Necromancy (pronounced /ˈnɛkrɵmænsi/; Greek νεκρομαντεία nekromanteia, via Latin necromantia) is a form of magic in which the practitioner seeks to summon the spirit of a deceased person, either as an apparition or ghost, or to raise them bodily, for the purpose of divination.
In Renaissance magic, necromancy (or nigromancy, by popular association with niger “black”) was classified as a forbidden art, and Johannes Hartlieb (1456) lists demonology in general under the heading.
The word necromancy derives from the Greek νεκρός (nekrós), “dead body”, and μαντεία (manteía), “prophecy, divination”. The compound νεκρομαντεία itself is post-classical, first used by Origen in the 3rd century. The classical Greek term is nekyia (ἡ νέκυια), in Hellenistic Greek also νεκυιομαντεία, rendered in Latin as necyomantia and in 17th century English as necyomancy
Early necromancy is likely related to shamanism, which calls upon spirits such as the ghosts of ancestors. Classical necromancers addressed the dead in “a mixture of high-pitch squeaking and low droning”, comparable to the trance-state mutterings of shamans.
Strabo refers to necromancy as the principal form of divination amongst the people of Persia (Strabo, xvi. 2, 39, νεκρομαντία), and it is believed to also have been widespread amongst the peoples of Chaldea (particularly amongst the Sabians or star-worshipers), Etruria, and Babylonia. The Babylonian necromancers were called Manzazuu or Sha’etemmu, and the spirits they raised were called Etemmu.
Necromancy was widespread in Western antiquity with records of practice in Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The oldest literary account of necromancy is in Homer’s Odyssey (ca. 700 BC). In the Odyssey (XI, Nekyia), Odysseus under the tutelage of Circe, a powerful sorceress, makes a voyage to Hades, the Underworld, in an effort to raise the spirits of the dead using spells which Circe has instructed. His intention is to invoke and ask questions of the shade of Tiresias, in order to gain insight on the impending voyage home. Alas, he is unable to summon the spirit without the assistance of others. In Homer’s passage, there are many references to specific rituals associated with necromancy; the rites must be done during nocturnal hours and around a pit with fire. In addition, Odysseus has to follow a specific recipe, which included using sacrificial animals’ blood for ghosts to drink, while he recites prayers to both the ghosts and gods of the underworld. Greek Mythology most often refers to the dead living the underworld. This is the main form of necromancy in Greek mythology and most often involves heroes traveling to hades and claiming souls.
Rituals, such as these, were common practices associated with necromancy, and varied from the mundane to the more grotesque. Rituals in necromancy involved magic circles, wands, talismans, bells, and incantations. Also, the necromancer would surround himself with morbid aspects of death, which often included wearing the deceased’s clothing, consumption of unsalted, unleavened black bread and unfermented grape juice, which symbolized decay and lifelessness.Necromancers even went as far as taking part in the mutilation and consumption of corpses. Rituals, such as these, could carry on for hours, days, even weeks leading up the summoning of spirits. Often these practices took part in graveyards or in other melancholy venues that suited specific guidelines of the necromancer. Additionally, necromancers preferred summoning the recently departed, citing that their revelations were spoken more clearly; this timeframe usually consisted of 12 months following the death of the body. Once this time period lapsed, necromancers would summon the deceased’s ghostly spirit to appear instead.
Although some cultures may have considered the knowledge of the dead to be unlimited, to the ancient Greeks and Romans, there is an indication that individual shades knew only certain things. The apparent value of their counsel may have been a result of things they had known in life, or of knowledge they acquired after death: Ovid writes of a marketplace in the underworld, where the dead could exchange news and gossip.
There are also many references to necromancers, called “bone-conjurers”, in the Bible. The Book of Deuteronomy (XVIII 9–12) explicitly warns the Israelites against the Canaanite practice of divination from the dead:
9When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do according to the abominations of those nations. 10There shall not be found among you any one who maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or who useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, 11or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. 12For all who do these things are an abomination unto the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee (KJV).
This warning was not always heeded: King Saul had the Witch of Endor invoke the shade of Samuel, from Sheol, using a magical amulet, for example. Later Christian writers rejected the idea that humans could bring back the spirits of the dead, and interpreted such shades as disguised demons, thus conflating necromancy with demon-summoning.
Caesarius of Arles entreats his audience to put no stock in any demons, or “gods” other than the Christian God, even if the working of spells appears to provide benefit. He states that demons only act with divine permission and are permitted by God to test Christian people. Caesarius does not condemn man here; he only states that the art of necromancy exists, although it is prohibited by the Bible.
Early and High Middle AgesNorse mythology also contains examples of necromancy (Ruickbie, 2004:48), such as the scene in the Völuspá in which Odin summons a seeress from the dead to tell him of the future. In Grógaldr, the first part of Svipdagsmál, the hero Svipdag summons his dead Völva mother, Gróa, to cast spells for him. In Hrólf Kraki’s saga, the half-elven princess Skuld was very skilled in witchcraft (seiðr), and this to the point that she was almost invincible in battle. When her warriors fell, she made them rise again to continue fighting.
Many medieval writers believed resurrection was impossible without the assistance of the Christian God. They translated the practice of divination as conjuring demons who took the appearance of spirits. The practice became known explicitly as demonic magic and was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Though the practitioners of necromancy were linked by many common threads, there is no evidence that these necromancers were ever organized as a group.
