How The History of Necromancy Revealed A Love Of The Dead

Of all human opinions to be reputed, the most foolish deals with the belief in Necromancy, the sister of Alchemy, which gives birth to simple and natural things.

-Leonardo da Vinci

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One thing most ancient civilizations share is a fascination with the dead. The art of speaking to the deceased as a way to find hidden answers in the living world has been detected in almost every culture, beginning primarily in ancient Persia, Greece, Rome and medieval Europe. Referred to more commonly as sorcery or black magic, necromancy derives from the Greek words nekros, meaning “dead” and manteia, meaning “divination.” It is the process of raising the dead—reanimating the putrid—to read the future, discover secrets, or just to exploit the wisdom of the grave. Although first considered by the Greeks as a way to descend into the underworld of Hades, necromancy eventually evolved into something more deliberate over the centuries—a summoning of the non-living into the mortal sphere, often against their will.

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The first literary mention of necromancy appeared in Homer’s Odyssey when the powerful sorceress Circe traveled to the underworld with Odysseus to determine the success of his impending voyage home. By raising the spirits of the dead, they hoped to gain insight into his future and learn the wisdom of the blind prophet Tiresias who was known for his clairvoyance. As was the case with other depictions of necromancy, Odysseus followed the explicit rituals of his culture by building fire and performing a blood sacrifice with which to make a special drink for the ghosts. In this way, Odysseus pandered to the dead as a way to ensure his future success and gain insight into a realm where humans had no vision.

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These efforts spoke to his desperation to ascertain his fate, as he was even willing to form liaisons in the underworld to get the information he wanted. It was this grappling with fate that forced him to seek the deviant wisdom, no matter what the penalty—because living in a world where there’s no knowledge or power is just too difficult to bear. This exact willingness to defy religion and decency in the pursuit of forbidden knowledge has appeared again and again in history as kings and emperors sought to establish their place in the order of things—on their own terms. In ancient times, the answers of the oracle were often more like riddles, while the prophecy of a witch was an effective way to receive illumination on vital matters such as one’s fate.

In one of the more memorable scenes of necromancy from the 1st century, Sextus, the son of Pompey the Great, implored the help of the legendary Thessalian witch Erichtho who was known to be both horrifying and dangerous. Regardless of her reputation, Sextus’s fervent need to know the outcome of the Battle of Pharsalus before it happened was enough to push him into her embrace. Erichtho was a serious necromancer who had set up residence in a graveyard to facilitate her conversations with the dead and promised to help Sextus with his query.

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In a gruesome scene, she wandered a battlefield in search of an uninjured cadaver whose neck and lungs still allowed him to speak, and when she found one, she cleaned out the organs and cut a hole above the heart, filling the body with a potion of warm blood called “lunar poison” consisting of hyena flesh, snakeskin, and the foam from the mouths from rabid dogs. Calling on the help of Hermes, the guide of the dead, she successfully summoned the spirit, which initially refused to heed her command. Erichtho promptly threatened to jeopardize the universe by calling on the Devil and forced the corpse to life.

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Thunder struck and all around the sound of wolves howling and snakes hissing could be heard. Her chant was relentless and gradually Sextus made out the spirit of the dead soldier, hovering in the air above his own mangled corpse. Finally bending to Erichtho’s will, the soul of the fallen soldier entered the bloody body once again—the veins began to pulse—and it rose to its feet. The animated body then described for Sextus the bleak civil war on the horizon and the inevitability of his own early death. Despite the bad omen from the spirit, Sextus was relieved because above all else, he knew. And just knowing was enough to empower him to accept his fate.

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The importance of this scene was illustrated through the wickedness of Erichtho who was employed by Sextus for one reason—the realization of his own ambitions. They were so great, so pressing, he was unable to meet his fate as a normal man but was willing to sacrifice his ethics to escape the fear of the unknown. In the face of religious scandal and social rejection, his ambition won out over all else—it was paramount. Unlike typical relationships with death that began with a burial, a necromancer’s rites concluded with one, making their relationship to the dead the ultimate inversion.

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Despite its universal usage, the purpose and process of necromancy were largely interpreted through a cultural lens. The exact methods used by practitioners varied widely and spoke to the aesthetic of their heritage, with the ability to be either malevolent or spiritual. Long regarded as the touchstone of occultism, necromancy was the age-old practice of finding a way to make contact with those never meant to speak again—the dead—and has been detailed extensively by sages of the past who claimed to understand its darkest secrets. Likely stemming partly from the practice of shamanism, which called upon spirits such as the ghosts of ancestors, classical necromancers often fell into a trance-like state of muttering when trying to access the underworld.

