Swathed in thick smoke and fog, his boney hands worked their practised craft over the elements of his deeply hidden alter. Black candle wax dripped over the table top and a murmuring chant slipped over his lips and out from under his twill grey hood. The Necromancer exerted his craft, for what purpose we may never know, but you can be sure he toiled only for sinister gain or secret vengeance.
The above may read more like a B-list Hollywood movie treatment, but in general that scene is indicative of the mental image most anyone would conjure when asked what the word Necromancy means to them. Culturally universal -or very nearly- the term inspires recollections of old comic books and horror films; it brings to mind cemeteries and corpses, dark and evil places, and men of folk lore, too terrifying to discuss in the company of unwed women and children.
Necromancy is described, typically, as: the practice of attempting to communicate with the spirits of the dead in order to predict or influence the future (Encarta – North America), though this definition has been criticized as too broad to do justice to both the historical and modern meanings of the term.
In antiquity, Necromancy was a simple term used to describe the art of influencing spirits (of virtually any variety) to act on one’s behalf. It was largely related to Shamanism, and was often used to describe the ritualistic pleadings to spirit ancestors for good tidings, and luck, but it is also accepted that the majority of instances of necromancy in history are related to manipulations of spirit energies for both personal gain and for feudal revenge. The origin of the word is Greek (nekromantía), but it is believed by some that its true origin predates written history. Uses of the word and as well as several variants are known throughout the histories of ancient Persia, Chaldea, Etruria and Babylonia, all of which are home to Shamanistic culture and are given to many types of spiritual magic traditions.
Through the Middle-Ages, as divination -a direct undertaking of spiritual manipulation for gain, and a classical example of the ancient definition of necromancy- became known as a demonic practice, by way of the growing influence of the Roman Catholic teachings. The word as well as all of the rituals and practises covered under the growing umbrella definition of the term necromancy became heretic, even though a significant portion of European cultures retained at least nominal knowledge and proficiency in wards, hexes and divination.
Today, the necromancer is a shrouded and mysterious character, cloaked in evil and aided by demonic powers beyond our comprehension. Somewhere between the gilded era of the round table knights and the fame of Edgar Cayce, the misinformation of Catholic heresies and the superstitions passed on through the holy conversions of the 15th through 17th centuries, the modern idea of necromancy became a fantastic tale of spiritual reanimation, of directed possession and of demonic worship.
What truth there remains in the original term may be largely irrelevant, as the words we use are always dependent on cultural validation, and for us, our culture defines necromancy in terms of pure evil. A Necromancer today, is truly a character to avoid, for whether with skilled practise or irreverent ignorance, they toil on behalf of those who would do harm to our existence.
The evolution of a word can have a drastic impact on the reality of its meaning and its influence on other cultural definitions. Examples of the word and its derivatives can be found in scores in recent and current literature; The Necronomicon, a book with no connection to the historical reality of its name; also the popular idea that a Necromancer is a magical being, who raises the dead and/or consumes the spirits of the recently dead, as made popular by the invention of comic books and video game storylines; even the idea that necromancy is, by nature, an evil practise.
Our fear of death and of holy spiritual reprisal is such that we condemn any use of ancient culture and knowledge wherever it begins to threaten the entrenched and convenient ideas of good and evil, pushing such heresies into sub-cultures and underground teachings, where what was once known to be a necessary part of cultural existence, is now thought of as an abhorrent failing of a fantastical and misguided collection of nonconformists throughout history.
What is the truth about necromancy? Is it a dark and glossy realm of demons, of spiritual power struggles between mysterious Necromancers and the hereafter? Is it all a bunch of gothic mumbo jumbo taken too seriously by a few disturbed and socially maladjusted people? Or is it the evolution of a concept, brought forward through time, in spite of a concerted religious effort to leave it behind?
The reality of it is that Necromancy is all of the above; those who practise their own version of the craft, for whatever gain or end, are equally convinced of its power and influence. The tradition of necromancy is a truth of our history, it did exist, it was practised, and memories of its effect were carried forward in private teachings, folk lore and superstitions. As muddied as those divination waters have become, the idea of Necromancy lives on, to what end is up to you.