Illustration portraying a scene from the Bible wherein the Witch of Endor uses a necromantic ritual to conjure the spirit of Samuel at the behest of Saul; from the frontispiece of Sadducismus Triumphatus (1681) by Joseph Glanvill.

Necromancy is a claimed form of magic that involves communication with the deceased, either by summoning their spirit in the form of an apparition or raising them bodily, for the purpose of divination, imparting the ability to foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge. The term may sometimes be used in a more general sense to refer to black magic or witchcraft.[1][2]

In Renaissance magic, necromancy (or nigromancy, negromancy, by popular association with negro "black"[3]) was classified as one of the seven "forbidden arts".[4]

The word "necromancy" derives from the Ancient Greek νεκρός (nekrós), "dead body", and μαντεία (manteía), "prophecy or divination". The compound νεκρομαντεία itself is post-classical, first used by Origen in the 3rd century CE. The classical Greek term is ἡ νέκυια (nekyia), νεκυιομαντεία in Hellenistic Greek, rendered as necyomantia in Latin, and as necyomancy in 17th century English.



Early necromancy was likely related to shamanism, which calls upon spirits such as the ghosts of ancestors. Classical necromancers addressed the dead in "a mixture of high-pitch squeaking and low droning", comparable to the trance-state mutterings of shamans.[5]

Necromancy was widespread throughout Western antiquity with records of its practice in Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In his Geographica, Strabo refers to νεκρομαντία (necyomanteis), or "diviners by the dead", as the foremost practitioners of divination amongst the people of Persia,[6] and it is believed to have also been widespread amongst the peoples of Chaldea (particularly the Sabians, or star-worshipers), Etruria, and Babylonia. The Babylonian necromancers were called Manzazuu or Sha'etemmu, and the spirits they raised were called Etemmu.

The oldest literary account of necromancy is found in Homer’s Odyssey.[7][8] Under the direction of Circe, a powerful sorceress, Odysseus travels to the underworld in order to gain insight about his impending voyage home by raising the spirits of the dead through the use of spells which Circe has taught him. He wishes to invoke and question the shade of Tiresias in particular; however, he is unable to summon the seer's spirit without the assistance of others. The Odyssey's passages contain many descriptive references to necromantic rituals: rites must be performed around a pit with fire during nocturnal hours, and Odysseus has to follow a specific recipe, which includes the blood of sacrificial animals, to concoct a libation for the ghosts to drink while he recites prayers to both the ghosts and gods of the underworld.[9]

Rituals such as these were common practices associated with necromancy, and varied from the mundane to the grotesque. Rituals in necromancy involved magic circles, wands, talismans, bells, and incantations.[10] Also, the necromancer would surround himself with morbid aspects of death, which often included wearing the deceased's clothing and the consumption of unsalted, unleavened black bread and unfermented grape juice, which symbolized decay and lifelessness.[10] Necromancers even went as far as taking part in the mutilation and consumption of corpses.[10] These rituals could carry on for hours, days, or even weeks, leading up the eventual summoning of spirits. Often they took place in graveyards or other melancholy venues that suited specific guidelines of the necromancer. Additionally, necromancers preferred summoning the recently departed, citing that their revelations were spoken more clearly; this timeframe usually consisted of twelve months following the death of the body.[11] Once this time period lapsed, necromancers would summon the deceased’s ghostly spirit to appear instead.

Although some cultures may have considered the knowledge of the dead to be unlimited, ancient Greeks and Romans believed that individual shades knew only certain things. The apparent value of their counsel may have been a result of things they had known in life, or of knowledge they acquired after death. Ovid writes in his Metamorphoses of a marketplace in the underworld where the dead can exchange news and gossip.[5][12]

There are also many references to necromancers, also called "bone-conjurers", in the Bible. The Book of Deuteronomy (18:9–12) explicitly warns the Israelites against engaging in the Canaanite practice of divination from the dead:

9When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do according to the abominations of those nations. 10There shall not be found among you any one 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, 11or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. 12For all who do these things are an abomination unto the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee (KJV).

This warning was not always heeded: one of the foremost examples of this was when King Saul had the Witch of Endor invoke the shade of Samuel, from Sheol, using a ritual conjuring pit (1 Samuel 28:3–25). Some Christian writers later rejected the idea that humans could bring back the spirits of the dead, and interpreted such shades as disguised demons, thus conflating necromancy with demon-summoning.

