Reading: Greek and Roman Necromancy

Reading: Greek and Roman Necromancy

I’ve just finished reading Greek and Roman Necromancy by Daniel Ogden about fifteen minutes ago, and I have to say I enjoyed it quite a bit! It has given me a lot to think about. Since my practice this year is strongly about stabilizing my relationship with my dead, it seemed an appropriate place to start (though my own practice is more veneration of the dead than evocation). For citation purposes, I have the 2004 paperback edition published by Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-11968-6.

The book is divided into four parts. Part 1 discusses the places necromancy was practiced; part 2 the people practicing necromancy, and their various titles and functions; part 3 the technology utilized, particularly that which distinguished necromancy from regular offerings to the dead; and finally part 4 with the theory and belief surrounding necromancy.

For reference- this isn’t really a review, so much as a collection of the bits that interested me, that I want to poke at in the future, etcetera. The citations are listed by part and chapter at the end. It is also very long- WP’s word counter is clocking it at precisely 3,500 words.

Specific methods of necromancy:

The dedication of double “replacement” figures (kolossoi) was a very old ghost-laying technique. …[To] placate Athene and the ghosts of the dead, and they set about doing this by making an elaborate life-size statue for each of the youths killed, and another one of Athene, too. The material used is unspecified. Learning of this, the men of Metapontum, wishing to seize the peace of the ghosts and the goddess for themselves, tried to get in first by swiftly making miniature stone effigies for the young men and instituting an offering of cakes for the goddess. But both cities were delivered, Croton for its magnificence, Metapontum for its expedition. [11]

While I don’t intend to make replacement bodies for my Beloved Dead, this is an interesting idea for my Nameless Dead- elsewhere in the chapter, Ogden mentions the use of a pair of replacements, one male and one female, to placate unknown spirits. (I am also not being bothered by ghosts, so this isn’t exactly a priority, just an interesting thought.)

A number of [Akkadian] necromancy “manuals” survive under the title “Incantation to See a Ghost in Order to Make a Decision.” The usual method was to smear an ointment, rue (?) crushed in water and cedar oil, over the face of the consulter, or on a figurine or skull that “housed” the ghost. … These instructions do not much resemble old Greek necromancy, but the similarities between Akkadian ghost-laying rites and those of archaic Greece are admittedly rather more striking, as we have seen [in chapter 7]. [16]

The main significance of the basic rites of evocation lies in the fact that their system as a whole (pit, libations of melikraton [honey and milk], wine and water, barley offering, blood offering, holocaust, and prayers) is identical to that of normal offerings to the dead at tombs, as we have seen (chapter 1). Some have argued that this normal offering-system was transformed into a “necromantic” one by additional utterance of some sort of magical “incantation” (epōidē). However, there is no evidence for any such incantation in the Odyssey as distinct from the prayers to ghosts and underworld gods. … Others have argued that the normal offering-system was transformed by being relocated to an underworld entrance. But this renders the phenomenon of necromancy at the tomb inexplicable. [18]

Necromantic consultations normally took place at night, the time of ghosts. Incubation, the usual means of experiencing ghosts at tombs or in nekuomanteia, most naturally took place by night. … Ideally the procedure begins at midnight and endures until dawn, when the ghosts must flee back to their graves or to the underworld… Lucan’s Sextus turns to Erictho in the precise middle of the night, when it is noon on the far side of the earth, and their consultation ends at dawn. Silius’s Scipio begins his consultation when the portion of the night spent is equal to that to come. … The Greek magical papyri schedule a human-skull necromancy and an ass-skull necromancy for midnight. But in Egypt, necromantic rites could also begin at susnset. [19]

For all the importance of darkness, necromancy was ideally performed when the moon was full. … Advance purifications begin for Lucain’s Menippus on the night of a full moon, and the actual consultation takes place on the full moon of the next lunar month. Heliodorus’s witch uses the second night of the full moon. … This timing did not coincide with that usual in the case of general offerings to the dead, which normally took place after the twentieth day of a calendar month. [20]

This surprised me quite a bit; I would have expected evocations to take place in the darkest part of the lunar month.

