Medieval necromancy, the art of controlling demons

Origins, practitioners, languages and techniques of magic via the spirits


Sebastià Giralt

Necromancy, its place in medieval knowledge

Until the thirteenth century, medieval European intellectuals dismissed as rural superstitions not only the use of formulae and rituals rooted in Christianity but not accepted by the Church, but also the practices of inferior magic or sorcery (maleficium). However, the Latin translations of texts about magic and astrology that reached the West, made above all in the Iberian Peninsula during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, together with the other branches of knowledge in the Greco-Arab tradition, caused a revival of superior magic, transmitted in writing. Indeed, its power of attraction and its prestige were far greater than those of sorcery thanks to a more complex worldview and techniques, linked to astrology, and to the authority conferred upon it by ancient, often mythical, origins, which were based on numerous works attributed to Solomon or Hermes (fig. 11). When the new philosophical and natural knowledge and the occult arts spread around Western Europe, intellectuals associated with the universities were faced with the need to inspect them closely, integrating them in high culture when they were considered licit or, on the contrary, forcefully rejecting them on the grounds of faith and reason.

Thus, it was above all during the thirteenth century when theologians and natural philosophers – especially those associated with the University of Paris, like William of Auvergne, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas – began to distinguish between two types of traditionally written magic (fig. 1). What was at times called “natural magic” (although in this case calling it magic was often avoided) was considered to be compatible with Christianity and the sciences. On the other hand, what its detractors called “necromancy” – and now “black magic” or “addressative magic” (addressed to supernatural beings), as Weill-Parot called it – was seen as contrary to Christian orthodoxy, as its purpose was to control the spirits – which the scholastics always thought of as devils – with the aim of harnessing their power. The former was closer to the sciences, insofar as it claimed to know and exploit the occult properties originating naturally, imbued by the stars, which escaped rational knowledge and could only by discovered through experience. The latter, on the other hand, was conceptually closer to religion, as it aspired to obtain the aid of supernatural powers through rites, and because of this it was the one most fiercely opposed by the Church. Therefore, the different causality – natural or supernatural – that was attributed to one or the other can clearly be seen as the reason for the differentiation between natural magic and necromancy. This distinction can be found, for example, in Arnald of Villanova, who applies occult properties and astrology to medicine while rejecting necromancy.

Neither necromancy nor sorcery should be confused with what modern historians of the Middle Ages and the early modern period call “witchcraft”. Witchcraft has very little relation to the magical practices recorded historically, but to an antithetical image of Christianity constructed from the fourteenth century onwards in the minds of theologians and believers. It might be more correct, therefore, to call it “anti-religion”: in place of God, the antithetical being, the devil, is adored and consequently it is regarded as being an inversion of the values and rituals of Christianity.

From ancient to medieval necromancy

The original meaning of the word necromantia, borrowed by late Latin from the Greek νεκυομαντεία (nekyomanteía) or νεκρομαντεία (nekromanteía), is the specialized one it had in Antiquity (fig. 3), as its composite origin indicates: “predicting the future (μαντεία) by conjuring the dead (νεκροί)”. This etymology was noted by Isidore of Seville, who insinuated that the dead only apparently come back to life, and those that come attracted by blood are in actual fact demons. Although the original sense of necromantia was not forgotten, during the Middle Ages the term was often used in a broader sense, perhaps based on the comparison made by Isidore and other Christian authors of the apparitions of the dead with demons. In this way, it became the equivalent of what, above, we called “addressative magic”, which included not just predictive practices but also experiments to obtain material or psychological illusions and benefits through the invocation of spirits.

Understood in this sense, necromancy is the fusion of practices of different origins: sympathetic magic, spells, predictions, animal sacrifices and, above all, astral magic and exorcism. Some of these elements date back to Greco-Roman or Germanic paganism, whilst exorcism comes from Christian worship, although grafted on from Jewish tradition, and astral magic came to Western Europe via the Arab world by way of fumigations of images, circles or mirrors with incense, myrrh, or other substances.

