On the Shelf: Greek and Roman Necromancy

I want to catch up on my book blogging, and Ogden’s Greek and Roman Necromancy is a good place to start.

Necromancy has come to have two meanings in the scholarly literature.  One relates to ritual magic of the medieval period, reflecting the usages of that period.  This book handles necromancy in the original – and currently common – sense of the word:  calling up the dead via magic to speak with them.  Ogden takes us through a large number of sources, both historical and literary, to present the beliefs and practices among the Greeks and the Romans on speaking with the dead.

Substantial space is given herein to the four confirmed neukomanteia, or places where one might speak with the dead, in classical times.  The names of these – such as Acheron and Avernus – are likely familiar to many readers, even though we have few details of what exactly went on there.  Ogden identifies a surprising commonality between these places – all of them are near bodies of water, not graveyards or crossroads or the traditional areas we’ve come to connect with graves.

Ogden also takes us into the world of the necromancer himself, a marginal figure who could on one hand be a native of the community who had set himself up in the profession, or who might be depicted in literature as a woman or a man from a far realm like Egypt or Persia.  Ogden also gives an in-depth look at the techniques likely to have been used in necromancy, parallels with other types of divination, and the attitude of the authorities toward it.

This is only a brief synopsis of the book – the level of detail within is truly astounding, and there’s much food for thought about the development of magic.  It seems to me that the two major threads that led to the spirit magic of the grimoires, as we know them today, were the exorcism rituals of Mesopotamia and Greek necromantic practices.  The incantations for the latter, for example, bear some interesting parallels to those of the grimoires, especially the calling to the gods and then to the spirits, and the use of multiple incantations in case the first one did not achieve results.

Likewise, it lends some interesting light on evocation to physical appearance, the summoning of a spirit who appears before a conscious magician.  This technique has been a topic for considerable debate in modern magic, with some practitioners arguing that it can be done while others saying a dream vision or a feeling of a presence is enough.  The actual techniques in the historic works, Ogden notes, seem to side with the idea of incubation, or sleeping at the place for a dream-vision.  The literary sources usually have the dead figure appear before a widely-awake individual.  Does this reflect literary convention or actual practice not picked up in other sources?  The answer is not certain.

At any rate, this book comes highly recommended for anyone interested in these topics.

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Published in: on January 8, 2008 at 7:14 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] become the dominant faith and the elves were agnostic pagans.  I’ve tossed together bits of Greek and Roman Necromancy, legends of Faerie, the Brothers Grimm, M. Night Shyalaman’s The Village, Chinese Ghost Story […]


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