TCD Tidbit #21 ~ Necromancy

by Arturo Perez-Reverte

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TCD Tidbit #21 ~ Necromancy

Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Sun Jul 27, 2008 5:00 pm

Apologies, Noodlemantras for being AWOL lately. I’ve been out of town for over a week but I’m finally back and ready to get going with more tidbits and get caught up around here! So here’s an interesting one to get back in the groove with. :-O

Pg. 227-228
“In that Prague, Mr. Corso, in those dark studies, there were men who practiced the carmina, the art of magic words, and necromancy, the art of communicating with the dead.” She paused, holding her breath, before whispering, “And goety…”

“The art of communicating with the devil.”


I was unable to find any definitions for carmina that fit this passage. The definitions I found for goety were “witchcraft and the summoning of evil spirits”, but not specific to the devil. It fact it was often given as a synonym for necromancy.


Necromancy is a form of divination in which the practitioner seeks to summon "operative spirits" or "spirits of divination", for multiple reasons, from spiritual protection to wisdom. The word necromancy derives from the Greek νεκρός (nekrós), "dead", and μαντεία (manteía), "divination".

However, since the Renaissance, necromancy has come to be associated more broadly with black magic and demon-summoning in general, sometimes losing its earlier, more specialized meaning.

Early necromancy is 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.

The historian Strabo refers to necromancy as the principal form of divination amongst the people of Persia, and it is believed to also have been widespread amongst the peoples of Chaldea (particularly amongst the Sabians or star-worshipers), Etruria, and Babylonia.

Necromancy was widespread in Western antiquity with records of practice in Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The oldest literary account of necromancy is in Homer’s Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE). In the Odyssey (XI, Nekyia), Odysseus under the tutelage of Circe, a powerful sorceress, makes a voyage to Hades, the Underworld, in an effort to raise the spirits of the dead using spells which Circe has instructed. His intention is to invoke and ask questions of the shade of Tiresias, in order to gain insight on the impending voyage home. Alas, he is unable to summon the spirit without the assistance of others. In Homer's passage, there are many references to specific rituals associated with necromancy; the rites must be done during nocturnal hours, and based around a pit with fire. In addition, Odysseus has to follow a specific recipe, which included using sacrificial animals blood for ghosts to drink, while he recites prayers to both the ghosts and gods of the underworld. Rituals, such as these, were common practices associated with necromancy, and varied from the mundane to the more grotesque. Rituals in necromancy involved magic circles, wands, talismans, bells, and incantations. Also, the necromancer would surround himself with morbid aspects of death, which often included wearing the deceased's clothing, consumption of unsalted, unleavened black bread and unfermented grape juice, which symbolized decay and lifelessness. Rituals, such as these, could carry on for hours, days, even weeks leading up the summoning of spirits. Often these practices took part in graveyards or in 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 12 months following the death of the body. 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, to the ancient Greeks and Romans, there is an indication 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 of a marketplace in the underworld, where the dead could exchange news and gossip.

There are also many references to necromancers, called "bone-conjurers", in the Bible. The Book of Deuteronomy (XVIII 9–12) explicitly warns the Israelites against the Canaanite practice of divination from the dead. This warning was not always heeded: King Saul has the Witch of Endor invoke the shade of Samuel using a magical amulet, for example. Later Christian writers 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.

High Middle Ages

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 Roman Catholic Church. 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.

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, (esp. 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.

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,”. 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. 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.

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.

Late Middle Ages to Renaissance

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 of Demonic Magic from the 15th century, 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 manual in the necromancy sorcery uses the same vocabulary and structure utilizing the same languages, sections, 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. The ceremony for conjuring a horse closely relates to the Arabic The Thousand and One Nights, and the 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 framing 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 that 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.”

Modern necromancy

In modern time necromancy is used as a more general term to describe the art (or manipulation) of death, and generally implies a magical connotation. Modern séances, channeling and Spiritualism verge on necromancy when the invoked spirits are asked to reveal future events. Necromancy may also be dressed up as sciomancy, divination using the shadows of ghosts.