Animal sacrifice was not essential to the performance of the basic rites. None is made in the evocation of Darius in Aeschylus’s Persians, nor is there any mention of sacrifice in the Euripidean necromantic fragment, which appears to summarize all the offerings being made, and the pankarpeia [“all-fruits”, specifically denoted a cake or potage made with honey and fruits] here is actually described as fireless. [23]

A common way of drawing the attention of the dead was to bang on the ground. [26]

Witches also tended to avoid bindings as they performed their rites (binders should not be bound), and this included the necromantic ones. Thus Canidia’s hair and feet were unbound (i.e., she was unshod), although she did have a belt on her dress. When Ovid’s Medea performed a rejuvenation-reanimation on Aeson, she was unbound in hair, dress, and feet. [27]

Something I’ve heard in passing, but never tied to any particular source- just a ‘witchy’ piece of common sense, or some such.

…then we should look primarily to the tradition of skull divination. The Greek magical papyri preserve a particularly interesting series of recipes for this from late antiquity, but the phenomenon may be attested for archaic and classical Greece, by, for example, the myth of Orpheus’s head. [30]

The myth of Orpheus’s head immediately brings to mind that of Bran the Blessed’s.

On libations and offerings:

Literary and archeological evidence combines to show that despite differences in emphasis and variations in practice across place and time, all four of these categories of observance employed the ritual elements traditional in accounts of necromancy: the digging of a pit; libations of milk, honey, wine, water, and oil, and offerings of grain and flowers, offerings of blood (known as haimakouria, literally “blood-sating”), together with an associated holocaust animal sacrifice; and prayers. [1]

The “necromancy” pots of the Cumaean Painter all show the seated female consulter libating to the ghost from a phialē, onto an altar if there is one, and otherwise onto the ground. Sometimes eggs, appropriate offerings to the dead, sit on the altar, and sometimes the woman holds a platter of food. [5]

Plutarch offers the hypothesis in his Roman Questions that the ritually pure are bidden to abstain from the bean (lathuros) and chickpea (erebinthos) because of their use in funeral feasts (perideipna) and in necromancy. Pliny… explains that beans contain souls of the dead, an idea he ascribes to Pythagoras, and are for that reason used in offerings to the dead. … Pliny’s discussion says that beans fog up the senses and cause dreams; Plutarch elsewhere explains that they are harmful to dreams (as is the head of the octopus), so that those who seek prophecy through dreams are bidden to avoid them. … Indeed, perhaps it was thought that one could experience the soul of a dead person in a dream specifically by ingesting it in a bean. [6]

(This amuses me purely because of my longstanding aversion to beans.)

The libations used in necromancy and general offerings to the dead alike were full ones (choai) as opposed to token ones (spondai). Their principal significance lay in their soothing and life-giving qualities. All liquids used were distinctively propitiating and soothing, as Aeschylus says, or bewitching and thereby able to summon the dead, as Euripides says. Water quenches thirst and bathes. Milk soothes babies. Honey sweetens. Wine is also sweet and ameliorates with inebriation. To Homer’s liquids, Aeschylus adds olive oil, which is also soothing. [21]

This reinforces my instinct to offer comfort foods on my Beloved Dead’s deathdays, as well as the familiar birthday cake on their birthdays.

