Sunday, March 20, 2016

Bonework And The Wrathful.

Various Familiar vessels and Figurines by Scylla. "Ladyfrog" figure by Erin Nightwalker.
This entry has been languishing in my "Drafts" for a long time now. A long, long, time. Re-reading this entry in repeated attempts to finish it I broke down crying quite often. I would shelve it for a few weeks, then a few months, and now... ah... it's been a while. Because it involves stories of spirits who deeply impacted me, and who set the tone for the way I deal with the Animal Dead as well as the Human Dead.

This is also about animals in general, and expands on HTTAS: Permissions - About the need for a working relationship and consent when engaging with others in that relationship.

TW: Animal Death, descriptions thereof. Bone work, bloody bits, witchcraft, emotions.

This post is a letter of love and fondness to Wrathful (especially), and to all of the spirits I have known. It has been my privilege to serve as their psychopomp and friend.

This is not a how-to post, this is another example of why I tell people that my blog is a travelogue and journal rather than an instructional guide.

I'm sitting on the back of a Sleeping Giant - zie's been restless lately, quaking, shaking, and grumbling away. On my right hand is The Untamed Wood, cut through by The River into the realms of life and death. On my left hand is The Giant's Bowl, filled and empty in turns, so long-neglected that wildlife has come to dwell there. Here, horsenettle has grown in the folds of the Giant's clothes, through the deep kudzu blanket it had pulled over itself before nodding off. Bitter amaranths and redbud trees conceal me from onlookers - you'd have to really have a sharp eye to see the witch in black, with their multi-colored shawl, amongst the brown stalks.

This world would move without me. [...] I am better for having known it, and so I strive to make it better for having known me.

- "Hard to Talk About Pt.1"


I do not like the word "Necromancy" because to me it is a loaded word. I know this statement is going to annoy a few people, so I'm just going to be forthright and say "You're free to disagree". Necromancy means "Divination with the Dead"- the majority of those working with the dead do little in the way of divination. For what Necromancy actually is, I strongly suggest Jack Faust's posts about Necromancy rituals from classical grimoires involving literal divination and the raising of shades.

Now, according to the selfsame Mr. Faust the nature of that divination can be very different things - a term used loosely at it's roots, even then. I accept that, and that is certainly a way to extract myself from my dislike of the term, and especially for the usual tech associated with that term (binding, conjuring forcibly, constraining, blasting-blessings etc.)

A lot of people have taken to using Necrolatrist, which is the worship or veneration of the dead. Another term slowly coming back into use is Goes, which is derived from a practice of lamentations for the dead which later evolved into spurring people and spirits into action based on the lamentations.

These terms, especially the later, resonate very strongly with what I get up to. I am a carrion-eater, embalmer, and mourner of the dead.

The First Bones - "Bird" 
“It is disgraceful that they should lie there and rot.” He says, and right now HE is Anubis - not a masked priest, but a half-jackal chimera who is a God older than the dirt under my feet. "Honor it." He says "Peel it apart and lay power in it's bones. Then it will live forever." - The Vessels and Their Contents

"Bird" still gets me where it counts. I can tell you that it has been a very long count of years since I first found it, and a long count since we said goodbye to one another. I remember with more clarity than I'd like the image of its wing flagging in the wind, half of its body rendered a stain. "It is disgraceful that they should lie there and rot." - Funny, that it's taken me years to notice the plural in that statement. It was never just about Bird. It was about every one of them.

The first body I pulled to my chest, the first one I cleaned and dressed. The first I mummified, resurrected, and spoke to. Not only did he teach me bird "magic", not only did he teach me the process of fostering a spirit into another existence, but he taught me about being responsible with my woo.

If I am to serve my land as it serves me I must first, foremost and always, realize that the spirits and animals are individuals with full agency. Always. That never again am I to work first and ask permission later. That what I did with Bird was okay, because I didn't know better - but now that I do I cannot trespass into the area willy-nilly. That it's just not polite. And that no, not even a deity giving me permission is okay. The spirit itself must ask and consent.

