What is necromancy?
What is necromancy? Necromancy is the practice of communicating with dead people. It has many different expressions or forms. Necromancy is often considered a form of sorcery (i.e. magic) and an expression of the occult (i.e. related to uncovering hidden knowledge). Necromancy may refer to physical or spiritual interaction with deceased persons.
What does "necromancy" mean? The English word "necromancy" is taken from the Latin word "necromantia," which is taken from Greek. The Greek term combines two words: (1) the word for "dead" (i.e. nekros) and (2) the word for "prophecy" (i.e. manteia). This combined term was first used by Origen of Alexandria, a Christian who lived in the 3rd century.
Why would people practice necromancy? Answers to this question vary depending on the practitioner and form of necromancy, but often the user is trying to acquire certain information not presently available to them, such as insight about a person or event, or knowledge about the future. The practitioner may also be motivated by a grudge or revenge with the desire to use the deceased person to somehow inflict some kind of hardship upon another. In the malicious usage of the practice, necromancy may be categorized as black magic or witchcraft.
What are examples of modern forms of necromancy? While the practice isn't as common today as it was in the ancient world, it's still found in different religious expressions. Necromancy today isn't always practiced in isolation, independent of a larger worldview, like it sometimes was in the past. One present-day spirituality that incorporates necromancy is "channeling," which refers to the use of mediums (i.e. people believed to have a gift of communicating with the dead). Seances, too, are another example of people attempting to communicate with the dead. Those involve a group of people sitting in a circle, holding hands, and summoning a deceased person. Often times psychics practice a form of necromancy as well.
The history of necromancy
Where does the practice of necromancy come from? Many anthropologists believe that necromancy evolved from shamanism, a form of spirituality more common in the ancient world. Shamanism is when a person called a "shaman" attempted to communicate with the spirit world by means of entering into a trance, perhaps with the help of smoked or consumed substances, or a drum beat, and with various paraphernalia, like sacred jewelry or clothing.
Where has necromancy been used in the world? While forms of necromancy are less common today, especially in the West, the practice was used in the ancient world by numerous cultures. Necromancers, though often called by different names, could be found in ancient Babylon, Persia, Egypt, and in the Greco-Roman world. In Homer's The Odyssey, the main character, Odysseus, interacts with spirits of the deceased in order to gain wisdom concerning his trip home. Furthermore, some of the descriptions of necromancy in The Odyssey reflect elements of black magic and witchcraft.
What did necromancy involve in the ancient world? In the ancient world, necromancy could entail verbal communication by itself, like a seance (though the practitioner would likely recognize a spiritual connection as well). Yet the practice in the ancient world could also be much more elaborate and incorporate other objects, including corpses. Ceremonies and rituals could involve human body parts and blood, animal body parts and blood, sacred objects like jewelry, clothing, and carvings, and substances that were either smoked or consumed.
Necromancy and the Judeo-Christian worldview
What does the Bible teach about necromancy? The Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Christian "Old Testament") outlaws occult practices, including necromancy (e.g. Deut. 18:9-12). Leviticus 20:27 even dictates the death penalty for a practitioner: "A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them" (ESV). In the New Testament, Acts 19:19 records that people burned their books on sorcery after they converted to Jesus Christ (also see Gal. 5:19-20).
How did the Church react to necromancy in the Middle Ages? The common interpretation of necromancy by the Church in the Middle Ages, which is still shared by many Christians today, is that the spirits a practitioner is interacting with are actually demons in disguise. This is based on the Bible's teachings that deceased people can longer communicate with living people and that Satan and demons are desperate and relentless about misleading people into worldviews, beliefs, and practices other than Christianity.
1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary
2. The Bible, English Standard Version
3. The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkein
4. Wikipedia, "necromancy"