Necromancy is extensively practiced in Quimbanda and is sometimes seen in other African traditions such as voodoo and in santeria.
Last edited by DeppInTheHeartOfTexas on Mon Jul 28, 2008 7:56 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Unread postby Parlez » Sun Jul 27, 2008 8:52 pm

Very interesting report, DitHoT! :cool:
I particularly liked the reference to such rituals having to take place in graveyards or 'in other melancholy venues'. I wonder what that means, where those places would be...the ruins of an old castle, perhaps...?
It was also most edifying to learn that early practitioners of necromancy were members of the Christian clergy. I'd read that many women went into convents as nuns during the Middle Ages to, among other things, practice their 'secret arts' in relative safety (think the traditional herb garden found in most convents), but I didn't realize their male counterparts might have done the same thing. Cool!
Of course, the main thing that came up for me was the book, Inamorata, which we know Johnny has, or had, some interest in developing as a film. I also found it hard to get the image of Whoopi Goldberg in the role of the clairvoyant in 'Ghost' out of my mind. :lol:
Thanks for a great tidbit!
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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Mon Jul 28, 2008 7:54 am

Didn't we get news that Inamorata was in pre-production? Or at least had been associated with a director? I can't remember for sure. Glad you enjoyed it, Parlez. :cool:
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Unread postby gemini » Mon Jul 28, 2008 12:41 pm

Oh I loved Inamorata. I had sort of forgotten that it dealt in this kind of thing. Thanks for the reminder Parlez.
Cant say I believe in any of this necromancy stuff but I guess that's why I love stories about Witches, vampires, demons and such. I don't really associate them with evil, just entertainment that is paranormal so the plot has many more directions it can take.
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Unread postby stroch » Tue Jul 29, 2008 7:09 pm

Finally catching up with the tidbits.

I find it ineffably sad that we poor humans have tried in so many cultures and so many eras to reach out to the dead. It speaks to the confusion and abandonment we feel in the face of the finality of our own fate.
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Unread postby Parlez » Tue Jul 29, 2008 7:40 pm

stroch wrote:Finally catching up with the tidbits.

I find it ineffably sad that we poor humans have tried in so many cultures and so many eras to reach out to the dead. It speaks to the confusion and abandonment we feel in the face of the finality of our own fate.

That is a matter of opinion, Mate. There are strong, enduring religious traditions in the world which support concepts that run quite contrary to the finality of death. Believers in said traditions are neither confused nor abandoned by their fate. On the contrary, they would argue that such beliefs allow for a more postive, healthier attitude regarding death. It's the fear of death, as prescribed by the Judeo-Christian religion, that has, in fact, led to all this stuff being considered macabre and scary. :chill:
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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Tue Jul 29, 2008 8:40 pm

I would say it is also our attempt to make sense of what we can't know. Not only our fear of our own death but our unwillingness to let loved ones leave us for reasons we can't accept or let go of them as a part of our lives when we aren't ready to let them go combined with our desire to know that they are okay causes us to search for answers where we can. Anyone who can promise answers in a convincing way can get our attention.
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Unread postby Parlez » Tue Jul 29, 2008 11:44 pm

DeppInTheHeartOfTexas wrote:I would say it is also our attempt to make sense of what we can't know. Not only our fear of our own death but our unwillingness to let loved ones leave us for reasons we can't accept or let go of them as a part of our lives when we aren't ready to let them go combined with our desire to know that they are okay causes us to search for answers where we can. Anyone who can promise answers in a convincing way can get our attention.

These are excellent points, DitHoT! Historically, the popularity of seances, etc., increases amongst ordinary, everyday people during and after wartime, when there's been an accelerated loss of life which is hard to explain or accept. Our desire/need to remain in communication with the deceased not only speaks to our attachment to life on the physical plane but also perhaps to our deeper knowledge that says death is inevitable but not necessarily final. Anyone who has attended a seance (or similar ritualistic event), and who has been the least bit open to the experience, knows there's a feeling...a vibe...a energetic something that permeates the space. Brought about by the collective imagination on the part of the participants and guided by the spiritualist leading the event? Perhaps. If so, how cool is that?! If other forces are at work, well...that's pretty cool too, IMO. (IMO)
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Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Wed Jul 30, 2008 7:56 am

That subject came up during our discussion of Inamorata. I'm trying to remember the name of the "religious" movement that gained popularity at the time right after the Civil War because of the huge loss of life. The main tenet had to do with contacting the deceased. I believe it was called spiritualism.
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Unread postby Parlez » Wed Jul 30, 2008 9:47 am

Aye ~ Spiritualism, or Theosophy, developed by Madame Blavatsky (1821-1891). One of her later followers, Rudolf Steiner, went on to found the Waldorf School, which has become one of the more popular alternative forms of education worldwide, based in part on the teachings of Theosophy. Go figure!
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Unread postby Liz » Wed Jul 30, 2008 9:38 pm

Sherlock Holmes’ creator (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) turned to the Spiritualism movement in the 20s, and wrote about it. This was due to his wife, son, brother, 2 brothers-in-law and 2 nephews dying within a span of 13 years. He was looking for solace.
I believe it is human nature to want to explain the tragic mystery of death—especially in times of much death. It is a mental survival tool.
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