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Author Topic: Skulls, Bones, and Fossils (Inspired by "What's on Your Altar?")  (Read 4057 times)
LillyLiveredLilim
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« Topic Start: November 26, 2007, 12:01:23 am »

If I haven't made it clear enough, I am an arctolatrist or bear worshipper.  More and more my religious practice delves into "primitive" motifs and imagery.  This is a welcome surprise for a tea-chugging, techno-addict anglophile.  I was progressing merrily along with drumming, fire sitting, and lazy journeying until my partner presents me with the opportunity to bring home a bear skull.  Now I feel like I'm at a crossroads I'm not ready for.  I'm actually a bit frightened.  So far my Paganism has been predominantly "pretty."  I'm drawn to adding the skull to my altar in that way that makes it clear it will happen in due time, but I'm just not ready for body parts in my home yet so we're not going there.

If any of you were drawn to incorporate remains in your religious practice, how would you navigate the ethical conundrums?  For instance, do I purchase a bear skull from a taxidermist that was unwanted by the hunter in light of the fact that bears are dying out?  Of course, buying the skull does not compensate the hunter that killed the bear (the skull's a leftover from preserving the hunter's trophy of choice) and even if it did compensate him, not buying it would not effect the law that permits the hunting in the first place.  Complicate this by the reality that hunting and killing the bear itself is a sacred rite in most bear worshipping cultures.  How about human remains?  Would you consider keeping some piece of a person on your altar?  What about acquiring human remains?  (I'm not talking about killing anything, that's really not a conversation I'm up for.)  In mentioning human remains I am thinking of the skulls in the chapel at Hallstatt, Switzerland.

Speaking for myself, I'm not especially bothered by the implications of owning anyone or anything's mortal remains, what concerns me is provenance.  I'd be heartbroken if I went ahead and brought home a bear skull only to discover it came from a poached animal in protected areas where the population was struggling to survive.  Even more so for human remains, I could not receive a skull that I was not previously acquainted with, so to speak, and there are tremendous ethical concerns when the possibility of graverobbing is introduced.  Does anyone work with such items and feel they've altered the atmosphere of their home in a negative spiritual way?  I'd love to hear anyone else's experience with this.
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« Reply #1: November 26, 2007, 01:03:28 am »

Now I feel like I'm at a crossroads I'm not ready for.  I'm actually a bit frightened.  So far my Paganism has been predominantly "pretty."  I'm drawn to adding the skull to my altar in that way that makes it clear it will happen in due time, but I'm just not ready for body parts in my home yet so we're not going there.

I'm a bit contradictory, personally.  I'm a mostly-vegetarian (eat some fish), but I don't see anything icky about skulls.  In fact, I have a deer skull on my Dia de los Muertos altar every year.  My dog brought it to me a few years ago...on the day of my Dia de los Muertos party...as I was setting up the altar!  I don't think it's my place to look that gift horse (deer?) in the mouth.

Over the years I've coveted road kill (esp. raccoons, which fascinate me).  While I'd never kill a critter myself, I don't see anything wrong with honoring them after they've passed.  If this comes in the form of a skull, so be it.  <shrug>

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« Reply #2: November 26, 2007, 01:14:25 am »

If I haven't made it clear enough, I am an arctolatrist or bear worshipper.  More and more my religious practice delves into "primitive" motifs and imagery.  This is a welcome surprise for a tea-chugging, techno-addict anglophile.  I was progressing merrily along with drumming, fire sitting, and lazy journeying until my partner presents me with the opportunity to bring home a bear skull.  Now I feel like I'm at a crossroads I'm not ready for.  I'm actually a bit frightened.  So far my Paganism has been predominantly "pretty."  I'm drawn to adding the skull to my altar in that way that makes it clear it will happen in due time, but I'm just not ready for body parts in my home yet so we're not going there.



While this is not nearly on the intense level of the issue confronting you, I always had a desire to own the skull of a bull or steer (a former bull so to speak); never could explain why to myself with any degree of satisfaction.  But never really found one as I wanted...it HAD to have horns, you see.  Most cattle in America are routinely de-horned.  I have a creeping fondness for anything Minoan, and always figured the wild bull/cattle based imagry was influencing me, but didn't pursue it and quite gave up the idea of obtaining my desire.

Then 21 years ago, we finally bought a home...this house.  I knew on sight it was the "one" although it was a mess on the outside, an ugly color and the first sight inside made me exact a promise from the man to remodel within five years.  But it felt right.
Then, cleaning out, tearing down a collection of storage buildings and lean-to sorts of things, I found the skull!  Horns and all!  It adorns the front post of the porch now...it was the final note that this was the place. 

