BONES have long been a major object of concern in burial, sacrificial, and divination practices throughout the world. Indeed, this role has been so significant that a number of theories have been developed to explain their prominence. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, many of these theories were based upon evolutionary claims: several scholars hypothesized that the rituals involving bones emerged from earlier hunting cultures, and that the continuing prevalence of bones in the rituals of agricultural societies represented a survival of these earlier beliefs.
Particular emphasis in many of the theories about bones was based on ethnographic evidence from northern Eurasia and northern America, where several hunting societies believed that after they killed an animal, its bones should be treated with ritual care (for instance, buried, hung in trees, thrown into the sea). If done properly, the animal would then be reborn from the bones. The single most famous example of these beliefs is the bear ceremonial, practiced among the Inuit, Saami, and Ainu, among others (see Hallowell, 1926).
Building upon this evidence, figures such as Adolf Friedrich, Karl Meuli, Joseph Henninger, and Walter Burkert argued that these were probably widespread Paleolithic beliefs, and that sacrificial, burial, and divination practices in cultures throughout the world should accordingly be explicated as remnants of these early rituals. Henninger (1971), for example, used this argument to analyze the proscription against breaking the bones of the Passover lamb. Meuli (1946) and Burkert (1983) attempted to explicate ancient Greek sacrificial practice along these lines as well. Combining archaeological data of bone assemblages with the ethnographic record of hunting societies in Siberia, Meuli and Burkert hypothesized that early hunters perhaps felt guilt over killing for food, so they would gather the bones of the killed animals to help restore the animals to life. Accordingly, Meuli and Burkert argued, the ancient Greek sacrificial practice of offering the bones of a slaughtered animal to the gods should be understood as a survival of these earlier hunting rituals.
The problems with such theories are twofold. To begin with, the ethnographic record necessitates a qualification of some of the assumptions made by these scholars concerning hunting rituals. Although it is true that several hunting societies practice rituals to ensure the rebirth of the animals they kill, these rituals are not necessarily focused predominantly upon the bones. With the Algonquian Cree, for example, depositing bones in a mortuary is a crucial part of their ritual practices, but equally important is the consumption of the animals' flesh because the cycle of reincarnation for animals includes the phase of passing through humans (Brightman, 1993). Among the Kwakiutl, as well, a constant concern was to recycle the souls of the animals one killed, but the animals' skins were at least as important as the bones for this recycling process (see in particular Goldman, 1975, and Walens, 1981).
The second problem with the theories mentioned above is that arguments of survival are often insufficient. Even if a given ritual were to survive from an earlier period, it is still important to understand the meanings that the ritual has for the people who practice it. Because of this, scholars have more recently shifted the focus to analyses of the symbolic associations of rituals in particular cultures. According to this reading, the explanation for the importance of bones in religious practices throughout the world would lie in something simpler than survival from earlier hunter-gatherer practices. The fact that bones survive long after the flesh decays has perhaps made bones—to paraphrase Lévi-Strauss (1963, p. 89)—good to utilize in ritual actions dealing with human afterlife, as well as with sacrifices and divinations to immortal or long-lived gods.
Ancient Greek sacrifice
In terms of Greek sacrificial traditions, the most significant attempt to analyze the meanings of the ritual acts has been undertaken by Jean-Pierre Vernant and Marcel Detienne. According to Vernant (1989) and Detienne (1989), the code of early Greek sacrifice can rather be explained with reference to the cultural concerns expressed in Hesiod's Theogony. There, sacrifice is presented as a recapitulation of the actions of Prometheus. According to Hesiod, Prometheus killed an ox and split it into two portions: the meat and the bones. In order to fool Zeus, Prometheus then disguised both portions—wrapping the bones in fat to make them look appetizing, and hiding the meat in the ox's stomach to make it look unappetizing. He kept the meat for himself, and offered the disguised bones to Zeus. As a punishment for the trick, Zeus kept fire away from Prometheus, and Prometheus had to steal it in order to cook the meat. Zeus in turn gave humanity women and death. The acts of Prometheus thus won humanity autonomy from the gods, but they also condemned humanity to mortality and a life of labor, as opposed to the immortality of the gods. According to Vernant and Detienne, Greek sacrificial practice is symbolically a repetition of the acts of Prometheus: the offering of bones to the gods thus underscores that gods do not need to eat, while humans, who require sustenance to survive, consume the meat. The sacrificial meal is thus both a communion between gods and humanity as well as a recapitulation of the tragic separation of humanity from the immortal life of the gods. Here, then, the practice of utilizing bones in sacrifice is explicated not through survivals of earlier hunting rituals but rather through the symbolic associations with bones in the culture in question.
