Necromancy is the system that uses the souls of the dead to provide oracles about the past or the future. It is not a common form of divination, because the diviner does not accept God inside him neither he acts to invoke the God to be inside of him. In necromancy, the Gods are called to help the necromancer to bring the soul up to the earth and keep it there until the operation is completed. Chthonic and ypochthonic Gods and Goddesses are called to necromancy. Ypochthonic are the Gods that live below the earth, Gods of hades, the place of the Dead. Chthonic Gods are the ones who have kept their human interest and act in the earth realm often. Those entities are Gaia, Persephone, Demeter, Hermes, Pluto, Hestia, Hekate, Selene, Helios, Thoth. Entities that were called to bind or torture were Erinyes, Styx, Chaos, Hekate, Kerberus...
Necromancy was a common and natural practice in the ancient hellenic world of Witchcraft. Aeschelus in Persai, Homer in Odyssea, Loukianos in Menippos or Nekyia, Herodotus in Historiai, Plato and many others famous writers had written about necromancy, practices, rituals and results. The PGM are full of techniques of nekyia. Famous necromancers like Erychtho, Apollonius of Tyanea, Media, Kirke had so noticable abilities in magick and nekyia that legends had been written about them, from making the dead walk, speak and be alive again. Hellenes believed that the dead can help the living by changing their bad fate through Witchcraft. Many people used to write letters to their dead relatives asking them to do things. The most commonly used technique was the use of lead tablets, which could be found in graveyards. There are indications that the dead wanted to help the living to improve their lives. Plato in Laws is writing that the souls of the dead keep some emotions about their friends in the earth and they care about them. So, why not ask for their help? That's where necromancy is based. You see, for ancient Egyptians and Hellenes, the life was a continuous circle. Passing from earth is a stage of life. The living people did whatever they could to keep the memory of your dead people, alive. For the heroes, games were organised. For Gods, games and artistic contests were organized as well as rituals and meals. The same habits live today in Hellas as customs of Christianity. A very odd custom for the Egyptians was to passing their dead priests and pharaohs to the city. Nowadays in Christian church the high priests are buried vertically and their bodies are left exposed for some days for bowing. In a city of Hellas, the body of a priest had been passed through the roads after he died, in 2016. For Hellenes it is important to respect the dead.
An image of the ancient Greek Goddess Hecate. Hecate was a protective Goddess associated with light, the Moon, magic, witchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, necromancy, and sorcery, as well as crossroads, entrance-ways, and dogs.
Hekate from ‘Hieroglyphica, sive, De sacris Aegyptiorvm aliarvmqve gentivm literis commentarij’, published 1575.
In necromancy the soul was usually a ghost that was summoned/evoked. People who died before their normal time, like warriors, people who had a violent death like criminals or people who died by vengeance, people who didn't have a proper burial etc. could not move across the river to Hades and they stayed in the earth. Those ghosts were worried constantly and they tried to communicate with the living people. Many times the living people could see the ghosts and hear them. The necromancer was called to evoke the spirit and find out the reason of its worry. Then he tried to calm down the spirit in the physical plane. For example, he could do a proper burial to someone who was not buried or to someone who had not a body (drown people) available to be buried. The necromancer was not used his art to torture the spirits or something like that. Another reason for necromancy was to ask the spirit information that he knew when he was alive. Moreover, the spirit could ask questions about the future, as the ancients believed that the spirits who were not bound by earthly laws, they could predict the future better than the living people. The last reason for necromancy was magick. Good or evil magick as it is practiced today.
Nekyomanteia or nekyia means necromancy, divination with the dead. Psychomanteia is referring to the summoning of the souls. Psychagogos is the person who performs phychomanteia. The psyhagogos was usually calmed down the violently dead souls. Sciomanteia is referring to the shadow of the person. Nekyomanteion is the place where formal nekyia is performed. Other words are nekyomanteion, psychagogeion, psychomanteion, psychopompeion, nekyorion. Goes was the person who performed the necromancy. The verb goo means to mourn. The necromancer as he was communicating with the dead often, he saw death every day, so he was not a person that will laugh. From the word goes, we have the goetia and the worlds witch and witchcraft.
Let's see how a dead spirit could not move on and stayed in the earth, close to its body, haunting people and places. According to the hellenic religion, those spirits could reach Acheron river but they could not pass him. The violently dead from unjust decisions, ill justice, people who have killed themselves from passion, people who died in a battle and they were not ready for that. Other spirits who were drown in the sea, or their bodies never found, or they were not buried properly. Other categories are should that didn't fell in love or didn't complete their destiny, thus they had the spark of life inside of them before they died unexpectedly. The restless spirits were not the easy stuff for a necromancer. A normally died soul could be easily evoked, but a restless spirit could be hostile. This happened because they could easily confuse the innocent from the guilty and because sometimes the process of necromancy hurt them.
