Necromancy in Ancient Greece: Divination


The term necromancy refers to a corpse -nekros in Greek- and it was related in its beginnings to the divinatory way through summoning dead people. This concept was used for every practice in which it was possible to talk with spirits and summon them to obtain aims that were considered illicit, dark and devilish practices that changed its name for people, making them to think about dark magic. These practices were carried out in secret at night, a good timing for spirits and after-death gods so the secrecy was not really relevant.

It is necessary to recap the beliefs about the spirits of the dead in Greece to talk about it. At death, a part of the deceased went to Hades, being a shadow of what it was before -because of this, this practice is also called sciomancy (gr. skios, shadow) or psycomancy (gr. Psykhé, soul)- but its physical form remained on earth, therefore it was also on the land of the living being its tomb its original home. The deceased were honoured with regular libations, spilling water, milk or honey, the most calming material in their tombs -It seems wine was not adequate for dead people-, or food offerings as they could feed the dead or make them participants of great moments or feasts. Under this idea, the dead could temporarily partake in the land of the living, but inside a religious ritual and the real objective is to avoid the dead to be forgotten and then prevent him to come back as a ghost who would terrorise people. In addition, any contact with dead people in Greece would suppose contamination so it would require ritual purification. The one who makes intentional contact with the dead becomes an impure human being.

Those who had no burial, ataphoi, were rejected by the rest of the souls and they could not enter Hades so they would roam the world. There are many examples of ghosts reclaiming burials in literature since their beginnings (Iliad, 23th, 69-92). The people who had a tendency to become wandering souls were those who died "before their time", it means, children, young people who were not married, women with no child and those who died in a violent way or committed suicide -except for honour reasons-. These wandering souls were easier to be manipulated by necromancers because of their state and because the corpses of these people were often buried instead of incinerated so it was easier to obtain their bones from the graves.

The belief of daemons as supernatural forces, who protected or were enemies is considered to come from Mesopotamia where they inherited many magical practices. One example from Greece about this foreigner practice is found on The Persians by Aeschylus, where the Persian queen Atossa summons her dead husband, Darius, who she has seen on her dreams -relevant point since dead appearances on dreams were a source of revelations- in order to ask him about the result of Xerxes' war against the Greeks. But this does not seem the only use of the dead for the living people since the chorus says:

«Him that was once thy husband, whom thou saw'st / In visions of the night; entreat his shade / From the deep realms beneath to send to light / Triumph to thee and to thy son; whate'er / Bears other import, to inwrap, to hide it / Close in the covering earth's profoundest gloom. / This, in the presage of my thoughts that flow / Benevolent to thee, have I proposed; / And all, we trust, shall be successful to thee.» (The Persians, 220-224)

Daemons, entities distinguished from spirits -and then related to the same plane of existence- could be good or evil. In Greece, their literary appearances are related with certain abstract feelings or minor divine entities as Erinyes. This belief of possible communication with the dead also existed in Egypt and other close places so the fact this thought arrived to Greece was as ancient as it was unavoidable.

The necromantic practices seem to increase from the Hellenistic age so it confirms the theory that eastern cultures are the key in this transformation. However is in the late ages when these practices are really extended. Many authors consider that is not an interpretation of foreign practices but a new concept for Hades, when before it was a room with the shadows of the living that wander with no memories and, after it, becomes a place with different sections and a established way. The birth of mysteries gave way to a new vision for the afterlife world and the continuity of an existence that made ghosts to be active instead of passive and moaning but not so independent. In order to control them there were magical spells that necromancers knew and became harder as time went by. This makes us think that not everyone could carry out these practices but there was needed an 'initiation' process to necromancy and the person in charge of the magic must always had a magician assistant with more knowledge.

But in opposition to foreigners, necromancy was severely punished in Greece because it represented manipulation of the dead and that could lead them to their anger and then to tragedy. In addition, necromancy 'occupation' was socially frowned upon since their services were used in exchange of money only to investigate about the past of the deceased and other times to cause damage to certain people. Plato rejects both facts in his Laws and his Republic, and he proposes the death penalty for professional wizards since for him any practice like that comes from people with bad intentions. Despite of that, his criticism shows that it was a practice common enough to be 'attacked' in the 5th century B.C.

«And mendicant prophets go to rich men's doors and persuade them that they have a power committed to them by the gods of making an atonement for a man's own or his ancestor's sins by sacrifices or charms, with rejoicings and feasts; and they promise to harm an enemy, whether just or unjust, at a small cost; with magic arts and incantations binding heaven, as they say, to execute their will» (Plato, The Republic, 364c)

According to both ways of action, necromancers received two different names at the beginning, then they joined together in a same magical picture. In one hand they were the necromancers that communicated with dead people. These people thought that it was possible to communicate with dead people through certain practices, in which the most recurrent was summoning and sacred songs. This communication was restricted to family or acquaintances. Its function was disturbing because of its presence and spoils in necropolis along with the fact of disturbing the peace of the deceased.

However in the Odyssey (Canto XI), Odysseus practices necromancy under Circe's lessons to consult Teiresias, the fortune-teller, whose spirit was in Hades. He summons the dead -nekýia-, he carries out sacrifices and libations whose blood, -main element for life-, the dead must drink to obtain the ability to speak and talk to Odysseus whatever he wants... For many it is a literary license, for others it is a demonstration of the foreign knowledge of Circe, and a third group tries to justify these practices if the situation demanded it.

Apart from these rituals there was also egkoimesis or incubatio, a practice more related with medicine but that also have its divinatory branches through dead people. The medical practice consisted on going to a temple of the divinity and sleeping there, then the person receives recovery or immediately knows what was the cause of the illness and how to heal it. There are testimonies of people sleeping in necropolis, shrines and oracles of the dead or underworld gods as Nekromanteion dedicated to Hades and his wife which the archaeologist Dakaris would find close to Epirus in 1958. They are places full of chthonic energy or where it would be an entrance to the underworld as usually were the caves (divination on cracks or caves were called nekyomanteion). With all of this they expected to contact them on their dreams or during a ritual of sacred nature, after being prepared for it in a state full of purity to allow divine contact. Ironically necromancer has always being considered as impure since he contacts the dead, but with many philosophical ideas mixed together these places lost relevance because it was believed that spirits could move around the world.

There were usual cases of mediums -using here modern terms-, who were individuals known for establishing contact with dead people in later ages. They were separated of the oracles which had a better popular opinion for being under divine blessing. Possession of people by daemons were frequent and sometimes related to certain illnesses and other times as a divinatory method. Ancient people used to have techniques to prevent them or to liberate the victim as being iatromantis who used medical techniques identified as homeopathy and sympathetic techniques or in a extreme case, they used the services of a goetis, spirit manipulator.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada -

Rachel Black - Translator -

- Dodds, E.R., Los griegos y lo irracional. Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 1997
- Luck, G. Arcana Mundi: Magia y Ciencias Ocultas en el Mundo Griego y Romano, Gredos, 1995 / Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman worlds, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2006
- Martín Hernández, R; Torallas Tovar, S; Conversaciones con la muerte. Diálogos del hombre con el más allá: Desde la Antigüedad hasta la Edad Media, CSIC, Madrid 2011.
- Petropoulos, J.C.B., Greek magic: ancient, medieval and modern. Routledge, 2008/ Textos de magia en Papiros Griegos, Biblioteca Clásica Gredos, 1987

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