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The Catholic Encyclopedia
(nekros, "dead", and manteia, "divination")
Necromancy is a special mode of divination by the evocation of the dead. Understood as nigromancy (niger, black), which is the Italian, Spanish and old French form, the term suggests "black" magic or "black" art, in which marvellous results are due to the agency of evil spirits, while in "white" magic they are due to human dexterity and trickery. The practice of necromancy supposes belief in the survival of the soul after death, the possession of a superior knowledge by the disembodied spirit, and the possibility of communication between the living and the dead. The circumstances and conditions of this communication — such as time, place, and rites to be followed — depend on the various conceptions which were entertained concerning the nature of the departed soul, its abode, its relations with the earth and with the body in which it previously resided. As divinities frequently were but human heroes raised to the rank of gods, necromancy, mythology, and demonology are in close relation, and the oracles of the dead are not always easily distinguished from the oracles of the gods.
Necromancy in pagan countries
Along with other forms of divination and magic, necromancy is found in every nation of antiquity, and is a practice common to paganism at all times and in all countries, but nothing certain can be said as to the place of its origin. Strabo (Geogr., XVI, ii, 39) says that it was the characteristic form of divination among the Persians. It was also found in Chaldea, Babylonia and Etruria (Clemens Alex., "Protrepticum", II, in Migne, P.G., VIII, 69; Theodoret, "Græcarum affectionum curatlo", X, in P.G., LXXXIII, 1076). Isaias (19:3) refers to its practice in Egypt, and Moses (Deuteronomy 18:9-12) warns the Israelites against imitating the Chanaanite abominations, among which seeking the truth from the dead is mentioned. In Greece and Rome the evocation of the dead took place especially in caverns, or in volcanic regions, or near rivers and lakes, where the communication with the abodes of the dead was thought to be easier. Among these, nekromanteia, psychomanteia, or psychopompeia, the most celebrated were the oracle in Thesprotia near the River Acheron, which was supposed to be one of the rivers of hell, another in Laconia near the promontory of Tænarus, in a large and deep cavern from which a black and unwholesome vapour issued, and which was considered as one of the entrances of hell, others at Aornos in Epirus and Heraclea on the Propontis. In Italy the oracle of Cumæ, in a cavern near Lake Avernus in Campania, was one of the most famous.
The oldest mention of necromancy is the narrative of Ulysses' voyage to Hades (Odyssey, XI) and of his evocation of souls by means of the various rites indicated by Circe. It is noteworthy that, in this instance, although Ulysses' purpose was to consult the shade of Tiresias, he seems unable to evoke it alone; a number of others also appear, together or successively. As parallel to this passage of Homer may be mentioned the sixth book of Virgil's Æneid, which relates the descent of Æneas into the infernal regions. But here there is no true evocation, and the hero himself goes through the abodes of the souls. Besides these poetical and mythological narratives, several instances of necromantic practices are recorded by historians. At Cape Tænarus Callondas evoked the soul of Archilochus, whom he had killed (Plutarch, "De sera numinis vindicta", xvii). Periander tyrant of Corinth, and one of the seven wise men of Greece, sent messengers to the oracle on the River Acheron to ask his dead wife, Melissa, in what place she had laid a stranger's deposit. Her phantom appeared twice and, at the second appearance, gave the required information (Herodotus, V, xcii). Pausanias, King of Sparta, had killed Cleonice, whom he had mistaken for an enemy during the night, and in consequence he could find neither rest nor peace, but his mind was filled with strange fears. After trying many purifications and expiations, he went to the psychopompeion of Phigalia, or Heraclea, evoked her soul, and received the assurance that his dreams and fears would cease as soon as he should have returned to Sparta. Upon his arrival there he died (Pausanias III, xvii, 8, 9; Plutarch, "De sera num. vind.", x; "Vita Cimonis", vi). After his death, the Spartans sent to Italy for psychagogues to evoke and appease his manes (Plutarch, "Desera num. vind.", xvii). Necromancy is mixed with oneiromancy in the case of Elysius of Terina in Italy, who desired to know if his son's sudden death was due to poisoning. He went to the oracle of the dead and, while sleeping in the temple, had a vision of both his father and his son who gave him the desired information (Plutarch, "Consolatio ad Apollonium", xiv).
