Is necomamcy evil?
As soon as I started writing Path Unchosen, I knew my heroine Meagan would be a necromancer. But I didn’t like how necromancy is usually portrayed in myth and fiction. This picture summed it up for me…and it just didn’t feel right. But did I really know what a necromancer is? What they do and why?
It’s usually the question I’m asked after people ask what my books are about. I answer the question with my quick blurb. Their foreheads wrinkle, they back away a step and their first question is ‘what is a necromancer?’
You might think, when writing fantasy and paranormal fiction such as my Daughter of Ravenswood series, an author can just make stuff up.
Necromancy is part of our rich heritage
If only it were that easy! Some authors do make everything up (and thats okay!) But I can’t use something – like necromancy and witchcraft – from our rich mythological culture, and then ignore everything else ever written about it! I’m writing my own small contribution to our enormous library of horror and supernatural tales. It’s part of a rich heritage, I owe an enormous debt to all who have gone before.
I had vague feelings of what I thought necromancy ought to be, I certainly knew what I didn’t want it to be. But I wasn’t convinced I understood enough to write a series coherently. I couldn’t leave anything to chance. Naturally, I sat before my computer and started my research and this is the second in a number of posts about the research I’ve enjoyed while writing the Daughter of Ravenswood series 🙂
According to the dictionary necromancy is firstly, the practice of communicating with the dead, especially in order to predict the future. And secondly, witchcraft, sorcery, or magic in general.
The word itself comes from ancient Greece and means divination (the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means) from corpses. Necromancy was wide-spread throughout ancient history with records of its practice in Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
From ancient Greek times, Homer’s Odyssey contains the oldest written literary account of necromancy. Odysseus travels to the underworld to raise a spirit to ask him about the potentially dangerous voyage home. The ritual is described in detail, it had to be performed around a fire-pit at midnight. The spell included a drink for the dead and the gods of the underworld, and included blood from sacrificed animals.
Homer’s rich imagination was a springboard for many writers who followed him. But real-life practice back then was grotesque enough! Magic circles, wands, talismans, and incantations are normal now in Magic. Real life necromancers in ancient and mediaeval times also surrounded themselves with death, such as:
- wearing the dead person’s clothing (yuck!)
- eating foods that symbolized lifelessness and decay such as unleavened black bread and unfermented grape juice (for weeks and with not even a whiff of chocolate to sustain them!)
- more rarely, mutilating and/or eating parts of the corpses (eeewwwwww)
As modern religions became organised, they also took a stronger stand against many of the old pagan practices. The Catholic church in medieval Europe decided the practice of divination was really conjuring demons, and that the demons appeared as spirits to fool unwitting necromancy practitioners.
Necromancy became known as demonic magic and the Church explicitly condemned it. The word necromancy also came to be used to describe any witchcraft and magical activity the church didn’t like. Practitioners didn’t want to stop, so to try stay safe within an increasingly militant church, they combined Christian prayers, angel names, and biblical verses with occult practices.
From medieval times, practitioners believed they could accomplish two main things with necromancy:
- As in ancient times, discovering knowledge, or revealing the future.
- But also, manipulating another person’s will, to constrain them to do, or not do something.
Move forward several hundred years, and contemporary seances, channeling and Spiritualism, verge on necromancy when spirits are invoked and asked to reveal future events or secret information.
Necromancy has had a pretty bad rap over the centuries. And it hasn’t enjoyed a resurgence like many other New Age practices. But why?
Our collective fear of dying probably explains a lot. Distaste from most of the world’s institutionalised religions explains a lot historically. Today, we know more about the process of dying than we ever did. We are more sceptical and at the same time more eager to experience spiritualism (as opposed to religion). Yet still, a stigma hangs over the ancient practice of necromancy.
Most myths, popular fiction, and zillions of games, show necromancers as both selfishly controlling spirits and raising dead people to become the undead, walkers, zombies etc.
Meagan isn’t like that. Her compassion enfolds the living and the dead.
Raising spirits, talking with the dead as if they are living people just like you and me; what am I on about! Believe it or not, people still practice it today. I was rather pleased to find some practitioners and websites that promote necromancy practice closer to my feelings about it.
In the end, my own experience and the modern practice I tracked down, trumped the historical research. What if there is a third outcome: comfort and support for the spirit, or assisting the living with the help of a willing spirit.
My heroine Meagan comes from a long line of necromancers, most of whom did not share her compassion for the dead, or the living. She needs to draw on her ancestor’s teachings while applying them in her own way.
It’s no easy task, but I feel she just might succeed 😀