views updated May 21 2018


Divination by means of the spirits of the dead, from the Greek nekrosh (dead), and manteia (divination). It is through its Italian form nigromancia that it came to be known as the "black art." With the Greeks it originally signified the descent into Hades in order to consult the dead rather than summoning the dead into the mortal sphere again.

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 that necromancy, which in the Middle Ages was included in the practice of sorcery (malevolent magic, usually traditionally accomplished through the assistance of a demonic spirit), shades into modern spirit contact in Spiritualism. Necromancy has long been regarded as the touchstone of occultism, for if, after careful preparation, the adept can successfully raise a soul from the other world, he has proved the success of his art. The occult sages of the past have left full details as to how the process should be attempted.

In the case of a compact existing between the sorcerer and the devil, of course, no ceremony is necessary, as the familiar is ever at hand to do the bidding of his masters. This, however, is never the case with the true sorcerer, who preserves his independence and trusts to his profound knowledge of the art and his powers of command. His object therefore is to "constrain" some spirit to appear before him, and to guard himself from the danger of provoking such beings.

The magician normally has an assistant, and every article and procedure must conform to rules well known in the black art. In the first place, the magician and his assistant must locate a suitable venue for their procedures, which may be either a subterranean vault, hung with black and lighted by a magical torch, or else the center of some thick wood or desert, or some extensive unfrequented plain where several roads meet, or amid the ruins of ancient castles, abbeys, and monasteries, or among the rocks on the seashore, or some private detached churchyard, or any other solemn, melancholy place between the hours of twelve and one at night, either when the moon shines bright, or else when the elements are disturbed with storms of thunder, lightning, wind, and rain, for in these places, times, and seasons, it is contended that spirits can manifest themselves to mortal eyes with less difficulty and continue to be visible with the least pain in this elemental external world.

When the proper time and place is fixed on, a magic circle is to be formed, within which the master and his associate are carefully to retire. The dimensions of the circle are as follows: a piece of ground is usually chosen, nine feet square, at the full extent of which parallel lines are drawn one within the other, having sundry crosses and triangles described between them, close to which is formed the first or outer circle, then, about half-a-foot within the same, a second circle is described, and within that another square correspondent to the first, the center of which is where the master and associate are to be placed.

According to one authority:

"The vacancies formed by the various lines and angles of the figure are filled up with the holy names of God, having crosses and triangles described between them. The reason assigned by magicians and others for the institution and use of circles, is, that so much ground being blessed and consecrated by such holy words and ceremonies as they make use of in forming it, hath a secret force to expel all evil spirits from the bounds thereof, and, being sprinkled with pure sanctified water, the ground is purified from all uncleanness; besides, the holy names of God being written over every part of it, its force becomes so powerful that no evil spirit hath ability to break through it, or to get at the magician or his companion, by reason of the antipathy in nature they bear to these sacred names. And the reason given for the triangles is, that if the spirit be not easily brought to speak the truth, they may by the exorcist be conjured to enter the same, where, by virtue of the names of the essence and divinity of God, they can speak nothing but what is true and right. The circle, therefore, according to this account of it, is the principal fort and shield of the magician, from which he is not, at the peril of his life, to depart, till he has completely dismissed the spirit, particularly if he be of a fiery or infernal nature. Instances are recorded of many who perished by this means; particularly 'Chiancungi,' the famous Egyptian fortune-teller, who was so famous in England in the 17th century. He undertook for a wager, to raise up the spirit 'Bokim,' and having described the circle, he seated his sister Napula by him as his associate. After frequently repeating the forms of exorcism, and calling upon the spirit to appear, and nothing as yet answering his demand, they grew impatient of the business, and quitted the circle, but it cost them their lives; for they were instantaneously seized and crushed to death by that infernal spirit, who happened not to be sufficiently constrained till that moment, to manifest himself to human eyes."

The magic circle is consecrated by special rituals. The proper attire, or "pontificalibus," of a magician is an ephod made of fine white linen, over that a priestly robe of black bombazine reaching to the ground, with the two seals of the Earth drawn correctly upon virgin parchment, and affixed to the breast of his outer vestment. Around his waist is tied a broad consecrated girdle, with the names "Ya, Ya,Aie, Aaie,Elibra, Elchim,Sadai,Pah Adonai,tuo robore,Cinctus sum." Upon the magician's shoes must be written "Tetragrammaton," with crosses around it; upon his head a high-crowned cap of sable silk, and in his hand a Holy Bible, printed or written in pure Hebrew.

