Trigger Warning: The circumstances surrounding Black Phillip’s death are murky and graphic. Please don’t read further if you are sensitive. This whole ordeal kept me in tears and raging for weeks after he had been buried, and weeks after I took him out, and even now I still feel a deep sadness for Black Phillip and the situation.
This is a long post, following the stages of my relationship with Black Phillip, and I will therefore write it in 2 parts. This post focuses on Compassion, Sacrifice and my own emotional turmoil. The second part will follow processing, staining, and awakening bones. Please note that while I am addressing animal sacrfice, it is within my own cultural context.
“It is Traditional”
“She named The goat Broken Thorn Sweet Blackberry, named it after
The night’s bush of stars, because the goat’s silky hair
Was dark as well water, because it had eyes like wild fruit.”
Brigit Pegeen Kelly*
The Hedgehog found a freshly rotting sheep skull on the side of a busy main road. It was only the head, and nothing else. He thought it was a goat, I thought it was a sheep, and I settled on Black Phillip as a name. I named him for his black fur, and I named him out of defiance. I named him partly because of my own relationship with the Devil, and partly as an invocation. It didn’t matter whether or not he was a sheep or goat, it mattered that someone did something really violent, incredibly cruel, and utterly sickening, and that it was on my turf. I don’t know whether this was part of a prank, or a game, or if it was some kind of ritual, but my feeling leaned toward the latter.
“Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.
All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it
Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing
The song of a night bird.
Had hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.
The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But they
Finished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the school
And then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything.”
Brigit Pegeen Kelly*
Someone left the skull there intentionally, it didn’t just pop up by accident on a busy main road of a suburb. Maybe it was meant to scare people. I had the feeling that this was part of some kind of ritual, I know people do awful things in the names of the ancestors, and the gods, I know they start shedding the blood of the innocent to feed their own selfish desires. I was worried that I would take on the curse through contagion or become the scapegoat of whatever evil was set into motion. But I could not stop myself from picking him up.
There is merciful death which takes away the pain from those who suffer, there is death which is nature with no malice, and then there is cruel death, where the innocent are harmed, selfishly. This was a very cruel death.
This is not how I wanted to come by my bones. I was in a moral quandary over picking him up, my anxiety was at an all time high, and I kept snapping at The Hedgehog, and becoming tearful in mid-conversation. I guess seeing things like this is more common in rural communities.
For many people in the Traditional Witchcraft community, and other traditionally minded communities, animal sacrifice is seen as a sometimes necessary practice. I often hear how it is not to be judged on its morality, or its ethics but on the fact that it is Traditional, and is therefore not wrong, and that it is up to the practitioner to ensure that the animal doesn’t suffer in death- while that is all good and well, my own beliefs are different. My ethics are simple. They come from that deep place inside my heart and soul, that place that holds the water and the tears, that place of boundless compassion for the natural world. That place that is filled with sorrow where the willow trees grow.
“Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.
This is a burning issue for me. It leaves me staggering and angry, and very sad to know that an animal was so violently and cruelly treated. If my views are New-Agey then so be it. While some people say that it is not about right or wrong, but about Tradition- the same thing can be said about almost anything that has changed because of compassion and knowledge. Just because something can be done, does not mean that it should be done. We justify so much in the name of religion and culture without question. Western culture is not immune to criticism, and neither are others which perpetuate cruelty, carelessness and hatred.
One of the things that always bugged me, is how much scarier practitioners think they are, or more powerful they think they are, or how much more traditional they think they are by participating in the unnecessary death of an innocent being; because ritual slaughter and bloodshed in the name of the gods is part of the “Old Ways”; because gathering a toad bone, by any means necessary, will give you power; because having the parts of an animal that may be endangered will ensure that the spirits will work for you; because blood and sacrificing the living for the dead makes you a stronger witch, with stronger spirits than someone who deals with the mess that has been left behind.
My dear friend from across the world once told me that she had been given advice to “never harm the innocent” and I hold that advice dear to me. I believe animal sacrifice is reprehensible, cruel, and completely unecessary in the Western world. My gods do no not require it, my spirits do not require it, and if blood needs shedding, it will be mine, or the guilty, not an innocent being. How could I sacrifice that which is not mine to give.
“Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back. The true witches know this”
-Peter S Beagle ‘The Last Unicorn’
This isn’t about purity politics, but about knowing that when a wrong is done, it must be rectified. On a whole the debt we owe as human beings to the spirits of this world and the other world is incredibly high. We take so much, and give so little. We act unkindly towards each other, and towards others. This is not about being nice. But about being kind.