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Rituals could be both mundane and grotesque, depending on the purpose of the divination but were almost always elaborately executed—often involving talismans, incantations, magic circles, candles, symbols, and wands. The necromancer might wear the clothes of the deceased, sit for days without moving, or even mutilate and eat corpses as a way to call out to the other side. They would choose melancholy locations that were well-suited to their guidelines, like the home of the deceased subject, a church, or a dark graveyard. All of these morbid practices were just the warm-up for the eventual summoning of the spirit world which was done with the premise of communication. To raise a physical body from the other side, the process had to occur within one year of the death, otherwise, the necromancer would only be able to evoke the ghost, not the real person.

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But what do the dead really know? This question has been up for debate throughout the centuries. While the Romans and Greeks believed those in the underworld only understood certain things, other cultures considered the knowledge of the dead to be unlimited. Just as Ovid wrote in the Metamorphoses, many felt the dead converged in a marketplace beneath the earth with the intention of exchanging “news and gossip.” Not all cultures found this thought reassuring, however, and the Jews of the Hellenistic period in the Bible called necromancers “bone-conjurers” with the ability to bring harm to the Israelites. The Book of Deuteronomy specifically warned against allowing one’s “son or daughter to pass through the fire” of divination, as it was an abomination to the Lord and strictly forbidden. And even though Mosaic Law went on to say practitioners of necromancy should be put to death, this warning often went unheeded.

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In the eyes of most Christians, bringing back non-living spirits was nothing short of demon-summoning—the dalliance in a world without morals. Regardless of any perceived benefit, raising the dead flew in the face of God’s authority and only led to suffering. The medieval world typically believed the resurrection of the dead required God’s help, thereby labeling  all other kinds of divination as “demon magic.” Even though necromancers never really organized themselves as a legitimate group, the Catholic Church condemned the practice in no uncertain terms.

Despite the condemnation of the church, necromancy thrived in medieval times, as it was a heady combination of astral magic and the Judeo-Christian notion of exorcism. The astral plane was thought to exist between the spheres of heaven and earth, where celestial spirits would pass between life and death. It was the purgatorial state of in-between where souls were neither fully alive or dead.

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Some others believed the astral world to be a boundary of mortal life that when crossed, would be the eternal resting place of the spirit. No matter—a destination or just a reprieve—the astral universe gave the necromancer a way to visualize the world of the non-living. Both Plato and Aristotle believed the stars were composed of a special matter different from that of earth—an ethereal element of quintessence. In the arena of “astral mysticism,” the human psyche was also composed of such material, thus influenced by the stars above. In this way, the universe and its constellations were not just beautiful mysteries to behold, but actual players in the fate of humans. The nature of a man’s mind could be explained through his connection to stars—his reason was associated with Saturn, his socialization connected to Jupiter, his eloquence the result of Mercury, his passion related to Mars, and so forth.

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Because this invisible plane could be visited through astral projection, meditation, near death experience, or lucid dreaming, individuals who knew how to use its power could control movement through varying spheres. The physical body could be left behind, allowing the spirit to travel unencumbered by the weight of life. The ancient Sanskrit word kamarupa meaning “body of emotion, illusion, or desire” was later replaced with “astral body” and has helped to establish the connection between the desire world and that of the dead. This is the realm where anything can happen—a place the archangels call home—and where individuals can work out past karma through incarnations to eventually refine themselves for final unification—better known as bliss.

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When combined with the realm of exorcism, the astral world allowed necromancy room to evict demons from certain spheres. The spiritual practice of excising entities from living human bodies gave structure to the art of necromancy and supported the idea that simply commanding a spirit was enough to make it move. Exorcisms happened with the authority of God while necromancers relied on the power of their magic and divination skills. So, through these lenses—the astral plane and the realm of exorcism—necromancy had the ability to find the dead and make demands upon them.

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Ironically, the majority of practitioners during medieval times were members of the Christian clergy, as they were spiritual, highly educated, and connected to the belief that demons and other spirits could be manipulated through the right practice. They possessed at least a rudimentary knowledge of exorcism and had access to extensive texts on astrology, demonology, and religious ritual. Because clerical training did not rely on a university, their edification was often received at the hands of those steeped in considerable tradition and ancient belief.