Nowadays, two major currents of medieval magic are often distinguished: ritual magic and magic based on astral images (talismans). These two tendencies can be identified with the division between the Solomonic and Hermetic traditions, according to the two mythical figures to whom many apocryphal stories were attributed by both branches. However, such a distinction becomes hazy when we turn to the sources, given that in many writings on ritual magic astral images play a leading role, while rituals are present in many talismanic magic texts, seeing as their operations were also addressed to supernatural beings associated with the stars. Moreover, we find books and manuscripts in which the two currents are mixed up.

The spirits

It is due to the influence of astrology that necromantic experiments can be placed with precise temporal indications – clearly determined hours, days and moons – in accordance with the spirits that are governing at that time or the astrological conditions. The spirits invoked by necromancers from the manuals that they used are not only the astral ones – linked to heavenly bodies – or the elemental ones – linked to the natural forces of the Earth – which would in theory be neutral, but also demons, angels and other ambiguous spirits in an often imperceptible confusion (fig. 2).

All these spirits of different origins are indiscriminately considered demons by orthodox thinking and their invocation is understood to be equally reprehensible, including even the magic tradition that only invokes angels. Demons are everywhere, as Thomas Aquinas said, although theologians believed they inhabited above all the lowest dark air that is in contact with the Earth, and they were organized in a hierarchy under Lucifer.

This hierarchical view goes back to Neoplatonism based on the identification of the demons and the deities of Greco-Roman Antiquity with the fallen angels of Judaeo-Christian tradition – together with those of other pagan religions (Celtic, Germanic) and those of the Near East, due to the same wish to degrade them by equating them with magic. The idea of hierarchy is shared by necromancers and theologians, but the interest in establishing in detail how it is organized is only seen in occultist texts. However, scholastic authors like William of Auvergne or Arnald of Villanova did make a vague reference to the invocation of four devils that reign over armies of demons distributed in each of the quadrants of the Earth (north, south, east and west), a habitual distribution in many magic texts.

The necromancers

Contrary to what appears in folk tales, works of literature and anti-necromancy writings, in not one of the surviving magic manuals does the pact with the devil exist, or mockery of Christian worship, or the necromancer’s submission to and adoration of Satan. Quite the contrary, in fact. It is the necromancer who demands the obedience of demons and other spirits thanks to the power conferred upon him by God. This is reflected in the definition of magic by an outstanding fourteenth-century Catalan magician, Berenguer Ganell:

‘Magic is the art that teaches one to exercise coercive control over good and evil spirits through the name of God, the names of the spirits themselves and of the things that exist in the world. Hence the art of magic is a science of words, because every name is a word ...’ (fig. 5).

Consequently, the magician must have a profound belief in God and before performing any operation he must purify himself with a period of chastity, fasting, prayer and perform his ablutions with holy water. In exorcisms or spells, using the most varied names he first calls upon God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Virgin Mary, the saints, the angels, the Last Judgment, Heaven and Christian rites, in order to control the spirits, just before also invoking the kings and lords of the demons. Therefore, the necromancer is not alien to Christianity, but he may, in any case, be considered a perverter of it and a heretic.

Moreover, as the detractors of necromancy are eager to denounce, it does not fail to be contradiction to invoke the power of God, directly or through the holiest figures and elements, for selfish or evil purposes, such as finding treasure or even harming someone by putting a spell on them. But it is clear that it did not seem that way at all to those who practised necromancy, given that the basis of it was the irresistible power of these words over demons and the terror they inspired in them. They believed that thanks to ritual purity and mental concentration they achieved a holy state beyond good and evil.

The written testimonies and the accusations point to the clergy (fig. 13) as being the main social group inclined to practise necromancy, understanding this group in a broad sense. Included in it would be not only all the priests, friars and monks, with a high degree of inequality in their training or dedication to religious tasks, but also all those who had taken minor orders, both the lower-ranking religious officiants – readers, exorcists, choirboys – and the university students. They all had in common access to different levels of learning, above all with regard to the knowledge of rituals and Latin, which gave them access to necromancy manuals and the operations described in them. The data on the possession of magic manuscripts allow us to learn about their users in greater detail: they were mainly compiled by clerics with a religious dedication, generally monks. Medical practitioners, alchemists and astrologers were the next most significant groups that collected magic books.

