‘Necromancy’ seems to baffle a lot of people. If people have heard of it, they either confuse it with necrophilia, or assume it means raising armies of the dead. Popular culture certainly chooses the latter option.
Just look at the Necronomicon in the Evil Dead films. The book was first invented as a grimoire by the problematic writer HP Lovecraft. In its original guise, it was believed to contain ways to summon the Old Ones.
In the Evil Dead films, it became the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis. The book is capable of raising demonic entities. But is this what lies at the heart of necromancy?
Consider this article your ‘necromancy for beginners’ primer! Come with me and we’ll explore the peculiar world of death divination.
Necromancy in Ancient Greece
The word comes from nekros, the Greek word for ‘dead’, and manteia, or ‘divination’. Put them together and what have you got? Yep, “divination by the dead” (Page 2017: 47).
Peter Maxwell-Stuart discusses the magical terms involved in vocabulary around the Greeks. He explains that people expected “consultation of the dead” to be a part of a magical practitioner’s practice (2017: 19).
It appears in Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus heads to the underworld for information about his journey home. Directed by the sorceress Circe, he uses a spell to speak to the spirits of the dead.
According to the Odyssey, he makes a drink for the ghosts, including animal blood. His necromantic rites must be carried out at the entrance to the underworld. The ritual draws the ghosts to drink the blood. When they do, Odysseus gets them to tell him the future (Kieckhefer 2014: 29).
The Romans thought anyone who died “violent or untimely deaths” were especially powerful in necromancy (Kieckhefer 2014: 36).
Necromancy arrived in European medieval magic via Arabic texts. Scholars translated these into Latin in the 12th and early 13th centuries (Page 2017: 32). The word ‘necromantia’ was sometimes used to translate the Arabic word for magic (Page 2017: 47).
Sebastià Giralt describes medieval necromancy as a fusion of many practices. They included divination, spells, astral magic, sacrifices, and sympathetic magic. This makes it an amalgam of Greco-Roman paganism, Christian theology, and Arabic magic. The necromancy of the medieval period shouldn’t be confused with witchcraft (Giralt).
In the late 13th century, necromancy became a label to lump any rituals together that related to spirits. This was in contrast to natural magic and so-called ‘image’ magic (Page 2017: 49). These rituals were considered ‘illicit’, so the term ‘necromancy’ became associated with the conjuration of demons (Page 2017: 49).
Necromancy was ‘bad’ thanks to the “theological view that the raising of the dead was a divine miracle beyond human influence” (Davies 2010: 23). The spirits of the dead were recast as demons.
Why would you take up necromancy?
Practitioners apparently used demons to affect the will of others, uncover knowledge, or create illusions (Kieckhefer 2014: 158). Sophie Page adds that they also used demons to “move bodies to different locations very very rapidly” (2017: 50). Handbooks explained ways to find treasure, attract beautiful women, and conjure illusions like massive armies or battles.
Scholars also performed angel magic. Yet by summoning demons, necromancers showed “a bold and flamboyant disaffection with social and religious norms” (Page 2017: 52). Richard Kieckhefer suggests that necromancy was a rebellious phase that magicians went through. They grew out of it after a while (2014: 156).
That said, as Kieckhefer points out, the comments in the margins of some necromancy instructions imply someone was trying them out (2014: 156)! Though despite what detractors claimed, necromancy didn’t involve pacts with the Devil.
Giralt explains that practitioners actually invoked God, Jesus, and the angels (among others) to control whichever demons he summoned. The power to expect demonic obedience came from “the power conferred upon him by God” (Giralt). Necromancy in this guise became heretical, but not Devil worship.
Can necromancy be used for good? Perhaps some of them did. After all, they thought asking the dead could help them solve crimes, predict the future, and find lost items. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d love to see a medieval mystery television series where a necromancer pootles around the British Isles solving crimes with the help of the dead.
There’s an example of necromancy in the Bible. The Witch of Endor? Technically a necromancer. Saul asks her to conjure up the prophet Samuel to get advice on dealing with the Philistines.
She does so, and Samuel issues a prophecy that Saul will die in battle the next day, along with his army. He ends up rather distressed and the Witch feeds him before he leaves. His army is defeated and Saul commits suicide. So apparently it’s one thing to consult the dead, and quite another to listen to them.
Salvator Rosa’s 17th-century painting, ‘The Shade of Samuel Appears to Saul’, went on to influence how people thought about both necromancers and witches (Page 2017: 64).
Or let’s head to 1st-century Roman literature.
A Thessalian witch, Erichtho, appears in Pharsalia, by Lucan. She built up a reputation as a necromancer after setting up shop in a cemetery. Sextus wanted to know who would win the Battle of Pharsalus and sought out her help.
Erichtho didn’t mess about so she found a corpse on a battlefield whose lungs and neck remained intact. She emptied it of organs and filled the body with a potion. According to Lucan’s story, it contained snakeskin, hyena flesh, and the foam from rabid dogs. She called on Hermes, the messenger of the gods (and also the guide for the dead). He helped her summon the corpse’s spirit and reanimated his body.
