Necromancy — The Dark Art of Summoning the Dead (Origin Explained)

Necromancy - The Dark Art of Summoning the Dead (Origin Explained)

What is Necromancy?

Necromancy is the practice of dark magic that involves communicating with the dead—either by summoning their spirits as apparitions, visions, or raising them bodily—for divination, imparting the means to foretell future events, discover hidden knowledge, bring someone back from the dead, or use the dead as a weapon. Sometimes referred to as “Death Magic,” the word can also be used more broadly to refer to black magic or witchcraft. Such behaviour was common among the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans in ancient times; in mediaeval Europe, it became connected with black (i.e., destructive, or antisocial) magic and was denounced by the church.

Magic is something that we commonly see through all types of fiction and works of fantasy. Most of the time it provides us with a major plot device; it allows us to submerge ourselves in a world that feels familiar yet unique and fantastical.

In works of fantasy and fiction, it’s common to see magic described as light and dark, good and evil. There are acceptable practices and then those that are taboo.

The subject of this article is necromancy—a practice that many classify as black magic or dark witchcraft. A school of magic that should not be practised, but that wasn’t always the case, and so today, we’ll look at some of the origins of necromancy how it evolved and what examples we have today. Before we go any further, we first need to define necromancy.

Definition of Necromancy

The term ‘Necromancy’ refers to a practice of magic that centres around communicating with the dead. This can involve summoning their spirit or even raising their entire body. As the spirit would no longer be considered part of our world, it’s believed they would have access to the past, present, and future.

Raising them physically is something we see from those who perhaps wish to bring a loved one back from the dead, or in some cases, they’re even used as a weapon to do the bidding of their master.

The word itself originated from the Latin Necromantia, which was taken from the Greek Nekromanteía or Necromathia, which meant divination by the means of a dead body. This takes us to some of the earliest accounts of necromancy which took place in Greece and Rome, along with Egypt and Babylonia.

The Practice of Necromancy in Greece

These practices are often compared to shamanism, and there was no stigma or notion of wrongdoing when it came to necromancy—this is something that came much later.

There was a practice in ancient Greece called Nekya or a Nekyia, which essentially was a rite or a ritual where the dead would be called upon to answer questions about the future.

The Practice of Necromancy in Greece
The Shade of Tiresias Appearing to Odysseus during the Sacrifice (c. 1780-85), painting by Johann Heinrich Füssli, showing a scene from Book Eleven of the Odyssey

One of the earliest examples we have of this kind of necromancy comes from Homer’s Odyssey, where we see the powerful sorceress Circe, who is capable of both raising and communion with the dead.

Circe then teaches many of these spells to Odysseus, the hero of the story. She then advises him to travel to the underworld and to perform a Nekyia, to gather the information needed for him to safely return home.

In book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus was instructed to raise the spirit of the blind prophet Tiresias, and this ritual is described in some detail. He must first light a fire in the dark of night and then sacrifice animals whose blood will be given to the shades or spirits to drink. Whilst doing this, he would recite the incantations given to him by Circe.

Odysseus encounters several spirits before seeing the Prophet, the most notable of these being his mother who he was shocked to see because he believed that she was still alive.

When Tiresias finally appears, he drinks the blood and begins to give Odysseus the information needed to make it home; first advising him not to eat the cattle of Apollo to avoid incurring his wrath. He also tells him that he will return home alone with none of his crew.

We can see from this example that necromancy wasn’t seen as an evil form of magic, almost quite the opposite. This type of necromancy would be used by numerous Greek and Roman poets who would include these rituals in their stories.

It became somewhat of a common trope for Greek and Roman heroes to perform a Katabasis—a physical journey to the underworld that involved performing a task or a quest, in many cases communion with the dead.

Those bringing the dead back to life were referred to as Necromancer, and it seemed when it came to summoning one’s body, they would mainly focus on those who had died recently within a year or two.

Rituals of necromancy did tend to vary. As we saw in Homer’s Odyssey, they can be grotesque, involving animal sacrifice and sometimes even mutilation and consumption of the dead.

Other times involves practices such as wearing the clothing of the deceased and consuming food such as blackened bread and unfermented grape juice, which was thought to symbolise the decay and lifelessness of death.

It was fairly common practice to see artefacts such as talismans and wands used alongside these incantations.

When Did Necromancy Become a Dark Art?

Association of necromancy to black magic

So, when did necromancy become this dark art—this school of magic that was considered unacceptable or taboo?

Most sources point to once the time of medieval Europe. When the church began to crack down on magic and witchcraft, necromancy was one of those practices to be condemned as dangerous.

The church labelled the act of necromancy as Maleficium—an act of witchcraft with the intention of doing harm. Necromancy would be equated to raising demons who hid under the guise of spirits.

The church believed that resurrection itself was an act that could only be performed with the assistance of God, and several clergies did perform certain degrees of necromancy. These practitioners were almost always highly trained and educated in astrology, demonology, and exorcism, combing the Christian, Jewish and Arabic teachings that centred around necromancy.

