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Necromancy: A Forbidden Art of the Ars Notoria, Part I

This article is Part 1 of 2, which may also be called “Necromancy: Six Ways to Summon the Dead.” Part 2 will present a survey of the medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern perspectives of necromancy in the Western world.

“Description of nigromancy [i.e., necromancy].

Nigromancy is allegedly about the sacrifice of dead animals. For nigros is defined as dead, hydros is water, [and] pyros is fire. Therefore, it follows: for nigromancy is allegedly the sacrifice of dead animals, who certain ancient masters became accustomed to comprehending the mysteries without sin. For Solomon taught that any just person could read his five books of the art without sin, but two were counted as sacrilege, for the two books of this art cannot be read without sin.”

--- Ars Notoria, section 71 (my translation from Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon, Inner Traditions, 2023)

The Ars Notoria claims to offer a fast-track to learning nigromancy (i.e., necromancy) through its ritual of offering prayers and inspecting magical figures (either the figure of the exceptives or the figures of the general sciences). Necromancy is the art of divining knowledge of past, present, and future events by consulting the dead; it was practiced throughout the ancient Western world, and the medieval philosophers classified it as a natural science under the Aristotelian model of knowledge. The term nigromancy (Latin niger “black” + Greek μᾰντείᾱ, manteíā “divination”) literally means “black divination” or “black magic,” which is considered synonymous with necromancy.

New Haven, Yale University, Mellon, MS 1, f. 16v.

In Graeco-Roman antiquity, necromancy (Greek γοητείᾳ, goêteia) describes the magical art of summoning the dead, some of whom are considered malefic spirits of the Underworld. One who practiced the art, such as Apollonius of Tyana, was called a necromancer (goes).[1] Phrynichus Arabius (fl. second century CE), an Arab Greek grammarian, and Proclus (fl. fifth century CE), the Neoplatonic philosopher, both say the ancients associated the term evocator (psuchagogos), those who summoned the dead, with certain acts of necromancy (goeteiais). Pseudo-Nonnus, the sixth-century commentator on the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus, says, “Goeteia is the summoning of malefic spirits (daimones) which haunt tombs for establishing some evil. It is called goeteia from the wails (gooi) and the laments which take place near tombs.”[2]

To expand on what Pseudo-Nonnus said, the necromancer (goes) would use his magical voice to offer up an improvised mourning song (goos), just like women lamenting at a Greek funeral, in order to conjure up the dead.[3] In Aeschylus’s Persians, the ghost of Darius says to the Persian elders, “while you, standing near my tomb, make lament, and with shrill cries that summon the spirits of the dead (psuchagogois goois), invoke me piteously.”[4] The late German classicist Walter Burkert says the necromancer (goes), aided by Hermes acting as the guide of the dead, made an ecstatic journey to carry the soul of the dead to the Underworld with mourning songs and music, thereby laying the soul to rest in peace. Thus, Greek necromancy (goeteia) could raise the dead and lay the dead to rest.[5] These two ritual functions of the necromantic art help define the black art, and this blog entry explores the other methods for summoning the dead.

The Ars Notoria describes necromancy in relation to hydromancy and pyromancy. For summoning the evil dead, “it is to be defined by hydros – water [and] pyros – fire.” Hydromancy is employed to gain knowledge from “the ghost of standing or running water.” Isidore of Seville says, “For hydromancy is calling up the shades of demons by gazing into water, and watching their images or illusions, and hearing something from them, when they are said to consult the lower beings by use of blood. This type of divination is said to have been brought from Persia.”[6] In other words, the Ars Notoria is referring to conjuring the dead by means of skrying using a water-basin, that is, a hydromantic method called lecanomancy (Greek λεκάνη, "dish, pan" + μαντεία, "divination") or by means of a flowing river in order to “see” and communicate with the dead through extrasensory perception, as like a hypnotic, meditative, and visionary experience. The Ars Notoria further explains that necromancy involves “the sacrifice of dead animals,” and the classical sources indicate that a sacrificial fire is constructed for making ritual offerings to attract the dead. The Ars Notoria continues to elaborate, saying, “certain masters of old [who] became accustomed to comprehending the mysteries” through these ritualistic practices.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Galadriel invites Frodo to scry into her silver basin of water. In Peter Jackson’s film adaptation, Galadriel asks Frodo, “Will you look into the mirror?” Frodo responds, “What will I see?” She answers, “Even the wisest cannot tell for the mirror shows many things – things that were, things that are, and some things . . . that have not yet come to pass.”

