Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Necromancy - Dark Art Exemplar?

This is an expanded article that appeared in the Samhain edition of Rending the Veil. I hope that you find the topic in keeping with the weekend celebrations.

Amongst all the various names for magical practices, the word necromancy is probably the most foreboding and sinister. No doubt that such a practice was diabolical and associated with the blackest forms of magic. Popular folklore and belief defines necromancy as divination performed through the conjuration and manipulation of the spirits of the dead. The most outrageous form was the exhumation and reanimation of a corpse, which many often think of today when defining this term.

Necromancy has a long history, but during the Christian era it became confused with the conjuration of demons, which was called nigromancy or black magic. Necromancy in the middle ages was defined as a system of sorcery that gained its power and knowledge from conjuring spirits, whether angels, demons or ghosts. Nigromancy, or goetic magic, was a term that meant working sorcery through the conjuration of demons. Christian leaders believed that since only the Lord had power over the dead, sorcerers who performed necromancy were actually conjuring demons. After a time the two were used almost interchangeably, which caused the practice of necromancy to lose its meaning. However, spiritualists and mediums who sought to contact the dead and gain from them information about the future were actually unwittingly practicing a form of necromancy. Yet no one ever called them necromancers, which would have meant that one was evil personified. This confusion has not helped to clarify or define this system of magic, instead it has become something of topic of horror stories and low budget films. 

The origins of necromancy occurred in the far distant past, long before the time of antiquity. It was a system of divination that was ultimately derived from the pious observances paid to the dead at their tombs. It isn’t hard to imagine a person going to the grave site of some great kinsman and in addition to giving offerings and oblations, to ask for assistance with some family crisis. So the practice of necromancy probably stemmed from a natural desire to seek help from one's departed ancestors. Thoughts about the value of advice or prophecy given by the dead varied considerably in antiquity. Some believed that the dead has resources beyond the ken of the living, others (like Homer) believed that the dead knew no more about things than when alive. Necromancy may have derived innocently enough from funeral observations, but it’s also possible that it had a separate shamanic origin. Shamans in primitive societies were reputed to not only be able to heal the sick, but also to enter into the underworld and talk to the departed ancestors - shamans were an important link between both worlds.

Necromancy in antiquity, although not considered a legitimate public procedure for gaining intimate knowledge, shadowed the greater centers of divination, such as the Oracle of Delphi and the Temple of Asclepias. It was based upon a number of procedures that were well represented in folk tradition and literature, going back to Homer's Odyssey. We will briefly look to the Obyssey for a classic example of the rite called nekuia.

The Greeks had terms for this kind of magic, they called it nekumanteia (rites of divination from the dead) and psuchomanteia (divination from souls). From the Greek word came the Latin version, necromantea, from which we get necromancy. Typical places where these rites were conducted were tombs, cemeteries or even old battlefields. Such locations were called psuchagogion, which were drawing places of ghosts. Individuals who summoned ghosts or shades were called psuchagogoi, or evocators of ghosts. (These and other quotes and information were distilled from the book Greek and Roman Necromancy, most notably, from the introduction.)

Greeks and Romans believed that the spirit or shade departed the body at death. It wandered around the burial site, visited places habituated in life or ended up in the underworld of Hades, or more rarely, the Eleusinian fields. These visitations of the dead to places of the living occurred only at certain times of the night, when most of the populace had gone to sleep. People of antiquity loved life, so the perception of death was dismal, lonely, a heartbreaking end to everything good. Shades of the dead often were harbingers of gloom and doom, sometimes directed to curse other living people with their unhappy blessings. The most accessible of the dead shades were those who were prone to restlessness, such as the ghosts of untimely or violent deaths.

Archaeological traces have been found at certain locations where necromancy was practiced as a kind of permanent oracle. These special places were called by the Greeks, nekuomanteion. They were usually located in places such as natural mephitic caves or lakes where water and brimstone appeared to mix; offering clues to an intrusion of the stygian underworld. Four famous locations were Acheron in Thesprotia, Avernus in Campania (Italy), Tainaron, which was located on the Mani peninsula of the southern Peloponnese, and Heracleia Pontica, located on the south coast of the Black Sea.  Two of these locations had caves, but Avernus was a deep lake formed by a volcanic cone and Acheron was a lakeside precinct with indications of vulcanism. Both lakes were reputed to be without birds, since the mephitic fumes would have killed or driven them away.

Petitioners who visited an oracle of the dead would undergo certain kinds of rites performed in dimly lit caves or at night next to turgid lakes, guided by a leader who would conduct the rituals and speak the incantations. Offerings were given and the petitioner would spend the night in that place to obtain what he sought through incubation, by dreams, visions, or a ghostly visitation. The guide also had the responsibility to explain the dreams and visions later on, helping the petitioner to understand their meaning. Incubation was only one of many different ways of contacting the dead, it was the most prevalent method.