The languages of necromancy

The predominance of clergymen and the model that the Christian religion implied, with Latin as the ritual language, explain the scant use of vernacular languages in superior magic. But that does not mean that books about magic were not translated into or written in these languages, although the Inquisition’s persecution of books on necromancy in the Middle Ages, and above all in the early modern period, has severely restricted their survival, especially in the Iberian Peninsula.

For this reason, although a considerable number of necromancy texts have survived in Latin, extant examples are much rarer in the vernacular languages. The oldest ones are the Castilian translations of the Picatrix and the Liber Razielis made in the court of King Alfonso X the Wise (1252-1284), a king very much attracted by the occult arts who encouraged the use of Castilian as the language of culture, with numerous translations done mostly from Arabic originals. Only a few fragments of these translations have been conserved, included in the compendium called Astromagia by its editor, which also contains other works about magic (figs. 6-7). From a much later date there is a compendium from Milan (1446) entitled Necromantia, translated from Latin into Tuscan apparently by order of a courtier close to the Viscontis (other works in Italian in figs. 12 and 15). On the other hand, some treatises on spiritual magic originally written in Occitan are unevenly conserved in this language: the Libre de puritats (fig. 8), preserved in an Occitan full of Catalan terms in a Vatican codex copied around 1430 that also contains other works of magic in Latin and Occitan, and the short Liber experimentorum falsely attributed to Arnald of Villanova. It has not been demonstrated that Picatrix was translated into Catalan, as has been upheld on the basis of a brief Latin treatise on therapeutic astral images conserved in Catalan in a manuscript from Andorra dating to about 1430-1440. This treatise, although it was interpolated in the Latin version of Picatrix, also circulated separately and the Catalan text is most likely derived from this text.

The context in which all these texts emerged is unknown, but some appear to be clearly associated with court circles. This suggests that the vernacularization of magic must have been fundamentally encouraged by the consolidation of the court as the new centre of diffusion of knowledge from the thirteenth century onwards. This does not mean that the texts produced at court or in circles close to it did not circulate later in other social contexts. Thus, the proceedings of the Inquisition tell us that Pere Marc, a master builder from Barcelona accused of necromancy, possessed a collection of magic books written mostly in Catalan, including such outstanding works as the Libre del Semiforas or the Clavícula de Salomó (‘Lesser Key of Solomon’) (in Italian in fig. 15), which were burnt in 1440.

Operations, techniques, rituals

The operations of ritual magic have been classified by Richard Kieckhefer into three main categories according to their purposes: (1) illusory experiments, which create hallucinations such as splendid banquets, castles defended by demoniacal troops, demons in the form of flying horses that transport the officiant to anywhere on Earth he wishes, the invisibility of the magician or the resurrection of the dead; (2) psychological experiments, which inflict physical pain on other people or exert influence on their spirit to cause love, hatred or madness in them, in order to win the favour of powerful people or to force someone to act in a certain way; and (3), predictive experiments, which reveal the past, the future, distant or hidden events with the aim of finding treasure, discovering a thief or a murderer, and so on. Predicting usually requires the collaboration of a young male virgin, who can see the spirits in a reflective surface such as mirrors, glass (in objects similar to the familiar crystal ball), a fingernail or toenail, a liquid in a receptacle or a bone. Other predictive experiments are based on the interpretation of dreams.