To really understand what Graeco-Roman necromancy entails, it is necessary to delineate its methods by providing examples from ancient sources. Necromancy can be essentially defined and understood through six methods:

1. Evocation of the dead

2. Dream vision

3. Divination by the head

4. Laying the restless dead

5. Curse tablets (defixiones)

6. Reanimation


The evocation of the dead is a ritual defined by its setting, locus of spirit manifestation, offerings, implements, and ordered procedures. The setting for a necromantic rite was typically at nighttime by a still lake or flowing river in which the water would serve as the scrying medium (otherwise, a water-basin would be used for the locus of spirit manifestation). Thus, it can be said that evocation of the dead is performed by hydromancy. Ritual offerings varied, but typically black cattle would burn upon a sacrificial fire, and the cattle’s blood would be poured into an earthen pit to attract the dead, and the necromancer would use a sword to ward off unwanted ghosts who would arrive. Before the actual necromantic rite itself begins, the practitioner would take several days of purifying himself by secluding himself from society and then performing ritual bathing, fasting, and prayer. After this preliminary purification, the ritual proper begins and that method is outlined as follows:

1. Invocation

2. Evocation

3. Compulsive formula

4. Binding of the spirit (or, second offering)

5. Dismissal

It is important to mention that these five steps are reconstructed from the evidence provided by classical sources and thanks to the contemporary scholar Ogden; not every ancient literary source includes each step since the ancient author was more concerned with telling his story rather than giving details to a necromantic procedure. First, the oldest account of necromancy (also called nekyia, or in Greek νέκυια) comes from Homer’s epic poem called the Odyssey.[7] The witch Circe provides Odysseus instructions for summoning the blind prophet Tiresias of Thebes for advice about his return journey home to Ithaca.[8]

Circe directs Odysseus to a place called an oracle of the dead (nekromanteion), near the waters of the river Acheron. It is implied that Odysseus’s locus of spirit manifestation was the river Acheron itself (i.e., the rite was performed by hydromancy) as Circe mentions at one point to Odysseus to look “towards the gushing river.” Odysseus prepares the site by digging a pit in the ground while his men tend to the sacrificial fire for the ritual offerings. The rite proper begins with the invocation and ritual offerings to the dead in which Odysseus says:

“…and I poured libations [into the pit] for all the dead: first honey-mix,[9] sweet wine, and lastly, water. On the top, I sprinkled barley, and made a solemn vow that if I reached my homeland, I would sacrifice my best young heifer, still uncalved, and pile the altar high with offerings for the dead. I promised for Tiresias as well a pure black sheep, the best in all my flock. So, with these vows, I called upon the dead.”[10]

Next, Odysseus offers the animal sacrifice, called a holocaust, to the underworld gods. Circe had instructed him to “slaughter one ram and one black ewe, directing the animals to Erebus, but turn yourself away, towards the gushing river.”[11] Odysseus says, “I took the sheep and slit their throats above the pit. Black blood flowed out.”[12] The next step is the compulsive formula in which the necromancer threatens the spirit if it does not arrive promptly; however, this step is omitted in the Odyssey since the spirits arrive following the invocation. The compulsive formula is reconstructed and known to follow next based on other necromantic rituals from the Greek Magical Papyri, a collection of magical rituals from Greco-Roman Egypt. The evocation brings about the actual arrival of the summoned spirit along with a host of pressing ghosts which strike fear in the necromancer and his companions. The epic poem continues:

“The spirits came up out of Erebus and gathered round. Teenagers, girls and boys, the old who suffered for many years, and fresh young brides whom labor destroyed in youth; and many men cut down in battle by bronze spears, still dressed in armor stained with their blood. From every side they crowded around the pit, with eerie cries. Pale fear took hold of me. I roused my men and told them to flay the sheep that I had killed, and burn them, and pray to Hades and Persephone. I drew my sword and sat on guard, preventing the spirits of the dead from coming near the blood, till I had met Tiresias.”[13]

Of those spirits that came up out of Erebus, one of Odysseus’ companions, Elpenor, came to visit. Elpenor had fallen and died at the house of Circe, and he was not given a proper funeral or burial as Odysseus and company were too occupied with other things and left the island. The ancient jar depicts this scene of Odysseus and Elpenor in which Elpenor explains how he died and requests a proper funeral and burial.

The jar depicts the scene of the ghost of Elpenor appearing to Odysseus.

Tiresias greets Odysseus.

After Odysseus’ encounters with the ghosts, Tiresias finally arrives, greets Odysseus, and asks him to “step back now from the pit, hold up your sharp sword so that I may drink the blood and speak to you.”[14] After Tiresias drinks the blood, he gives his prophecy of what trials lie ahead of Odysseus in his return journey home. The Odyssey does not mention the binding of the spirit because the evocation was successful, but does suggest that a dismissal was given saying, “With that Tiresias, the prophet, spirit, was finished; he departed to the house of Hades.”[15] These ritual steps will be fleshed out further with other examples from ancient sources.