“Kind women take into account what is best for everyone’s health, which means standing up to those that caused hurt and recognizing that calling people out on their shit, their shadow, is important for the healing of the whole word.”- Asia “Nice Girls vs. Kind Women”
We learn about kindness in many folktales. Kindness is often rewarded by Bear-Kings and The Yaga, Fish Princes, and Apple Trees- not because rewards are expected in return for kindness, but because the nature of the spirit world is founded on reciprocity.
“I come when I am called”
– Shachath American Horror Story:Asylum
When I spoke with my friend, I realised that my need to pick up Black Phillip arose from that deep place inside of me. I could no more abandon Black Phillip on the side of the road, his spirit raging and confused, and screaming up and down the street, than I could sit by and see a living sheep treated in a cruel manner. Alive or Dead, a spirit is a spirit, and as an animist, I know the bones are often as alive as the living.
“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.” Andrew Boyd
I cannot abandon a creature who is suffering, even when the death is cruel, because of my oaths, I cannot just say “no” this is too much for me to handle when I have the means to help. Morticians don’t refuse to work on bodies that have been dealt cruelty or murder, and Anubis wouldn’t either, so how could I?
The Hedgehog had just lost his mother, and much of our conversations about death, the afterlife, rituals, dark and angry spirits, dark places and how to deal with remains, made me think deeply about Black Phillip.
I buried Black Phillip the next morning, wondering if I was ever going to bring him out, and eventually, I did. I had laid offerings at The Bone Mother, burned incense to allay the pain and fear, and told him that he could stay, that there would always be a place for him here, but if he wanted to go, he could do that as well. I laid coins over his skull and continued to rage inside at the cruelty done to this poor animal.
I cannot say what made me dig Black Phillip up, but I just knew that I had to. There was a compulsion behind it. When I took him out of the Bone Mother I saw a large 10cm nail stuck through his skull, within the eye socket. I was horrified.
I had never felt such rage, and anger and pain in my life. I buried that nail in the Crossroads Tree, called on Hekate Brimo and screamed for wrath.
After a while in maceration I found another nail, in the top of his head. I was dumbfounded. I only saw this nail after pulling off some flesh which did not want to dislodge. I threw this one away. At least now I understood why I felt compelled to dig him up. I had to finish what I had started.
“You could always turn back”
“I have been told there is a choice, always a choice… I was told it was a choice to worship the Jackal, I could have said no, I could have rejected Him. I could have told Anubis, “I am sorry, I think you are scary, dark, and horrific” in fact I could have said the same to Hekate. I could have crawled under my bed covers and hidden from Them the way I hid from the Laughing Devil when I was a child.”
– From Poisonous Oaths
While all of the bones I have, and all of the creatures I keep, have brought me to tears, Black Phillip has been the one to really make me question everything I thought I knew and understood about being a Bone Keeper. It was at this point that I could either decide to turn back, and abandon my oaths, and everything that came with them, or to carry on, and act in a manner that many people would not understand.
Many years ago, I had begun to wonder at my relationship with Anubis. I had called myself a Priestess, but knew that I could not really claim that title if I did not perform rites for others. I thought perhaps I should become a worker in a funeral home, or in a hospice, or perhaps even become a mortician. But all of these things seemed so far removed from who I am- as both a person, and a witch, I quickly gave up on those ideas and settled into other things.
I never dreamed in all my life that I would become a Bone-Keeper, holding rites for the dead in the way that I do, collecting bones like a Crow, becoming “Devouring Compassion”- a title I give to Anubis. But Black Phillip and all the pain, and all the sorrow, and all the confusion, and raging, and all the crying and fighting, led me deeper down the path. I could not give up my oaths without ripping away a significant part of myself in the process, becoming nothing more than an empty husk.
What I do is not special. There are many others who work with bones, many others who are bone-keepers, and bone-workers, many others who do this work. Sometimes these roads are dark, sometimes these things can be incredibly painful. The bones throw up shadows that I have not encountered before. They bring up dark and ugly things from the center, and the depression gets worse sometimes, and the anger, and the rage becomes louder and the burden can seem too much. But in those moments I pray to Anubis, the Bone Lord, I pray, and I cry, and I offer him my tears, and I continue to work, because these oaths are in my bones.
Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees
Or a night bird, but there hearts beating harder. There
Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.
Not a cruel song, no, no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.”
Brigit Pegeen Kelly*
*From the Poem “Song” (c) 1995 by Brigit Pegeen Kelly featured in the Anthology “Death Poems” ed Russ Kick