Thus attired, and standing within the charmed circle, the magician repeats the awful form of exorcism, and presently the infernal spirits make strange and frightful noises, howlings, tremblings, flashes, and most dreadful shrieks and yells before they become visible. Their first appearance is generally in the form of fierce and terrible lions or tigers, vomiting forth fire, and roaring hideously about the circle, during which time the exorcist must not suffer any tremor of dismay, for, in the event the spirits gain the ascendancy, the consequences may endanger his life. On the contrary, he must summon up firm resolution and continue repeating all the forms of constriction and confinement until the spirits are drawn nearer to the influence of the triangle, when their forms will change to appearances less ferocious and frightful, and become more submissive and tractable.

When the forms of conjuration have in this manner been sufficiently repeated, the spirits forsake their bestial shapes and enter into human form, appearing like naked men of gentle countenance and behavior, yet the magician must remain warily on his guard so that they do not deceive him by such mild gestures, for they are exceedingly fraudulent and deceitful in their dealings with those who constrain them to appear without compact, having nothing in view but to accomplish his destruction.

The spirit must be discharged with great care after the ceremony is finished and he has answered all the demands made upon him. The magician must wait patiently until he has passed through all the terrible forms that announced his coming, and only when the last shriek has died away and every trace of fire and brimstone has disappeared may he leave the circle and depart home safety.

If the ghost of a deceased person is to be raised, the grave must be resorted to at midnight, and a different form of conjuration is necessary. Still another is the infernal sacrament for "any corpse that hath hanged, drowned, or otherwise made away with itself," and in this will at last arise, and standing upright, answer with a faint and hollow voice the questions that are put to it.

Lévi's Instructions

The occultist Éliphas Lévi stated in his book Transcendental Magic (1896) that "evocations should always have a motive and a becoming end, otherwise they are works of darkness and folly, dangerous of health and reason." The permissible motive of an evocation may be either love or intelligence. Evocations of love require less apparatus and are in every respect easier.

Lévi describes the procedure as follows:

"We must collect in the first place, carefully the memorials of him (or her) whom we desire to behold, the articles he used, and on which his impression remains; we must also prepare an apartment in which the person lived, or otherwise one of a similar kind, and place his portrait veiled in white therein, surrounded with his favourite flowers, which must be renewed daily. A fixed date must then be chosen, being that of the person's birth or one was that especially fortunate for his and our own affection, one of which we may believe that his soul, however blessed elsewhere, cannot lose the remembrance. This must be the day of the evocation, and we must prepare for it during the space of two weeks.

"Throughout the period we must refrain from extending to anyone the same proofs of affection which we have the right to expect from the dead; we must observe strict chastity, live in retreat, and take only one modest and light collation daily. Every evening at the same hour we must shut ourselves in the chamber consecrated to the memory of the lamented person, using only one small light, such as that of a funeral lamp or taper. This light should be placed behind us, the portrait should be uncovered and we should remain before it for an hour, in silence; finally, we should fumigate the apartment with a little good incense, and go out backwards.

"On the morning of the day fixed for the evocation, we should adorn ourselves as if for a festival, not salute anyone first, make but a single repast of bread, wine, and roots, or fruits. The cloth should be white, two covers should be laid, and one portion of the broken bread should be set aside; a little wine should also be placed in the glass of the person we design to invoke. The meal must be eaten alone in the chamber of evocations, and in presence of the veiled portrait; it must be all cleared away at the end, except the glass belonging to the dead person, and his portion of bread, which must be placed before the portrait. In the evening, at the hour for the regular visit, we must repair in silence to the chamber, light a clear fire of cypress-wood, and cast incense seven times thereon, pronouncing the name of the person whom we desire to behold. The lamp must then be extinguished, and the fire permitted to die out.

"On this day the portrait must not be unveiled. When the flame dies down, put more incense on the ashes, and invoke God according to the forms of the religion to which the dead person belonged, and according to the ideas which he himself possessed of God.

"While making this prayer we must identify ourselves with the evoked person, speak as he spoke, believe in sense as he believed. Then, after a silence of fifteen minutes, we must speak to him as if he were present, with affection and with faith, praying him to appear before us. Renew this prayer mentally, covering the face with both hands; then call him thrice with a loud voice; remain kneeling, the eyes closed or covered, for some minutes; then call again thrice upon him in a sweet and affectionate tone, and slowly open the eyes. Should nothing result, the same experiment must be renewed in the following year, and if necessary a third time, when it is certain that the desired apparition will be obtained, and the longer it has been delayed the more realistic and striking it will be.

"Evocations of knowledge and intelligence are performed with more solemn ceremonies. If concerned with a celebrated personage, we must meditate for twenty-one days upon his life and writings, form an idea of his appearance, converse with him mentally, and imagine his answers. We must carry his portrait, or at least his name, about us; follow a vegetable diet for twenty-one days, and a severe fast during the last seven.

