What Is Necromancy? Definition, Origins, and Examples

print showing King Saul, the Witch of Endor, and the reanimation of a dead body
Print showing King Saul, the Witch of Endor, and the reanimation of a dead body.

Print Collector / Getty Images

Necromancy, sometimes referred to as a form of "black" magic, is a term used to describe communication and dealings with the dead performed by powerful wizards or sorcerers. Unlike most modern mediums whose goal is simply to communicate with the dead, necromancers generally have a practical goal in mind. Their interactions may be intended to foretell the future, uncover secrets, recover someone from the dead, or even use a deceased body as a soldier or weapon. Necromancy has been practiced from the earliest civilizations and is still practiced today.

Key Takeaways: What Is Necromancy?

  • Necromancy is the magical or occult art of raising and communicating with the dead. It is sometimes thought of as a form of "black" magic.
  • Necromancy has been in use for thousands of years in civilizations around the world; early writings about necromancy date back to ancient Greece and Rome.
  • Rituals for calling forth the dead involve the inscription of symbols and words as well as rituals, spells, and sacrifice.

Necromancy Definition

The English word "necromancy" was adapted from the Latin word necromantia. The Latin, in turn, derives from the Greek word nekromanteia—a combination of the ancient Greek nekros (dead body) and manteia (divination by means of). In other words, the literal meaning of “necromancy” is “divination by means of a dead body.”

While this definition can be literally correct—necromancers are said to be able to use the dead to foretell the future—necromancy is far more than just fortune-telling. A practitioner's interactions with the dead can be much more complex and can have a physical impact on the world of the living. For example, necromancers may also raise the dead to learn secrets, gain forgiveness, or to learn the name of a murderer.

Necromancy is sometimes referred to as “death magic,” and is usually thought of as dangerous or “black” magic, or sorcery. This is the case even though many medieval necromancers were clergy. Despite its reputation, the practice may also be used for positive outcomes.

Origins of Necromancy

Necromancy has existed throughout history. It was practiced in ancient civilizations in Egypt, Babylonia, Rome, Greece, Persia, and Chaldea. It may have been associated with shamanism, though it was also related to ancestor worship. Recorded stories of necromancy in ancient times come from Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the Bible.

Necromancy in the 'Odyssey'

While necromancy was certainly practiced long before Homer’s time (around 800 BCE), he was the first to write a literary account of it. In Homer's epic poem, Odysseus, the hero, is sent to the underworld by a sorceress named Circe. His goal is to use spells Circe has provided to raise the spirit of the dead prophet Tiresias and talk to him. In addition to spells, Odysseus must go through a series of necromantic rites to be performed at night around a fire pit. Odysseus is required to pour out milk, honey, wine, and water to attract the dead; he then prepares a drink from the blood of sacrificial animals and recites prayers. The drink allows the dead to recognize and communicate with the living. With help, Odysseus is able to communicate with Tiresias and then with his mother; later, he converses with a number of famous deceased writers and philosophers.

Necromancy in the Bible

Necromancy is described in numerous parts of the Bible, mainly in the Old Testament. A few examples include:

  • The Book of Deuteronomy 18:10-11, in which Israelites are warned "There shall not be found among you anyone 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, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer."
  • The Book of Leviticus 20:27, also warns against necromancy: "A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.”
  • In 1 Samuel, the story is told of how King Saul had the Witch of Endor call the spirit of the Prophet Samuel from the dead. Saul hoped to receive military advice from Samuel; instead, Samuel told Saul that both he and his son would perish in battle. This prophecy came to pass the very next day.

Necromancy in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

In the Middle Ages (after the fall of Rome), necromancy was strictly forbidden by the Church. This, of course, did not stop its practice. Surprisingly, many medieval necromancers were members of the clergy who believed they were invoking the help of God to conjure demons, angels, and spirits. Necromancers were also alchemists or "natural philosophers," whose interests included not only chemistry and medicine but also the quest for eternal life. The techniques used to raise or communicate with the dead were related to those used for exorcism (the removal of demons); they also included a wide range of occult practices and the use of hallucinogens.