Bones in Mortuary Practices
Much scholarship has also been undertaken to study the meanings of bones in mortuary practices. A particularly rich area for the study of these practices is Southeast and East Asia, where one finds a strong distinction made between flesh, seen as the inheritance of the mother, and the bones, seen as the inheritance of the father (Lévi-Strauss, 1969, pp. 393–405). In patrilineal cultures that support such a distinction, the goal is often to define ancestors solely in terms of the bones. This has led to the practice of "secondary burial." After the dead have been buried, they are later dug up again and reburied. The crucial issue here is that during the first internment, the flesh—a pollution that needs to be eradicated—decomposes. The society is then free to bury the bones—associated with the patrilineal line—in a way that ensures the continuity of the patrilineal line freed from the pollution of flesh.
Burial practices of this sort have been described in south China. As James Watson has described among rural Cantonese of the New Territories, Hong Kong, the goal of a family is to maintain the patriline. Marriage is exogamous, so females are brought in from other lineages in order for a patriline to continue. Because the patriline is associated with the bones, the flesh that the females contribute is seen as bringing in a dangerous pollution to the family as well. After death, therefore, the goal is to eradicate this flesh and define the ancestor exclusively in terms of the bones. The corpse is first placed in a coffin. Just before the coffin is taken out of the village, the daughters and daughters-in-law of the deceased rub their hair against the coffin, thus absorbing the pollution of the decaying flesh. The coffin is then buried. Then, after roughly seven years (and after the flesh has fully decomposed), the bones are exhumed. The bones are cleaned of every last scrap of flesh and are then placed in a ceramic urn. An auspicious location is determined, and the bones are reburied in a tomb. If done properly, the bones are then believed to bring fertility and good luck to the descendants.
The Merina of Madagascar, as described by Maurice Bloch (1971), also practice secondary burial, but with somewhat different cultural concerns. When a death occurs, the dead person is simply buried on a hillside near the place where the death occurred. This first burial represents the death of the individual. After the corpse has decomposed, the remains are then exhumed. Unlike the Cantonese, however, effort is made to recover not just the bones but also some of the powdered remains of the flesh. The difference here presumably is due to the fact that, unlike the exogamous Cantonese, the Merina are endogamous: because the mother of the deceased came from within the same kin group, the Merina do not feel the need to define the flesh as a nonlineage pollution requiring full eradication (Bloch and Parry, 1982, pp. 20–21). The decomposed corpse would then be moved to a communal ancestral tomb in the land of the deceased's kin group. For the reburial, the corpses of the other ancestors were taken out and—together with the corpses of the recently deceased—danced with joyously, then reburied in the communal tomb. This communal secondary burial in the ancestral land represents the collectivity and continuity of the ancestral line.
In other burial practices, the goal is to have the soul escape from the confines of the bones. In Hindu practices in Benares, as described by Parry (1982), proper death is believed to occur when the chief mourner cracks open the skull of the corpse to release the vital breath. Following this, the entire body of the corpse is cremated, and the ashes are thrown into the Ganges. The goal, in short, is the complete destruction of the body. Death is thus symbolically presented as though the deceased had renounced his or her own body. Parry argues that the goal is to present each individual death as a recapitulation of the beginning of the cosmos, in which Viṣṇu generated the world through a self-sacrifice. The mortuary practice is thus presented symbolically as part of a regeneration of life.
In all of these mortuary practices, reproduction is indeed crucial—the reproduction of the patriline, the kin group, or the world as a whole. Bones play a crucial role in this reproduction. Yet bones are not necessarily seen as the basis of that reproduction. The particular meanings attached to bones vary dramatically across cultures, and the ways that bones are utilized vary as well with the forms of reproduction that the rituals seek to create.
Similar points made regarding mortuary practices could also be made with regard to divination practices of scapulimancy. During the late period of the Chinese Shang dynasty (c. 1500–1050 bce), divinations to ancestors were made through the use of the scapula of oxen and the carapaces of turtles (see Keightley, 1978). Heat was applied to the bones, and the diviner then read the resulting cracks in the bones to foretell the future. The divinations themselves were then carved into the bone. Similar forms of scapulimancy (without the carved inscriptions) have been recorded in Mongolia (see in particular Bawden, 1959), Tibet, Japan, and Siberia (Cooper, 1936). It was also practiced in North America among Algonquin speakers, who would utilize the caribou or hare shoulder blade or grouse sternum (Speck, 1935, p. 139; Tanner, 1979, pp. 117–124), as well as among northern Athabaskan speakers (Cooper, 1936).