"We must next construct the magical oratory [This oratory must be invariably darkened]. If, however, the proposed operation is to take place during the daytime, we may leave a narrow aperture on the side where the sun will shine at the hour of the evocation, place a triangular prism facing the opening, and a crystal globe, filled with water, before the prism. If the experiment has been arranged for the night, the magic lamp must be so situated that its single ray shall upon the altar smoke. The purpose of the preparations is to furnish the Magic Agent with elements of corporeal appearance, and to ease as much as possible the tension of imagination, which could not be exalted without danger into the absolute illusion of dream. For the rest, it will be easily understood that a beam of sunlight, or the ray of a lamp, coloured variously, and falling upon curling and irregular smoke, can in no way create a perfect image. The chafing-dish containing the sacred fire should be in the centre of the oratory, and the altar of perfumes hard by. The operator must turn towards the East to pray, and the West to invoke; he must be either alone or assisted by two persons preserving the strictest silence; he must wear the magical vestments, which we have described in the seventh chapter, and must be crowned with vervain and gold. He should bathe before the operation, and all his under garments must be of the most intact and scrupulous cleanliness.

"The ceremony should begin with a prayer suited to the genius of the spirit about to be invoked and one which would be approved by himself if he still lived. For example, it would be impossible to evoke Voltaire by reciting prayers in the style of St. Bridget. For the great men of antiquity, we may see the hymns of Cleanthes or Orpheus, with the adjuration terminating the Golden Verses of Pythagoras. In our own evocation of Apollonius, we used the Magical Philosophy of Patricius for the Ritual, containing the doctrines of Zoroaster and the writings of Hermes Trismegistus. We recited the Nuctemeron of Apollonius in Greek with a loud voice and added the following conjuration: 'Vouchsafe to be present, O Father of All, and thou Thrice Mighty Hermes, Conductor of the Dead. Asclepius son of Hephaistus, Patron of the Healing Art; and thou Osiris, Lord of strength and vigour, do thou thyself be present too. Arnebascenis, Patron of Philosophy, and yet again Asclepius, son of Imuthe, who presidest over poetry. Apollonius, Apollonius, Apollonius, Thou teachest the Magic of Zoroaster, son of Oromasdes; and this is the worship of the Gods.'

"For the evocation of spirits belonging to religions issued from Judaism, the following Kabalistic invocation of Solomon should be used, either in Hebrew, or in any other tongue with which the spirit in question is known to have been familiar: 'Powers of the Kingdom, be ye under my left foot and in my right hand! Glory and Eternity, take me by the two shoulders, and direct me in the paths of victory! Mercy and Justice, be ye the equilibrium and splendour of my life! Intelligence and Wisdom, crown me! Spirits of Malchuth, lead me betwixt the two pillars upon which rests the whole edifice of the temple! Angels of Netsah and Hod, strengthen me upon the cubic stone of Jesod! O Gedulael! O Geburael! O Tiphereth! Binael, be thou my love! Ruach Hochmael, be thou my light! Be that which thou art and thou shalt be, O Ketheriel! Tschim, assist me in the name of Saddai! Cherubim, be my strength in the name of Adonai! Beni-Elohim, be my brethren in the name of the Son, and by the power of Zebaoth! Eloim, do battle for me in the name of Tetragrammation! Melachim, protect me in the name of Jod He Vau He! Seraphim, cleanse my love in the name of Eloi and Schechinah! Aralim, act! Ophanim, revolve and shine! Hajoth a Kadosh, cry, speak, roar, bellow! Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Saddai, Adonai, Jotchavah, Eieazereie: Hallelu-Jah, Hallelu-jah, Hallelu-jah. Amen.'

"It should be remembered above all, in conjurations, that the names of Satan, Beelzebub, Adramelek, and others do not designate spiritual unities, but legions of impure spirits. 'Our name is legion, for we are many,' says the spirit of darkness in the Gospel. Number constitutes the law, and progress takes place inversely in hell as the domain of anarchy. That is to say, the most advanced in Satanic development, and consequently the most degraded, are the least intelligent and feeblest.

"Thus, a fatal law drives demons downward when they wish and believe themselves to be ascending. So also those who term themselves chiefs are the most impotent and despised of all. As to the horde of perverse spirits, they tremble before an unknown, invisible, incomprehensible, capricious, implacable chief, who never explains his laws, whose arm is ever stretched out to strike those who fail to understand him. They give this phantom the names of Baal, Jupiter, and even others more venerable, which cannot, without profanation, be pronounced in hell. But this Phantom is only the shadow and remnant of God disfigured by their wilful perversity, and persisting in imagination like a visitation of justice and a remorse of truth.

"When the evoked spirit of light manifests with dejected or irritated countenance, we must offer him a moral sacrifice, that is, be inwardly disposed to renounce whatever offends him; and before leaving the oratory, we must dismiss him, saying: 'May peace be with thee! I have not wished to trouble thee; do thou torment me not. I shall labour to improve myself as to anything that vexes thee. I pray, and will still pray, with thee and for thee. Pray thou also both with and for me, and return to thy great slumber, expecting that day when we shall wake together. Silence and adieu!"'

Necromancy Around the World

The last example is, of course, of modern European necromancy, from France, the center of the modern magical revival. The evocation procedure followed by various peoples elsewhere is totally different. Among certain Australian tribes, for example, the necromants were called "Birraark." It is said that a Birraark was supposed to be initiated by the "mrarts" (ghosts) when they met him wandering in the bush. It was from the ghosts that he obtained replies to questions concerning events passing at a distance, or yet to happen, that might be of interest or moment to his tribe.

An account of a spiritual séance in the bush is given in a discussion of the Kamilaroi and Kurnai peoples: "The fires were let down; the Birraark uttered the cry 'Coo-ee' at intervals. At length a distant reply was heard, and shortly afterwards the sound as of persons jumping on the ground in succession. A voice was then heard in the gloom asking in a strange intonation 'What is wanted?' At the termination of the séance, the spirit voice said, 'We are going.' Finally, the Birraark was found in the top of an almost inaccessible tree, apparently asleep."

In Japan, ghosts were traditionally raised in various ways. One mode was to "put into an andon (a paper lantern in a frame) a hundred rushlights, and repeat an incantation of a hundred lines. One of these rushlights is taken out at the end of each line, and the would-be-ghost-seer then goes out in the dark with one light still burning, and blows it out, when the ghost ought to appear. Girls who have lost their lovers by death often try that sorcery."

The mode of procedure as practiced in Scotland was thus. The haunted room was made ready. He, "who was to do the daring deed, about nightfall entered the room, bearing with him a table, a chair, a candle, a compass, a crucifix if one could be got, and a Bible. With the compass he cast a circle on the middle of the floor, large enough to hold the chair and the table. He placed within the circle the chair and the table, and on the table he laid the Bible and the crucifix beside the lighted candle. If he had not a crucifix, then he drew the figure of a cross on the floor within the circle. When all this was done, he rested himself on the chair, opened the Bible, and waited for the coming of the spirit. Exactly at midnight the spirit came. Sometimes the door opened slowly, and there glided in noiselessly a lady sheeted in white, with a face of woe and told her story to the man on his asking her in the name of God what she wanted. What she wanted was done in the morning, and the spirit rested ever after. Sometimes the spirit rose from the floor, and sometimes came forth from the wall. One there was who burst into the room with a strong bound, danced wildly round the circle, and flourished a long whip round the man's head, but never dared to step within the circle. During a pause in his frantic dance he was asked, in God's name, what he wanted. He ceased his dance and told his wishes. His wishes were carried out, and the spirit was in peace."

In Sir N. W. Wraxall's Memoirs of the Courts of Berlin, Dresden, Warsaw, and Vienna (2 vols., 1799), there is an account of the raising of the ghost of the Chevalier de Saxe. Reports had been circulated that at his palace at Dresden there was a large sum of money hidden, and it was said that if his spirit could be compelled to appear, interesting secrets might be extorted from him. Curiosity, combined with avarice, accordingly prompted his principal heir Prince Charles to try the experiment. On the appointed night, one Schrepfer was the operator in raising the apparition. He commenced his proceedings by retiring into the corner of the gallery, where, kneeling down with many mysterious ceremonies, he invoked the spirit to appear. At length a loud clatter was heard at all the windows on the outside, resembling more the effect produced by a number of wet fingers drawn over the edge of glasses than anything else to which it could well be compared. This sound announced the arrival of the good spirits, and was shortly followed by a yell of a frightful and unusual nature, which indicated the presence of malignant spirits. Schrepfer continued his invocations, when "the door suddenly opened with violence, and something that resembled a black ball or globe rolled into the room. It was enveloped in smoke or cloud, in the midst of which appeared a human face, like the countenance of the Chevalier de Saxe, from which issued a loud and angry voice, exclaiming in German, 'Carl, was wollte du mit mir?"' (Charles, what would thou do with me?) By reiterated exorcisms Schrepfer finally dismissed the apparition, and the terrified spectators dispersed fully convinced of his magical powers.

Since the rituals of magical evocation date back to the ancient East, it is not surprising to find that European rituals have parallels in Arabia, Persia, India, China, Tibet and Japan. In the modern occult revival, such rituals have been popularized side by side with European traditions; various hybrid forms have also evolved.

(See also ceremonial magic ; magical diagrams ; magical instruments and accessories ; New Zealand )


Lévi, Éliphas. The History of Magic. London: William Rider, 1913.

Shah, Sayed Idries Shah. Oriental Magic. London: Rider, 1956.

. The Secret Lore of Magic: Books of the Sorcerers. London: Frederick Muller, 1957.

Smedley, Edward, W. C. Taylor, Henry Thompson, and Elihu Rich. The Occult Sciences. London and Glasgow: Richard Griffin, 1855.

Waite, Arthur E. The Book of Ceremonial Magic. London: William Rider & Son, 1911. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1961. Reprinted as The Book of Black Magic and Ceremonial Magic. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

. The Occult Sciences. 1891. Reprint, Secaucus, N.J.: University Books, 1974.


views updated May 23 2018


NECROMANCY , the art or practice of magically conjuring up the souls of the dead, is primarily a form of divination. The principal purpose of seeking such communication with the dead is to obtain information from them, generally regarding the revelation of unknown causes or the future course of events. The cause of the death of the deceased who is questioned may be among the facts sought.

More generally, necromancy is often considered synonymous with black magic, sorcery, or witchcraft, perhaps because the calling up of the dead may occur for purposes other than information seeking, or because the separation of divination from its consequences is not always clear. There is also a linguistic basis for the expanded use of the word: the term black art for magic appears to be based on a corruption of necromancy (from Greek necros, "dead") to nigromancy (from Latin niger, "black").

Limited to the practice of magical conjuration of the dead, necromancy does not include communication employing mediums, as in spiritualism or spiritism. Nor does it include encounters with the souls of the departed during the spirit journeys of shamans, apparitions of ghosts, or communications in dreams, with the possible exception of those in dreams resulting from incubation.

Divination is undoubtedly a universal phenomenon found in all cultures. In the form of necromancy, however, it is relatively infrequent, though widespread. Only limited descriptions and documentation of the phenomenon are available, and only for certain periods and regions. Necromancy presupposes belief in both a form of life after death and the continued interest of the dead in the affairs of the living. As such it may well be associated with complex funerary and postfunerary customs and with ancestor worship.

Techniques of Necromancy

Necromancy is a theme often found in myths, legends, and literary works. Such texts may describe communications with the dead or state their messages, but they seldom provide information on actual techniques that might have been employed in a given community. With regard to classical antiquity, Greek and Roman accounts deal with cases described in myth and legend, but there is no evidence of actual necromantic practices, whether in inscriptions or in documentation of specific historic events. More generally, where actual descriptions exist of rites in other societies rather than fabulous accounts or rumors and accusations, inquiries are connected with burial and burial preparation. Here the questioning of the corpse may concern the cause of death and the identification of a murderer. Other necromantic practices involve rites at the grave site with the use of the name or some part of the deceased, often his or her skull. The response may be in the form of an utterance produced by the diviner, either in a trance state or through ventriloquism. It may also be revealed in the form of a sign; this may involve the interpretation of an omen or the drawing of lots.

The concept of necromancy is of limited utility for at least two reasons. First, it is linked to its history in the Western tradition and therefore difficult to employ in analyzing beliefs and practices of other cultures with different traditions. Second, necromancy is also only one of several types of divinatory practices, and these tend to shade into each other. For both of these reasons the term is of limited value in cross-cultural research, and it is not generally utilized in modern ethnographic studies.

Necromancy in Antiquity

The ancient Greeks believed that the dead had great prophetic powers and that it was possible to consult them by performing sacrifices or pouring libations at their tombs. Such offerings were also part of the funerary and postfunerary ceremonies. The legendary visit of Odysseus to Hades to consult the seer Tiresias, as described in Book 11 of the Odyssey, has also been classified as an instance of necromancy. Various other classical texts include references to formal oracles of the dead; however, these generally speak of practices not among Greeks but in remote locations or among barbarians. They cannot be considered reliable reports of actual practices.

Most information on necromancy among Nordic and Germanic peoples comes from the sagas. A number of references appear, for example, in the Eddas. Odin (Óðinn) is, among other things, god of the dead, and in one account he awakens a dead prophetess in order to consult her. It is not known whether or not such conjurations took place. Interpretation of the movement of rune-inscribed sticks appears to have been practiced. Necromancy was only one of numerous techniques of divination and one considered to be particularly dangerous, especially when the dead were not family members. It appears to have been prohibited even prior to the conversion of these peoples to Christianity.

Necromancy appears to have been unknown, or at least unreported, among the Etruscans and in the earlier periods of Roman history. It may have been introduced with other Hellenistic and Oriental divinatory and magic practices, all of which were prohibited by Augustus (63 bce14 ce). Like other forms of divination and magic, which might include the use of poisons, necromancy was perceived as a potential political tool, dangerous in a world of personal power and ambition. The emperors, however, surrounded themselves with diviners of all sorts. The concerns of medieval Christianity with necromancy and magic have their roots in this period as well as in biblical prohibitions.