Ancient necromancers generally raised the dead in order to learn secrets or to gain insight into the future. Occasionally, the dead were raised so that the living could gain their forgiveness or direction (or, in some cases, just to communicate). Medieval necromancers had similar goals, but in addition, they summoned the dead to manipulate the living and occasionally made use of the bodies of the dead.

Perhaps the best-known medieval necromancer was Johann Faust, a German alchemist who dabbled in the occult and, in particular, in necromancy. Born during the early 1500s, the historical Faust was described as a magician, astrologer, and trickster. His supposed interactions with the dead made him the subject of plays and even operas. Christopher Marlowe, for example, made him the anti-hero of one of his plays, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus.

Contemporary Necromancy

Fascination with necromancy has by no means disappeared since the Middle Ages. Fictional accounts of interactions with the dead continue to be extraordinarily popular.

While books and movies such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy do not necessarily use the term "necromancy," they all relate to using or interacting with the risen dead. Mediums (people who claim to communicate with dead) are often called upon to ask the dead for secrets or to foretell the future. In addition, popular games and television shows include reanimation of the dead (many focus on zombies, which have a different history). Even books and movies for young people, including the Harry Potter series, have themes related to necromancy.

How Necromancers Communicate With and Command the Dead

Over the millennia, the processes for reaching the dead have changed dramatically. In some cases, the process is very simple; mediums, for example, may call upon their spirit guides or go into a trance without complex rituals or spells. Historically, however, the processes for communicating with the dead through necromancy are quite extensive and dramatic. In some cases, necromancers have lived very austere lives—eating only certain foods, avoiding even the sight of women, remaining celibate, and so forth. Often a virginal boy or man was called upon to complete the ceremony.

While ceremonies performed today are quite varied, some of the following elements are common.

  • Necromantic rituals usually begin with the necromancer drawing signs and inscriptions on the group with a knife or sword (or on a cloth in ink or blood). The circle is not only a symbol of power but is also a means for containing the spirit of the dead and thus protecting the necromancer.
  • Words are added to the circle, including inscriptions pointing to north, south, east, and west, the names of the necromancer, the medium, and the spirits being called.
  • Signs usually include ancient figures such as a pentagram, astrological, and astronomical symbols.
  • Objects such as jugs, swords, or candles are placed at specific locations to be used during the ritual.

Once the scene is set, the necromancer goes through a ritual which varies a great deal. Some elements may include:

  • A prayer or plea to the spirits, angels, or demons being invoked.
  • Instructions for how the dead should appear and what they should do.
  • Spells which, in some cases, are based on Biblical passages.
  • Sacrifices (animal blood, milk, honey, ashes, flour, or salt placed in jugs or sprinkled around).
  • Rituals ranging from knocking two stones together, burning candles, etc.

Sources

  • Kapcar, Andrej. “The Origins of Necromancy or How We Learned to Speak to the Dead.” Academia.edu - Share Research, www.academia.edu/37504678/The_Origins_of_Necromancy_or_How_We_Learned_to_Speak_to_the_Dead.
  • “Lay That Ghost: Necromancy in Ancient Greece and Rome.” Biblical Archaeology Society, 11 Apr. 2019, www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/ancient-necromancy/.
  • Medievalists.net. “Necromancy from Antiquity to Medieval and Modern Times.” Medievalists.net, 30 Oct. 2018, www.medievalists.net/2015/10/necromancy-from-antiquity-to-medieval-and-modern-times/.
  • “Medieval Necromancy, the Art of Controlling Demons.” Inici, www.sciencia.cat/temes/medieval-necromancy-art-controlling-demons.
  • Ogden, Daniel. Greek and Roman Necromancy. Princeton University Press, 2005.