Next, the Latin epic poem entitled Thebaid written by Statius (c. 45 – 96 CE) is about the civil war between the brothers Eteocles, King of Thebes, and Polynices, the leader of an army from Argos to claim his share of royal power after the abdication of Oedipus. The Thebaid takes place before the events in the Odyssey in which the despairing Eteocles consults the blind prophet Tiresias of Thebes who says the best way to gain knowledge about the brothers’ conflict and its outcome is to summon the dead King Laius. The setting of the necromantic rite is “at the point where [the river] Ismenos meets [the] ocean.” Nearby is a forest and the Mavortian plains where a battle occurred and many died. Tiresias cleanses his working space, where it says, “he next marked out a circle, purged it with chopped sheep’s guts and a whiff of stinking sulphur, with fresh herbs and prolonged spells.” He has three altar fires dedicated to Hecate, three to the Furies, one pine altar to Pluto, and another to Nether Ceres. Tiresias takes the first step of performing the ritual offerings by tipping “nine lavish splashes of wine into a deep trench, followed by ritual gifts of Attic honeydew, springtime milk, and the blood that spirits find compelling.” The necromancer sacrificed “flocks with sooty fleeces and pitch-black herds” to the underworld gods. Manto, the daughter and assistant of Tiresias, “caught their blood in basins and made first libations; she paced three times round the pyres as had her holy father, offering organs up half-dead and viscera still pulsing.” He gives his invocation thus:

“Tartarean domain and terrible kingdom of Death,

the Never Replete! And You, O of the Brothers the one most

cruel, allotted sinners’ eternal torments and shades given

as slaves, waited on hand and foot by the Palace Below:

unlock at my knocking the mute realms, the abyss of severe

Persephone! Raise the horde laid to rest under night’s

dome, and let the Boatman recross the Styx with hold filled.

Come here, all together! But the shades’ mode of return must

not be uniform: in a troop apart, let Perseis and

the Arcadian, shrouded in mist, potent wand in hand, lead

Elysian worthies. As for those who died in crime,

who throng Erebus, throng the bloodline of Cadmus – You lead

them, Tisiphone! March ahead, three-viper whip cracking,

yew torch ablaze! Fling wide the day – let Cerberus not

thrust his heads in their path and turn sunless shades aside.”[16]

When the shades fail to arrive, Tiresias gives the compulsive formula (lines 499 – 518). There he says he has made his call and yet he is ignored. He warns the underworld divinities to not ignore him, and he threatens them because he knows their secrets and will reveal them. At this the evocation begins, when Manto cries out, “You are heard, Father! Here comes the bloodless horde!” Visions of the underworld are then described, revealing its famous inhabitants. Tiresias advises his companions, “Start chanting: better compel the Argive souls to come this way – Thebans too. Stop the rest in their tracks with milk (four spatterings); bid them depart the gloomy grove.” The poem describes Tiresias’ phylactery, as “his leaves tied with wool kept the insistent crowd at bay,” protecting him from the pressing ghosts. It does not describe the step about binding the spirit. Finally, the late King Laius arrives and Tiresias begins the interrogation. Tiresias makes a promise to Laius saying, “I’ll see you’re restored in peace to the pious land, I’ll hand you on to Stygian Gods.” Laius says war is coming but assures Thebes’ victory and then departs.[17]

Although the binding of the spirit is not directly mentioned in these poems, there is reason to believe that necromancers used precious stones to bind spirits, or at least, target the desired spirit for making a compact. According to Isidore of Seville, who cites Pliny the Elder, he writes, “They say that anancitis [“stone of necessity” or “compulsive stone”] calls out the images of demons during the practice of hydromancy. They claim that with synochitis [or, sinoctide] spirits summoned up from below may be controlled.”[18] In Lucan’s poem, Pharsalia, the necromancer Erictho places “stones that sing” into her blood-brew for reanimating a dead soldier. In the collection of magical rituals of classical antiquity known as the Greek Magical Papyri, there is a series of ritual offerings or compulsive formulae for attracting certain spirits, including the dead. From a certain Demotic rite (PDM xiv. 80—84), it reads:

“If you wish to bring in a spirit: You should put sm-wr stone and glass(?) stone on the brazier. The spirit comes in. You should put the heart of a hyena or a hare; (it is) very good.

“If you wish to bring in a drown man: You should put sea-garab (stone?) on the brazier.

“If you wish to bring in a dead man: You should put ass’s dung and an amulet of Nephthys on the braazier. He comes in.”

In ancient Roman religion, the stone of the Manes (lapis manalis) was a sacred stone that covered a gate to Hades (also called “the gate of Orcus”), barring the souls of the dead and the chthonic deities from entering the realm of the living.[19]

Sketch of the Headless One.

