Reading Bones (Osteomancy) In Traditional African Religions

Collection of animal bones

Reading bones or osteomancy is the art of divination by interpreting the bones of animals and other materials. The word osteomancy comes from two Greek words: osteon, meaning “bone,” and manteia, meaning “divination.” Bone readings can be used as a predictive tool or simply to give clarity in specific situations.

This process is often called “throwing the bones,” though all bone readers don’t actually throw bones when performing this form of divination. Some practitioners read bones based on their clients’ selection during the divination process. Others strategically place bones on a mat and use them as part of the global reading process that often involves other tools and techniques.

Bones are also incorporated in amulets and fetishes, which typically protect readers during divination services and when they engage in other activities. Though this concept is not considered part of bone readings, it indicates the overall importance of animals in African spiritual practices.

reading Bones in Traditional African Religions

Osteomancy has been around for centuries, and it is still practiced in some parts of the world today. In ancient times, it was a popular form of divination. It was used in many cultures and religions, such as those practiced in Ancient Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, the Middle East, Greece, Serbia, and China.

In African traditional religions (ATRs), the reading of bones is common. It is effectively part of every African tradition in some form or other. Though, it is not the primary divination tool in all traditions. This practice has been passed down from one generation to the next.

In the U.S., reading bones is typically associated with Hoodoo and made popular by books, movies, and TV shows about secret societies such as Freemasonry. But, the practice predates European influences by hundreds of years. It has been part of ancient civilizations throughout the world long before Europeans arrived in these lands.

Osteomancy is also mentioned in the Bible when Jacob used it to tell his son Joseph’s future. The Bible is also used within folk magic systems like Hoodoo, which relies heavily on bone reading. Though, foundationally, Hoodoo originated from West African traditions. Thus, bone reading practices in this system are African-derived though reinforced and encouraged through Biblical record.

What’s Included in a Bone Set and How is it Constructed?

Reading bones is typically accomplished by interpreting the pattern in which bones fall during divination. Chicken bones are traditionally part of most bone sets. However, the bones of almost any animal can be used in this process. Aside from chickens, the most commonly used animal bones are from cows and pigs.

Though, bones are not the only constituents in a typical osteomancy set. These sets likewise contain materials such as rocks, stones, shells, coins, sticks, feathers, etc. Many bone readers construct their own bone sets, which can vary considerably. Though, it is becoming more commonplace for practitioners to sell osteomancy sets in brick-and-mortar and virtual spiritual shops.

Curating an osteomancy set is primarily an intuitive process. Many people are led to the materials for their bone sets by their spirit guides. Thus, there is no universal guiding force on how many bones should be part of a set or which items must be selected.

What are the Benefits of Practicing Osteomancy?

Some people shy away from this form of divination due to misconceptions about its complexity. However,  there are many benefits to adding bone readings to your divination toolkit. One of the major benefits is that bone sets are highly personalized divination tools. You don’t have to rely on someone else’s creative skills if you select your own bone set. You can assign meaning to each bone and use this tool to best suit your personality.

It can be free or fairly low cost, depending on where you obtain your bone set. In cases where people collect bones from nature, osteomancy sets are entirely free. However, even if you purchase select items for your toolkit, you usually contain the cost to a large degree.

Additionally, bone reading typically has a low learning curb. Bone readers usually assign their own meaning to each bone. And they can use a more free-flowing interpretation of the process in contrast to other forms of divination like tarot or horoscopes. 

Learn more about divination in African Traditional Religions in this episode of the The African Spirit Reintegrated and Reimagined: