Necromancy is the summoning or conjuring of the dead for divination, prophecy, or magical purposes. Necromancy has a long and universal history as a dangerous, repulsive practice associated with sorcery and witchcraft. It is based on the belief that the dead know everything about the past, present, and future, and that they can be commanded to carry out magical acts on the living. Necromancy is held to be dangerous because often the dead do not like to be disturbed and are angry when they are called into the world of the living.
The English occultist Francis Barrett, author of The Magus (1801), said that necromancy:
has its name because it works on the bodies of the dead, and gives answers by the ghosts and apparitions of the dead, and subterraneous spirits, alluring them into the carcasses of the dead by certain hellish charms, infernal invocations, deadly sacrifices, and wicked oblations.
Necromancy is performed by professionals such as witches, magicians, priests/priestesses, and sorcerers. In ancient Greece, necromancers were called evocators, a term which literally means a caller of souls (see EVOCATION).
The book of Samuel I in the Old Testament tells one of the most famous stories of necromancy. King Saul of Israel faced attack by the Philistines who were supported by Saul’s rival, David. Uncertain how to respond, Saul prayed and asked for guidance in divination and from prophets. He received no answer. Finally, he turned to necromancy and consulted the Witch of Endor, a pythoness.
Saul visited her at night in disguise. The witch performed her necromantic ritual and conjured the prophet Samuel from the dead. His ghost arrived in the appearance of a robed old man, displeased to be called forth from his grave.
The ghost had only bad news for Saul: the Philistines would win, David would be king, and Saul and his sons would be killed. The ghost vanished.
True to the prophecy, the next day in battle the Philistines triumphed. Saul was badly wounded. He committed suicide with his own sword. David became king of Israel.
The account of Samuel and Saul illustrates the most common form of necromancy, the summoning of a Ghost of the dead. Another form of necromancy reputedly reanimates a corpse by forcing the soul of the dead person temporarily back into its body. This form of necromancy is said to work only on the newly dead. In VODOUN necromancy, corpses are raised from graves by an adept who incarnates the god of death.
Necromantic rituals vary; many call for performance at night in graveyards under a full moon. Days of preparation may proceed the actual summoning. The necromancer meditates on the dead who will be summoned, propitiates the deities of the underworld, and eats food associated with death—such as the flesh of dogs, which are associated with the underworld, black bread, and unfermented grape juice. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that necromancers ate corpses. Corpses or pieces of corpses and Blood from the living or a sacrificed animal may be used in the ritual. Necromancers protect themselves from the wrath of the dead by performing their rites within magical circles or wearing Amulets.
Laws forbidding necromancy have been enacted since ancient times, but have not suppressed the practice. Necromancy was widely practiced in the ancient Middle East, but the Israelites considered it an abomination. In Republic and Laws, Plato condemned necromancy as a fraudulent practice and called for harsh punishment of its practitioners.
According to opponents like Plato, necromancers do not really summon the dead, but engage in tricks. Christian opponents say that any spirit that appears is not the dead, but a Demon masquerading as the dead.
Necromancy for Magical Spells
In necromantic lore, the ghosts of the dead can be commanded by magical spells, like familiars. For example, a ghost can be summoned forth and sent to harass or attack a living person. The ghost might cause nightmares and a decline in health.
A Greco-Egyptian spell for making a ghost familiar calls for taking an ass’s skin that has been dried in the shade and inscribing on it a magical symbol within a circle: a human figure with a lion’s head that breathes fire, wearing a belt, holding a snake-entwined staff in the right hand, and having an asp wound around the left arm. A magical spell is written on the skin. The necromancer utters an incantation commanding the dead to appear and indicate willingness to obey. The necromancer then goes to a burial place and spreads the hide at sunset. The ghost will appear in a DREAM, describe its death, and indicate whether or not it will be of service.
The necromancer takes a flax leaf and draws upon it a figure of the goddess of the moon and underworld, Hecate, who has three heads—an ox, dog, and maiden—and six hands that hold torches. Also inscribed is an incantation that commands the ghost to obey on fear of painful punishment. The necromancer takes a papyrus, draws upon it the figure of Osiris, and writes an incantation commanding obedience. The papyrus is presented to the ghost. Once under submission, the familiar can be sent to give others nightmares, make them sick, and attract them to the necromancer. (See Ghost-LAYING.)
In necromancy for the reanimation of a corpse itself, the corpse must be propped upright on its feet to symbolize its return to life. Herbs are placed on the chest and head to magically restart breathing. The corpse may also be anointed with the necromancer’s own blood. The necromancer utters incantations to command the dead person to reenter its corpse. If the ghost fails to respond, the necromancer threatens it with tortures in the underworld.
Classical literature offers vivid descriptions of reanimation necromancy. In Pharsalia, Lucan relates the account of Erictho, a vile necromantic witch who reanimates a dead soldier on a battlefield for Sextus Pompey for the purpose of prophecy. Erictho selected a corpse with a cut throat and ragged it to a cave. She put on ritual clothing and tied her stringy hair back with vipers. Then she pried open the chest of the corpse and let it fill with blood. She rinsed the cavity with “moon juice,” a foam left on plants by the full moon believed to have magical properties. She poured in a mixture of foul ingredients that included lynx guts, hyena hump, the bone marrow of a deer fed on snakes, pearl oyster, various kinds of snakes, stones incubated by an eagle, and the ashes of a phoenix. She worked herself into such a frenzy that she foamed at the mouth and uttered a horrible incantation that penetrated into the depths of the underworld. In response, the ghost of the dead soldier appeared and reluctantly reentered its corpse:
At once the congealed gore warmed up, soothed the black wounds and ran into the veins and extremities of the limbs. As the blood struck them the organs beneath the chill breast quivered, and life, creeping anew into the innards that had forgotten it, mingled itself with the death. Then all the dead man’s limbs shook, and his sinews fl exed. The corpse did not raise itself from the ground gradually, one limb at a time. Rather, it shot up from the earth and was upright in an instant. The eyes were laid bare, the mouth an open grimace. His appearance was of one not yet fully alive, but of a man still in the phase of dying. He was still pallid and stiff, and in consternation at being brought back into the world.
The reanimated corpse answered questions. When Erictho was finished, she performed a magical spell to make the corpse fall. She burned it in a fire. Alleged communication from the philosopher and theologian Pierre Abelard, produced in a necromantic rite.
Necromancy in Medieval Europe
The term “necromancy” (or nigromancy) in medieval Europe referred to more than conjuring and reanimating the dead. It was applied to Demonic magic in general— the summoning of infernal spirits for magical gain, such as to acquire things, cause someone to fall in love, find lost objects, secure treasure, bewitch and enchant others, and cause misfortune to happen to others. Necromancers were considered to be in league with the devil in order to practice their art.
Johannes Hartlich, the 15th-century author of The Book of All Forbidden Arts, a commentary on occult practices, defined necromancy as “the first forbidden art, and is called the black art.” Hartlich said:
This art is the worst of all, because it proceeds with sacrifices and services that must be rendered to the devils. One who wishes to exercise this art must give all sorts of sacrifices to the devils, and must make an oath and pact with the devils. Then the devils are obedient to him and carry out the will of the master, as far as God permits them. Take note of two great evils in this art. The first is that the master must make sacrifice and tribute to the devils, by which he denies God and renders divine honors to the devils, for we should make sacrifices only to God, who created us and redeemed us by his passion. The other is that he binds himself with the devil, who is the greatest enemy of mankind.
Necromancy was condemned as a forbidden practice. As the Inquisition gained power and spread throughout Europe, necromancy became increasingly associated with witchcraft, which had been declared a heresy punishable by death. Charges of necromancy were serious. Even owning a necromantic book was a crime. Any magical handbook was considered to be a necromantic manual, literally infested with Demons. Such books were burned when confiscated, and the righteous claimed to hear the screaming of the Demons who were exorcized by being cast into the fire along with the books.