After him, and a few others that swiftly followed, I forced myself not to engage with that work. I didn't engage with those gods, either. I'd bring home the occasional body and bury it, but I didn't think about it. I wouldn't think about it. Because the harder I looked the other way the less gut-wrenching it was. Because I was not prepared for the responsibility of... vivifying the dead, re-awakening the unconscious and giving voice to spirits who before did not know speech. I was unprepared, and rightfully so, to play at Lordship. I kept all of it at arm's length until I was in my twenties.

Duoune, Bi-cephalic, Confusing Pronouns. Bonewarden.

The Bonewarden.

Some bodies and bones are just, plain, empty. The spirit that was once there is gone, and there's no getting it back. I feel a fond sadness for the dead bones, but I can't call it mourning - I'll never know those spirits, so it's a bit precious of me to mourn them. I clean with love and care, but it is not personal. No tears, no heartache. Thank goodness. But some bones, with or without life's spark, have spirit. And that is how I met the Bonewarden.

I had been sitting on the Giant's Back one day, and the shuffling to get my posterior comfortable had my scuffed away the dead plant life down to dirt. I saw the faintest glimmer of white at the edge of the soil.

A little shoving, a little effort and soon my shirt was filled with bones. It felt like a living thing in my hands. It felt like I was engaging in the meticulous task of gathering up the dismembered body of an aware, alive, thing (vocally pointing out to me that I had missed a toe bone, or a claw, or...). Clean, dry, white bones that still spoke to me. It, the spirit therein, asked me about myself - I explained who I was, and that I was a Witch. It said simply, neatly, "I will watch their bones for you."

I felt my gut drop. I knew what it was referencing, the thing I didn't like to talk or think about. Home it came, ceaselessly and tirelessly doing its work. Slow, patient, wise and watchful, the warden of bones.

When I do the work in the boneyard, and when I have spirits around who need a hand that is NOT a human hand, it is Bonewarden who tends them. It is Bonewarden's tough shell and thick bones that are immune to the bites and scratches of the wild and restless. It is Bonewarden's duo-cephalic voice that accompanies me when I sing the laments for the dead.

Blasted Earth. Over five feet in diameter and shrinking glacially. 

(Expletives Deleted)

Some time ago, a witch tried to sell me a skull. She promised that it was truly perfect for a Familiar. That it was ethically sourced (a wilderness find) and as a fox was very vocal in asking about its new "keeper".

When I saw the skull for the first time, my heart sank. It was badly damaged - clearly by a bullet. Some of the teeth were broken, some missing - the cleaning had been botched. It ached with a sad energy, and my stomach tightened. In my mind's eye I saw a hissing, spitting, caged creature. And the creature I saw was a Raccoon. I asked why she was selling me a trapped, tortured, raccoon as a friendly nature-found fox. She told me she didn't want it around anymore.

I brought it to the boneyard, and I buried it. I left it the hell alone. It will never want people around it. She did something to it that's held it there in that shattered head, angry and violent. It is my belief that in her attempt to make a familiar out of it, she really, really, messed up. She killed, empowered and THEN tried to enslave something, and needless to say it backfired horribly.

I cannot leave it food - food left on it's grave will not rot (it dries out, mummifies, turns to dust), nothing will touch it. The patch of earth in that spot is blasted, and bare. Nothing grows on it. I can't get close or it will lash out. Bonewarden tends to it, and keeps it as calm as it can be kept. I don't know how long the vigil will go, but I trust that one day there will be enough of the heat dissipated that I can try and divorce it from its remains and give it peace. It has been several years, and only now does it feel like it can close its eyes for a moment, still coiled tightly, still ready to attack… but exhausted enough to sleep a little.

"NO! Oh, NO! Oh HELL NO. I didn't set out to do the Toadbone rite, you fuckin bones!" I shouted. "This doesn't mean ANYTHING!" - How I Accidentally Became A Toadwitch.