PGM II.44-52 reads, “And these are the compulsive [procedures]: All of them may be brought before the moon after the first or second day. If he does not appear, sacrifice the brain of a black ram, and on the third day …on the fourth…on the fifth, write the [Headless One] figure sketched below on papyrus with myrrh ink, wrap it in a piece of clothing of one who has died violently, and throw it into the furnace of a bathhouse (some, however, [throw it] not into a furnace, for that is too extreme, but they suspend it over a lamp, or place it beneath one).” Notice that the black ram is a favored animal sacrifice offered to the underworld gods. Also, observe that the compulsive formula says to use a cloth from “one who has died violently.” According to Ogden, the untimely dead and those who are punished are closer to the realm of the living and therefore more easily called by the necromancer. Also, take note of the presence of water in the bathhouse by which the practitioner uses as his locus of spirit (or ghost) manifestation, that is, the bathwater is the scrying medium to communicate with the spirit.

From these examples and in accordance with Odgen’s work for reconstructing the necromantic formula, the following may be of assistance.

The Necromantic Formula [20]

1. Invocation:

a. Prayers (euche) are offered to the underworld divinities. Litanies (litai) and songs of lamentation (psuchagogois goois) are offered to the dead. Such prayers, litanies, and songs may contain voces magicae, which are magical formulae which included incomprehensible words and syllables, and other strange utterances to mimic the speech of the dead. Such utterances included squeaking like bats (trizo), shrieking shrilly (orthiazontes), screeching (stridor), howling (ololuzo), mournful wailing (goos), muttering (murmure), and droning in an undertone (hupotonthorusas).

b. The reason for the call is given.

c. Vows may be made to the underworld gods to “open the gates” for the dead to arrive. Such vows may include certain devotional offerings to these gods. Also, vows are made to the dead, including providing future ritual offerings to the dead or a promise that the ghost would be set free from any further magical exploitation and rest in peace.

2. Ritual Offering:

a. First ritual offerings are made, such as libations of water, melikraton, and wine.

b. The animal sacrifice is made, saving the blood in basins, removing the fleece, and burning the flesh in the fire. The sacrificial blood of the black cattle is saved for the summoned ghost.

3. Compulsive Formula:

a. A second calling is made, if the courteous initial invocation fails. The compulsory formula is made by the consulter who threatens the gods to permit the dead to come forth. The underworld divinities are threatened by having their secrets revealed. Alternatively, the ghost is threatened by the necromancer to call up the underworld deities to punish the ghost if it does not arrive. By sympathetic magic, a physical threat is made against the spirit by holding the spirit’s sign over an open flame.

4. Evocation:

a. A host of ghosts arrive, desiring to drink from the sacrificial blood and must be repelled by the use of a sword so as to save the blood for the ghost summoned. The host of ghosts will create stenches, noise, and strike fear in the necromancer who must stand resilient and brave until the ghost he summoned appears.

5. Binding of the Ghost (or, Second Offering):

a. A special stone is used to bind the ghost, keeping it under the spiritual authority of the necromancer.

b. Alternatively, another offering is made to thank the ghost for arriving.

6. Dismissal: The necromancer permits the spirit to depart.


Virgil’s Aeneid hints that a dream vision was the means for conducting necromancy. Virgil’s description in book six bears strong resemblance to the first necromantic rite described above, including the setting of a lake, the animal sacrifice of four black sheep, wine libations, and invocations to underworld divinities. Aeneas, the hero of the epic poem, descends through the cave of Avernus where he sleeps, having the intention to enter the underworld. Setting an intention to sleep and dream in a sacred or strange new place is known among the Greeks as dream incubation. As Aeneas’ vision ends, his deceased father Anchises escorts him to the underworld gates, which Virgil writes:

“There are twin Gates of Sleep.

Once, they say, is called the Gate of Horn

and it offers easy passage to all true shades.

The other glistens with ivory, radiant, flawless,

but through it the dead send false dreams[21] up toward the sky.

And here Anchises, his vision told in full, escorts

his son and Sibyl both and shows them out now

through the Ivory Gate.”[22]

The Gates of Sleep are the way out of the underworld. I would like to share another example of necromancy performed by dream incubation.[23]

In the Greek Magical Papyri, there is Pitys’ necromancy rite given to King Ostanes. The rite offers a dream vision of a deceased spirit (nekudaimon) to come to the necromancer and act as an assistant to compel the attention of the one loved towards the necromancer. The necromancer goes to the grave of the dead person. There, he places a skull, wreathed in black ivy, upon an ass’s hide. The animal hide is inscribed with the lion-headed (leontocephaline) figure [24] and encircled by voces magicae using a special black ink. The necromancer takes a leaf of flax and paints the figure of the underworld goddess Hekate upon it using the black ink, and then he places the leaf upon the skull. The necromancer gives an invocation to the nekudaimon, then he settles down to sleep and the deceased spirit will appear to him in a dream.[25] The rite goes on to say that most magical practitioners use the deceased spirit as an assistant, which leads us to the next method of necromancy, that of cephalomancy.