Because scapulimancy is practiced in many of the same cultures across northern Eurasia and the Americas that scholars looked to for examples of hunting rituals concerning bones, attempts have been made to connect scapulimancy to beliefs associating bones with rebirth. Mircea Eliade, for example, proposed that bones were used for divination because they symbolized everything pertaining to the future of life (Eliade, 1964, pp. 164–165). While this remains a hypothesis worth exploring, other explanations have been attempted as well. Bogoras (1907, pp. 487–488), for example, points out that the Chukchi of Siberia treated the scapula used for divination as world maps. Keightley, in part inspired by Bogoras, has suggested that Shang divination bones may have also had the same symbolic associations (2000, pp. 93–96). Further research on the meaning of bones in the numerous cultures that practice scapulimancy would well repay the efforts.
Bawden, C. R. "On the Practice of Scapulimancy among the Mongols." Central Asiatic Journal 4 (1959): 1–44. A detailed study of Mongolian scapulimancy.
Bloch, Maurice. Placing the Dead: Tombs, Ancestral Villages, and Kinship Organization in Madagascar. London, 1971. An exemplary analysis of mortuary practice in relation to kinship organization, focused on the Merina of Madagascar.
Bloch, Maurice, and Jonathan Parry. "Introduction: Death and the Regeneration of Life." In Death and the Regeneration of Life, pp. 1–44. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. Penetrating discussion of mortuary practices from a comparative standpoint.
Bogoras, W. G. The Chukchee Religion. Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History 11.2. Leiden and New York, 1907. A classic study of Chukchi religion.
Brightman, Robert. Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Animal-Human Relationships. Berkeley, Calif., 1993. An excellent ethnography of an Algonquian Cree group.
Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrifical Ritual and Myth. Translated by Peter Bing. Berkeley, Calif., 1983. An attempt to link Greek sacrificial practice to hypothetical Paleolithic hunting practices.
Cooper, John M. "Scapulimancy." In Essays in Anthropology Presented to A. L. Kroeber, edited by Robert H. Lowie, pp. 29–43. Berkeley, Calif., 1936. A comprehensive study of the geographical range of the practice of scapulimancy.
Detienne, Marcel. "Culinary Practices and the Spirit of Sacrifice." In The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks, edited by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, pp. 1–20. Translated by Paula Wissing. Chicago, 1989. A superb study of the symbolic associations of bones and flesh in Greek sacrificial practice.
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Esctasy. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, 1964. A classic study of shamanism from a comparative standpoint.
Friedrich, Adolf. "Knochen und Skelett in der Vorstellungswelt Nordasiens." Wiener Beiträge sur Kulturgeschichte und Linguistik 5 (1943): 189–247. A highly influential study of North Asian bone symbolism.
Goldman, Irving. The Mouth of Heaven: An Introduction to Kwakiutl Religious Thought. New York, 1975. An excellent study of Kwakiutl religion.
Hallowell, A. I. "Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere." American Anthropologist 28 (1926): 1–175. A classic study of the bear ceremony.
Henninger, Joseph. "Neure Forschungen zum Verbot des Knochenzerbrechens." In Studia Ethnograpica et Folkloristica in honorem Béla Gunda, pp. 673–702. Debrecen, Hungary, 1971. An attempt to see the prohibition against breaking bones in various rituals as resulting from a survival of early hunting beliefs concerning the reanimation of undamaged bones.
Keightley, David N. Sources of Shang History: The Oracle-Bone Inscriptions of Bronze Age China. Berkeley, Calif., 1978. An introduction to the study of Chinese oracle-bone inscriptions.
Keightley, David N. The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shang China (ca. 1200–1045 B.C.). Institute of East Asian Studies. Berkeley, Calif., 2000. A comprehensive analysis of the world of Shang China as seen through the oracle-bone materials.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Totemism. Translated by Rodney Needham. Boston, 1963. An influential attempt to analyze how cultures utilize aspects of the natural world for social purposes.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated by James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham. Boston, 1969. A structural analysis of kinship.