The fundamental techniques are signs and inscriptions, spells and actions. Signs and inscriptions are drawn on the ground with a sword or a knife, or in ink or blood on parchment or cloth. The basic shape is usually a circle, in which inscriptions or other signs are placed (figs. 10, 14 and 15). The circle as a catalyst of power dates back to ancient Jewish and Greek magic and its main function was to focus the strength of the officiant over the spirits. It therefore seems that the purpose of protecting the magician from the spirits is a derivation of it, less present in medieval magic manuals, although it is the one most widely spread by its detractors and by literature. The inscriptions point to the four cardinal directions, the position of the magician and of the boy acting as the medium, the names of the spirits, holy names, and so on. The signs are usually pentagrams (five-pointed stars, fig. 9) and astronomical or other characters (fig. 11). The illustrations in the manuals also add objects necessary for the rituals, such as swords, jugs or candles, but they are most likely mere indications for the purposes of placing the magic objects, just as the prayers written at the sides are probably to be recited rather than inscribed.

Necromancers used formulae to conjure and exorcize spirits with the same structure as ecclesiastical exorcisms (fig. 4): the nucleus is an order or a plea said to the spirits, addressing the spirits invoked, the divine or demoniacal powers that were called upon to make them obey and, finally, the instructions for which their presence before the magician is required and which specify the orders to be carried out. Even so, the goal was clearly the opposite of ecclesiastical exorcisms: instead of sending the demons away the aim was to make them come, and to subject them to his will so that they would make his wishes come true. In both cases exorcisms are not distinguishable from spells. Magicians’ spells were often based on prayers, psalms and Christian litanies, sometimes repeatedly.

The actions performed by necromancers in their operations consisted above all of sacrifices and sympathetic rituals. Magicians offered spirits the blood of hens, hoopoes or bats, milk or honey sprinkled in the air, or ashes, salt or flour placed in jugs, among other products (fig. 6). Sympathetic rituals, used mainly in psychological magic, symbolized what it was wished to obtain through images and other objects to which the action represented was transferred. The actions ranged from knocking two simple stones together for the purpose of causing enmities, to working out the astrologically suitable day and time for a sought-after objective, images copied with the wax of candles used in a funeral, inscribed with names, seals or characters and fumigated with bones and other substances, into which needles were stuck where it was wished to do harm before being buried.


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Captions and provenance of the illustrations

1. Relationships of the different types of magic with the sciences and religion in the Middle Ages. The vertical line represents the separation between the legitimate and illegitimate practices established by theology and natural philosophy.

2. An astrologer looking at the sky with a demon inside a circle (London, British Library, MS Royal 6 E VI, f. 396v, London, c. 1360-1375).

3. A famous scene of ancient necromancy: Ulysses consults the dead in hell (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, c. 440 BC).

4. Exorcism. Detail of the bronze doors of San Zeno in Verona (photo: S. Giralt).

5. Zoroaster presented as the founder of the magic art, inside a circle, subjugating two demons (London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 28, f. 51r, Florence, 1425).

6. A magician making a sacrifice to Mercury, in Astromagia (Vatican, BAV, MS Reg. lat. 1283, f. 33r).

7. The constellation of Gemini, in Astromagia (Vatican, BAV, MS Reg. lat. 1283, f. 2v).

8. Table of the figures of the ascendant sign according to the times of day and night, in the Libre de puritats (Vatican, BAV, MS Barb. lat. 3589, f. 35r, 14th C), taken from Raimondi 2002.

9. Drawing in a necromancy manual: a pentagram inside a circle with the names of spirits inscribed inside each of the four cardinal points and magical objects (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, MS CLM 849, ff. 3r-108v).

10. A necromancer inside a circle (Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, MS Lat. VI 245).

11. The Liber Solis, a book of astral images attributed to Hermes (Darmstadt, Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, MS 1410, f. 58v, c. 1550).

12. The beginning of a treatise on astral magic Di signi solari, in Italian (Paris, BnF, MS It. 1524, f. 1r).

13. A clergyman using necromancy to invoke the devil to help him to win over his beloved (London, British Library, MS Royal 2 B VII, f. 227v, SE England, c. 1310-1320).

14.  A necromantic figure (London, British Library, MS Sloane 3854, f. 133v, England, 14th C-1).

15. A figure from the Italian version of the Lesser Key of Solomon (Paris, BnF, MS It. 1524, f. 186r).

Translated by Andrew Stacey, 4/10/2017