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The Uncertain History of Necromancy: Finding the Roots

The Uncertain History of Necromancy: Finding the Roots
© Photograph by Siegart von Schlichting

As has already been discussed, the origins of the expression of necromancy can be traced back to the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece, and it is also here that we will start our research into its practice.

The earliest and one of the most prominent works mentioning the existence of necromancy is the ‘Odyssey’, by Homer. This Greek epic poem, fundamental to the Western canon and the second oldest complex written work of Western civilisation, dating back to the 8th century BC, describes the journey of the Greek hero Odysseus, or Ulysses in the Roman tradition. After the fall of Troy Odysseus travelled for ten years on his way home to Ithaca, taking part in multiple adventures and surviving numerous perils.

In ‘Book XI’, unable to find his way back home to Ithaca, Odysseus consults the sorceress Circe and is instructed in various rites he has to perform in order to reach the ghost of the Theban Tiresias (Homer, XI: 138; cited in Ogden, 2001: xxiii).

At the beginning of the practices named nekyia, Odysseus digs a trench with his sword and around it they pour libations for all the dead, first mixed with honey, the second time mixed with sweet wine, the third time mixed with water and then they sprinkle white meal over it.

Odysseus promises the hordes of the dead, that when back in Ithaca he will offer them a barren heifer in his palace and build for them a huge sacrificial pyre. Especially for Tiresias, he will sacrifice an all black sheep that excels among other sheep. Then he cuts off the heads of several sheep he has brought for this occasion, letting the blood flow into the trench. Not until then do the masses of the dead appear — young and old, as well as a vast number of soldiers, still bearing marks of their mortal wounds. In the last part of the ritual, the sheep are skinned and burned on a pyre, in order to invoke the gods Hades/Pluto and his wife Persephone/Proserpine (Homer, XI: 25–50; cited in Ogden, 2001: xxiv).

What can be understood from this section? First, the necromantic art Odysseus was practising could not be aimed at a single individual, even if his initial goal was to question Tiresias. The invocation summoned all of the dead of Hades, who came at his calling. Second, the idea of the necromancer controlling the dead is also not present here. As the story goes further, Odysseus is first visited by his departed companion Elpenor, who died and was left unburied at the palace of Circe, then by his mother Anticlea and finally then comes the blind prophet Tiresias. All of these characters converse with Odysseus, questioning or advising the hero in his further quest, not showing any sign of obedience or obligation. Thirdly, all of the dead are drawn by the fresh blood that they hasten to drink.

Tiresias also advises Odysseus, that the spirits he would like to question should also be allowed to drink from the sacrificial blood. Here we observe what would later infamously become a dominant trait of necromancy — the practice of blood sacrifice needed for interaction with the underworld.

Also, note should be taken of the conversation between Odysseus and Elpenor. The youngest of Odysseus companions gets drunk, falls from a ladder and breaks his neck on the island of Circe. Because the rest of the party hasten to fulfil more urgent matters, the body remains unburied (Homer, XI: 51; cited in Ogden, 2001: xxiv) and this points to the widespread fear of the Greeks of the restless dead — those that died but did not receive a proper funeral. This category of the dead was feared, and according to the general belief, even avoided by the other dead. Several measures could be taken in order to give these revenants their final rest, among others the construction of cenotaphs, or empty tombs.

The symbol of the descent into the underworld present in the Odyssey, known as katabasis, is described in multiple other Greek poems and epics. In book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero Aeneas, with the help of the Sibyl, the priestess of Apollo, in search of the ghost of his father seeks the entrance to the underworld. After several tasks and encounters with monsters, warriors and tortured souls he is finally able to meet his father, who tells him of the future history of Rome (Virgil, VI: 637–901; cited in Louden, 2011: 209).

When compared with Odysseus, we notice that Aeneas does not invoke the dead, but instead takes the journey himself. Even if the story is missing the critical invocation aspect, the result is approximately the same — divination with the help of the dead.

Several other descents into the underworld by various characters from Roman mythology can also be found in several works by different authors (Ovid’s Metamorphoses among others). Juno travels into the land of the dead to consult the furies (Ovid, 2010, 416–463), one of the twelve labours of Hercules was to capture the guardian of the underworld, the multi-headed hound of Hades, Cerberus (Apollodorus, 1921, 5:12), the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto (Persephone and Hades), and the journey by Proserpina’s mother Ceres into the underworld in order to rescue her daughter (Ovid, 2010: 552–615, 658–712), or the effort of Orpheus to return his beloved wife, Eurydice.

Proserpina, moved by the heartfelt song of Orpheus allows Eurydice to leave, under the condition that Orpheus does not look back until they reach the exit. He fails to abide by this requirement and his wife disappears forever, and the legendary musician is struck by her death a second time (Ovid, 2010: 1–110).

Here one might also mention another form of katabasis, but from the Epic of Gilgamesh. At the beginning of tablet 12, Gilgamesh mentions a toy, made by his own hands, which has fallen into the underworld. His friend Enkidu volunteers to retrieve it, but even if he is instructed by Gilgamesh as to what actions to avoid, he is careless and is soon after captured and held prisoner. Also noticeable is that Enkidu provides the description of the underworld through communication with Gilgamesh. As the state of the tablet did not provide further information on how they were communicating, by some it is regarded also as a form of possible necromancy (Gilgamesh 12: 11–78; cited in Louden, 2011: 206).

Even though none of the stories points directly to the practice of necromancy, several points still prove useful to its research, especially in connection with the older periods that will be covered in later chapters. The main point being the accessibility of the realm of the dead, but not necessarily in “both directions”.

Most of the time the ability to travel between the two realms is positively provided to mortals. Although difficult and demanding, after the accomplishment of several tasks the hero is able to access the underworld, but not vice versa. The dead have to remain in their realm and can be summoned only through a ritual, or with the permission of a higher deity. Secondly, the dead are able to communicate. They are not just formless shades inhabiting the depths of Hades, but they still keep their memories and character. They can be questioned, they can be beneficial and on several occasions, they evaluate the past, or foretell the future. Lastly, the hero uses their services for his own benefit — mostly seeking advice on things to come.

In these cases we do not have the classical concept of a necromancer, the magus or a sorcerer who uses rituals to conjure the spirits and uses them according to his own needs, but if we leave this part out, the outcome is still the same — it is a discourse with the spirits of the dead with the intention of seeking help beyond the “conventional” means.

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