Caesarius of Arles entreats his audience to put no stock in any demons or gods other than the Christian God, even if the working of spells appears to provide benefit. He states that demons only act with divine permission and are permitted by God to test Christian people. Caesarius does not condemn man here; he only states that the art of necromancy exists, although it is prohibited by the Bible.[13]

Early and High Middle Ages

Norse mythology also contains examples of necromancy, such as the scene in the Völuspá in which Odin summons a seeress from the dead to tell him of the future.[14] In Grógaldr, the first part of Svipdagsmál, the hero Svipdag summons his dead Völva mother, Gróa, to cast spells for him. In Hrólf Kraki's saga, the half-elven princess Skuld was very skilled in witchcraft (seiðr), and this to the point that she was almost invincible in battle. When her warriors fell, she made them rise again to continue fighting.

Many medieval writers believed resurrection was impossible without the assistance of the Christian God. They translated the practice of divination as conjuring demons who took the appearance of spirits. The practice became known explicitly as demonic magic and was condemned by the Catholic Church.[15] Though the practitioners of necromancy were linked by many common threads, there is no evidence that these necromancers were ever organized as a group.

Medieval necromancy is believed to be a synthesis of astral magic derived from Arabic influences and exorcism derived from Christian and Jewish teachings. Arabic influences are evident in rituals that involve moon phases, sun placement, day and time. Fumigation and the act of burying images are also found in both astral magic and necromancy. Christian and Jewish influences are found in the symbols and conjuration formulas used in summoning rituals.[16]

Practitioners were often members of the Christian clergy, though some nonclerical practitioners are recorded. In some instances, mere apprentices or those ordained to lower orders dabbled in the practice. They were connected by a belief in the manipulation of spiritual beings – especially demons – and magical practices. These practitioners were almost always literate and well educated. Most possessed basic knowledge of exorcism and had access to texts of astrology and demonology. Clerical training was informal and admission to universities was rare. Most were trained under apprenticeships and were expected to have a basic knowledge of Latin, ritual and doctrine. This education was not always linked to spiritual guidance and seminaries were almost nonexistent. This absence allowed some aspiring clerics to combine Christian rites with occult practices despite its condemnation in Christian doctrine.[17]

Medieval practitioners believed they could accomplish three things with necromancy: will manipulation, illusions, and knowledge. Will manipulation affects the mind and will of another person, animal, or spirit. Demons are summoned to cause various afflictions on others “to drive them mad, to inflame them to love or hatred, to gain their favor, or to constrain them to do or not do some deed.”[18] Illusions involve reanimation of the dead, food and entertainment, or conjuring a mode of transportation. Knowledge is discovered through demons. Demons provide information on various things including identifying a criminal, finding items, or revealing future events.

The act of performing medieval necromancy usually involved magic circles, conjurations, and sacrifices such as those shown in the Munich Manual of Demonic Magic. Circles were usually traced on the ground, though cloth and parchment were sometimes implemented. Various objects, shapes, symbols, and letters may be drawn or placed within that represent a mixture of Christian and occult ideas. Circles were believed to empower and protect what was contained within, including protecting the necromancer from the conjured demons. Conjuration is the method of communicating with the demons to enter the physical world. It usually employs the power of special words and stances to call out the demons and often incorporated the use of Christian prayers or biblical verses. These conjurations may be repeated in succession or repeated to different directions until the summoning is complete. Sacrifice was the payment for summoning. Though it may involve the flesh of a human being or animal, it could sometimes be as simple as offering a certain object. Instructions for obtaining these items were usually specific. The time, location, and method of gathering items for sacrifice could also play an important role in the ritual.[19]

The rare confessions of those accused of Necromancy suggest that there was a range of spell casting and the related magical experimentation. It is difficult to determine if these details were due to their practices, as opposed to the whims of their interrogators. John of Salisbury is one of the first examples related by Richard Kieckhefer, but as a Parisian ecclesiastical court record of 1323 shows, a "group who were plotting to invoke the demon Berich from inside a circle made from strips of cat skin," were obviously participating in the church’s definition of "necromancy".[20]

Herbert Stanley Redgrove claims that necromancy was one of three chief branches of medieval ceremonial magic, the others being black magic and white magic.[21] This does not correspond to contemporary classifications, which use nigromancy and black arts synonymously.