Among the Romans, Horace several times alludes to the evocation of the dead (see especially Satires, I, viii, 25 sq.). Cicero testifies that his friend Appius practised necromancy (Tuscul. quæst., I, xvi), and that Vatinius called up souls from the netherworld (in Vatin., vi). The same is asserted of the Emperors Drusus (Tacitus, "Annal.", II, xxviii), Nero (Suetonius, "Nero", xxxiv; Pliny, "Hist. nat.", XXX, v), and Caracalla (Dio Cassius, LXXVII, xv). The grammarian Apion pretended to have conjured up the soul of Homer, whose country and parents he wished to ascertain (Pliny, "Hist. nat.", XXX, vi) and Sextus Pompeius consulted the famous Thessalian magician Erichto to learn from the dead the issue of the struggle between his father and Cæsar (Lucan, "Pharsalia", VI). Nothing certain can be said concerning the rites or incantations which were used; they seem to have been very complex, and to have varied in almost every instance. In the Odyssey, Ulysses digs a trench, pours libations around it, and sacrifices black sheep whose blood the shades drink before speaking to him. Lucan (Pharsalia, VI) describes at length many incantations, and speaks of warm blood poured into the veins of a corpse as if to restore it to life. Cicero (In Vatin., VI) relates that Vatinius, in connexion with the evocation of the dead, offered to the manes the entrails of children, and St. Gregory Nazianzen mentions that boys and virgins were sacrificed and dissected for conjuring up the dead and divining (Orat. I contra Julianum, xcii, in P.G., XXV 624).
Necromancy in the Bible
In the Bible necromancy is mentioned chiefly in order to forbid it or to reprove those who have recourse to it. The Hebrew term 'ôbôth (sing., 'ôbh) denotes primarily the spirits of the dead, or "pythons", as the Vulgate calls them (Deuteronomy 18:11; Isaiah 19:3), who were consulted in order to learn the future (Deuteronomy 18:10, 11; 1 Samuel 28:8), and gave their answers through certain persons in whom they resided (Leviticus 20:27; 1 Samuel 28:7), but is also applied to the persons themselves who were supposed to foretell events under the guidance of these "divining" or "pythonic" spirits (Leviticus 20:6; 1 Samuel 28:3, 9; Isaiah 19:3). The term yidde 'onim (from yada, "to know"), which is also used, but always in conjunction with 'obôth, refers either to knowing spirits and persons through whom they spoke, or to spirits who were known and familiar to the wizards. The term 'obh signifies both "a diviner" and "a leathern bag for holding water" (Job — xxxii, 19 — uses it in the latter sense), but scholars are not agreed whether we have two disparate words, or whether it is the same word with two related meanings. Many maintain that it is the same in both instances as the diviner was supposed to be the recipient and the container of the spirit. The Septuagint translates 'obôth, as diviners, by "ventriloquists" (eggastrimthouoi), either because the translators thought that the diviner's alleged communication with the spirit was but a deception, or rather because of the belief common in antiquity that ventriloquism was not a natural faculty, but due to the presence of a spirit. Perhaps, also, the two meanings may be connected on account of the peculiarity of the voice of the ventriloquist, which was weak and indistinct, as if it came from a cavity. Isaias (8:19) says that necromancers "mutter" and makes the following prediction concerning Jerusalem: "Thou shalt speak out of the earth, and thy speech shall be heard out of the ground, and thy voice shall be from the earth like that of the python and out of the ground thy speech shall mutter" (xxix, 4). Profane authors also attribute a distinctive sound to the voice of the spirits or shades, although they do not agree in characterizing it. Homer (Iliad, XXIII, 101; Od., XXIV, 5, 9) uses the verb trizein, and Statius (Thebais, VII, 770) stridere, both of which mean "to utter a shrill cry"; Horace qualifies their voice as triste et acutum (Sat., I, viii, 40); Virgil speaks of their vox exigua (Æneid, VI, 492) and of the gemitus lacrymabilis which is heard from the grave (op. cit., III, 39); and in a similar way Shakespeare says that "the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets" (Hamlet, I, i).
The Mosaic Law forbids necromancy (Leviticus 19:31; 20:6), declares that to seek the truth from the dead is abhorred by God (Deuteronomy 18:11, 12), and even makes it punishable by death (Leviticus 20:27; cf. 1 Samuel 28:9). Nevertheless, owing especially to the contact of the Hebrews with pagan nations, we find it practised in the time of Saul (1 Samuel 28:7, 9), of Isaias, who strongly reproves the Hebrews on this ground (8:19; 19:3; 29:4, etc.), and of Manasses (2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chronicles 33:6). The best known case of necromancy in the Bible is the evocation of the soul of Samuel at Endor (1 Samuel 28). King Saul was at war with the Philistines, whose army had gathered near that of Israel. He "was afraid and his heart was very much dismayed. And he consulted the Lord, and he answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by priests, nor by prophets" (5, 6). Then he went to Endor, to a woman who had "a divining spirit", and persuaded her to call the soul of Samuel. The woman alone saw the prophet, and Saul recognized him from the description she gave of him. But Saul himself spoke and heard the prediction that, as the Lord had abandoned him on account of his disobedience, he would be defeated and killed. This narrative has given rise to several interpretations. Some deny the reality of the apparition and claim that the witch deceived Saul; thus St. Jerome (In Is., iii, vii, 11, in P.L., XXIV, 108; in Ezech., xiii, 17, in P.L., XXV, 119) and Theodoret, who, however, adds that the prophecy came from God (In I Reg., xxviii, QQ. LXIII, LXIV, in P.G., LXXX, 589). Others attribute it to the devil, who took Samuel's appearance; thus St. Basil (In Is., viii, 218, in P.G., XXX, 497), St. Gregory of Nyssa ("De pythonissa, ad Theodos, episc. epist.", in P.G., XLV, 107-14), and Tertullian (De anima, LVII, in P.L., II, 794). Others, finally, look upon Samuel's apparition as real; thus Josephus (Antiq. Jud., VI, xiv, 2), St. Justin (Dialogus cum Tryphone Judæo, 105, in P.G., VI, 721), Origen (In I Reg., xxviii, "De Engastrimytho", in P.G., XII, 1011-1028), St. Ambrose (In Luc., i, 33, in P.L., XV, 1547), and St. Augustine, who finally adopted this view after having held the others (De diversis quæst. ad Simplicianum, III, in P.L., XL, 142-44; De octo Dulcitii quæst., VI, in P.L., XL, 162-65; De cura pro mortuis, xv, in P.L., XL, 606; Christian Doctrine II.23). St. Thomas (Summa, II-II, Q. clxxiv, a. 5, ad 4 um) does not pronounce. The last interpretation of the reality of Samuel's apparition is favoured both by the details of the narrative and by another Biblical text which convinced St. Augustine: "After this, he [Samuel] slept, and he made known to the king, and showed him the end of his life, and he lifted up his voice from the earth in prophecy to blot out the wickedness of the nation" (Ecclus., xlvi, 23).
