There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy… 
Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, line 175 *

Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose but queerer then we can suppose… I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth then are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.  
J B S Haldane, Possible Worlds and Other Essays, 1927
(Professor of Genetics at UCL; read Classics at Oxford)

The most recent post here raised questions about necromancy—that is, divination by calling up the spirit of a dead person in order to seek advice, forecast or prophecy.

Q.  Why this word, when νεκρός (necros) means a corpse? This method of divination involves not a dead body but a living spirit.

A.  The word is seemingly an ill-judged coinage in postclassical times (3rd century AD): νεκρομαντεία. But the word νεκρός and its earlier form νέκυς had already been used in a careless fashion, even by Aristotle when he calls Book 11 of the Odyssey the Νεκυία, which is hardly appropriate.

Q.  What are the earliest accounts of necromancy in European literature?

A.  The first is Book 11 of the Odyssey, where the sorceress Circe tells Odysseus, to his terror, that he must visit the entrance to Hades and call up the  spirit of Teiresias, who alone can advise him about a homecoming. Teiresias alone, she says, is allowed to foretell the future. She instructs Οdysseus carefully in the spells, sacrifices and gory rituals that he must perform in order to do this. Teiresias does appear, and he gives Odysseus advice  on his homecoming and a prophecy of what is to come.  And in the course of his visit, Odysseus meets the spirits of a great many people, including his own mother.

There is a notorious incident in the Old Testament.  King Saul knowingly breaks the law of Moses, by employing a woman of Endor who is a medium (witch in the older translations) to call up the spirit of Samuel for a prophecy. She does so, and what Samuel foretells is terrifying.

Necromancy in a more comfortable form is described by Aeschylus in The Persians. Queen Atossa hears of the disaster to her son Xerxes at Salamis; she goes into the palace and returns dressed in the clothes of an ordinary woman, with her regular offerings of milk and honey to put on the tomb of her husband King Darius. She then asks the chorus to call up his departed spirit for help. This episode is different from the one in the Odyssey: it is not repellent or frightening, there are no gruesome rituals, and no medium or sorcerer. The elders simply call up the spirit of much loved person for help. Darius duly appears and gives it.

There is no hint that the queen or her elders are doing anything unusual or forbidden. But this is Persia, the country of the Magi—the priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion, in which Darius and Atossa were devout believers.

This belief that one can commune with the spirit of a departed person is widespread in most times and cultures.

The monotheistic religions—Judaic, Christian, Islamic—have forbidden it with a sternness that suggests it to be more than a product of human imagination.

  • Recommended:
    Professor Daniel Ogden, Greek & Roman Necromancy,
    Princeton University Press, 2001

* If students come across these lines in Hamlet, two points:

  • Your does not mean specifically Horatio’s philosophy: the word is being used as an indefinite, the way we still sometimes do colloquially: so pronounce it y’philosophy.
  • Philosophy to Shakespeare included what we call science.