Medieval necromancy is believed to be a synthesis of astral magic derived from Arabic influences and exorcism derived from Christian and Jewish teachings. Arabic influences are evident in rituals that involve moon phases, sun placement, day and time. Fumigation and the act of burying images are also found in both astral magic and necromancy. Christian and Jewish influences are found in the symbols and conjuration formulas used in summoning rituals.
Practitioners were often members of the Christian clergy, though some nonclerical practitioners are recorded. In some instances, mere apprentices or those ordained to lower orders dabbled in the practice. They were connected by a belief in the manipulation of spiritual beings, (esp. demons), and magical practices. These practitioners were almost always literate and well educated. Most possessed basic knowledge of exorcism and had access to texts of astrology and demonology. Clerical training was informal and admission to universities was rare. Most were trained under apprenticeships and were expected to have a basic knowledge of Latin, ritual and doctrine. This education was not always linked to spiritual guidance and seminaries were almost nonexistent. This absence allowed some aspiring clerics to combine Christian rites with occult practices despite its condemnation in Christian doctrine.
Medieval practitioners believed they could accomplish three things with necromancy: will manipulation, illusions, and knowledge. Will manipulation affects the mind and will of another person, animal, or spirit. Demons are summoned to cause various afflictions on others “to drive them mad, to inflame them to love or hatred, to gain their favor, or to constrain them to do or not do some deed.” Illusions involve reanimation of the dead, food and entertainment, or conjuring a mode of transportation. Knowledge is discovered through demons. Demons provide information on various things including identifying a criminal, finding items, or revealing future events.
The act of performing medieval necromancy usually involved magic circles, conjurations, and sacrifices as shown in the Munich Handbook. Circles were usually traced on the ground, though cloth and parchment were sometimes implemented. Various objects, shapes, symbols, and letters may be drawn or placed within that represent a mixture of Christian and occult ideas. Circles were believed to empower and protect what was contained within, including protecting the necromancer from the conjured demons. Conjuration is the method of communicating with the demons to enter the physical world. It usually employs the power of special words and stances to call out the demons and often incorporated the use of Christian prayers or biblical verses. These conjurations may be repeated in succession or repeated to different directions until the summoning is complete. Sacrifice was the payment for summoning. Though it may involve the flesh of a human being or animal, it could sometimes be as simple as offering a certain object. Instructions for obtaining these items were usually specific. The time, location, and method of gathering items for sacrifice could also play an important role in the ritual.
The rare confessions of those accused of Necromancy suggest that there was a range of spell casting and the related magical experimentation. It is difficult to determine if these details were due to their practices, as opposed to the whims of their interrogators. John of Salisbury is one of the first examples related by Kieckhefer, but as a Parisian ecclesiastical court record of 1323 shows, a “group who were plotting to invoke the demon Berich from inside a circle made from strips of cat skin,” were obviously participating in the church’s definition of “necromancy”.
Herbert Stanley Redgrove claims that necromancy was one of three chief branches of medieval ceremonial magic, the others being black magic and white magic.This does not correspond to contemporary classifications, which use nigromancy and black arts synonymously.
Late Middle Ages to RenaissanceFurther information: Renaissance magic
John Dee and Edward Kelley invoking the spirit of a deceased person (engraving from the Astrology by Ebenezer Sibly, 1806).In the wake of inconsistencies of judgment, necromancers, sorcerers and witches were able to utilize spells with holy names with impunity, as biblical references in such rituals could be construed as prayers as opposed to spells. As a result, the necromancy discussed in the Munich Manual is an evolution of these understandings. It has even been suggested that the authors of the Munich Manual knowingly designed this book to be in discord with understood ecclesiastical law.The main recipe employed throughout the necromancy manual used the same religious language and names of power alongside demonic names. The understanding of the names of God from apocryphal texts and the Hebrew torah demand that the author of such rites have at least a casual familiarity of these texts.Within the tales related in occult manuals, we also find connections with other stories in similar cultural literature (Kieckhefer, 43). The ceremony for conjuring a horse closely relates to the Arabic The Thousand and One Nights, and the French romances.Chaucer’s The Squire’s Tale also has marked similarities. This becomes a parallel evolution of spells to foreign gods or demons that were once acceptable, and framing them into a new Christian context, albeit demonic and forbidden. As the source material for these manuals is apparently derived from scholarly magical and religious texts from a variety of sources in many languages, it is easy to conclude that the scholars that studied these texts manufactured their own aggregate sourcebook and manual with which to work spells or magic. In the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, it is stated that::Of all human opinions that is to be reputed the most foolish which deals with the belief in Necromancy, the sister of Alchemy, which gives birth to simple and natural things.
In modern time necromancy is used as a more general term to describe the pretense of manipulation of death, and generally has a magical connotation. Modern séances, channeling, Spiritism and Spiritualism verge on necromancy when the supposedly invoked spirits are asked to reveal future events. Necromancy may also be presented as sciomancy, a branch of theurgic magic.
Because of their themes of spirit contact, the Houdini Seance at Excalibur (nightclub) and the long-running show, Supernatural Chicago advertise their lead performer as “Neil Tobin, Necromancer.”
An Encyclopedia of Occultism states:
The art is of almost universal usage. Considerable difference of opinion exists among modern adepts as to the exact methods to be properly pursued in the necromantic art, and it must be borne in mind the necromancy, which in the Middle Ages was called sorcery, shades into modern spiritualistic practice. There is no doubt, however, that necromancy is the touchstone of occultism, for if, after careful preparation the adept can carry through to a successful issue, the raising of the soul from the other world, he has proved the value of his art.
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