Since melikraton [honey and milk] was given to the new-born, it was suitable also for the reborn; it further resembled the food of the immortals, nectar and ambrosia. … Additional significance may have attached to individual elements of the libations. The sprinkling of the water, among the other liquids, in a circle around the pit resembles a purificatory lustration. And water was itself regarded as chthonic. Red wine resembled blood, perhaps particularly spilt blood when libated. … White milk relieved ghostly darkness. Antiseptic honey was a preserving agent, and ghosts could be conceptualized as the bees that produced it. Heliodorus’s witch gives extra significance to her grain offering by making it into a cake shaped like a voodoo doll. … Eggs, also particularly symbolic of fertility, were commonly given. [22]

The usual sacrificial animal for necromantic rites was a single black sheep or a pair of them. [23]

Whereas rainwater, which emanates from heaven, summons the gods of heaven, spring water, from the depths of the earth, summons ghosts. [28] … Bathhouses were traditionally haunted, as they were fed from underground water. [29]

A Greco-Egyptian, Apion Grammaticus, is said by Pliny to have called up the ghost of Homer (evocation admittedly, not reanimation) with the herb cynocephalia, “dog-head,” which the Egyptians called osiritis, “Osiris-herb”; the god Osiris has been raised from the dead. [31]

(In a manner of speaking.)

On necromancers:

Psuchagōgoi [“evocators”] were probably based at neukomanteia [“prophecy-places of the dead”] but traveled out from there to lay ghosts when necessary. … The psuchagōgoi of the title, who seem to have been a race, again akin to the Cimmerians, rather than a defined group of experts (“We, the race [genos] that dwells around the lake…”), are based at a lake nekuomanteion, which is probably to be identified as the Acheron one. [9]

Psuchagōgoi were often concerned with the laying of ghosts. Hermes himself, whose job it was to deposit the ghosts of the dead safely in the underworld, could take psuchagōgos as an epithet (alongside those of psuchopompos and nekropompos). In a summary definition of psuchagōgoi, a Euripides scholiast asserts that they “summon up and drive out ghosts.” Paradoxically, it was often necessary to call up a ghost to lay it. …one could often be attacked by a ghost in a form in which it could not communicate meaningfully with one. One would then have to call it up with necromantic rites in a form with which one could communicate and learn from it the cause of its disquiet and the appropriate remedy… [10]

The etymology of the term goēs [“sorcerer”] indicates that psuchagōgia originally constituted the heart of the concept: it is a derivative of goos, “mourning-song,” and goaō, “sing a song of mourning.” The goos was the improvised mourning-song of the dead man’s relatives, predominantly the women, and stood in contrast to the thrēnos, the formal mourning song of professionals. … The original Indo-European root was *gow-, which, as Burkert notes, was onomatopoeic for grief. [12]

This calls to mind the professional mourning women of Egypt (whom I do not know the name of) and the Irish caoineadh (keening) wail first uttered by Brighid at the death of her son.

Goos and goēs are several times associated with the raising of the dead in Greek literature. …[The ghost of Darius was summoned] “in pitiful fashion, making high shrieks with psychagogic lamentations (psuchagōgois goois).” It was these lamentations that persuaded him to come. It is possible that the summoning-song as a whole constituted the gooi: otherwise the term will have referred to the nonverbal noises interspersed through it. … Whatever merits such explanations may have, the fundamental justification for the limitation of the expression of grief is clear: if there is too much of it, one might bring the dead back. The only thing to be dreaded more than the loss of a loved one is that loved one’s return. [13]

The author is reminded of The Monkey’s Paw; I’m reminded of the episode of Buffy directly following “The Body”.

Ghosts and their manifestations:

The most common alternative to conceiving of ghosts as humanoid was to conceive of them as tiny winged creatures. On classical Attic white-ground lēkuthoi, such as those portraying visits to the tomb, or portraying Charon’s barge, they are miniscule black figures hovering on wings, somewhat akin to dragonflies. Ghosts are often black-winged in poetry. Metaphors for ghosts in this aspect were afforded by bats, birds, and bees. [35]


[The name Coronides, meaning] “Crow-son,” may suit the girl’s ghostly nature, since disembodied souls could be perceived as crows.

This is not especially surprising, given that crows are carrion feeders, but the repetition of elements present in other culture’s beliefs (in this case Irish) is something I always enjoy finding.