Late Middle Ages to Renaissance

Engraving of occultists John Dee and Edward Kelley "in the act of invoking the spirit of a deceased person"; from Astrology (1806) by Ebenezer Sibly.

In the wake of inconsistencies of judgment, necromancers, sorcerers and witches were able to utilize spells with holy names with impunity, as biblical references in such rituals could be construed as prayers as opposed to spells. As a result, the necromancy discussed in the Munich Manual is an evolution of these understandings. It has even been suggested that the authors of the Munich Manual knowingly designed this book to be in discord with understood ecclesiastical law. The main recipe employed throughout the necromancy manual used the same religious language and names of power alongside demonic names. The understanding of the names of God from apocryphal texts and the Hebrew Torah demand that the author of such rites have at least a casual familiarity of these texts. Within the tales related in occult manuals, we also find connections with other stories in similar cultural literature.[22] The ceremony for conjuring a horse closely relates to the Arabic One Thousand and One Nights and French romances. Chaucer’s The Squire's Tale also has marked similarities. This becomes a parallel evolution of spells to foreign gods or demons that were once acceptable, and frames them into a new Christian context, albeit demonic and forbidden. As the source material for these manuals is apparently derived from scholarly magical and religious texts from a variety of sources in many languages, it is easy to conclude that the scholars who studied these texts manufactured their own aggregate sourcebook and manual with which to work spells or magic. In the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, it is stated that "Of all human opinions that is to be reputed the most foolish which deals with the belief in Necromancy, the sister of Alchemy, which gives birth to simple and natural things." [23]

Modern necromancy

In the present day, necromancy is more generally used as a term to describe the pretense of manipulation of death and the dead, often with a magical connotation. Contemporary séances, channeling, Spiritism and Spiritualism verge on necromancy when the supposedly invoked spirits are asked to reveal future events. Necromancy may also be presented as sciomancy, a branch of theurgic magic.

Because of their themes of spirit contact, the long-running show Supernatural Chicago and the annual Harry Houdini séance, both of which are held at the Excalibur nightclub in Chicago, Illinois, dub their lead performer "Neil Tobin, Necromancer".[24]

As to the practice of necromancy having endured in one form or another throughout the millennia, An Encyclopædia of Occultism states:

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 called sorcery, shades into modern spiritualistic practice. There is no doubt, however, that necromancy is the touch-stone of occultism, for if, after careful preparation the adept can carry through to a successful issue, the raising of the soul from the other world, he has proved the value of his art.[25]

Necromancy in media

Depiction of a necromancer from the Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game, illustrated by Wayne Breaux, Jr.[26]
Film and television
  • In the fourth season of the HBO series True Blood, primary antagonist Marnie Stonebrook uses necromancy to cause herself to become possessed by the spirit of Antonia Gavilán de Logroño, a witch who was burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition. As she was dying, Antonia used her power to gain control over all nearby vampires within 50 miles and caused them to walk into the sunlight, killing themselves; Marnie desires the same ability to manipulate vampires like puppets.