Divination by the head involves the necromancer summoning a ghost to inhabit a skull for the purposes of acting as the necromancer’s serving spirit and to speak prophecies. There are descriptions of oracular heads from classical sources such as the head of Orpheus in Lesbos and Archonides’ head which were made by necromantic rites. Philostratus narrates:

“The Achaeans customarily consulted their own oracles, both the Dodonian and the Pythian, as well as all the renowned Boeotian and Phocian oracles, but since Lesbos is not far from Ilion, the Hellenes sent to the oracle there. I believe that the oracle gave its answer through Orpheus, for his head, residing in Lesbos after the deed of the women, occupied a chasm on Lesbos and prophesied in the hollow earth . . . His head sang many prophecies to the Persian king . . . [Cyrus] died by the hand of a woman who ruled those barbarians, and this woman cut off the head of Cyrus just as the Thracian women had done with that of Orpheus.”[26]

The Thracian women were Maenads, worshippers of the Greek wine-god Dionysius, who, according to the poet Phanocles, were upset with Orpheus for charming their men to love other men by means of his music.[27] The Roman author, Claudius Aelianus (c. 175 – c. 235 CE), tells the story of Archonides’ head thus:

Cleomenes the Lacedemonian taking to him Archonides one of his friends, made him partaker of his design; whereupon he swore to him that if he accomplished it he would doe all things by his head. Being possessed of the Government, he killed his Friend, and cutting off his Head put it into a Vessel of Honey. And whensoever he went to doe any thing, he stooped down to the Vessel, and said what he intended to doe; affirming that he had not broken his promise, nor was forsworn, for he advised with the Head of Archonides.[28]

These necromantic skulls who speak oracles act as magical servants (also called familiar spirits or paredros as in the PGM). These spirits or ghosts come from the underworld into inhabit the skull.

Now there is another kind of oracular head made by astrological magic (also called astral magic, and perhaps classed by modern scholarship as image magic). These are called “brazen heads,” which are like automatons and sculpted statues enlivened by astrological magic. In other words, these are spirits which are drawn from the celestial realm, whether from heavenly bodies such as planets or stars, and are ordered by the working magician to inhabit the brazen head or statue. There are many examples of such statues imbued with astrological magic, but for my purposes here, it will suffice to mention only a couple. William of Malmesbury (c. 1095 – 1143), the famed English historian, narrates:

“I have inserted this narrative of the Aquitanian to the intent that what is reported of Gerbert [i.e., Pope Sylvester II (c. 946 – 1003)] should not seem wonderful to any person; which is, that he cast, for his own purposes, the head of a statue, by a certain inspection of the stars when all the planets were about to begin their courses, which spake not unless spoken to, but then pronounced the truth, either in the affirmative or negative. For instance, when Gerbert would say, ‘Shall I be pope?’ the statue would reply, ‘Yes.’ ‘Am I to die, ere I sing mass at Jerusalem?’ ‘No.’”[29]

Gervase of Tilbury tells the Vergilian legend of the figure of bronze which reduced the powers of the south wind and saved the crops of the earth. He writes:

“In the same [garden] was a figure of bronze holding a trumpet to its mouth. Whenever the south wind blew directly into it, the blast of the wind was forthwith turned aside. Give ear to what positive benefit this ‘turning’ of the south wind brought. There is, on the boundary of the city of Naples, a lofty mountain, stuck in the sea, looking out on the extensive Terra di Lavoro stretched beneath it. In the month of May this [volcanic mountain] belches forth the foulest smoke, and from time-to-time hurls forth wood burned to the color of charcoal along with the hottest ash. Because of this they claim that a certain exhalation bubbles forth there from the underworld. Therefore, when the south wind blows, hot dust burns the grain and all the crops to such a degree that the earth, of itself most fertile, is reduced to sterility. On account of this, giving thought to the damage of that great area, Virgil, as we have said, placed a statue with a trumpet on the mountain opposite, so that, at the first sound of the blowing of the horn and with the onrush of the blast within the trumpet itself, by the force of his astrology, the south wind is weakened and turned away. Whence it has come about that, after the statue was either devoured by time or demolished by the evil of the envious, the ancient damage is often renewed.”[30]

It is important that the reader understands the distinction between the ritual procedures of necromancy and astrological magic; historically speaking, these two ritual procedures had become confused and condemned altogether by their Christian opponents. The astral magician summons celestial spirits from the heavens to inhabit a handcrafted image or statue, whereas the necromancer summons the dead from the underworld to dwell within a human skull. Next, we return to two other examples of necromantic rituals involving the dead speaking from oracular skulls.

