This post is the fourth installment in the Working with Zoological Remains series. The term “zoological remains” refers to the physical remains of an animal once it has died. This series covers the ideological and practical aspects of animal remains in witchcraft. Previous posts include An Introduction to Working with Zoological Remains, Bone Collecting: How to Acquire Bones and Other Zoological Remains Regardless of Where you Live, and Of Skull & Bone: Cleaning & Whitening. There are two more posts remaining in this series, covering the process of tanning hides and how to begin using zoological remains in your witchcraft practice.
Aside from skulls, the most dramatic and beautiful zoological remains used in witchcraft are found in the preserved wings, talons, and paws of animals. The lifelike appearance has its own charm, calling to mind the movements of the creature and aiding our minds to slip loose and enter the necessary state to accomplish our Work. These remains may become treasured tools allowing us to connect with the archetypal energy of that animal or be rendered spirit houses for cherished allies. As with all zoological remains, their use is one infused with an air of sanctity and respect for the animal from whom they came, acknowledging its life, passing, and gift.
Remains such as wings and paws that still contain tissue require specific means of preservation as they are too delicate to safely nor effectively remove the tissue. Most importantly, it is not necessary to remove the tissue for preservation. It is important to note that although tissue does remain, this preservation method does not result in smells, rather, it produces a fully dry specimen.
As usual, because I am utterly pragmatic and will always encourage you to use what you have for your Craft practice (just say “NO!” to commercialized magick!) you won’t need anything that you don’t already have at home or can’t find at your local grocery store or pharmacy.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how to construct a basic salt box, how to get the best results, alternative options, and troubleshooting problems. A salt box is as simple as its name sounds and it requires fresh animal remains. Do not try to preserve partially decomposed animal remains this way. The finished product nearly always looks ratty and the smell can be difficult, if not impossible, to remove. It is a disservice to that animal to try to preserve that which the Earth is already reclaiming.
In addition to wings and paws, a salt box is a great way to preserve bird feet and talons, rabbit ears, tails, hooves, very small whole birds and lizards, and internal organs (this is a great way to make sure you always have a heart laying around for those extra special spells or for when you need a unique piece of jewelry that doubles as an effective talisman.)
Assembling your Salt Box
For this method you’ll need:
Using a salt box is one of the simplest methods of preserving animal remains. A layer of salt about ½ inch deep should be spread along the bottom of the box. The remains you would like to dry are placed on the salt. Add enough salt to fully cover the remains. The salt naturally draws out all of the moisture left within the remains, leaving the finished specimen dry -inhibiting decomposition- and able to last for many years.
The drying process varies, naturally, based upon the size of the specimen you’re drying. At a minimum, wait a week before checking on the specimen. At that time, you may notice the specimen needs to be repositioned and the salt mixed about. You’ll be able to tell if it needs to be dried longer or if it is fully dry, too. A fully dry specimen will be inflexible and feel lighter than before drying. The salt can be reused to dry multiple specimens.
For small items, like internal organs from small animals or bird feet, a jar can work really well, however, some items, like rabbit ears, are best laid flat so that you can pack the salt into them to help preserve their shape (i.e. with ears, lay them flat and fill the ear canal with salt: this helps to speed up the drying but also ensures that the ear dries in a natural shape, rather than crumpled or smushed. You can’t reshape the ear once it’s dry.)
Taking it a bit Further
Some items, such as wings and claws require a bit of extra preparation before burying them in the salt. Wings will generally hold their shape when spread and laid flat, but sometimes they will pull back in and fold up. This is where the wire comes in handy. Thread the wire through the feathers, taking care not to damage the feathers in any way, and wind it gently about the main section of the wing in order to hold the wing in the shape you desire. This part is tricky as winding the wire too tight can damage feathers while too loose won’t hold the wing in position. Once the wing is fully dry, which can take up to four weeks for larger wings, carefully remove the wire and brush off any remaining salt.
Wire is also a great way to achieve dramatic presentation with bird feet. When still fresh and flexible, stones, crystals, bits of bone, or other curios can be placed within the animal’s talons. Use the wire to hold the talons in place until the foot is fully dry. Then, carefully remove the wire.
For specimens that are going to be used specifically for jewelry, a bit of preparatory work can make for better results and an easier time incorporating the specimen. Thick wire can be strung through organs to create a hole for running wire or leather through to create pendants or beads. Other pieces, such as small wings, feet, or rabbit ears work well to also run wire through and carefully fold the skin over to better conceal bone and tissue ends.
A great alternative to salt is to use borax. It works faster, reducing wing drying time down to 1-2 weeks. Use in the same manner as you would salt, rubbing the borax into any areas with exposed tissue, such as the cut ends of wings, legs, tails, and feet.
Slow drying: move to a place with more airflow and make sure the box is not covered; remove the item, stir the salt, and replace the specimen; use borax instead of salt
Smells: remove the salt and replace with borax, this will kill any mold and speed up drying, however, this will work to remove smells from specimens that were previously dried also
Feather Mites: replace the salt with borax, this will kill the mites
Throwing the Bones
Whether you're struggling with something spiritually or in everyday life, bone divination can highlight areas where focus is needed and identify alternative ways forward.