Necromancy

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)

Necromancy was the subject of two questions raised by the most recent post.  It is the word for 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 process, or method of divination, involves not a dead body but a living spirit.

A.  The word seems to be 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 horror, that he must visit the entrance to Hades and call up the  spirit of Teiresias, who alone can advise him about a homecoming. She instructs him carefully in the spells, rituals and sacrifices that he must make in order to do this. Teiresias alone, she says, is allowed by Persephone to foretell the future—which he duly does, and 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.

Mention can be made of the notorious incident in the Old Testament, when King Saul, aware that he is breaking the law of Moses, employs a woman of Endor who is a medium (witch in the older translations) to call up the spirit of Samuel for a prophecy. What he hears terrifies him.

The process in more comfortable form is described by Aeschylus in The Persians. After hearing of the disaster to her son Xerxes at Salamis, Queen Atossa goes into the palace and returns dressed in the simple 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 differs completely from the one in the Odyssey: the atmosphere is not repellent or frightening, there are no gruesome rituals, and no medium or sorcerer: it is simply a matter of calling up the spirit of much loved person for help, which Darius duly gives.
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.