Monday, 12 January 2015


As I look at the bones, sometimes they seem to contain the spirit of the animal. Sometimes this is in their actual physicality; the cattle bones are sturdy, chunky and robust, whereas the bones of a deer are smooth, elegant and fine. Sometimes it's in the type of bone and what it’s used for, such as in the talon of an eagle, its sharp, assertive point embodying the fierceness of the creature itself.

I can understand why ancient peoples used bones as amulets or charms. “Amulets made from various skeletal elements reflect the so-called pars pro toto principle where the whole animal is represented by a part,” writes Alice Choyke[1] regarding bone amulets found in prehistoric sites. Particular parts of the animal seemed to be especially used as amulets, often parts of the head and feet. Choyke writes about Mary Douglas’s theory, how strong social bonds in early societies were intertwined with ritual, and ritual and belief were encapsulated in particular animal body parts. Animals are symbolic or metaphorical, and therefore their bones can contain their special meaning too. Pars pro toto.

This really chimes with the idea of saints’ relics. Medieval Christians believed the bones of a Saint had the same powers of the Saint and just by touching the bone that power could be felt. We can think about these animal bones in the same way, containing the lasting spirit of the animal that is now long gone.

I find myself staring at the eagle talons on my desk with a quiet reverence.

[1] The Bone is the Beast: Animal Amulets and Ornaments in Power and Magic, Alice Choyke, in Anthropological Approached to Zooarchaeology, Ed D. Campana et al:  Oxbowe, 2010

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