I understand your need to know how the bear died, and why....all that matters when considering a ritual object.  I don't know how the creature whose skull adorns my house came to die and leave me such a gift.  Perhaps, just perhaps an intuitive approach would help?  Find as much as you can about this skull you are offered....but then touch it, put your hands upon it, ask IT, so to speak, if it is the One.  I know, sounds silly....but sometimes that is all one can do.  Good luck!
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« Reply #3: November 26, 2007, 01:16:25 am »

I

Over the years I've coveted road kill (esp. raccoons, which fascinate me).  While I'd never kill a critter myself, I don't see anything wrong with honoring them after they've passed.  If this comes in the form of a skull, so be it.  <shrug>

Brina

Geez, why didn't you ever say so?  Every time I see one of those little striped critters on the road I wish I had a better 'home' for it.  I have seen three this past summer, dead on my road alone.
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« Reply #4: November 26, 2007, 07:52:13 am »

If any of you were drawn to incorporate remains in your religious practice, how would you navigate the ethical conundrums?  For instance, do I purchase a bear skull from a taxidermist that was unwanted by the hunter in light of the fact that bears are dying out?

There are some ethical sources: I know someone who does some work with animal parts of various kinds.

Also, I'd think that it'd depend a lot on where you are and what you're looking at: in Minnesota, we actually have an overpopulation of black bears up north at this point. While there are all sorts of arguments about how one manages species, black bears aren't remotely endangered in the northern US at this point (there are a couple of southern subspecies that are, though.) The ethical places to get parts from can generally tell you a reasonable amount of provenance - and sometimes that's 'was hit by a car' or 'was killed some other way than hunting'.

I view hunting .. well, problematically, still, but my attitudes have changed quite a bit since moving to Minnesota, and knowing a number of people who hunt (mostly deer). One of the excellent arguments is that it is not healthy to allow overpopulation: we've removed a number of natural predators from the environment, and the overpopulation that results is bad all the way down the food chain. While I think preservation of habitat, and other relevant steps are important, I can see hunting as a reasonable part of that. (At which point, the arguments become ones about precise numbers, etc.

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How about human remains?  Would you consider keeping some piece of a person on your altar? 


One of the reasons I've got a preference for cremation is that I know a whole lot of people with Beloved Dead altars: if and when I die, I would like those people to have the option to keep a small portion of my ashes if they wish. I don't know if anyone *would*, but it'd be totally appropriate from my point of view in that context. (I do know people who have pet ashes and such on those altars.)

However, I wouldn't want it without knowing who it was, and having a reason for it to be there. But, really, that's true for any altar thing, no?
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« Reply #5: November 26, 2007, 08:00:05 am »

I'd love to hear anyone else's experience with this.

About eight years ago I was given a spirit catcher.  This is similar to a dream catcher in construction, but you are unlikely to find one in a tourist store or Walmart.  It was made by a native cousin (actually, cousin of a cousin - not my band, but related) and its central portion is the face fur of a fox, cured in the...well, not exactly ancient, but not all modern way.

The fur was cured and the catcher made by the man who killed the fox, and the spirit was invited to stay.  It is a protective spirit and it has leave to cause massive harm to anyone who invades its domain, which is currently my house.  Since it is a fox it is not placed in direct view of the door, but anyone who is actually in my house can see it if they look.

I have had some people recoil from it, and make 'pity the poor innocent creature' noises, but I am very fond of it.  There are other things around the edges (specific feathers, gained in specific ways) that add to it's protective abilities, and I can tell its full story.  That last part is important, both in making it work and in making it mine.

I've always had coy-dogs show up at my ceremonies, (and hang around in general),  but since receiving the spirit catcher I've always had at least one fox show itself as well.  My mother had a fox as a child, an orphan she rescued from her chickens, (she imaginatively called it 'Foxxy', just as she called the deer that adopted her 'Fauny') and my sister was given a fox kit by some native hunters who hadn't meant to hunt a mother.  They found home for the other kits, too, but I couldn't take one at the time.

What I'm rambling about here is that I don't have a problem with momenti mori.  I can admire the living animal, work to preserve it's kind (and I do), and still make use of it's 'parts'.  My spirit catcher does its job passionately (I've had the strange experience of hearing a dead fox growl in the middle of the night when someone came into my yard who was not welcome to be there).  I don't actually wear fur or leather, but I eat meat and use bones and fur and feathers as objects of power and purpose.  I don't know if every leftover bit of an animal necessarily contains any part of its spirit, but I find that treasured and respected bits will often draw the spirit back to it.

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« Reply #6: November 26, 2007, 09:17:27 am »



Mwa hahahahahaha!  Welcome to my world.

Various bits and pieces are a key part of my faith.  I at times call myself La Huesera, the bone woman because I collect so many bits.

Originally I had a bit of a squick but it was over come by curiosity.  I've always been the take it apart type.  I'm always interested in how the animal died, was it disease, accident, cold, starvation?  I find myself thinking that an animal that died in these ways sort of needs a little extra love and attention to be a good altar companion.  There is a spirit there, and I find myself talking to them. 