As prophets, the shamans* were close to Apollo. Aristeas was possessed by him (phoibolamptos), and the crow, the form in which Aristeas’s soul appeared, was sacred to him as a prophetic bird. [14]

Again, with the parallels; though I don’t think in Irish lore crows were specifically considered prophetic themselves, but they were associated with the Morrigan, who is at least somewhat associated with prophecy.

Homer and Virgil compare ghosts to agitated flocks of birds. Sophocles speaks of the soul leaving the body as a “fair-winged bired.” … The soul-bird, hovering over or perching on the body of a dead man, is common in archaic and classical art. Tibullus associates screech owls with the ghosts that are to hover around his bawd-witch. [35]

This is also interesting, given the depiction of the ba in Kemetic art.


Melissa has a speaking name that consists of the word “bee” (melissa/melitta). … they were held to emerge from the carcasses of dead humans or animals; they were thought to live in caves; they had prophetic powers of their own, and had notably revealed the quasi-necromantic oracle at Trophonius. Swarms of ghosts were even visualized as swarms of bees in necromantic contexts. Another Corinthian Melissa, an old woman to whom Persephone’s mother Demeter had entrusted her rites, was destroyed, like Periander’s wife, by the envy of her peers, who tore her apart. Demeter accordingly caused bees to be born from her body, in a sort of ghostly resurrection. Melissa was also a common title for priestesses of Demeter and Persephone. [4]

The notion that the dead could resemble bees is probably found first in Aeschylus’s Psuchagogoi, where the ghosts Odysseus is to summon up are described as a swarm (hesmos) of night-wanderers (nuktipoloi). It is certainly present in a Sophoclean fragment: “The swarm (smēnos) of the dead buzzes and comes up.” Virgil uses bees in a simile for souls, and Porphyry reports that the ancients called souls waiting to be reborn “bees”. [35]


…Trophonius was identified with the snakes of the reddish-brown pareias variety said to live in his hole (this was also the variety sacred to Asclepius). The honey-barley cakes taken down were variously said to be for these snakes or for Trophonius himself. Snakes, significantly chthonic creatures, were often kept for prophecy and fed on honey cakes in the ancient world. [8]


[The cicada] sang as a prophet. Just like a ghost, it derived from the earth, it was ancient and bloodless, and it was wise. The Greeks paradoxically attributed the qualities of both blackness and pallor to cicadas, just as they did to ghosts. But at the same time the cicada was immortal, and so resembled oracular heroes such as Trophonius and Amphiaraus, who were at once dead and alive. … [Archilochus] and cicadas alike were sacred and dear to the Muses. … Aesop told that the Muses created cicadas out of pity from men who shriveled to death for neglecting food and drink in their devotion to song. [3]


The required rites strongly resemble the traditional ones of evocation, but no ghosts manifest themselves, and it seems that the function of the rites is simply to acquire the help of Hecate. Jason waits until the exact middle of the night, goes apart from the others, washes in a river, puts on dark clothes, digs a round trench (bothros), piles faggots into it, slaughters a female sheep over it and makes a holocaust of it, propitiates Hecate, and pours libations over the sacrifice. Hecate duly appears in terrifying form with her attributes of snakes, dogs, and torches. [17]

The Orphic Argonautica’s Orpheus sacrifices three black puppies in a similar rite to call up Hecate (black puppies were this goddess’s traditional offering). [24]

Djehuty & Hermes:

Sleep is used as a means of experiencing summoned ghosts also in the Greek magical papyri. … Another papyrus preserves in fragmentary form a hymn to Hermes in which he is praised as an escort of souls and also a rouser thereof, and mention is made of his mantic skill. Hermes is asked to prophesy through dreams. The notion is probably therefore that he will send ghosts in dreams. [6]

Another magical papyrus provides a simple prayer to Thoth/Hermes to bring up the dead. [25]

