Necromancy is a type of divination. Practitioners speak to the spirits of the dead, seeking wisdom or spiritual protection. Since Renaissance times, necromancy has become linked with the black arts – demon summoning and black magic.
Necromancy likely had its roots in shamanism, which calls upon the spirits of the ancestors. Necromancers would speak to the dead in ways that mimicked the trance-muttering of earlier shamans. The historian Strabo records that necromancy was popular in Persia. It was also widespread in Chaldea, Etruria, and Babylonia.
In ancient Greece, necromancy had been known from prehistoric times. In the Odyssey, the voyage of Odysseus includes a trip to the underworld, where he seeks guidance. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, these spirits each had limited knowledge which they acquired during life or after death. However, spirits did not have access to a deeper well of wisdom.
There are biblical references to necromancers. In the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are warned against necromancy, shunned as a Canaanite practice. The spirit of Samuel was invoked by King Saul and the Witch of Endor.
By the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church condemned necromancy as demonic magic. Medieval necromancy drew from many influences, including Arabic, Christian, and Jewish influences. Despite the Roman Catholic prohibition, necromancy continued.
Many practitioners were members of the clergy. Most were very well educated, with education in astrology, demonology, and exorcism. A lack of formalized education meant that most practitioners obtained training under an apprenticeship. They were already expected to have a basic understanding of Latin, doctrine and ritual. Some clerics combined Christianity with necromancy, disregarding the Christian prohibition.
Practitioners hoped to accomplish three things. They believed that through necromancy, they could learn to manipulate the will of other persons or spirits. This method could help them to afflict their enemies with demons, driving them mad. Illusions would help practitioner re-animate the dead or conjure food, entertainment, or transportation. Finally, the pursuit of knowledge was a valued goal. Demons could help tell the future, find lost items, or identify a criminal.
Necromancers used biblical references in their spells, making them sound like prayers.
In modern times, séances, channeling, and spiritualism echo the practice of necromancy. By invoking spirits to seek wisdom or insight into future events, practitioners enjoy an ancient and sacred art.
Necromancy is seen in some African traditions like voodoo and Santeria. However, this is also an ancient practice which predates the necromancy of the middle ages.
In other traditions, necromancy is still seen as a black art. It is viewed with suspicion in Afghanistan, and no true follower of Mohammed would become a necromancer.
Over the years, variations on necromancy have been used to answer many questions about the past, present, and future. This form of divination will no doubt be with us for many years to come.