I'm a road kill vulture myself, and at times have lamented the more public location of some pretty cool remains.  A raccoon in particular that would have been a good companion to my possum.  I would jump on the opportunity to incorporate some bear magic into my life.  Although I would have to think about where to put it.  I don't get too 'ethical' about it all, because regardless of circumstances, it's already dead.  It can either be disposed of, made a trophy, or come live with me where it will be respected as sacred.   

I have a possum skull on my altar, who died of what appears to have been massive gum infection.  I found him in the woods next to a river, intact all curled into a ball with his head under his back feet, and tail across his nose.

I sympathize with his pain.  As a chronic teeth grinder winding up for many many (all my molars) crowns, and the resulting gum infections from the irritation I can see how miserable his end was.  I take care of him.  We're buddies in shared pain.


I also have a female deers foreleg bone, bound in leather at the ends, carved, beaded and oiled.  In the beading there are feathers, and the feathers just keep accumulating.  Like an endless prayer.   I have owl feathers, duck feathers, dearly covet a vulture feather right now, and some others.  In front of the (prayer)bone, is the vertebrate from just behind the head, of the same deer.  Painted to look like a snakes head.  I also have 5 points of a ten point buck that was hit by a car on my road.  Bringing this back while riding a bucycle was a bit challenging, and my husbands first comments were "COOL- OMG YOU STINK!"  which I must say, I did.


I have a set of wings and a tail, (female cardinal crashed into my office window) which were the most challenging for me to work with and I haven't finished mounting them, or really interacting with them all that much.  They have a sort of 'next chapter' feel to them and I will probably be doing more with them in the spring.

There is a skull I found on the roadside yesterday, but left it for another day since it still has some bits that another day will leave bare, it is currently being worked on by the massive vulture squadron, and I went and checked on them yesterday, to some hilarity.  I have never seen a vulture make the faces that this one was making.  It was pretty funny.

Does it give my home a creepy vibe?  No not really, actually to the contrary I feel like it gives my home a very warm full vibe.  It's not just the bones, but the spirit sticks around, and they are well treated,respected and given a place of honor, so they don't really have that empty 'rattlin bones' horror movie feel, but more of a feeling of life moving through them. 

As for humans???  I dunno, I don't have as much interest.
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« Reply #7: November 26, 2007, 12:34:55 pm »

If any of you were drawn to incorporate remains in your religious practice, how would you navigate the ethical conundrums?  For instance, do I purchase a bear skull from a taxidermist that was unwanted by the hunter in light of the fact that bears are dying out?

I agree with others who have said that provenance is important. Find out as much as you can, and after that, I think Syrbal's suggestion of going by instinct is a good one.

As for bears dying out, I'm not sure. I know there have been ever greater black bear problems in New Jersey, but I don't know if that's because of a surging bear population, human development encroaching on their habitat, or a combo of the two.

How about human remains?

I had the truly profound experience of visiting the Catacombs on my first trip to Paris, a month or so ago. To walk a maze of underground alleys formed of piles of human skulls and bones, hundreds of thousands of them, within easy reach.... It was eerie and awesome and deeply thought-provoking.

But I recoil at the idea of incorporating human remains in my religious practices, and I have no idea why.

I'd be heartbroken if I went ahead and brought home a bear skull only to discover it came from a poached animal in protected areas where the population was struggling to survive. 

On a related note, right after I returned from Paris I participated in my first deer hunt (for all the reasons Jenett described, plus there's an organization in NY state that will take your kill, butcher it, and distribute the meat to soup kitchens to feed the hungry, who rarely get high-quality protein meals). We failed to kill anything (the deer was out of range for bow-and-arrow; I can't deal with guns!), but if we had, I could see keeping a part of the animal to honor it in my spiritual practice. Not some stupid antlered wall trophy--I was hunting does anyway, since that yields better results if your goal is population control--but maybe a cleaned skull.
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« Reply #8: November 26, 2007, 03:09:50 pm »

I have had some people recoil from it, and make 'pity the poor innocent creature' noises, but I am very fond of it.  There are other things around the edges (specific feathers, gained in specific ways) that add to it's protective abilities, and I can tell its full story.  That last part is important, both in making it work and in making it mine.

This reminds me of something: several of my covenmates were up on a weekend trip to a town with a lot of antique stores. They came across an artic fox fur, languishing in the back of a store, that very *very* clearly wanted to come home with them. They rescued it, brought it home, and it now lives happily out of the way of the various household pets (on top of the armoire that holds the TV and other electronics, so quite high up.)