In Homer's Odyssey, book 11, a classic rite of necromancy is performed by Odysseus under the direction of his lover, Circe. Odysseus and his men dig a pit with their swords, around it pour libations to the dead consisting of milk, honey, sweet wine, water and then sprinkling barley over the mixture. He prays to the dead and sacrifices a pair of black sheep so the blood collects in the pit. The carcasses of the sheep are flayed and burned, then he prays to Hades and Persephone. He and his men ward the pit with their swords keeping out any unwanted spirits who are drawn to the offerings. They allow only those to whom Odysseus wishes to speak a draft from the fresh blood. After drinking it, a shade can assume a temporary visible appearance and converse with the living. Odysseus talks to several ghosts, but the real purpose of the rite is to consult with the dead prophet Tiresias, seeking to learn the future and the way home. Circe is Odysseus's divine guide and instructor in the necromantic rite, she assists him in analyzing and deciphering the experience, acting as the archetypal witch. Also, the location of the rite is important, too, for it resides next to a cave leading into the underworld. Many other characters who acted as mediums of the dead in antiquity, both real and fictional, were female practitioners of witchcraft. Necromancy was not their specialty, it was rather one of many different techniques that they could use.

This tale was followed by other examples, but it would seem that the necromantic rite, as described by Homer, was already fully formed and traditionally established. By the 5th century, there were professional necromancers who were called goetes - sorcerers, derived from the Greek word goos, which was the mourning wail of the dead. Such individuals were reputed to have the ability to manipulate ghosts. Pythagoreans also had a reputation of being a kind of Greek shaman who not only used necromantic spells as their stock and trade, but could travel to the underworld themselves. Another kind of magic that was practiced and related to necromancy was a divination called lecanomancy, which was a ghostly scrying into a bowl of liquid.

The Greek Egyptian Magical Papyri also had some representations of necromancy, particularly papyrus PGM IV (Paris Papyrus), which contains a group of spells associated with an individual called 'Pitys.' These spells extracted prophecies from corpses or the heads of corpses, bringing to mind the kind of magic performed by the classic witch. Such an individual might have had skulls or heads that talked, but they would have been animated by one's familiar spirit rather than a spirit of the dead. There seemed to be some differences between the places and individuals who acted as oracles of the dead, and individuals who practiced sorcery and witchcraft. The latter typically acted in a manner that exploited the dead rather than treating them with reverence.

Finally, the actual description of necromancy as a method of reanimating and interrogating corpses was first introduced by the poet Lucan, who made it part of the repertoire of the evil Thessalian witch Erictho. She uses it to gain information from a hapless dead Pompeian soldier. Erictho first pours hot blood and a concoction of herbs into the dead body, and then conjures the shade of the soldier, forcing it to enter the corpse to question it. This was a fictitious literary work, and it was followed by others, most notably by Apuleius and Heliodorus. However, there seems to be little evidence that this type of working ever really occurred, that oracles of the dead and necromancy usually had much greater respect and veneration for the deceased than what is depicted in these satirical stories. Later on they may have become the primary impetus for judging the necromantic art as nothing more than the conjurations of demons. It passed into the Christian era completely debased and more the stuff of horror stories or propaganda against the practice of witchcraft.

So what would a modern practitioner of paganism, magic or witchcraft want with the magical system of necromancy? First of all, to a modern pagan, necromancy would represent a legitimate system of divination for the honored dead or ancestors. Secondly, one should consider that a magician will conjure whatever spirit serves his or her needs, but that it be done in fashion that doesn’t dishonor the dead. There isn’t any need for the use of actual bones and skulls, or exhuming some burial and pilfering body parts for use in magical spells. Scrying with magic mirrors or bowls filled with dark fluid would also be useful, as well as establishing a kind of temporary nukuomanteion or oracle of the dead at an appropriate place, such as at the entrance of a cave or in a cave, an underground grotto or a shallow and swampy lake. Learning to obtain visitations through incubation and the use of a conjuration language, like that found in the Greek Magical Papyri, would also be quite appropriate. Offers to the dead would be a requirement, although sacrificing animals could be replaced with food and drink offerings, perhaps given in a triple manner, through burial, burning in a fire and pouring libations into a lake, stream or river. There are many options available to the modern pagan who seeks to work necromancy as it was done in antiquity.

For this autumn season of All-Souls and Samhain, I leave it to the curious and the ambitious to discover the ancient means to contact the dead and to gain their wisdom. May the shadows bless you and fascinate you as they have me.

Bibliography -

Ogden, Daniel (2001) Greek and Roman Necromancy Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ

Frater Barrabbas

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