There is a necromantic ritual in the twelfth century astral magic book entitled the Picatrix which begins with a group of necromancers who commit the most gruesome murder of a man. The man is captured and placed in a barrel of sesame oil up to his neck. The necromancers then place a lead seal over the barrel to imprison him, allowing only his head to stick out. The necromancers feed him dried figs and suffumigate his head for forty days in order to weaken him and make him “soft as wax.” They severe his head and place it in a wall niche upon a layer of burned olive ashes covered with an embroidered fabric. After another suffumigation, the head is able to speak oracles.[31]

The Greek Magical Papyri provides a necromantic rite meant to restrain a deceased spirit of a divinatory skull which is causing trouble for the necromancer. The rite involves sealing the mouth of the skull with grave dirt and placing an iron ring around it. The iron ring acts as a magical boundary. The iron ring has engravings of voces magicae and two magical images: (1) a headless lion with a crown of Isis with its right paw on the skull and (2) an owl-eyed cat with its paw on a gorgon’s head. These images gesture a restraint upon the divinatory skull with the cat’s paw placed upon it, made by a metaphysical power. This example exhibits the ancient world’s problem of dealing with the restless dead, leading to the next type of necromantic method.


Aside from delivering messages amongst the gods, the god Hermes was tasked with guiding the souls of the world, receiving the epithet “evocator” (psuchagogoi). The necromancer, also called an “evocator” (psuchagogoi), when faced with the restless dead who disturbed the living would “summon up and drive out ghosts.”[32]

One example about such a necromancer comes from The Major Declamations (Declamationes Maiores), falsely ascribed to the Roman rhetorician Quintilian, entitled On the Enchanted Tomb (De Sepulchrum Incantatum) in the fourth century CE which contains funerary ritual practices. One such practice found therein Ogden calls “laying the restless dead” which tells a grievous story about an unmarried youth who died of illness and appeared to his mother every night to comfort her in the loss of her son. When the husband and father of the youth discovered that these nightly visits were happening, he did not want his wife to be disturbed any longer. So, he hired a necromancer who would bring about a “second death” to his son, confining him forever to the realm of the dead. The necromancer performs a “reviving of souls” (revocator animorum), beginning with circumlocutions around the grave and offering magical invocations using incomprehensible and horrid-sounding calls (barbarum murmur, horridum carmen). When he sees that his calls cannot compel or bind the ghost, he encloses the tomb with chains, binding stones, magically consecrated iron, and stabbing swords (“sharpened points,” mucrones) into the ground around the tomb, until the ghost is bound to the necromancer. Once the ghost is bound, the necromancer casts it back down into the realm of the dead.[33]

Another story comes from the tenth century Byzantine encyclopedic work entitled the Suda, in which a haunted place is investigated by necromancers. The necromancers drag a black sheep by its forelegs around the haunted place in order to find the location at which the ghost’s body lies in the ground. When the sheep comes to that spot, it throws itself down, telling the necromancers where the ghost resides. The necromancers sacrifice the sheep, perform circumambulations around the site, and ask the ghost what is troubling it. Presumably, through consultation the necromancers are able to resolve the ghost’s problem and lay it to rest.[34]


The next method involves giving orders to the dead which are engraved upon a curse tablet made of lead (defixio) and then placing the curse tablet within the mouth of a cadaver or fixing it near the deceased’s tomb; in this way, the ghost was constrained to carry out the orders of the necromancer. A related Greek term, katadesmos, refers to the practice of binding dead spirits (nekudaimones) down in the tomb, although this term may also relate to the procedure of laying the restless dead. One example of a curse tablet comes from the Greek Magical Papyri in which the necromancer constrains the untimely dead to assist him in acquiring the love of a woman. He molds two clay images of the woman and himself, bind them to the lead plate with the written instructions, and buries it near the grave. Invocations to the chthonic divinities are made, and then another invocation is made over a remnant which is taken away from the grave in order to establish a magical link to the necromancer. Aside from the purpose of forcing the love or lust of a beloved, defixiones also served other purposes, including to silence one’s adversaries at a trial, give prejudice to the outcome of a contest, to silence slanderers, to compel thieves to confess or return stolen property, and to oppose economic competitors.[35] There are no known medieval counterparts to this ancient ritual procedure.