Even clerics and popes were not immune from charges of necromancy. In 1080 at the Council of Brixen, Pope Gregory VII was accused of practicing necromancy. In 1409 at the Council of Pisa, Pope Benedict XIII was accused of practicing necromancy and hiring necromancers. The offending book reportedly had been found stashed beneath the pope’s bed.
The Christian answer to necromancy came in two accepted ways. One, the Christian dead could return voluntarily to help the living. Thus, the faithful had no need of necromantic services. Two, the dead could be brought back to life by saints. There were important distinguishing difference between necromantic reanimation and saintly reanimation. Necromancers called upon low and infernal spirits and magically commanded the reanimated corpse to obey them. Saints called upon God and bestowed the reanimated dead with free will.
- Cavendish, Richard. The Black Arts. New York: Putnam, 1967.
- Flint, Valerie I. J. The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
- Kieckhiefer, Richard. Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century. Thrupp, England: Sutton Publishing, Ltd., 1997.
- Luck, Georg. Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
- Marwick, Max, ed.Witchcraft and Sorcery. New York: Viking Penguin, 1982.
- Ogden, Daniel. Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Necromancy is the art and practice of divination by conjuring up, and communicating with, the spirits of the dead.
In The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets,Barbara Walker states that necromancy is “one of the world’s most popular forms of magic, still widely practiced under the new name of spiritualism or mediumship.”
Necromancy, from the Greek nekros (a dead body) and manteia (divination), is rooted in antiquity, like so many of the occult arts. It has been practiced throughout the world by numerous cultures, including the ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts, and Persians, who employed it as a means to learn the secrets of the after-life, as well as to unveil the future.
Webster’s New Encyclopedia of Dictionaries defines necromancy as “black magic,” and for centuries necromantic rites have been called “the black arts.” However, contrary to popular misconception, necromancy is not necessarily a form of black magick, nor does it involve the conjuring of Demons or the Devil.
According to J.B. Russell in Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, necromancy came to be known as “the black arts” after the Greek root nekros was
corrupted to Latin niger, meaning “black.” Thus, nigromancy (another word for necromancy) loosely translates to the “black method of divination” and is sometimes misused to indicate black magick.
Francis Barrett, author of the 19th century grimoire, The Magus, said the art of necromancy “has its name because it works on the bodies of the dead, and gives answers by the ghosts and apparitions of the dead, and subterraneous spirits, alluring them into the carcasses of the dead by certain hellish charms and infernal invocations, and by deadly sacrifices and wicked oblations.”
One of the earliest written accounts of necromancycan be found in the Old Testament. Described as a “woman that hath a familiar spirit,” the infamous Witch of Endor evokes the spirit of the dead Hebrew prophet Samuel in order to answer King Saul’s questions. However, the conjured apparition foretells the king’s doom.
Apollonius of Tyana was a Greek philosopher, prophet, and necromancer of the first century. Called “one of the most extraordinary persons that ever appeared in the world” by Francis Barrett, Apollonius was said to have been gifted with great supernatural powers. He was skilled in the arts of magick and reputed to possess the ability to communicate with birds. After falling out of favor with Emperor Severus, Apollonius was put on trial and ordered to have his hair sheared off in an effort to render his magickal abilities impotent.
In the 19th century, magician and author Eliphas Levi used a necromantic ritual to conjure the spirit of Apollonius of Tyana. In his book, The Mysteries of Magic (also known as The Histories of Magic), Levi wrote, “Three times and with closed eyes I invoked Apollonius. When again I looked forth there was a man in front of me, wrapped from head to foot in a species of shroud…he was lean, melancholy and beardless.” The spirit, which Levi never acknowledged as actually being Apollonius, vanished after he commanded it to depart, using a ritual sword. However, it later reappeared before him.
In the words of Levi, “The apparition did not speak to me, but it seemed that the questions I had designed to ask, answered themselves in my mind.”
