One thing most ancient civilizations share is a fascination with the dead. The art of necromancy, or communicating beyond the grave through reanimation of dead 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” and manteia, meaning “divination.” It is the mystical process of bringing the dead 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 dead into the mortal world, often against their will and with grave consequences. Talking to the dead is not for the faint of heart, and the lore surrounding what necromancy is can be equally as terrifying.
Witches Have Used It For Centuries - Sometimes In Gruesome Ways
Necromancy is most commonly associated with witches and witchcraft. Since the 1st century, tales of witches using necromancy for power and insight have appeared in urban legends and lore from multiple cultures. Part of this association comes from the belief witches work with spirits, including those of humans, animals, plants, and the Earth itself.
One of the more memorable is the story of Sextus, the son of Pompey the Great, who in the 1st century sought out the help of the legendary Erichtho - a Thessalian witch known to be both horrifying and dangerous. Regardless of her reputation, Sextus was desperate to know the outcome of the Battle of Pharsalus before it happened. Erichtho was a serious necromancer who set up residence in a graveyard to facilitate her conversations with the dead and promised to help Sextus with his query.
In a gruesome scene, she wandered a battlefield in search of an uninjured cadaver whose neck and lungs still allowed him to speak, and when she found one, she cleaned out the organs and cut a hole above the heart, filling the body with a potion of warm blood called “lunar poison” consisting of hyena flesh, snakeskin, and the foam from the mouths from rabid dogs. Calling on the help of Hermes, the guide of the dead, 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 relieved because above all else, he knew. And just knowing was enough to empower him to accept his fate.
Rituals Are Extremely Elaborate And Involve Black Magic
Rituals could be both mundane and grotesque, depending on the purpose of the divination, but 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, like the home of the deceased subject, a church, or a dark graveyard.
All of these morbid practices were just the warm-up for the eventual summoning of the spirit. 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.
Some Religions Still Practice Necromancy
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 - like voodoo and santeria. Necromancy is still practiced in the Afro-Brazilian religion Quimbanda and is closely connected to the spirit Pomba Gira who is the messenger of the supreme and deity of soul possession. Still practiced in urban areas of Brazil today, Quimbanda sprang from the religious practice of Macumba which is the name for all non-Abrahamic religious practices of the area during the 19th century.
The more Europeanized sect of the same religion is called Umbanda and demonstrates how these small, decentralized belief systems have branched in many unique directions. Like voodoo and santeria - both originating from Africa - the autonomy of their temples and lack of overarching doctrine have allowed them to include traditions involving necromancy without much criticism.
Different Groups Debate What Exactly The Risen Dead Know
But what do the dead really know? This question has been up for debate throughout the centuries. Some cultures - like the Romans and the Greeks - believed the dead had a limited knowledge, whereas others considered the dead to know all.
Roman poet Ovid wrote in the Metamorphoses that many felt the dead converged in a space beneath the earth with the intention of exchanging “news and gossip.” Others thought they were much more sinister. The Jews of the Hellenistic period in the Bible called necromancers “bone-conjurers” with the ability to bring harm to the Israelites. The Book of Deuteronomy specifically warned against allowing one’s “son or daughter to pass through the fire” of divination, as it was an abomination to the Lord and strictly forbidden. And even though Mosaic Law went on to say practitioners of necromancy should be put to death, this warning often went unheeded.