In reanimation, a necromancer summons the ghost of the recently departed back into its corpse for a short period of time for the purpose of consultation. The best example comes from Lucan (39 – 65 CE), the Roman poet who wrote the Pharsalia which is about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. A Thessalian necromancer named Erictho is consulted by the commander Sextus about who would win the Battle of Pharsalus. Standing upon a silent battlefield, Erictho selects a fresh corpse whose throat was slit. Making fresh cuts in the corpse, she then begins to fill it with blood, a repulsive mixture of various animal parts, and assorted philters. Next, she performs the invocation, which consists of an address to underworld divinities and voces magicae. When the ghost fails to arrive, she gives the compulsive formula which addresses the Erinyes (i.e., the Furies) whom she threatens to summon to the earthly realm, to be stalked, to undo their works, and reveal their secrets and weaknesses. At this call, the corpse reanimates. Erictho begins the consultation and promises the ghost that if it speaks the truth then it will become immune to the magical arts and never be summoned again and will receive a proper burial. She also gives a special incantation to allow the corpse to speak and answer her questions. The ritual ends with the cadaver walking into the flames of a funeral pyre.[36]

In conclusion, there are six essential necromantic rituals to summon the dead. These six methods are (1) evocation of the dead, (2) dream vision, (3) divination by the head, (4) laying the restless dead, (5) curse tablets, and (6) reanimation. There is a basic necromantic formula for summoning the dead, for which the steps have been reconstructed from classical literary sources. These steps are invocation, ritual offering, compulsive formula, evocation, binding the ghost, and the dismissal. The Ars Notoria describes the necromantic art as practiced in Classical Antiquity. In “Necromancy: Part II,” I will explore necromancy as it was thought of and practiced during the medieval, Renaissance, and Early Modern periods.


Aelianus, Claudius. Various History, trans. Thomas Stanley (1665),

Aeschylus. Persians, 687. (trans. Herbert Weir Smyth) Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 1926.

Alfaye, Silvia. “Sit Tibi Terra Gravis: Magical-Religious Practices Against Restless Dead in the Ancient World.” Formae Mortis: El transito de la vida a la muerte en las sociedades antiguas, (2009): 181-216.

Augustine of Hippo. De Civitate Dei.

Betz, Hans Dieter, ed. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Castle, Matthias. Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2023.

Greer, John Michael, and Christopher Warnock, trans. The Picatrix. Liber Atratus and

Rubeus Editions. N.p.: Adocentyn Press, 2010–2011.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Emily Wilson. New York: W. W. Norton, 2018.

Isidore of Seville. Etymologies. Translated by Stephen A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach,

and Oliver Berghof with the collaboration of Muriel Hall. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2006.

Laetus, Julius Pomponius. De Proprietate Sermonum. - Pompeius Festus, De Verborum

Significatione. - Varro, De Lingua Latina. Edited by Franciscus Rolandellus. N.p.:

Giovanni Angelo Scinzenzeler, 1500.

Macrobius. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, (Records of Western Civilization Series) (trans. Stahl, William Harris), New York: Columbia University Press: 1990.

Ogden, Daniel. Greek and Roman Necromancy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

---, 2018, Biblical Archaeology Society,, accessed January 28, 2020.

Philostratus. The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. Edited and translated by Christopher P. Jones.

2 vols., Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005.

---, Heroicus, Gymnasticus, Discourses 1 and 2. Edited and translated by Jeffrey Rusten and Jason Konig. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Skinner, Stephen. Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, Golden Hoard Press, 2014.

Statius. Thebaid, Book IV, lines 473 – 487. Trans. Jane Wilson Joyce. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

Stern, Jacob. “Phanocles’ Fragment 1.” Quaderni Urbinati Di Cultura Classica 3 (1979): 135–43.

Vergil, Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fagles, New York: Penguin Books: 2008.

William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England. Edited J. A. Giles. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers: 2004.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. and Michael C. J. Putnam, ed., The Virgilian Tradition: The First

Fifteen Hundred Years, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Image Credits

Ars Notoria, New Haven, Yale University, Mellon, MS 1, f. 16v.

Art by Alan Lee, Galadriel’s Mirror.

Tiresias appears to Odysseus during the nekyia of the Odyssey, Book 11, in this watercolor with tempera (c. 1780-85) by the Anglo-Swiss painter Henry Fuseli.

The Headless One from the Greek Magical Papyri, PGM II.170.

[This article is an expansion upon a passage from my Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon (Inner Traditions, 2023).]

This digital edition by Matthias Castle, Copyright 2023. All rights reserved.

Please do not copy this text to your website, or for any purpose other than private use.

Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon translated by Matthias Castle, published by Inner Traditions International and Bear & Company, © 2023. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of publisher.

