to find the bones, like it was a gift to us from spirit. I missed the old possum but a descendant came to take his place and grew up trundling through our neighborhood. Don’t know what generation we’re on now and we haven’t found any more bones, but we do use horn and bone beads when we make jewelry. I don’t think I would feel comfortable with actual human bones, but the fake skeletons everywhere this time of year don’t bother me.

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