Tolkien used the term ‘Necromancer’ in The Hobbit as an alias for Sauron, his chief villain in The Lord of the Rings. The ‘Dark Lord’ Sauron is depicted as having an unnatural power over death – most notably in the form of his chief ‘undead’ henchmen, the Nazgul or Ringwraiths. Similarly, in other fantasy novels and role-playing games in which necromancers have appeared, the word has been used to describe mortal practitioners of death magic. For example, there is Sabriel by Garth Nix, Gail Z Martin’s Chronicles of the Necromancer and the Flesh and Bone trilogy by A J Dalton. But where did the term ‘necromancy’ come from and did necromancers ever really exist? During the Renaissance, a time of discovery of all sorts of new forms of learning in Europe, necromancy was classified as one of the seven ‘forbidden arts’. The word ‘necromancy’ itself is a compound of the Ancient Greek words for ‘dead body’ and ‘prophecy’. In its original sense it meant communication with the deceased – either by summoning their spirit as an apparition or raising them bodily – for the purpose of divination, imparting the means to foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge. Meddling with life and death in this way was seen as dangerous even at the time of often reckless discovery that was the Renaissance and it was not long before necromancers acquired a reputation as the very worst practitioners of the dark arts.
Necromancy pre-dated the Renaissance and in fact appears to have been around since the dawn of human history, much like other magical traditions such as shamanism. Necromancy was widespread throughout Western antiquity, with records of its practice in Babylon, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In his Geographica, Strabo refers to necromancers as the foremost practitioners of divination amongst the people of Persia. The art of necromancy is believed to have also been widespread amongst the peoples of Chaldea (particularly the Sabians, or star-worshippers). The ancient Babylonian necromancers were called Manzazuu or Sha’etemmu, and the spirits they raised were called Etemmu. The literature of the ancient world is also replete with references to ‘diviners of the dead’. The Norse myths contain many examples of necromancy, such as the scene in the Völuspá where the god Odin summons a seeress from the dead to tell him of the future. In The Odyssey Homer describes his hero Odysseus travelling to the underworld in order to gain insight about his impending voyage home by raising the spirits of the dead through the use of spells which the powerful sorceress Circe has taught him. Ovid writes in his Metamorphoses of a marketplace in the underworld where the dead can exchange news and gossip, showing that the ancient Greeks believed that the dead had knowledge of many things and could potentially offer useful counsel. There are even references to necromancers (or ‘bone-conjurers’) in the Bible. For example, the book of Deuteronomy explicitly warns the Israelites against engaging in the Canaanite practice of divination from the dead.
The practitioners of necromancy were described as skilled magicians who used a consecrated circle in some desolate spot, often a graveyard, to protect themselves from the anger of the spirits of the dead. In the event of a premature or violent death, the corpse was thought to retain some measure of unused vitality, and so the use of parts of corpses as ingredients in charms came to be an important magical technique. Necromancy was especially popular in the Middle Ages, and its temptations and perils were vividly described in the Faust stories of Marlow and Goethe. In the present day, necromancy is more generally used as a term to describe the pretense of manipulation of death and the dead, often facilitated through the use of ritual magic or some other kind of occult ceremony. Modern séances, channelling and spiritualism verge on necromancy when supposedly invoked spirits are asked to reveal future events or secret information.
Appearances in contemporary literature by necromancers perhaps reflect the changing meaning of the term. Whilst Faust was a man who famously sold his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge and earthly pleasures, the current breed of necromancers in popular fiction have a somewhat less forbidding aspect. Anita Blake, the main character in the Vampire Hunter series by Laurell K Hamilton, is a necromancer who is depicted as brave and heroic, as is Chloe Saunders, the protagonist of the Darkest Powers trilogy by Kelley Armstrong. Of course, to balance this out there are still dastardly characters around like Stephen King’s Randall Flagg and Nagash, Supreme Lord of the Undead in the Warhammer game world. However they are portrayed, there is no doubt that the necromancer as a character in fantasy is very much alive, so to speak, and kicking!