Necromancy is often associated with Pagans, particularly sorcerers and Witches. However, many Christians and Jews also believed in, and practiced, necromantic rites.
Saint Clement the Roman was said to have hired a necromancer to conjure a spirit from the underworld and acquire from it the secrets of the after-life. Even Jesus Christ, on whose teachings the religious tradition of Christianity was founded, took on the role of a necromancer. In despite of this, the Catholic Church condemned necromancy as “the agency of evil spirits.”
According to Barbara Walker, “Christian authorities reserved for themselves all dealings with the dead and regarded any lay necromantic or spiritualist activities as heresy, if not diabolism.”
In Elizabethan England, the practice of necromancy became a crime under the Witchcraft Act of 1604. In the year 1866, shortly after the birth of the spiritualist movement in England and the United States, the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore forbade the faithful to hold or attend Séances for any reason, ascribing a portion of spirit manifestations to “Satanic intervention since in no other manner can they be understood or explained.”
After being officially banned by the Church, the practice of necromancy gained popularity (as do most things when they become “forbidden fruits”). However, its reputation tarnished as sorcerers began desecrating graves and exhuming the bodies of those who had recently died.
According to author R. Brasch in Strange Customs: How Did They Begin?, “Murders were actually committed to use the corpse, in all its freshness, to reach the realm of the dead in order to gain from there a knowledge of the future.”
Some necromancers were said to have even engaged in sexual intercourse with female corpses (necrophilia) for divinatory purposes. Such perversions were carried out in the belief that the life-giving potency of the necromancer’s semen would revitalize the dead body and enable it to answer the call and supply the information that was requested.
“Through the ages a vast and exacting ritual was developed to summon the dead,” says R. Brasch, “and it was applied by the sorcerers who became experts in necromancy.”
Magick circles, altars, tripods, bells, and magnetized iron became the tools of the trade for the necromancer, along with mystical incantations and the pentagram symbol (for protection).
An old necromantic ritual instructs the magician to wear upon his heart a Pentacle of Solomon and “approach the grave of the chosen corpse at sunset or midnight.”
After drawing a circle around the grave, a traditional (but highly poisonous) incense of mandrake, henbane, hemlock, saffron, opium, and wood aloe is burned in a censer.
The lid of the coffin should then be opened. The magician “turns himself to all of the four winds,” and then touches the corpse thrice with a wand held in his right hand, while firmly commanding the spirit of the deceased person to return to its former body and answer all questions put to it. [It is imperative that the corpse be arranged so that the top of its head points east and its arms and legs are “in the position of Christ when he was crucified.”]
After the magician’s questions have been answered, the spirit is then made to depart and the corpse is burned.
Spirits are said to have access to information of the past and the future, which is unavailable to the living.
Through necromantic rites, a magician is able to gain possession of such information. A spirit summoned by a necromancer can also be employed to locate buried or sunken treasure, and to reveal the cause of a person’s death.
According to The Book of Black Magic and Ceremonial Magic,
“Moreover, it can answer very punctually concerning the places where ghosts reside, and the manner of communicating with them, teaching the nature of astral spirits and hellish beings, so far as its capacity alloweth.”
Many necromancers are drawn to professions that deal with death and which allow them access to human cadavers.
Since the digging up of graves in neither practical nor legal, practitioners of the necromantic arts can frequently be found working in such places as funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries.
One of the most common misconceptions pertaining to necromancy is that all necromancers are Satanists or that their art is an offshoot of Satanism. While some necromancers might very well possess Satanic views or even be card-carrying members of the Church of Satan, many others do not.
Necromancy and Satanism are two very distinct paths. Necromancy, in itself, does not incorporate or advocate Satanic worship, Satanic evocations, Satanic pacts, or sacrificial rites in the Devil’s name. A belief in, or worship of, the Prince of Darkness is in no way requisite for becoming a necromancer. However, magickal skill and respect for the dead are.
