One thing most ancient civilizations share is a fascination with the afterlife. The art of necromancy, communicating beyond the grave through messages to ghosts or the reanimation of deceased flesh, has long been regarded as a deviant way to find answers in the realm of the underworld. Although it has been practiced in some way in nearly every ancient civilization, necromancy began primarily in ancient Persia, Greece, Rome, and Medieval Europe.
Referred to more commonly as sorcery or black magic, necromancy derives from the Greek words nekros, meaning "dead body," and manteia, meaning “divination.” It is the magical process of bringing the deceased to life with the intent of learning their secrets - a way to read the future, discover the unknown, or just exploit the wisdom of the grave. It's been the subject of many forbidden doctrines and is still used in some religions today. Although first considered by the ancient Greeks as a way to descend into the underworld of Hades, necromancy eventually evolved into the act of summoning the departed into the mortal world, often against their will and with grave consequences. Talking to the deceased is not for the faint of heart, and the lore surrounding what necromancy is can be equally as terrifying.
Necromancy is most commonly associated with witches and witchcraft. Since ancient days, tales of witches using necromancy for power and insight have appeared in legends and lore from multiple cultures. Part of this association comes from the belief that witches work with spirits, including those of humans, animals, plants, and the Earth itself.
One of the more memorable stories is the story of Sextus Pompey, who in the Roman poet Lucan's epic, sought out the help of Erichtho - a Thessalian witch known to be both horrifying and dangerous. Regardless of her reputation, Sextus was desperate to know the outcome of the civil war before it happened. Erichtho was a serious necromancer who set up residence in a graveyard to facilitate her conversations with the deceased and promised to help Sextus with his query.
In a gruesome scene, she wandered a battlefield in search of a cadaver whose neck and lungs still allowed him to speak, and when she found one, she and Sextus brought the body into a cave where the witch prepared it for her ritual. Calling on the help of Hermes, the guide of the dead, and other supernatural powers, she successfully summoned the spirit and the soldier's body was reanimated.
The animated body then described for Sextus the bleak civil war on the horizon and the inevitability of his own early death. Despite the bad omen from the spirit, Sextus was satisfied because above all else, he knew his fate.
Necromantic rituals could be both mundane and grotesque, depending on their purpose, but they were almost always elaborate - often involving talismans, incantations, magic circles, candles, symbols, and wands. The necromancer might wear the clothes of the deceased, sit for days without moving, or even mutilate and eat corpses as a way to call out to the other side. They would choose melancholy locations that were well-suited to their guidelines - perhaps the home of the deceased subject, a ruin, or a dark graveyard.
All of these morbid practices were just the warm-up for the eventual summoning of the spirit. According to folklore about necromancy, in order to raise a physical body from the other side, the process had to occur within one year of the death, otherwise, the necromancer would only be able to evoke the ghost, not the real person.
These days, existing practices of necromancy relate to the spiritualism of certain cultures who still believe the dead can lead the living into a realm of understanding. For example, necromancy is still practiced in the Afro-Brazilian religion Quimbanda, which purports that there are several types of spirits, including a group of female spirits called Pomba Giras and a group of male spirits called Exus, who can be called on for aid.
People who practice Quimbanda ask spirits to help them with specific tasks.
But what do the dead really know? This question has been up for debate throughout the centuries.
Roman poet Ovid wrote in the Metamorphoses that many felt the dead converged in an underworld marketplace where they exchanged news and gossip. Others thought they were much more sinister - including Jews and Christians. Many books of the Bible offered warnings against necromancy, fortune-telling, and false prophets.