Practitioners of necromancy or necromancers outlined three things they believed could be achieved through the practice: knowledge, illusion, and the ability to manipulate the will of others. These three things can all be seen in a positive and a negative light—it just comes down to where you stand.

On one side, you have the church who believed those on the outside would use necromancy to harm others and benefit themselves; those who are not associated with the church saw it as an attempt to control and limit this form of magic so that it would only benefit the church.

Now, whether you believe these rituals and this school of magic is real, is completely up to you. My stance on Necromancy is pretty much the same as my stance on the supernatural and all sorts of myths and legends—I don’t personally believe in these stories, but I believe they created and inspired interesting ideas and archetypes that we used and still use today in storytelling, and that segues nicely onto the next part of the Article.

Necromancy in Popular Culture Today

Having discussed what necromancy is, where it came from and how it’s changed, we can now look at some more modern examples and how the archetype of a necromancer is used today.

For those of you who have been reading this article and waiting for examples of necromancers, there are quite a few that appear in big franchises that you likely would have heard of or seen before.

Lord of the Rings

Lord of the Rings - Sauron Necromancy

One that many of us would have come across in recent times is Tolkien’s character Sauron—the Dark Lord who went by many titles, one of these, of course, being ‘the necromancer’.

Those who have watched the movies and maybe read some of the books may be wondering why he was given this title because raising the dead isn’t something we see in any of the movies.

However, in the history of middle earth, a series of volumes collected by Tolkien’s son from all his father’s manuscripts in volume 10, Morgoth’s Ring, we see a quote that tells us he is indeed capable of communion with a dead, enslaving them and harnessing their knowledge.

It is, therefore, a foolish and perilous thing, besides being a wrong deed forbidden justly by the appointed Rulers of Arda, if the Living seeks to commune with the Unbodied, though the houseless may desire it, especially the most unworthy among them. For the Unbodied, wandering in the world, are those who at the least have refused the door of life and remain in regret and self-pity. Some are filled with bitterness, grievance, and envy. Some were enslaved by the Dark Lord and do his work still, though he himself is gone. They will not speak truth or wisdom. To call on them is folly. To attempt to master them and to make them servants of one’s own will is wickedness. Such practices are of Morgoth, and the necromancers are of the host of Sauron his servant.

The History of MIDDLE-EARTH Vol. 10—Morgoth’s Ring

Mortal Kombat

If we look at the Mortal Kombat franchise, we have Shang Tsung and Quan Shi, who both assumed roles of warlocks and sorcerers who dabble in the art of necromancy. In both their cases, they focus on raising the dead to form armies for their master and ultimately do their bidding.

Harry Potter

Raising an army of undead is honestly something that we see from most necromancers. In Harry Potter, we of course have Lord Voldemort, a wizard who did practice necromancy, raising an entire army of skeletons and zombies during the first wizarding war which consisted mostly of those he had already murdered.

Game of Thrones

We also see something like this with the white walkers and the night king of Game of Thrones who can raise the dead by simply lifting his arms.

Black Panther

Now, all these examples so far have evil intentions, and they are the villains of their respected stories, but as we’ve already seen necromancy wasn’t always considered a dark art and not all necromancers are depicted as evil.

Shuri viewed as a Necromancer

We’ve already discussed the story of Odysseus, who is the hero of Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey. If we look at the Marvel Universe and Black Panther in specific, T’Challa’s sister, Shuri, can reanimate the dead and she’s no villain.

Dr Frankenstein

Dr Frankenstein viewed as a Necromancer

We also have the rather interesting example of Dr Frankenstein, who many consider being a necromancer who certainly didn’t have evil intent. I do find the case of Dr Frankenstein to be quite strange because technically, you can argue that he did raise the dead and therefore he qualifies as a necromancer, but I tend to look at him as more of a man of science and he’s monster as a creation.

Why are Necromancers in Fiction Evil?

So, I guess we do have to ask ourselves, other than the influence of the church during the medieval period, why are so many necromancers in fiction evil?

I think it comes down to the fact that they just make good villains. When you defeat the villain’s army, you expect the battle or the war to be over, but with necromancers, they’re capable of summoning entire new armies from the corpses, giving this feeling of hopelessness.

They also have a level of knowledge obtained through communing with the dead that makes them more than just a formidable enemy.

There is also this taboo when it comes to messing with the dead and just leaving them to rest in peace; thus, the act of raising the dead can be seen as disrespectful and even evil in some cases.

There are some aspects of necromancy that we don’t always have to view through a lens of ill intent, such as communicating with a dead—I mean, sure, this is still an aspect that can be used negatively, but someone wanting closure for a close friend or a loved one is something that most of us can relate to.

How you choose to view necromancy is ultimately your choice, but hopefully, this article has been informative. I’m sure those of you who were unfamiliar with the necromancy archetype will start to notice it a lot more in your favourite stories.

Art Sources: Peter Ortiz, Bogdan Marica.

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