While a common practice in the Voodoo religion, necromancy is seldom, if ever, practiced by Neo-Pagan Witches, many of whom regard it as evil, unethical, or serving no purpose. This is not to say that Witches cannot, or should not, practice the Black Art if they should feel it to be their calling.
necromancy The magical conjuration of the dead for the purpose of Divination. Because they are no longer bound by the Earth plane, the spirits of the dead are believed to have access to information beyond the capabilities of the living. Conjured spirits are asked about the future and where to find buried treasure. Necromancy has been practiced since ancient times. It was prevalent in ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome. During the Middle Ages in Europe, it was widely believed to be practiced by magicians, sorcerers, and witches. Necromancy is feared because of the dangers involved and is reviled as one of the ugliest and most repugnant of magical rites. It is condemned by the Catholic Church as “the agency of evil spirits. In Elizabethan England, it was outlawed by the Witchcraft Act of 1604. FRANCIS BARRETT, author of The Magus (1801), said that necromancy “has its name because it works on the bodies of the dead, and gives answers by the ghosts and apparitions of the dead, and subterraneous spirits, alluring them into the carcasses of the dead by certain hellish charms, and infernal invocations, and by deadly scrifices and wicked oblations.” There are two types of necromancy: raising a corpse itself to life, and summoning the spirit of the corpse. The second type is more common. The Rituals for necromancy are similar to those for conjuring DemonS, involving Magic CIRCLES, wands, TalismanS, bells, and Incantations, as prescribed by various Grimoires. In addition, the necromancer surrounds himself or herself by gruesome aspects of death: he or she wears clothing stolen from corpses and meditates upon death. Some rituals call for the eating of dog flesh, for dogs are associated with the Hecate, the Greek patron goddess of witchcraft, and also called for is the consumption of unsalted and unleavened black bread and unfermented grape juice, which symbolize decay and lifelessness. Such preparations may go on for days or weeks. The actual ritual itself may consume many hours, during which the magician calls upon Hecate or various Demons to help raise the desired spirit. The ritual customarily takes place necromancy 215 Edward Kelly conjuring the dead. The other person is thought to be Paul Waring, an associate, in Illustration of the Occult Sciences, by Ebenezer Sibley. (Author’s collection) in a graveyard over the corpse itself. The objective is to summon the spirit to reenter the corpse and bring it back to life, rising and speaking in answer to questions posed by the magician. Recently deceased corpses are preferred by necromancers, for they are said to speak most clearly. If the person has been dead for a long time, necromancers try to summon their ghostly spirit to appear. Once the ritual has been performed successfully, the necromancer should burn the corpse or bury it in quicklime, so that it will not be disturbed again. In the Middle Ages, many believed that necromancers also consumed the flesh of the corpse as part of the ritual. Some necromancers summon corpses to attack the living. This practice dates to ancient Egypt and Greece. A version of it is practiced in Vodoun: the creation of a ZOMBIE. One of the best-known necromancers is the Witch of Endor, whose conjuring of the dead prophet Samuel for King Saul is recorded in the Bible; Samuel foretold Saul’s doom. APOLLONIUS OF TYANA gained a great reputation in first-century Greece as a philosopher and necromancer. The 16th-century English magician JOHN DEE and his partner Edward Kelly were reputed necromancers, though Dee never recorded such activities in his diaries. In the 19th century, Eliphas Levi attempted to conjure the spirit of Apollonius, an experience that left him badly shaken and frightened. Necromancy techniques were taught in medieval Spain, in deep caves near Seville, Toledo, and Salamanca. The caves were walled up by Isabella the Catholic, who considered them evil. The numbers nine and 13 are associated with necromancy. Nine represents an ancient belief in nine spheres through which a soul passed in the transition from life to death. Thirteen was the number of persons who attended Christ’s Last Supper, at which he was betrayed; Christ later rose from the dead.
