Make No Bones About It!

An article published in Time Magazine on November 10, 1952, reported on the Witchdoctor Convention held in Pretoria, South Africa. Attending witchdoctors voted to set up a school in Johannesburg, with a course in ‘throwing the bones’ as part of the curriculum. Although a dim view was taken of prescriptions that used charred and powdered parts of the human skeleton, at the convention, dozens of ritual murders had taken place that year in South Africa to obtain bones and other body parts for magical purposes. Six decades later on 7 May 2013, a report about traditional South African healers or ‘sangomas’ by BBC news, alleged that up to eighty percent of South Africans firmly believed that sangomas were able to access advice and guidance through possession by an ancestor or by ‘throwing the bones’; tossing the bones like dice, and then reading or interpreting the messages of spirit entities according to how the bones have fallen. This practice is still in widespread use by witchdoctors on the African continent.

Human and animal bones, have been used in divination by the ancient Chinese, and other Asian cultures, as well as in Africa and North America, for thousands of years. Although throwing the bones is seen as a pagan practice, it does not differ in principle from the casting of lots. The casting of lots is frequently mentioned in the Scriptures, serving as a method for choice or selection. For instance, Israel’s king was chosen by lot,192 warriors were chosen by lot,193 priests offering incense to God in the Temple were chosen by lot,194 and while Jesus was on the Cross, the soldiers cast lots for his seamless robe.195 The examples are too many to list but indicate by their frequency how important the casting of lots was considered. To cast lots is an ancient way of making decisions, founded on the firm belief of divine intervention in the outcome. A lot could denote the flip of a coin, a set of specially marked stones (from which dice originated), pieces of bone or knucklebones, sticks with symbols carved into them, or slips of paper mixed up in a hat – the modern version of casting lots. The stones, sticks, or bones were thrown on the ground and then ‘read’ according to pre-determined rules.

Amongst Pacific Islanders and Australian Aborigines, it was once customary to use a pointing bone as a potent form of sorcery. In Aboriginal tradition, being pointed was a terrifying thought. Once the intended victim knew he had been pointed, he would sicken and die, unless the process was reversed by a medicine man, thereby curing the person.

As with all body parts, bones were universally thought to contain soul-essence and, therefore, were surrounded with many superstitious beliefs. Because bones constitute the longest-lasting parts of the body, they were seen by many societies as the root of life. Interred bones were reverently left undisturbed, as any disturbance of the dead was connected with dire consequences. 

In Christian religious tradition, bones in the form of relics were an important focus of worship for hundreds of years. The bones of martyrs, monks, saints, and popes are housed in crypts, chapels, churches, and cathedrals scattered throughout Europe. During medieval times, the acquisition of relics by churches made good business sense. In the same way that oracular sites in ancient times became important and powerful religious destinations, attracting pilgrims and their money, so the bones of famous personages acted as magnets to the Christian faithful. Strictly speaking, the word relic, from Lat. reliquiae, refers to some part of the body or clothing remaining as a memorial of a holy or revered person, but generally, such relics constitute mainly bones and ashes – various martyrs, such as St. Polycarp (circa 156 CE), having been burned at the stake. 

The period when it first became common practice to venerate bits of bone, cloth, or parcels of dust housed in religious centres around Europe is difficult to determine. The custom, however, was already widespread amongst Christians during the fourth century. Although the dismemberment and division of the remains of holy personages and martyrs and the sale of relics was expressly forbidden by the Theodosian Code, and later again by Pope Gregory the Great, relics formed an essential part of consecrating churches. During the seventh and eighth centuries, the need for them further increased rather than diminished. This inevitably led to many frauds and abuses perpetrated through motives of greed. The fraudulent aspect surrounding relics was spurned on by the rivalry among religious centres, each keen to possess an especially unusual object to attract the masses. Hence, more and more doubtful relics came to abound, with a tendency to declare any remains accidentally discovered near religious sites as sacred.   

As the bones of monks were also revered in the past, various crypts in Europe will delight visiting osteophiles. An example is the macabre Chapel of Bones at the Church of St. Francis in Ėvora, Portugal, lined with the bones of thousands of monks. Similarly, Rome’s Cappuccin Crypt houses hundreds of skeletal remains for the curious tourist to ogle. In the small Austrian town of Hallstadt, limited burial space resulted in the Chapel of Bones at the local cemetery. After spending only twelve years in the ground, bones were exhumed, cleaned, and then made their way into the cemetery chapel. Before being artistically stacked and displayed, all skulls were inscribed with a name, dated, and then beautifully decorated with floral symbols – female skulls with roses, male skulls with ivy. 

Bones used in spells, charms, and as medicinal cures were also once popular on the European continent. Obtaining bits of bone for spells and charms was believed of primary importance to witches during the Middle Ages. As late as the nineteenth century, powdered bone was still considered effective for treating assorted physical ailments affecting the skeletal system. To achieve a successful outcome for the patient, it was preferable that the bone particles or pieces had belonged to someone who had died violently. Therefore, the bones of executed persons were often obtained, usually at high prices. (See Chapter I, Curative Powers Associated With the Dead).

In American folk medicine, carrying a piece of bone on one’s person was believed to cure backache, toothache, cramps, and fits. However, for children to fall asleep on bones, in other words, on someone’s lap, was considered unlucky. 

Although most beliefs and superstitions surrounding our bones have been lost in obscurity, bones still play an important role in our language. For example, ‘we make no bones’ about a topic, by being direct and without scruples; we ‘have a bone to pick’ when an unpleasant matter needs settling, and we refer to a ‘bone of contention’, when meaning a point of dispute.


This is a web preview of the "Strange but True: A Historical Background to Popular Beliefs and Traditions" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App