Much later, a recipe book among the Greek magical papyri calling itself the Eighth Book of Moses contains a brief spell for the reanimation of a corpse that may be used by those initiated in accordance with the book’s rites: “Arousal of a dead body: I adjure you, spirit traveling in air, enter this body, inspire, energize, and arouse it by the power of the eternal god, and let it walk around over this place, for I am the one who acts with the power of Thauth [i.e., Thoth], the holy god. Say the name.” he spell has no explicit purpose other than making the corpse walk around. Collard guesses that the ultimate goal would nonetheless be prophecy. The spell is very concrete in terminology, and does appear to envisage physical reanimation of a corpse, but perhaps even so, as with the talking-head recipes discussed below, one was just to see the dead mean walking in a dream. [32]

The Greek magical papyri contain a number of recipes for skull necromancies. … Pitys appears to be a refraction of the Egyptian prophet Bitys or Bitos, who discovered, Khamwas-like, eschatological hieroglyphics written by Thoth-Hermes (i.e. “Hermetic” texts) in a sanctuary at Said and translated them on a tablet for the pharaoh Ammon. [33]


Heraclides of Pontus told that Trophonius appeared in a dream to some Boeotians who fled to his sanctuary after being captured by Thracians. He told them that Dionysus would help them, so they got drunk, attacked the Thracians successfully, and founded a temple to Dionysus the Deliverer in gratitude. [7]

Outside the Pythagorean movement, Orphism is strongly associated with Bacchism and Dionysus. Orpheus is now regularly classed as a “shaman,” both for his similarities to the other Greek “shamans” and for sharing with the Tungus shamans the ability to attract animals through music. [15]


In the second Pitys spell, an ostensible inquiry from Ostanes about skull cups prompts Pitys to supply him with a recipe to raise a ghost by laying (part of) a dead mean out on the hide of a (Sethian) ass inscribed with voces magicae in ink made from an ass’s blood. [34]

I am curious what the Sethian aspect of the ass lends to this rite; he has no particular connection to the dead in Kemetic theology, aside from his ushering of his brother to the underworld.

*Ogden differentiates at the beginning of Chapter 8 between the actual Tungus medicine men, and the Greeks and Romans he discusses; he calls the term “at least superficially appropriate” and retains it “for convenience” which is frustrating, but.

[1] Part 1: Places; Chapter 1: Tombs and Battlefields, p. 7
[1] Part 1: Places; Chapter 3: Heracleia Pontica and Tainaron, p. 32
[3] Ibid, p. 38-39
[4] Part 1: Places; Chapter 4: Acheron Nekuomanteion, p. 56
[5] Part 1: Places; Chapter 5: Avernus Nekuomanteion, p. 72
[6] Part 1: Places; Chapter 6: Incubation and Dreaming, p. 77-79
[7] Ibid, p. 83
[8] Ibid, p. 84
[9] Part 2: People; Chapter 7: Evocators, Sorcerers, p. 96
[10] Ibid, p. 98
[11] Ibid, p. 102
[12] Ibid, p. 110
[13] Ibid, p. 111-112
[14] Part 2: People; Chapter 8: Shamans, Pythagoreans, Orphics, p. 122
[15] Ibid, p. 123
[16] Part 2: People; Chapter 9: Aliens and Witches, p. 133-134
[17] Ibid, p. 142
[18] Part 3: Technology; Chapter 11: Traditional Rites of Evocation, p. 164
[19] Ibid, p. 166
[20] Ibid, p. 167
[21] Ibid, p. 169
[22] Ibid, p. 170-171
[23] Ibid, p. 171
[24] Ibid, p. 172
[25] Ibid, p. 176
[26] Ibid, p. 178
[27] Ibid, p. 189
[28] Part 3: Technology; Chapter 12: Bowl Divination to Boy-Sacrifice, p. 192
[29] Ibid, p. 194
[30] Part 3: Technology; Chapter 13: Reanimation and Talking Heads, p. 202
[31] Ibid, p. 204
[32] Ibid, p. 205-206
[33] Ibid, p. 211
[34] Ibid, p. 212
[35] Part 4: Theory; Chapter 14: Ghosts in Necromancy, p. 221-223
[35] Ibid, p. 223

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