Necromancy from Antiquity to Medieval and Modern Times

Necromancy from Antiquity to Medieval and Modern Times

By Christa Agnes Tuczay

The Ritual Year, Vol.10: Magic in Rituals and Rituals in Magic, edited by Tatiana Minniyakhmetova and Kamila Velkoborská (2015)

Abstract: Scholars agree that necromancy is defined as a special mode of divination by evocation of the dead, while the similar term nigromancy became a synonym for black magic as opposed to white magic or the art of trickery or illusionary magic. Although the latter was often suspected of crossing the line to demonic magic, necromancy was always located in a forbidden area.

Introduction:  The art of necromancy is based on three premises: 1) The survival of the soul after death 2) The supernatural knowledge of the spirits 3) Communication between the living and the dead

Necromancy is found in all times and cultures and occurs in paganism as well as in biblical sources. One of the oldest accounts is a representative example. In Homer’s “Odyssey”, Ulysses evokes the spirits of dead in order to learn the future. Guided by Circe he performs several rites until two spirits appear but he waits for the expert Tiresias. Various instances of necromancy have been recorded by the Greek authors, Plutarch, Herodotus and Pausanias, and the Roman authors, Horace, Cicero, Tacitus and Dio Cassius. Poets like Lucan narrate horrific but impressive dramatic rituals based on necromancy.

Although necromancy is considered the most condemned divination practice, the Bible includes the necromantic episode of the woman of Endor which has given rise to much debate. In Christian thought necromancy holds an unsavoury proximity to demoniacal influence although it was believed that God allows the apparitions of dead spirits. The nature of spirits and demons who appeared in the guise of dead relatives was an often disputed matter. Necromancy is defined as divination by the evocation of the dead. Medieval sources equate necromancy with nigromancy. Deriving from the Latin word niger = black, the term refers to black magic or the black art. Black magic is defined as employing the help of evil spirits, while white magic was based on human dexterity and trickery.

Click here to read this article from the Folklore Journal

Top Image: The Witch of Endor, by the Master of Otto van Moerdrecht, 15th century

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