Meuli, Karl. "Griechische Opferbräuche." In Phyllobolia (Festschrift Peter Von der Mühll), pp. 185–288. Basel, 1946. A controversial thesis arguing that aspects of Greek sacrificial practice involving bones should be understood as survivals of Paleolithic beliefs.
Parry, Jonathan. "Sacrificial Death and the Necrophagous Ascetic." In Death and the Regeneration of Life, edited by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, pp. 74–110. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. A penetrating analysis of Hindu mortuary practices in Benares.
Speck, Frank G. Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of Labrador Peninsula. Norman, Okla., 1935. A classic ethnography of an Algonquian-speaking group.
Tanner, Adrian. Bringing Home Animals: Religious Ideology and Mode of Production of the Mitsassini Cree Hunters. New York, 1979. An excellent ethnography of the religion of an Algonquian Cree group.
Vernant, Jean-Pierre. "At Man's Table: Hesiod's Foundation Myth of Sacrifice." In The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks, edited by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, pp. 21–86. Translated by Paula Wissing. Chicago, 1989. A penetrating reading of Hesiod in conjunction with Greek sacrificial practice.
Walens, Stanley. Feasting with Cannibals: An Essay on Kwakiutl Cosmology. Princeton, 1981. Excellent study of Kwakiutl religion.
Watson, James. "Of Flesh and Bones: The Management of Death Pollution in Cantonese Society." In Death and the Regeneration of Life, edited by Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry, pp. 155–186. Cambridge, U.K., 1982. A superb study of the social meanings of Cantonese mortuary practices.
Michael J. Puett (2005)
See also 14. ANATOMY ; 51. BODY, HUMAN .
- Medicine. a disease resulting from abnormal activity of the pituitary gland in which bones of the extremities are enlarged. —acromegalic, adj.
- 1. a branch of medical science that studies fractures.
- 2. a treatise on fractures.
- Obsolete, a skeleton.
- the breaking of a bone into small pieces.
- organic change into a hornlike form.
- the science of skull description. —craniographer, n. —craniographic, craniographical, adj.
- the shaft section of a long bone. —diaphytical, adj.
- a joint or articulation, as that at the knee, which allows maximum movement.
- an abnormal calcareous growth on a bone or tooth. See also 319. PLANTS .
- an abnormal physical condition characterized by extensive structural defects of the skeleton and by gross mental deficiency.
- an immovable joint, the bone being fixed in its socket in such a way that it does not move.
- any abnormal curvature of the bones, especially forward curvature of the spine, resulting in a hollow in the back. —lordotic, adj.
- 1. the act of dislocating a bone or putting a joint out of position.
- 2. the condition of dislocation or being out of joint.
- ossuarium, ossuary
- a place or receptacle for the bones of the dead. See also 112. DEATH .
- the breaking of a bone either to correct a deformity or to reset a bone that has healed badly after a fracture. See also 50. BODILY FUNCTIONS .
- the study of bones for descriptive purposes. —osteographer, n. —osteographic, osteographical, adj.
- the branch of anatomy that studies the skeleton. Also called skeletology. —osteologist, osteologer, n. —osteologie, osteological, adj.
- softening of the bones resulting from malnutrition and the consequent loss of essential salts from the bones.
- osteomancy, osteomanty
- divination by the examination of bones. —osteomantic, adj.
- the measurement of bones.
- 1. study of diseases of the bones.
- 2. any disease of the bone. —osteopathologist, n. —osteopathologic, osteopathological, adj.
- 1. a disease of the bone.
- 2. a therapeutic system based upon the premise that restoring or maintaining health requires manipulation of the skeleton and muscles to preserve normal structure. —osteopath, osteopathist, n. —osteopathie, adj.
- the surgical practice of bone-grafting.
- the rarefaction of bone, resulting in abnormally porous and weak bony tissue.
- 1. the dissection or anatomy of bones.
- 2. the cutting of bones as part of a surgical operation. —osteotomist , n.
- ossification or the process of bone formation.
- a form of divination in which a shoulder blade is heated in a fire and the resulting cracks in the bone are consulted for omens. —scapulomantic , adj.
- the study of jawbones. —siagonologic, siagonological , adj.
- a form of divination by means of an animal’s shoulder blade. —spatulamantic , adj.
- the growing together or the fixed or almost fixed union of two bones, as the two halves of the lower jaw. —symphyseal, symphysial, symphystic , adj.
- the joining of two or more bones by muscle.
- 1. an abnormally turned condition of a bone in part of the human body, especially the leg.
- 2. the condition of being bowlegged.
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