The Problem with Necromancy

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A page from the Munich Manual of Magic.

Clerics had a reputation for demon-summoning in the later Middle Ages, an act called nigromancy or necromancy due to some complicated etymological twists. Some theologians condemned most of what we now call “magic” as demon-related and therefore forbidden. Others spent a great deal of time trying to draw the line between acceptable “natural magic” and necromancy. Naturally, the nature of demons played a big part in these arguments, since there was also a great deal of etymological confusion happening between

a) the concept endorsed by ancient Greek philosophers of demons as creatures of pure disembodied intellect that were ultimately neutral (and natural) parts of creation, and

b) the biblical concept of evil desert spirits translated in the Greek Septuagint as “demons.”

In the later Middle Ages, the church favoured the latter notion and condemned all “unnatural” magic as a product of demonic meddling. It shouldn’t surprise us that despite this condemnation, some people wrote texts dedicated explicitly to using demons as agents for practicing magic. Nor should It surprise us that these texts, with their focus on reversing Christian rituals to control the forces of hell, obviously came from the pens of Christian clerics. While liberally borrowing from Arabic books on astral magic and Jewish writings on theurgy (angel magic) that filtered into Europe from Spain and the Byzantine Empire, these necromantic manuals undoubtedly came from a Christian context.

Priests summoning demons? Or at least trying to? The idea wasn’t even shocking in medieval Europe, for exempla used in sermons often invoked the stock figure of the wicked priest who summoned demons in his greed or lust and ended up getting dragged off to hell for his wicked ways.

After knowing that, it’s a short leap to conclude as Richard Kieckhefer did in Magic in the Middle Ages (1989) that the pervasiveness of the clerical necromancer as a stock-figure and the survival of explicitly necromantic manuscripts points to a possible “clerical underworld” of low-level churchmen selling magical services to the highest bidder. Necromancy could have been extraordinarily seductive, after all, and completely believable: if you could exert control over demons in an exorcism to cast them out, you could just as well apply the same principals toward making demons do other things. Since demons were purportedly more familiar with natural processes than people, they could make for very useful servants.

Stepping up to this temptation, anti-magic scholars claimed that the demons only appeared to be servants. In fact necromantic rituals with their strange words and symbols drawn from Hebrew, Arabic, and patently made-up languages, and the whole spraying-blood-everywhere step in a lot of those spells, hid acts of demon-worship that ultimately condemned the necromancer’s soul. The authors of necromantic books didn’t seem to worried–most of their experiments[*] involved disfiguring enemies, forcing women to fall in love with you, and spreading murder and disease, which were grounds enough for going to hell on their own.

That’s not all there was, though. Fantastic illusions of castles and banquets feature heavily, as do flying thrones, talking heads, demonic horses that could take you to India and back, crystals that showed you the location of lost objects. The texts aimed to produce, to use a stock phrase that appears repeatedly in these manuals, “wondrous things.” Necromancy promised educated folks vast and demonstrable power from reading, writing, and practicing Christian rituals, in turn giving everyday learned acts an air of more importance–“ah, but see, I choose not to use my powers for evil, but the greater good!” Even if you didn’t dabble in necromancy or even believe it worked, it’s existence made for a useful fantasy.[†]

The clerical underworld is an appealing idea, to be sure. When I chose medieval necromancy as a topic for a seminar paper in graduate school, I ended up (with some regret) shying away from it. As Edward Peters pointed out in The Magician, the Witch, and the Law (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), while we don’t have surviving necromantic texts from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, we do find stories about necromancers. Lots of them.

What is most striking about all the sources…is their literary character…Yet taken together, they contain virtually all the elements for which later heretics, magicians and witches were punished. (32)

Only in the thirteenth century did the magician “acquire a substantive specific art” (88), did the church start seeing necromancy as a growing problem, and it’s only by the fourteenth century that ownership and use of manuals devoted to demonic magic became a going concern in legal records.

This pattern makes me think that the literary necromancer begat the “real” one in canon law, not a vast substratum of priests gone bad. The popular character of the priest-magician, growing from sermons condemning greed and pride, in turn generated interest in exploring necromancy among clerics instead of warning them away from it. The idea led to some priests writing necromantic texts once the tools became available from other magical traditions to express it, but in a “wonder book” tradition of playful transgression that seems more fascinated in the idea of necromancy rather than the practicalities of doing it. I’m sure clerics explored this dark side of Christian ritual, and some might have even tried replicating the various demonic recipes, but the instructions in the necromantic texts I read were so impossibly complicated and promised such extraordinary results that I don’t see many priests pursuing a necromantic career for long without giving up in sheer frustration.

The fact that enough of these texts survive despite so many documented cases of book-burnings involving magical texts shows this was a popular genre. Yet the reasons for that were just as likely psychological as literal: by bolstering the powers attributed to Christian ritual, to writing, to education and the educated. Fictional stories from a few centuries earlier picked up enough physical evidence in time that innocent people were executed for the crimes of an imaginary figure, doggedly pursued by obsessed opponents of sorcery like Nicholas Eymerich, Inquisitor General of Aragon.

The same thing ended up happening after the Renaissance to accused witches…and so one research interest dove into another.

I still hope I’m wrong about this. A secret society of medieval necromancers is just so cool, and the explanation I came up with in my own delving seems so mundane in comparison.


[*] In the medieval sense of the word–a phenomenon that you could reproduce but couldn’t explain through Aristotelian natural philosophy.

[†] A point stolen from Frank Klaasen in his excellent book The Transformations of Magic: Illicit and Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013), part of the Magic in History series which is full of all sorts of fascinating scholarship.

8 thoughts on “The Problem with Necromancy

  1. Cool post.
    A criminal underworld populated by mercenary necromancers/ priests selling their services to the highest bidder could be a very cool element in a fantasy series.

  2. Ever read James Blish’s Black Easter? It’s built around the assumption that medieval magic worked and includes modern-day clerics who practice what they believe is white magic, but is indeed demon-summoning.

  3. Fascinating article. And I’m also very taken with this idea of a criminal medieval underworld in which dark forces are sold for profit and power.

  4. It might be even more interesting to have it set in our contemporary time and place, considering what’s going on.

    Very interesting essay — thank you!

    Love, c.

  5. If you ever get the chance to read some of Yehezkel Kaufmann’s stuff on the Hebrew Bible, do so. He did some fantastic work on comparing the polytheistic and monotheistic worldviews and the approach to magic, in particular, is extremely interesting and he concludes that magic in a monotheistic belief structure is a direct challenge to God’s sovereignty over the universe as its author. This is because it tries to tap into the metadivine cosmos itself to bypass God. In a polytheistic worldview, the gods are limited in power and the metadivine can be used to get around them, coerce them, or even force them, to do something. It should be quite obvious why trying to tap into the metadivine in a monotheistic system (which, by the way, is assumed not to exist in the monotheistic worldview) is an affront to the singular deity.

Whisper into the darkness

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