Numerous divinatory techniques are mentioned in the Bible. The account of the so-called Witch of Endor (1 Sm. 28) is frequently cited as an example of necromancy and of the prohibitions attached to it (cf. Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Isaiah ). Necromancy is mentioned in the Talmud among other divinatory practices. Although it is severely condemned, several examples are cited. The practice appears to have been rare, but it left its trace in rabbinic sources and medieval Jewish magical beliefs, perhaps reinforced by the beliefs of the Christians among whom the Jews lived. Magical beliefs, many of pre-Christian origins, continued throughout the Middle Ages.

Late Medieval and Renaissance Necromancy

The primary use of the term refers to the period between the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. This was a time of great social and political instability and change. It was also the time when fear of and persecution of witches took hold in Europe. In England the several shifts between Catholicism and Protestantism were linked to fears of resistance and repression.

One of the crimes of which witches were accused was necromancy, conjuring up the dead as well as (or with the help of) the devil. It was in this context that the term necromancy came to be used as synonymous with demonic magic; that is, magic performed with the devil's assistance. It no longer referred exclusively or even principally to magic using bodies of the dead or conjuring up the spirits of the dead. There are two major sources of information about these beliefs and practices. These are the instructions used by witch-hunters and exorcists, on the one hand, and the surviving manuals and books of magic, on the other. Possession of such books itself was a basis for prosecution. The introduction of printing and the resulting availability of books to a larger number of people were in part responsible for the wider diffusion of such texts.

Manuals such as the Munich Book of Necromancy, which dates from the fifteenth century, are rich sources of information on the general subject of the magic of the period. The Munich Book contains detailed information of what magicians claimed to be able to do and said they actually did. Interestingly, this concerns not only specifics on how to gain magical powers through conjurations, and about the spirits that could be conjured up, but also provides information on various forms of stage magic, particularly illusionist experiments that could be performed for entertainment, such as producing the appearance of banquets, horses, and castles. Some aspects of modern illusionist stage magic seem to have a long tradition behind them.

Reading and owning books in themselves gave rise to suspicions, and the possession of such books of magic was often sufficient for a person to be accused and prosecuted for necromancy. Suspect books were confiscated and burned. Lower-level clergy (men with some literacy) were frequently accused of practicing necromancy by the use of books. Women, who were less likely to be literate, seem generally not to have been suspected of manual-based necromantic practices. Rather, they were accused of using spells, of making pacts with the devil, and of having animal familiars. The fear of black magic and legislation against it often reflected anxiety over its possible use for political purposes. An example is King James's 1604 decree of death for anyone using the body of a dead person or any of its parts for purposes of magic. This fear is also seen in writings of the period. Shakespeare's Macbeth shows witches conspiring to practice necromancy: they collect body parts on a battlefield, and in Act IV they use the dead to prophecy.

Necromancy in Archaic Cultures

Spanish chronicles, composed shortly after the conquest of Peru, record that the Inca had two special classes of diviners who consulted the dead, one group specializing in dealing with mummies of the dead and another consulting various spirit beings and their representations, which the Spaniards referred to as idols. The reports are written from the perspective of sixteenth-century Spaniards at a time when, in their own country, the Inquisition searched out necromancers and others considered sorcerers and heretics.

In the Huon Gulf region of New Guinea, throughout the nineteenth century and prior to the arrival of missionaries, all deaths were attributed to magic. The identification of the sorcerer who had caused the death was carried out by a diviner, who conjured the spirit of the deceased into one of several types of objects. It was then questioned, and "yes" or "no" responses were obtained from the motion of the object. The most common object used was a stunned eel, whose convulsions were interpreted as "yes" responses. Other objects might be an upturned shell or a piece of bamboo held in the hand. The movements of these objects were subject to some manipulations, and the answers were often used to confirm suspicions held by popular opinion.

In Haiti a tradition exists that is derived from both European influences of the colonial period and West African traditions. As part of postfunerary rites of Vodou initiates, one of the two souls with which every person is endowed is removed from a temporary sojourn underwater and settled in a family shrine. During this ceremony the soul is questioned on various matters of interest. At a later time it may be called into a jar for purposes of consultation. Like conversations with the dead in parts of Africa, as, for instance, among the Zulu, this process appears to involve ventriloquism by the performing ritual specialist. It is also believed that sorcerers can send the spirit of one or more dead persons into the body of a victim to cause illness and eventual death if appropriate counter-rites are not performed. These involve the identification of both the dead and the sender. The diagnostic process may involve the direct questioning of the dead using the patient as a medium or by scrying (water gazing) or using other divinatory techniques. The Haitian example suggests the difficulty in drawing clear lines between sorcery, divination, diagnosis, and healingthat is, between rituals with positive or negative intent, or even among the various divinatory techniques. As a result it is doubtful that the term necromancy is used appropriately for any of these practices.

