Saul and the Witch of Endor' (1526). By Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1472-1533).
Saul and the Witch of Endor. (1526). By Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1472-1533).
From Marlowe’s Faust:

“For falling to a devilish exercise,
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursed necromancy.”Christopher Marlowe, The Tragedie of Doctor Faustus (B text) Ch. 1.

Necromancy (Latin necromantia, Greek νεκρομαντία nekromantía) is a form of divination in which the practitioner seeks to raise the spirits of the dead in order to gain knowledge of future events from them, or to acquire special powers from such entities. The word derives from the Greek νεκρός nekrós “dead” and μαντεία manteía “divination”. It has a subsidiary meaning reflected in an alternative and archaic form of the word, nigromancy, (a folk etymology using Latin niger, “black”) in which the magical force of “dark powers” is gained from or by acting upon corpses. A practitioner of necromancy is a necromancer.

Necromancy in history

Necromancy may or may not have a relation to shamanism, which calls upon spirits such as the ghosts of ancestors.

The historian Strabo (Strabo, xvi. 2, 39, νεκρομαντία) 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-worshippers), Etruria and Babylonia. The Babylonian necromancers themselves were called Manzazuu or Sha’etemmu and the spirits they raised were called Etemmu.

In the Odyssey (XI, Nekyia), Odysseus makes a voyage to Hades, the Underworld, and raises the spirits of the dead using spells which he had learnt from Circe (Ruickbie, 2004:24). His intention was to invoke the shade of Tiresias, but he was unable to summon it without the assistance of others.

There are also many references to necromancy 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 asked the Witch of Endor to invoke the shade of Samuel, for example.

Norse mythology also contains examples of necromancy (Ruickbie, 2004:48), such as the scene in the Völuspá in which Odin summons a seeress from the dead to tell him of the future. In Grogaldr, the first part of Svipdagsmál, the hero Svipdag summons his dead Völva mother, Groa, to cast spells for him.

The 17th century Rosicrucian Robert Fludd describes Goetic necromancy as consisting of “diabolical commerce with unclean spirits, in rites of criminal curiosity, in illicit songs and invocations and in the evocation of the souls of the dead”.

Modern séances, channeling and Spiritualism verge on necromancy when the invoked spirits are asked to reveal future events.

Spread of necromancy

In the middle ages the literate members of society were either the nobility or Christian clergy. Either of these groups may have been responsible for the propagation and ongoing practice of necromancy, even though it is forbidden in Christianity. It is apparent that necromancy was not a method of witchcraft. It may have been only available to the scholarly of Europe, because of the accessibility, language, knowledge and methods it employs. There are a few confessions of some nobles or clergy professing a history of experience with necromancy, although these may well have been obtained under duress. Some suggest that necromancy could have became a way for idle literate Europeans to integrate Hebrew and Arabic legend and language into forbidden manuals of sorcery.

The possibility exists that literate Europeans were the main forces simultaneously practicing and condemning necromancy. The language, execution and format of the rituals illustrated in the Munich Handbook (Kieckhefer 42–51) are strikingly similar to Christian rites. In a Christian exorcism, various demons and spirits are driven away by name, in the name of God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit. The spells of necromancy are very similar to these Christian rites (Kieckhefer 128–129) in their complete opposition. The distortion of the rites into spells is within the scope of Christian understanding at that time. Necromantic spells were mainly illusory or utility spells. Modern scholarship suggests that most were written with hopes that their utility would prove to be useful in acquiring a feast, horse, cloak of invisibility or perhaps just notoriety among others in the necromancy practicing clergy. The nature of these spells lend themselves to being understood as underground clergy members deviantly indulging in unlawful pleasures.

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 sourcebooks and manuals with which to work spells or magic.

It is important to note that necromancy is separated by a thin line from demonology and conjuration. Necromancy is communing with the spirits of the dead, rather than the evil spirits of conjuration and demonology.

Books and articles

Most of the information about necromancy in detail comes from many Occult books and articles, from which its practices are thought to have derived.



  • Halliday, Greek Divination (1913). Chapter 11 is on Necromancy
  • Ogden, Daniel, Greek and Roman Necromancy 2004. ISBN 0691119686 — Reviewed by Sarah Iles Johnston, Bryn Mawr Classical Review (6/19/2002), with stinging methodological criticism.
  • Ruickbie, Leo, Witchcraft Out of the Shadows. Robert Hale, 2004. ISBN 0709075677. See ch. 1 in general and p.24 in particular for discussion of necromancy in the encounter between Circe and Odysseus.
  • Wendell, Leilah. (1997). Necromany 101.
  • Spence, Lewis. (1920). An Encyclopedia of Occultism. Hyde Park, NY : University Books.


  • Kieckhefer, Richard. (1997). Forbidden Rites. Sutton Publishing.
  • ____. (1989). Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521785766
  • Kors & Peters (2001). Witchcraft in Europe 400-1700. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812217519
  • Vulliaud, Paul. (1923). La Kabbale Juive : histoire et doctrine, 2 vols. Paris : Émile Nourry, 62 Rue des Écoles.

External Links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses material from the Wikipedia article “Necromancy“.