The dead or kreissones (meaning better people) could be connected with the necromancer through some items that are infused with the energy of the dead, just like it happens today in poppet magick. A scull, bones, nails, blood of the dead, a personal item of the dead, a jewelry, a piece of its cloth, the item that killed him, soil from its grave or ashes from its incineration builds a connection with the dead. As it was expected necromancers were visited graveyards to practice their art, that's why some graveyards were bound with curses against anyone who disturbed the peace of the deads! According to a curse that exists in museumd of Tokat Helios, Zeus, Puto, Artemis-Hekate, Erynies, Daeira, Hermes and Ara guard the graveyard and they are ready to curse anyone who will think to destroy any part of the cemetery. In a curse that had been found in Peiraeus, we read that if someone wants to touch with ill purposes the grave of Apollonios the Revenger Goddess of the dead (probably Hekate) will act simultaneously.
Except for the official oracles, the necromancer could perform the rites in special places. The grave of the buried body was one of them, because the souls were wandering close to the body. In the grave, the necromancer could put kolossous (poppets) or katadesmous (defixiones) to petition the ghost for magick. In the same place, he could evoke the ghost to visible appearance, by opening the gate of the Underworld. A very common practice was the animal sacrifice, but necromancy could be performed without harming anyone. Pythagorean philosophers were capable of evoking spirits without making any sacrifice. The spirit was usually there after the evocation, except if his souls had reincarnated to a human body. After the evocation, the spirit was bound, like it is happening in grimoire tradition. Again like the grimoire tradition, the evocation could be spoken more than one time. The binding process of the spirit had two purposes. One was to keep the spirit in a restricted area and the other to make it stay for a while. As you know, the spirits don't want to stay in the earth realm, since they live in their world.
Except the graveyard, a more open graveyard was the battlefield, where many bodies were not buried properly, so their souls were close, wandering all around the air. The warrior ghosts were the most suitable for dark magick. After the battle of Marathon in 490 b.C. where the Atheneans and the Plataieis saved Hellas and Europe by the way, the spirits of dead Persians were moving in the night in the battlefield. The ghosts of Troy rose up when the Persians were moving against Hellas. Those phenomena were visible by anyone, not just the necromancer.
Lakes and caves specifically placed they were considered as passages to the Underworld, where Persephone went from earth to Hades during Her abduction or the passage from which Hercules moved Kerberos from hades to the earth etc. The lakes that are devoted to nekyia had one characteristic. The birds didn't fly above them. In two of those lakes, the famous nekromanteia of Averno and Acherousias were placed and also in Thymvria, the charonion, in Arkadia the Nonakris. Another thing we should think about lakes is the fact that catopromancy could also be practiced, thus the necromancer could see the spirit after the evocation in the mirroring surface of the calm water. Of course this is just a thought.
Aeneas and the Sibyl, Lake Avernus c.1798 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775
Necromanteion Acherousias in Preveza, another gate to the Underworld. Here Odysseas performed his necromantic ritual, copyrighted image by ministry of civilization of Hellas
Evocation, Ekkolapsis, Anazoogonisis
Most of the time, necromantic rituals were performed in the full moon. Evocation is a well-known technique to ceremonial magick. In ancient times, voces magicaes were a big part of the evocation. Ekkolapsis is an easier technique. Communication with the spirit through astral projection. The human who asked for an oracle, came to the necromanteio and followed the instructions of the necromancers to prepare himself. He couldn't eat some foods for a specific number of days, from 3 to 29. Maybe the necromancers waited for the full moon or the waxing moon. They slept in the grass of the earth, outside by the moonlight. When the time was appropriate (maybe planetary hours?) he performed an animal sacrifice calling the dead with evocation and then he slept over the skin of the animal. During dreams the God or the spirit was communicating with the human. Sometimes dead spirits visited the living in their dreams. This is also happening until now. It seems that the spirits and the soul can communicate in yesod throught the dreams. Ekkolapsis was also used for divination, thus oneiromanteia. This was practiced in the Amphiaraon of Oropos in Attica. The process was common. In ekkolapsis, Hermes was invoked as well as local heroes.
In the evocation, specific Gods were called to guide the human who was doing the ekkolapsis. Hermes was the main God that was called along with some heroes. The method of ekkolapsis was used in the oracles that were dedicated to heroes like the oracles of Amphiaraos, Phauvos, Trophonios. The divinatory method there was called oneiromanteia. In the oracle of Trophonios, the human went down to the earth in a cave, where a snake was lived. The God took the form of that snake and he communicated through the ekkolapsis with the person who asked for divination. The method of necromancy for divinatory purposes was used for healing purposes and for learning something very important for the querent. Not many people liked to use this type of divination, because it was frightening enough.
The techniques of evocation have progressed to the medieval grimoire techniques from ancient necromancy. The medium changed, from the shore of a lake to still water in a pottery, mirrors, which are safer both for the spirit and for the magickian. Plinios writes about a crystal (synochitis lithos) which is used to ennchance the visible appearance of the spirits in the water surface.The binding techniques have also been the same. In ancient texts, some Witches used mystical letters to evoke specific deities. Damigeron uses a crystal like beryl in evocation. Isodoros from Sevilla is using ananchite crystal to evoce daemons.