I do think that the animals involved do - at least sometimes - continue to exert a preference on where they end up. And that taking home those that want to be somewhere loved and respected can be a powerful thing. (One of the people in that house does have a fox affiliation - but she'd never have dreamt of going out to buy a new fur from an arctic fox, due to endangered species issues. An older fur languishing and unloved.. different story.)
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« Reply #9: November 26, 2007, 03:41:47 pm »

Mwa hahahahahaha!  Welcome to my world.

At least the company is good.

How do you clean the skulls off?  I know very little about taxidermy, but I've been quoted amazingly high prices for the job (starting with an intact carcass).  I don't have enough to do that cultivating a colony of the particular beetle that excels at picking these clean is worthwhile, either.  I wonder if acid really works or if that's just the movies.
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« Reply #10: November 26, 2007, 03:51:40 pm »

At least the company is good.

How do you clean the skulls off?  I know very little about taxidermy, but I've been quoted amazingly high prices for the job (starting with an intact carcass).  I don't have enough to do that cultivating a colony of the particular beetle that excels at picking these clean is worthwhile, either.  I wonder if acid really works or if that's just the movies.

I suspect skinning and then boiling would work. tho' chances are you would have to wire the jaw back in place.  And I have taken smaller skulls and buried them in the top of big anthills.  But depending where you live...large anthills might not be an option.  It takes some time, but the ants do quite the clean up job.
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« Reply #11: November 26, 2007, 04:31:07 pm »

At least the company is good.

How do you clean the skulls off?  I know very little about taxidermy, but I've been quoted amazingly high prices for the job (starting with an intact carcass).  I don't have enough to do that cultivating a colony of the particular beetle that excels at picking these clean is worthwhile, either.  I wonder if acid really works or if that's just the movies.

I'm by no means a pro, so my methods are pretty primitive.

Soap, water and a scrub brush  Grin  The possum skull actually got a dip in a mild bleach soloution.  a couple tablespoons to about 2 gallons of water.  Bleach is corrosive though, so many will warn you that it isn't the best thing to do with something you plan on holding onto.  The boiling thing would actually gross me out more than picking off bits.  Either way it doesn't smell great.

The possum skull was very fragile, most of the teeth were loose and quite a few fell out in the washing process and had to be super glued back in.

The deer leg bone got scrubbed, and then I polished it with beeswax, some essential oils and one of those four sided finger nail blocks.  It works on bone the same way it works on fingernails :-)  oiling between sides on the block gave it a very soft, shiny finish.

The vertebrate I didn't worry too much about cleaning, and painting it gave it a nicer finish.  Sealed some of the cracks from being out in the sun and the rain.

I will most likely do the soap water brush method for the deer skull, which is why I'm letting the vultures do most of my work for me.  They were gone this morning so I imagine it is safe to go back.  There was a skull earlier in the year that I left behind because it was 'stuck' quite literally inside an untreated rawhide, shell and short of either bringing pliers hiking with me, having a knife that would have cut rawhide (hard! without treatment skins become as tough as the doggy chew toys by the same name) or bringing home a stiff deer pelt along with the skull it just wasn't happening.  Soaking and peeling just didn't appeal.

I tend to look for specific bits, and they show up upon request, or for just keeping an eye out for them over a course of a few months.  Living in an area that was rural but is developing quickly means there is much conflict between where people live and animals live, and for the most part the animals are the odd man out.
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« Reply #12: November 28, 2007, 02:24:17 pm »


If any of you were drawn to incorporate remains in your religious practice, how would you navigate the ethical conundrums?  For instance, do I purchase a bear skull from a taxidermist that was unwanted by the hunter in light of the fact that bears are dying out? 

I have three beautiful bear skulls and have no ethical problems with it. Two are black bear, who are thriving to the point of having to be controlled where I live, and one is an inheritance from my Grandfather, a Grizzly, taken about 85 years ago, pre-endangered. I have a decent relationship with death and do not find remains spooky. I keep my collection in glass cases and always treat them with reverence, as the skulls once held the spirit.

It is true I would never buy a product on the illegal market, I do not even use ancient ivory (although legal and from mastodons) because I feel it encourages the slaughter of elephants. And  come to think of it, I know the history of almost every skull as well. Most of my collection is road kill or found objects, although my cougar and black bears are from my friend Bone Man Ron in Arizona. All are legally tagged by the Fish and Game. I also have a beautiful wolf skull, given to my by a man who runs a wolf rescue place in New Mexico, we volunteer our time out there at Wolf Song and the skull came from a wolf there who died of old age.

I use them especially on my Samhain Seasonal Altar, and a few on the Ritual Altar itself. Here is a picture of this years, there are many small animal skulls, badgers, raccoon, skunk, owls, heron, cougar and wolf on the altar. They are there all watched over lovingly by Grandmother Death.

We had another thread going here on cleaning etc you may want to read
this thread
« Last Edit: November 28, 2007, 02:28:40 pm by juniperrr, Reason: insert a forgotten word » Logged

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