Sadly for Sextus, the outcome wasn’t what he hoped for. The spirit told him about the impending civil war and alerted him to his own death. Strangely, he still went ahead with the battle. Just knowing the outcome was enough for him.
Erictho later appeared in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Goethe’s play Faust. It’s possible many popular conceptions of necromancy come from this literary source.
What Did Necromancers Do?
Nicholas Eymericus claimed all kinds of madness. It included baptising images, praying to demons, fumigating severed heads, and burning animals and birds (Kieckhefer 2014: 157). Trouble is, he burned the necromancy books after he read them. We have no way of knowing if the books actually contained any of this stuff (Kieckhefer 2014: 157). That said, Kieckhefer points out there’s also no reason to think Eymericus made it up. Other texts appear to back it up (2014: 157).
Some rituals require a ‘sacrifice’ but it’s not always killing something. It might be offering a body part (hair or blood seem popular choices) or handing over a particular object, like flour, ashes, milk, or honey (Giralt). Necromancers would draw also circles and inscribe linen or parchment with blood (Kieckhefer 2014: 159).
Sophie Page theorises that one reason this ‘learned magic’ survived was because of the Spanish Inquisition. They turned their attention away from these scholars. Their focus fell instead on witchcraft, and its largely female practitioners (2017: 63).
Famed Elizabethan magician John Dee used Edward Kelley as his medium when speaking to angels. Here, the medium acts like a ventriloquist’s dummy, so the spirit can pass on information using their voice box.
Does Necromancy Still Exist?
After the Renaissance, necromancy quietly disappears from many texts. Following the Enlightenment, the practice seems to have moved into other areas, such as Spiritualism. The focus on summoning demons disappears, returning the spirits of the dead to necromancy. By asking spirits questions, it becomes a form of divination again.
It’s not surprising that necromancy morphed into Spiritualism in some quarters. The nineteenth-century introduction of cremation in the western world made resurrecting the body impossible. Erictho’s literary exploits became impossible. Spiritualism offered a ‘cleaner’ alternative.
Even using a Ouija board could be considered a form of necromancy. Asking a dead relative where they put that winning lottery ticket would definitely qualify. Though it’s a lot less messy than the Odysseus Method.
Necromancy practices still occur in Quimbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion. Bogdan Neagota also relates tales of people practicing “the necromantic technique” in 20th century Romania. That said, this form of necromancy is defined as “talking to the dead” (2014: 6). The divinatory aspect appears to have quietly disappeared.
Talking to the Dead
Largely, the cult of mourning begun during Queen Victoria’s reign changed the way we think about death in the west. Few would want to disturb the eternal rest of a loved one. Physically opening a grave remains the preserve of forensic specialists.
But we think nothing of leaving messages for our beloved dead. We leave flowers on anniversaries or chat to their spirits at the graveside. Spiritualism, made popular in the 19th century, gave people a structured way to talk to the dead. As Neagota points out, plenty of people continue to enter trance-states where they apparently speak to the dead. For some, such conversations take place during sleep.
Are we all ultimately necromancers?
You’ll be hard-pressed to find it in any New Age guide to Wicca. The ‘love and light’ forms of modern spirituality tend to ignore it. Though it does exist in some spirit-based forms of witchcraft. If you’re interested, I recommend the work of Althaea Sebastiani.
What’s my Fascination with Necromancy?
My Magic and Mayhem series features a necromancer, Eufame Delsenza. In her world, the dead are cared for and revered as a source of wisdom. She’s in charge of the House of the Long Dead, where she cares for dead royalty. Part mortician, part sorceress, and part guardian, Eufame reaches beyond the Veil to seek the counsel of the dead.
One long-dead queen, Afertari, is one of her more pragmatic advisors. Want to meet her? Sign up below to get a free copy of The Skeleton in the Floor.
I took my interest in divination, necromancy, and Egyptian funerary practices… and mixed them together. In The Necromancer’s Apprentice, Eufame takes on an apprentice to help her raise the dead royals to form a coronation procession for the new king.
Things don’t quite go to plan – but what would you expect from a dark, whimsical retelling of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?
Davies, Owen (2010), Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Giralt, Sebastià, “Medieval necromancy, the art of controlling demons: Origins, practitioners, languages and techniques of magic via the spirits“, Themes of Science Page, http://www.sciencia.cat/temes/medieval-necromancy-art-controlling-demons. [Accessed 10 Sept 2018]
Kieckhefer, Richard (2014), Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Canto Classics.
Maxwell-Stuart, Peter (2017), ‘The Rise of Modern Magic’, in Owen Davies (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 195-224.
Neagota, Bogdan (2014), “Communication with the Dead and Feminine Ecstatic Experience in South and South-Western rural Romania” in Marius Rotar, Adriana Teodorescu and Corina Rotar (eds), Dying and Death in 18th-21st Century Europe: Volume 2, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Page, Sophie (2017), ‘Medieval Magic’, in Owen Davies (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 29-64.
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