From the perspective of research methods, it is important to distinguish between studies based on written sources, often of a fragmentary nature, and ethnographic studies of living people, their beliefs, and their customs. In contrast to written sources, living people can be observed and questioned, so a larger context for their understandings can be discerned.

The term necromancy has changed meaning in the course of time. The practices described as necromantic were seen as the very essence of evil in the period of the Renaissance. Calling up the dead to question them, as described in Greek literature and myth, was not necessarily evil but might be concerned with decision making about the future and practical matters. How the dead are understood as potentially active in the world of the living has varied not only from culture to culture but also from period to period. Distinctions are often made between those who died a natural death and those who did not. In modern times, faith healing by means of calling on the help of the dead has been referred to as necromancy in the United States. This gives the term a different meaning, unrelated to black magic. As interest in various aspects of the occult has seen a revival in the United States, curiosity about necromancy has also grown.

See Also



Callaway, Henry. The Religious System of the Amazulu in the Zulu Language with Translation into English and Notes in Four Parts (1870). Africana Collectanea, vol. 35. Cape Town, South Africa, 1970.

Caquot, André, and Marcel Leibovici, eds. La divination. 2 vols. Paris, 1968.

Caro Baroja, Julio. The World of the Witches. Translated by O. N. V. Glendinning. Chicago, 1964.

Godwin, William. Lives of the Necromancers. London, 1834.

Hogbin, Herbert Ian. The Island of Menstruating Men: Religion in Wogeo, New Guinea. Scranton, Pa., 1970.

Hughes, Pennethorne. Witchcraft (1952). Baltimore, 1965.

Institoris, Heinrich, and Jakob Sprenger. The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger (1928). Translated by Montague Summers. New York, 1971.

Junod, Henri A. The Life of a South African Tribe. 2d ed., rev. and enl. 2 vols. London, 1927. The 1912 first edition has been reprinted, New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1962.

Kieckhefer, Richard. Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century. Stroud, U.K., 1997.

Métraux, Alfred. Voodoo in Haiti. New York, 1959.

Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. New York, 1939; reprint, New York, 1982.

Williams, Charles. Witchcraft. New York, 1941; reprint, New York, 1959.

Wills, Garry. Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth. New York, 1995.

Erika Bourguignon (1987 and 2005)


views updated May 14 2018


Necromancy involves the evocation of spirits of deceased individuals for the purpose of divination. Some magicians believed that spirits could only be summoned during the first year of that person's death. Necromancy was forbidden by the Laws of Moses, but even the great king Saul (11th century b.c.e.) sought the advice of the prophet Samuel through the mediumship of the Witch of Endor. The Christian clergy also condemned the practice since the earliest days of the church. None of these warnings and proclamations have prevented sorcerers and magi from attempting to evoke the spirits of the dead through a variety of rituals.

A spirit could not be called without the magician first taking steps to protect himself. Should he not do this, his soul would be in danger. Protection took the form of talismans, seals, special powdered concoctions, and, most importantly, the magic circle. As long as the magician stood within the magic circle, he was invulnerable to whatever spirit entity he managed to call up.

A variety of circles were used. Sometimes a triple circle was drawn, the diameter of each concentric circle being six inches less than the one surrounding it. The outermost circle was marked at four equidistant points for north, south, east, and west. Magical words were written at each point: "Agial" at the eastern, "Tzabaoth" at the southern, "Jhvh" at the western, and "Adhby" at the northern. Between each of these points a pentacle, or five-pointed star, was drawn.

The magician placed his brazier of lighted charcoal at the eastern point, in the smallest circle. Then his altar, its center plumb with the center of the brazier, was equipped. Upon the altar were the ritual tools, including salt water, incense, candles, and herbs appropriate to his specific undertaking. Lighted candles would also be placed around the outside circle. Each tool was carefully consecrated and wrapped in white linen.

In the circle with him, the magician would have prepared the proper talismans. Inscribed also within the circle were the seals of the spirits to be evoked. Next, a triangle was drawn to the side of the magic circle, and it was in this triangle that the spirit would manifest. The magician then commenced with the conjuration, the first order of business being the evocation of the magician's own guardian spirit. This was a further assurance of protection. Then the evocation of the planetary spirit was attempted.