For all the lesson had been burned in that I wasn't to go about messing with shit without permission, that did not mean that shit could not mess with me as it liked and while my feelings may have changed about the exact and specific nature of what went on (a post for another time), everything changed.

Intent is only so much of the equation here. Thinking, feeling, ensouled beings with agency can act like any other being of the same nature does. And while I do not feel accosted or assaulted by what happened it wasn't a good time. Some amount of hubris played into it, thinking that there would not be an initiatory sickness with an initiatory rite. There was. Part of it was the hubris of assuming that because I try to be a nice and gentle person that nonhuman persons would be the same. They aren't. That lesson done finally stuck.

I got sick. I got sick like I haven't ever been sick before or since. Like someone gave a flu the smarts and willpower to be mean. I was feeling the frog's death, I think. I know that might sound weird (of course in context if this part is the weird-sounding one you may be on the wrong blog).
"She drowned, I drowned. She froze, I froze. She baked, I baked. She was washed clean, and so was I. "
The change in trajectory of the Work after this was marked. What had been a deeply private thing that I only occasionally spoke about became inflamed with a real passion to speak outwardly. To openly reclaim the familiar, and to encourage others to do the same.

The Wrathful.

The scene isn't pretty. There is a lot of blood. It wasn't struck, it was shot through the body-mass and through the face. This was an act of malice, rather than accident. When I pick it up I feel that malice come at me, snarling and furious. I bring it home where it will not be ground to paste on the highway. A sad sight, I'm sure. A grown person clutching a dead mammal to their chest, the carcass wrapped in a handful of plastic bags.

I dig its grave, and the Funeral begins. The Bonewarden and I speak orations, fan fumes, and weep. As I unwrap it, I feel the bones in it's face shift and grind - obliterated - and I sob so hard I throw up (this was the first time it happened, sob-until-puke. But now its a staple). Every now and then I visit the plants that grow in The Boneyard, or the other spirits-in-the-bones. I visit the Bonewarden, who seems quite happy to do the promised job. And as I conclude my visits, I turn toward the little obliterated mammal’s grave and leave a food item and a dish of water. And without fail, each day, it hisses, spits, and claws. It’s still in those bones, stuck and angry, and I know what that can mean.

After weeks it’s reaction to my presence levels out and becomes neutral. It knows I don't ask anything of it - I don't come to bargain, harass it or poke it spiritually. I do not testify over it like a preacher trying to drive the devil from it. I don't even look it in the ‘eye’. I leave it offerings, because that is the least that I can do. It is not an object, or a slave. It is a creature that I really want to find true healing, rather than a brick wall of peace-and-pass-on. And so this time, when I extend the hand with the offering I do not set it down. I hold out the offering as an olive branch.

If I have done right by it, and by my vows, it has learned all it needs to know through my actions. Not words. Not coercion. Not blessings. Not cleansing. Not witchery. Not banishment. Another human has not done something to it, but something for it, with no caveats or requirements. The Boneyard accepts all and would care for them until no one is left to care - and even then my spirit will tend until the bones cool.

Now, each day, it waits. He comes to my hand, and I feed him. I introduce him to touch of the spirit variety. I introduce him to the other spirits. I introduce him to voice. From time to time on my walks I’ll sense his presence around me, restless. He sees me kneel before the Cactus under the Gall-Oak, and dab at its flowers with pollen from another of the same species a short hike away. Something changes, because for the first time he communicates. Wordless, full of feeling and images, is a why. A flurry of things being asked all at once; I cannot "hear" them, but I can feel them in the connection. Why am I nice? Why weren't his killers? Why am I doing the things I do? Nearly every spirit eventually asks.

"Because nearly everyone in this world is small, wounded and afraid. Some are at peace with that and some aren’t. It’s the ones who aren’t at peace that spread it like a disease."

Oh, so you work with animals. 
Their pay checks must be enormous.