See also


  1. ^ "necromancy". Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster. April 2008. 
  2. ^ "necromancy". Oxford Dictionary of English (3rd rev. ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. August 2010. 
  3. ^ "nigromance". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. September 2003. 
  4. ^ Johannes Hartlieb (Munich, 1456) The Book of All Forbidden Arts; quoted in Láng, p. 124.
  5. ^ a b Luck.
  6. ^ Strabo. Geography, Book XVI, Chapter 2, Section 39.
  7. ^ Johnson, p. 808.
  8. ^ Ruickbie, p. 24.
  9. ^ Homer. Odyssey, Book X, Lines 10–11, and Book XI.
  10. ^ a b c Guiley, p. 215.
  11. ^ Lewis, p. 201.
  12. ^ Ovid. Metamorphoses, Book IV, Fable VII, Lines 440–464.
  13. ^ Kors & Peters, p. 48.
  14. ^ Ruickbie, p. 48.
  15. ^ Kieckhefer 2011, p. 152.
  16. ^ Kieckhefer 2011, p. 165–166.
  17. ^ Kieckhefer 2011, p. 153–154.
  18. ^ Kieckhefer 2011, p. 158.
  19. ^ Kieckhefer 2011, p. 159–162.
  20. ^ Kieckhefer 1998, p. 191.
  21. ^ Redgrove, p. 95.
  22. ^ Kieckhefer 1998, p. 43.
  23. ^ Leonardo da Vinci. Notebooks, Volume 2, Chapter XIX, Section III:1213.
  24. ^ "Supernatural Chicago". Excalibur Nightclub. Retrieved November 4, 2011. 
  25. ^ Spence, p. 286.
  26. ^ Siembieda, Wujcik, Cartier, Marciniszyn, Jacques & McCall, p. 32.
  27. ^ Cook, p. 31, 33, 81.
  28. ^ Kurtz.
  29. ^ Tweet, Cook & Williams, p. 32, 57, 174, 186, 192–196.
  30. ^ Siembieda, Long & Rosenstein, p. 99–109.
  31. ^ Siembieda, Sumimoto & Cartier, p. 83–107.
  32. ^ Siembieda, Wujcik, Cartier, Marciniszyn, Jacques & McCall, p. 31–38.
  33. ^ "Diablo II Expansion Set—Classes: Necromancers". Irvine, CA: Blizzard Entertainment. Retrieved September 2, 2011. 
  34. ^ "Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne—Undead Units: Necromancer". Irvine, CA: Blizzard Entertainment. Retrieved September 2, 2011. 
  35. ^ "World of Warcraft Core Classes: Arcanist (Necromancer)". WoWWiki. San Francisco, CA: Wikia. Retrieved September 2, 2011. 
  36. ^ "Death School". Wizard 101: Magic Schools. Austin, TX: KingsIsle Entertainment. Retrieved August 31, 2011. 


Further reading

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Necromancy — • A special mode of divination by the summoning of the dead Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Necromancy     Necromancy     † …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • Necromancy — Nec ro*man cy, n. [OE. nigromaunce, nigromancie, OF. nigromance, F. n[ e]cromance, n[ e]cromancie, from L. necromantia, Gr. ?; nekro s a dead body (akin to L. necare to kill, Skr. na[,c] to perish, vanish) + ? divination, fr. ? diviner, seer,… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • necromancy — (n.) c.1300, nygromauncy, divination by communication with the dead, from O.Fr. nigromancie magic, necromancy, witchcraft, sorcery, from M.L. nigromantia (13c.), from L. necromantia divination from an exhumed corpse, from Gk. nekromanteia, from… …   Etymology dictionary

  • necromancy — [n] sorcery abracadabra*, alchemy, bewitchment, black art, black magic, charm, conjuring, devilry, divination, enchantment, evil eye, hocus pocus*, incantation, jinx, magic, mumbo jumbo*, mysticism, occultism, spell, thaumaturgy, voodoo,… …   New thesaurus

  • necromancy — ► NOUN 1) prediction of the future by allegedly communicating with the dead. 2) witchcraft or black magic. DERIVATIVES necromancer noun necromantic adjective. ORIGIN from Greek nekros corpse …   English terms dictionary

  • necromancy — [nek′rə man΄sē] n. [ME nigromancie < OFr nigromance < ML nigromantia (altered by assoc. with L niger, black) < L necromantia < Gr nekromanteia < nekros, corpse (see NECRO ) + manteia, divination: see MANCY] 1. in some occult and… …   English World dictionary

  • necromancy — necromancer, n. necromantic; Obs., necromantical, adj. necromantically, adv. /nek reuh man see/, n. 1. a method of divination through alleged communication with the dead; black art. 2. magic in general, esp. that practiced by a witch or sorcerer; …   Universalium

  • necromancy — noun /ˈnɛkrəˌmænsi/ a) Divination involving the dead or death. And for to make this treatise the more pleasaunt and facill, I have put it in forme of a Dialogue, which I have diuided into three bookes: The first speaking of Magie in general, and… …   Wiktionary

  • necromancy — [13] Greek nekrós meant ‘corpse’ (it has given English necrophilia [19], necropolis ‘cemetery’ [19], and necrosis ‘death of tissue’ [17] as well as necromancy, and goes back to a base *nek ‘kill’ which also produced Latin nex ‘killing’, source of …   The Hutchinson dictionary of word origins

  • necromancy — [[t]ne̱krəmænsi[/t]] N UNCOUNT Necromancy is magic that some people believe brings a dead person back to this world so that you can talk to them. [FORMAL] …   English dictionary