[1] Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 8.19. Apollonius is rejected by the priests of Trophonius because he was a necromancer (goes). [2] Modern culture expresses these same cemetery wails today as “Boo!” in books, movies, TV shows, and Halloween customs. [3] Ogden, Daniel. Greek and Roman Necromancy, p. 110-111. [4] Aeschylus, Persians, 687. (trans. Herbert Weir Smyth) Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 1926. [5] Ogden, Daniel. Greek and Roman Necromancy, p. 111-12. [6]Marcus Terentius Varro (116 – 27 BCE), an ancient Roman scholar whose lost work entitled Curio De Cultu Deorum, from his seventy-six Logistorici, is quoted in the De Civitate Dei (On the City of God, 7.35) by the early Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE) about the origins of hydromancy, saying: “And for Numa [Pompilius] himself…is compelled to produced [the art of] hydromancy, he did see images of the gods in water…from what he heard, he had established some in sacred rites and he was bound to observe. As for the fact that the same Varro said the origin of divination carried forth from Persia, and [used] by Numa himself, and afterwards the philosopher Pythagoras is remembered to had been practiced; and also, when having consulted the blood, he is granted to question the souls of the dead, and it is said to be called necromantia in Greek. Therefore, because [the blood] must be spent and carried out as water, it is sent away, from where Numa Pompilius produced hydromancy, for this reason Egeria the nymph is said to be his wife, just as it is set forth in the abovesaid book of Varro.” [7]Ogden, Daniel. Greek and Roman Necromancy, chapters 4 and 5. [8]Odyssey, book 10, lines 487-540. [9] Melikraton, a mix of milk and honey. [10] Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Emily Wilson, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2018. Book 11, lines 24-35. [11] The Odyssey, book 10, lines 529-531. [12] Ibid, book 11, lines 35-36. [13] Ibid, book 11, lines 36-49. [14] Ibid, book 11, lines 95-97. [15] Ibid, book 11, line 150. [16] Statius, Thebaid, Book IV, lines 473 – 487. Trans. Jane Wilson Joyce. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008. [17] Statius, Thebaid, lines 406 – 645. Trans. Jane Wilson Joyce. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008. [18] Isidore, Etymologies 16.15.22. Pliny the Elder, Natural History 37.192. Lucan, Pharsalia 6.676. [19] Laetus, Julius Pomponius. De Proprietate Sermonum. - Pompeius Festus, De Verborum Significatione. - Varro, De Lingua Latina. Edited by Franciscus Rolandellus. N.p.: Giovanni Angelo Scinzenzeler, 1500, Book XI, M. [20] Ogden, Daniel, Greek and Roman Necromancy, chapter 11 and chapter 14, pages 228-29. [21]Macrobius says Virgil meant that nightmares (insomnia) were sent by the deceased to the living. Macrobius. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, (Records of Western Civilization Series) (trans. Stahl, William Harris), New York: Columbia University Press: 1990, p. 89. [22] Aeneid 6.1029-1032, trans. Robert Fagles, New York: Penguin Books: 2008, p. 212. [23] See Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, chapter 6. A dream vision (oneiraiteton) might also be understood as a visionary descent into the underworld (katabasis). For an example, Ogden argues that the mysteries of Trophonius involved dream incubation. See Guide to Greece, Pausanias, 9.39.4 – 14. [24] The lion-head figure is mysterious. Parallel images are found in temples dedicated to the Mithraic Mysteries and it has been conjectured to be called in Latin Arimanius (Avestan, Ahriman), representative of the destructive spirit or concept in Zoroastrianism. Betz, Hans Dieter, ed. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation Including the Demotic Spells, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. [25] PGM IV. 2006-2125. [26] Philostratus, On Heroes, 28.8-12. See also Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 4.14. [27]Stern, Jacob. “Phanocles’ Fragment 1.” Quaderni Urbinati Di Cultura Classica 3 (1979): 135–43. [28] Aelianus, Claudius. Various History, trans. Thomas Stanley (1665), 12.8, 212-257. [29]William of Malmesbury’s Chronicle of the Kings of England. Edited J. A. Giles. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers: 2004, Book II, Chapter X, p. 181. [30] Ziolkowski, Jan M. and Michael C. J. Putnam, ed., The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 853. [31] Picatrix 2.12, Liber Rubeus Edition, p. 125-126. [32] Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, 98. [33] Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, 6-7, 178-180. See also, Alfaye, Silvia. “Sit Tibi Terra Gravis: Magical-Religious Practices Against Restless Dead in the Ancient World.” Formae Mortis: El transito de la vida a la muerte en las sociedades antiguas, (2009): 181-216. [34] Ogden, Greek and Roman Necromancy, 99. See also Daniel Ogden, 2018, Biblical Archaeology Society,, accessed January 28, 2020. [35] Skinner, Stephen. Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic, Golden Hoard Press, 2014, pp. 301-312. [36] Lucan, Pharsalia, 6.637-827. For other examples of reanimation, see Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (or, Golden Ass), 2.28-29, Heliodorus of Emesa’s Aethiopica (“Ethiopian Story,” or “Theagenes and Chariclia”), 6.14-15; Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 7.234-293.

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