After our first meaningful communication it seems to flow freely. But he often ‘speaks’ of anger, confusion and wrath. Here is where I use words, here is where I console in a human way. Before I can stop myself I utter a Name - "Wrathful"*. It sticks like a cockleburr and from there on it is his. It's another month or more before I visit the Boneyard for Work. It is a domestic animal that has been struck near a road. I can tell that the vehicle left the road specifically to strike it. It was no accident, and was probably the same person as the one who shot my little friend. I am hugging this poor, dead, thing that humanity made, and doing my best to give it the dignity it deserves. I am enraged at the utter betrayal and utter evil of killing a domestic animal for sport. The spirit is gone, but some things (goddamnit) must be done right.

When the grave is dug, Wrathful is communicating the way animals do. I feel it in my spine, vibrating like loud music at a concert. For a fleeting moment I think that I’ve made a mistake. I try not to tame or domesticate, only calm the angry because we humans are contagious and spiritually teratogenic. When we Name something and hand-tame it we change and infect it. We change it’s intelligence and vocabulary.

There is a tense time that follows. His behavior is different. When I come to tend the fresh grave I find him ‘on’ it. When I leave him offerings he rejects them. When the soil finally sinks and begins to sod over is when it happens. He returns to his own grave and his vocabulary changes from hindbrain images and emotions to words. “Dig me up and take me inside.”

So I do. The confetti of his shattered skull gathered into a paper box and what comes out the other side only vaguely resembled a skull - held together with resin, wax, and air-dry clay. I resurrect his bones and try to fortify them. I give him iron knives, and bitter poisons. I oil him, so that he is as slippery. I gift him with all-seeing eyes of glass that never tire, nor blink. I feed him richly. I bleed my tongue for him so that humans may hear his speech. He has crossed from "A spirit known to me and in my care" into "A Familiar Spirit." But he will never, never, "belong" to me or anyone else. He belongs to himself, and he is cared for because he is loved. His wrath avenges those killed wrongly. His brazen claws slash tires and cause blowouts. He leads the parade of the broken-bodied into the Untamed Woods, a ghostly procession of the crossing-over.

Whole again. Whole again. Lickity Split.

Whole Again.

For some spirits I am a patron. I support what they are doing in the world because I like what they’re up to. I give what I can to make that happen. Whenever I asked Wrathful what he’d like the answer was always the same: A skull that was not shattered, shot, or struck. I’d never been able to find one that fit those criteria. Lots of trapped animals, lots of “nature find” roadkill - all inappropriate for him. On 4/27/14 I had the urge to go to the first occult store I ever set foot in - a sudden onslaught of "need" that lead me thirty-odd miles through rush hour, airforce base, traffic to get there in time. In a counter near the back was a skull of the correct species, and just about the same size as his original. It was clearly weathered by nature and stained by red clay. A few teeth were missing but otherwise it was whole. I verified with the store clerk that it was found in someone’s yard, and therefore unlikely to have been mistreated.

He said to me, gently and quietly "I can be whole again. I would like that." 

The original was soaked until the clay dissolved, the wax peeled away, glass eyes broken with one sharp blow. His new skull has been quiet. A light, peaceful whisper of his presence comes and goes. I miss him sometimes, but have never felt the need to disturb his well-deserved rest. The skull sits unadorned, unladen, unburdened.

He is no longer Wrathful now.


  1. Thank You. That was deep, powerful and beautiful, Thank You.

  2. I don't know you, Scylla, and I am far from ready to talk about this stuff, but since I have come back to this little essay thrice, clearly some response is owed. I... don't work with dead things directly, the way that you do. There have been, may have been, overtures, or something like them. I haven't answered, because I have other work to do firstly, and because I doubt the fineness of my perceptions, my ability to discern consent, dissent, contempt. Your writing inspires me... to keep my distance from this part of dead work. I am not ready, not careful enough. I don't have that exacting strength, and that is a relief. It's not what I am for. Thank you, for helping me to feel certainty. I'll stick to my own job.