necromancy An ancient art of conjuring the dead for the purpose of Divination. Necromancy is condemned by the Catholic Church as “the agency of evil spirits,” and in Elizabethan England it was outlawed by the Witchcraft Act of 1604. Throughout history, necromancy has been feared and reviled as one of the ugliest and
most repugnant of magical rites. Necromantic rites are not part of contemporary Paganism and Witchcraft. Necromancy is not to be confused with conjuring Demons or the Devil. The spirits of the dead are sought for information because they are no longer bound by the earthly plane and therefore supposedly have access to information beyond that available to the living. Conjured spirits are asked about the future and where to find buried treasure. Francis Barrett, author of The Magus (1801), said necromancy “has its name because it works on the bodies of the dead, and gives answers by the ghosts and apparitions of the dead, and subterraneous spirits, alluring them into the carcasses of the dead by certain hellish charms, and infernal invocations, and by deadly sacrifices and wicked oblations.” There are two kinds of necromancy: raising a corpse itself to life and, more commonly, summoning the spirit of the corpse. The rituals for necromancy are similar to those for conjuring Demons, involving Magic Circles, wands, Talismans, bells and incantations, as prescribed by various grimoires. In addition, the necromancer surrounds himself by gruesome aspects of death: he wears clothing stolen from corpses and meditates upon death. Some rituals call for the eating of dog flesh, for dogs are associated with Hecate, the patron goddess of witchcraft, and for consuming unsalted and unleavened black bread and unfermented grape juice, symbolic of decay and lifelessness. Such preparations may go on for days or weeks. The actual ritual itself may take many hours, during which time the magician calls upon Hecate or various Demons to help raise the desired spirit. The ritual customarily takes place in a graveyard over the corpse itself. The objective is to summon the spirit to reenter the corpse and bring it back to life, rising and speaking in answer to questions posed by the magician. recently deceased corpses are preferred by necromancers, for they are said to speak most clearly. If the person has been dead a long time, necromancers try to summon their ghostly spirit to appear. Once the ritual has been performed successfully, the necromancer is supposed to burn the corpse or bury it in quicklime, so that it will not be disturbed again. In the middle Ages, many believed that necromancers also consumed the flesh of the corpse as part of the ritual. Some necromancers summon corpses to attack the living. This practice dates back as far as ancient Egypt and Greece and is still done in various parts of the world. One of the best-known necromancers is the Witch of Endor, whose conjuring of the dead prophet Samuel for king Saul is recorded in the Bible; Samuel foretold Saul’s doom. Apollonius of Tyana gained a great reputation in first-century Greece as a philosopher and necromancer. The 16th-century English magician John Dee and his companion Edward kelly were reputed necromancers, though Dee never recorded any such activities in his diaries. The 17th-century French magician, Eliphas Lévi, attempted to conjure the spirit of Apollonius, an experience that left him badly shaken and frightened. Necromancy techniques were taught in medieval Spain, in deep caves near Seville, Toledo and Salamanca. The caves were walled up by Isabella the Catholic, who considered them evil. The numbers nine and 13 are associated with necromancy. Nine represents an old belief that there were nine spheres through which a soul passed in the transition from life to death. Thirteen was the number of persons who attended Christ’s Last Supper, at which he was betrayed; Christ later rose from the dead. In Vodun, corpses are “raised” from graves in rituals in which appeals are made to Baron Samedi, the scarecrowlike god of graveyards and zombies. In Haiti, the rites take place in a graveyard at midnight. They are performed by the person who is the local incarnation of Papa Nebo, father of death, and a group of followers. A grave is selected and white candles are implanted at its foot and lit. A frock coat and a silk top hat, the symbols of Baron Samedi, are draped on the grave’s cross (if the grave has no cross, one is made). A ritual is performed to awaken Baron Samedi from sleep. While the god makes no visible manifestation, he signals his presence and approval by moving or flapping the frock coat or hat. The necromancers pay homage to the Baron and promise him offerings of food, drink and money, then send him back to sleep by tossing roots and herbs. The corpse is unearthed, and the incarnation of Papa Nebo asks it questions. The answers usually are “heard” only by the Papa Nebo representative.