Necromancy in the Christian era
In the first centuries of the Christian era the practice of necromancy was common among pagans, as the Fathers frequently testify (see, e.g., Tertullian, "Apol.", xxiii, P.L., I, 470; "De anima", LVI, LVII, in P.L., II, 790 sqq.; Lactantius, "Divinæ institutiones", IV, xxvii, in P.L., VI, 531). It was associated with other magical arts and other forms of demoniacal practices, and Christians were warned against such observances "in which the demons represent themselves as the souls of the dead" (Tertullian, De anima, LVII, in P.L., II, 793). Nevertheless, even Christians converted from paganism sometimes indulged in them. The efforts of Church authorities, popes, and councils, and the severe laws of Christian emperors, especially Constantine, Constantius, Valentinian, Valens, Theodosius, were not directed specifically against necromancy, but in general against pagan magic, divination, and superstition. In fact, little by little the term necromancy lost its strict meaning and was applied to all forms of black art, becoming closely associated with alchemy, witchcraft, and magic. Notwithstanding all efforts, it survived in some form or other during the Middle Ages, but was given a new impetus at the time of the Renaissance by the revival of the neo-Platonic doctrine of demons. In his memoirs (translated by Roscoe, New York, 1851, ch. xiii) Benvenuto Cellini shows how vague the meaning of necromancy had become when he relates that he assisted at "necromantic" evocations in which multitudes of "devils" appeared and answered his questions. Cornelius Agrippa ("De occulta philosophia", Cologne, 1510, tr. by J. F., London, 1651) indicates the magical rites by which souls are evoked. In recent times, necromancy, as a distinct belief and practice, reappears under the name of spiritism, or spiritualism (see SPIRITISM).
The Church does not deny that, with a special permission of God, the souls of the departed may appear to the living, and even manifest things unknown to the latter. But, understood as the art or science of evoking the dead, necromancy is held by theologians to be due to the agency of evil spirits, for the means taken are inadequate to produce the expected results. In pretended evocations of the dead, there may be many things explainable naturally or due to fraud; how much is real, and how much must be attributed to imagination and deception, cannot be determined, but real facts of necromancy, with the use of incantations and magical rites, are looked upon by theologians, after St. Thomas, II-II, Q. xcv, aa. iii, iv, as special modes of divination, due to demoniacal intervention, and divination itself is a form of superstition.
LENORMANT, La magie chez les Chaldéens (Paris, 1875); IDEM, La divination et la science des présages chez les Chaldéens (Paris, 1875); BOUCHÉ-LECLERCQ, Histoire de la divination dans l'antiquité (Paris, 1879-82); TYLOR, Researches into the Early History of Mankind (London, 1865); DÖLLINGER, Heidenthum und Judenthum (Ratisbon, 1857); FRÉRET, Observations sur les Oracles rendus par les âmes des morts in Mémoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, XXIII (1756), 174; KÖHLER, De origine et progressu necyomantiæ sive manium evocation apud veteres tum Græcos tum Romanos (Liegnitz, 1829); RHODE, Psyche (Freiburg im Br., 1898); WAITE, The Mysteries of Magic (London, 1897), 181; HOLMES in Kitto's Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, s.v. Divination; WHITEHOUSE in HASTINGS. Dict. of the Bible, s.v. Sorcery; LESÊTRE in Dict. de la Bible, s.v. Evocation des morts; SCHANZ in Kirchenlexicon, s.v. Todtenbeschwörung.
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Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Necromancy'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/n/necromancy.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.