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In fact, some clerics during this age did not pursue their education based on a desire to provide spiritual guidance, but rather, as a way to explore the occult and its practices without persecution. Such medieval practitioners believed necromancy would allow them to achieve several extraordinary goals, including manipulating the minds of others. They believed their control of the dead could bring about afflictions such as hatred, favor, or constraint—in essence, they would have the power to control others. The reanimation of the dead would also allow them to conjure food, entertainment, or transportation while discovering the deepest secrets of the universe, only accessible to those who had crossed over. It was believed necromancy could obtain answers from the dead that could solve real-life problems like finding missing items, identifying culprits in crimes, or even predicting the future.

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As one would expect, the best time to perform necromancy was at midnight, especially if the night were particularly inclement and filled with wind, rain, and lightning. But this wasn’t just for effect—spirits were believed to show themselves more readily in stormy weather. Although practices varied from place to place, the majority of rituals involved lighting the scene with torches and creating a backdrop of deep contemplation and morbidity. For example, if a necromancer wanted to raise a corpse from the cemetery, magic circles would be drawn around the grave and certain powerful plants like hemlock, aloe, mandrake, and opium would be burned.

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Once the coffin was unsealed, the body would be removed and laid out with its head pointing east towards the rising sun, and its limbs assuming the position of crucifixion.  A small dish of burning wine, mastic, and sweet oil would then be placed near the right hand of the body to promote conjuration. Of course, the incantations varied greatly between cultures, but all seemed to focus on commanding the spirit to move in the name of the deceased person and to answer the demands of the living. Assuming the ritual went according to plan, the body of the dead would slowly rise and in a weary voice would answer the questions of the necromancer. The spirit would be rewarded for its cooperation by promises of future peace, and the body would be burned afterward so it could never be reanimated again.

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This was, by no means, the only scene in history illustrating the value of a good necromancer—it has been embedded in literary traditions for centuries. At the end of the day, necromancy was likely the work of fiction, and yet, it was pervasive, extensive, and elaborately detailed. There was a time when it was an all too real part of the human playbook, a time when people turned to it as a way to better understand the mysteries of God and the universe. But why? Why does necromancy appear in Chaucer’s The Squire’s Tale, Eragon, The Hobbit, the Arabian collection of One Thousand and one Nights, the Bible, and endless other tales? Perhaps because this demonic and forbidden desire to control a realm normally ruled by God and the underworld spoke to the side of the human spirit that has always existed and always will—the side ruled by ego, desire, passion, and autonomy. 

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These days, any existing practices of necromancy relate to the spiritualism of certain cultures who still believe the dead can lead the living into a realm of understanding—like voodoo and santeria. Necromancy is still practiced in the Afro-Brazilian religion of  Quimbanda and is closely connected to the spirit Pomba Gira who is the messenger of the supreme and deity of soul possession. Still practiced in urban areas of Brazil today, Quimbanda sprang from the religious practice of Macumba which is the name for all non-Abrahamic religious practices of the area during the 19th century. The more Europeanized sect of the same religion is called Umbanda and nicely demonstrates how these small, decentralized belief systems have branched in many unique directions. Like voodoo and santeria—both originating from Africa—the autonomy of their temples and lack of overarching doctrine (cough—Christians) have allowed them to include traditions involving necromancy without much criticism.

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But even today, there are people who claim they can speak to the dead. Modern necromancers cultivate working relationships with the dead through a medium and practice the ancient art of throwing bones, where the future can be read in their placement. Working with the reverent energy of those passed on is the contemporary version of reanimation, as it tries to avoid brutality and the desecration of burial sites. But despite a surprisingly robust online necromancing community, the ancient art of imbuing dead things with life is mostly gone. While there are still bounties of reading on the subject and plenty of Wiccan folk who claim to know the old ways, it’s clear necromancy is not what is used to be. Rather, it is a throwback to a time when the line between the living and the dead was tenuous and penetrable—a time when people still believed the underworld could be reached.

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The art of necromancy may have been viewed as morbid and wicked, but it also reflected a deeply romantic view of the world—one without the skepticism of science—where deep-seated beliefs and magic ruled. Like the pagans and ancient Christians who embraced it, necromancy spoke of a time when shadows of the dead could truly walk among the living, and the knowledge of one’s fate could be learned with just the right incantation.

And the rest is history.

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