Still other rites demanded that the magician draw a circle containing Solomon's seal (Star of David) with a rectangle superimposed over it, a cross within the center diamond formed by the seal. Solomon's seal was especially recommended for summoning air spirits. According to Peter of Abano (an occult author who lived from 1250 to 1318), this summoning should take place when the moon is waxing. Abano also recommended the inscription of four concentric circles for the invocation of good spirits. This should be done in the first hour of a Sunday in springtime. The names inscribed in the circles were Varcan, the Lord's king-angel of the air, and Tus, Andas, and Cynabel, who are the Lord's holy ministers. The highest angels of Sunday, according to Abano, are Michael, Dardiel, and Huratapal. The north wind carries these angels, and they can be invoked by magical ceremonies employing incense made of red sanders.

Delving Deeper

Ahmed, Rollo. The Black Art. London: Arrow Books, 1966.

De Grivy, Emile Grillot. A Pictorial Anthology of Witchcraft, Magic & Alchemy. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.

Levi, Eliphas. Transcendental Magic. London: Rider & Co, 1958.

Waite, Arthur Edward. The Book of Ceremonial Magic. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1960.


views updated May 29 2018


A form of magic employed for calling up the spirits of the dead, or demons, to foretell the future or to accomplish some other act in the natural world that would otherwise be impossible. The practitioners from ancient times to the present have usually belonged to a special class of priests or seers. Necromancy, in various forms, has had a worldwide distribution. It had an important place in the Assyro-Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations, and a well-known example is found in the Old Testament. The Greeks were familiar with it, as is indicated by the elaborate ritual used by Odysseus in calling up the spirits of the dead (Odyssey, 11.23332), and by the role assigned to the departed in temple medicine. It was current also among the Etruscans and Romans. Although necromancy was severely condemned by the Church, repeated references are made to the practice in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and a considerable body of writings on the subject is extant. The traditional necromancy was made famous by the Faust legend and its literary treatment by Marlowe and Goethe.

See Also: divination; magic

Bibliography: h. j. rose, j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 4:775780, esp.778. k. prÜmm, Religionsgeschichtliches Handbuch für den Raum der altchristlichen Umwelt (2d ed. Rome 1954) 380383. t. hopfner, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (1935) 16.2:221833. j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827), index volume, see "necromancy." l. thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 v. (New York 192358), see index in each volume.

[t. a. brady]


views updated Jun 27 2018


Necromancy (derived from the Greek nekros, meaning "dead," and manteia, meaning "divination") is the evocation of the dead to obtain omens about future events or secret facts. It is based upon the belief that the deceased, free of physical limits, holds the power to obtain information that is not accessible to the living.

Necromancy is a practice that originated in ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome, but was most popular during the Middle Ages, and is rare today. The most common form of necromancy is to summon the spirit of the corpse by sacrifices and incantations but there is also the less common practice of attempting to raise the corpse to life. The rituals demand meticulous execution and exacting preparations involving the choice of a proper place, for example a cemetery or the ruins of an ancient monastery; the choice of the right time, usually between the hours of midnight and one in the morning; use of specific incantations; and accessories, such as bells. One of the most important elements is the use of a magic circle which protects the necromancer and his or her assistant from being harmed by provoking the dead.

There are many examples of necromancy throughout history, but the best-known necromancer was the witch of Endor, who, according to the Bible, summoned the spirit of Samuel to answer Saul's questions. Often considered a sinister practice, necromancy was condemned by the Catholic Church and was outlawed by the Witchcraft Act of 1604 in Elizabethan England.

See also: Communication with the Dead; Dead Ghetto


Drury, Nevill. Dictionary of Mysticism and the Occult. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.

Guiley, Rosemary E. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. New York: Facts on File, 1989.

Shepard, Leslie A. Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology, 3rd edition. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991.



views updated May 11 2018

nec·ro·man·cy / ˈnekrəˌmansē/ • n. the supposed practice of communicating with the dead, esp. in order to predict the future. ∎  witchcraft, sorcery, or black magic in general.DERIVATIVES: nec·ro·man·cer / -sər/·ro·man·tic / ˌnekrəˈmantik/ adj.


views updated May 18 2018

necromancy the supposed practice of communicating with the dead, especially in order to predict the future. The word comes from Middle English nigromancie, via Old French from medieval Latin nigromantia, changed (by association with Latin niger ‘black’) from late Latin necromantia, where the first element represented Greek nekros ‘corpse’.

The translator Philemon Holland (1552–1637) gave the name Necromancy to that part of the Odyssey (book 6) which describes Odysseus' visit to Hades.


views updated Jun 27 2018

necromancy XIII. Earliest forms in nigro-, nigra-, negro- — OF. nigromancie — Rom. (medL.) nigromantia, alt., by assoc. with niger, nigr- black, of late L. necromantīa — Gr. nekro-manteíā, f. nekrós + manteíā; see prec., -MANCY; refash. XVI as in F. after L. and Gr.
So necromancer (-ER2) XIV.