In anazoogonisis, things were too complicated. The necromancer gave life to the body of the dead. In the ancient texts Erychtho, Zatchlas, Megaira and other necromancers had this ability. Little information had survived to us. Erychtho uses a spinge of blood and puts it in special places in the body of the dead to give him life. The body should be put vertical to the ground. After the evocation, the body was alive, because the purpose of the rite was to place the evoked soul in the body. This was painful enough for the spirit, because it felt like dying again for second time. Threats should be used for the spirit to obey the witch. Other methods were to put specific herbs in some parts of the body like Zatchlas did. Another method was with voces magicaes written in a bay leaf. This method reminds the grimoire tradition of later years. After all, this tradition came from the hellenic magick. Another technique was to vitalize the lungs and the throat so the body could have the ability to speak.
The offerings were placed in order to make the dead come to this world or to honor the dead or make the soul calm. So, as today there are offerings to the dead, the ancient times had their offerings too.
Wine, spring water, barley, honey, oil, wheat, blood (taurus or sheep), flowers, myrtles, myrrh, eggs. When the rite included Hekate, black little dogs were sacrificed. This is written in Orphica, Argonautika. Blood offerings draw the dead up, because blood is the representative fluid of life, so the soul had the ability to stay, appear and speak.
Formal Ancient Oracles
Necromancy was a job in ancient world as Aeschelus had written in his references. Places were necromancy was practiced in the ancient world, formally, were in Averno (Campania), in Acheron (Thesprotia), in Tainaro (Lakonia), in Heraclea (Pontos), Hermione (Argolis). In Averno Hekate and Persephone, in Heraclea, Hercules, in Tainaron, Poseidon and Hermes and in Acheron, Hermes, Pluto, Zeus were the main Gods and Goddesses who were invoked to help in necromantic rituals. Trophonios (Leivadia), Amphiaraos (Oropos), Phaunos (Tivoura) and other heroes had their own oracles, in which the ekkolapsis (conversation with the spirits via astral projection) was practiced.
Hekate in Delos
Necromanteion of Acheron
Orpheas, Hercules, Thesseas, Odysseas connected their names with those necromanteia. Two of the rivers of hades were Pyriflegethon and Kokytos who ended in the lake of Acheron, acherousia. Pluton and Persephone were the main Gods of necromanteion. A well known incident of necromanteia is written in Historiai of Herodotus. The tyran of Korinth, Periandros and one of the seven wise of the ancient world, sent people to necromanteio of Acherontos, because he wanted to learn about a hidden treasure that his dead wife knew. The session was successful.
The Necromanteio of Averno/Avernus
This official necromanteio was one of the most important oracles in the ancient world. Its circumference was 3.2 km. It was 2 meters above sea level. It was considered as one of the gates of the Underworld. It was so important that officially the Spartans called necromancers from this oracle to come to Sparta and evoke the spirit of the violently dead king Pausanias, who was haunting Sparta. The call was for an important organized mission. It seems that Spartans didn't had the desired results with the necromancers of the oracle of Tainarou, so they petitioned the oracle of Averno. The necromanteio of Averno is associated with chthonic female deities like Hekate and Persephone. Lycophron and Diodoros Sikeliotis write that Persephone was the main Goddess. Birgil disagrees and presents Hekate Trivia. Kalypso and Hera had also been suggested by other Roman writers.
It was placed in the lake Averno in Campania (Italy). Campania was an hellenic collony in the ancient world as so many towns of Italy. Averno was next to Cumae. The nectomanteio was also called the Lake of Aornos, meaning the lake with no birds. The place was volcano's crater, so the soil was fertile, full of trees and wild plants. The lake spread some incense that was not good for the birds. In several places, the sun didn't pass through the branches. There was a spring with good water to drink but it was considered that it arrived from the Underwolrd, so no-one drank. The exact place of the necromanteio, the place where rituals were conducted was deep in the earth. The opening of the earth was considered that it had a connection with the underworld. Another description from antiquity says that the necromancer passed the lake and then he arrived to the appropriate place to perform the rites of necromancy. In any case, the necromanteion was an open gate to the underworld and the water was acting as the most important element to keep the gate open.
According to Diodorus Siceliotis (Siculus) the necromanteio of Avernus was destroyed in later years.
The Aornos Lake of Averno (Image credit: Wikipedia)
The Journey of the Soul
Necromantic Practices with Hekate
Examples of Ancient Necromancy
- Greek and Roman Necromancy, Daniel Ogden, Princeton University Press
- Defixionum Tabellae, Auguste Audollent
- Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, John Gaeger, Oxford University Press
- The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, University of Chicago
- Homer, Orpheus, Herodotus, Thucudides, Lucian, Horace, Philostratos, Seneca, Virgil, Apouelius.