Waking the dead…

Odysseus consults Teiresias in Hades. I think this was taken right after Teiresias drinks the sacrificial blood Odysseus brings him.
Odysseus consults Teiresias in Hades. I think this was taken right after Teiresias drinks the sacrificial blood Odysseus brings him.

… in order to obtain their guidance and wisdom requires a lot of courage, it seems to me, since it forces you to visit some pretty dismal places, like graveyards and Hades. Take Odysseus, who had to go down into Hades to talk to the ancient (dead) seer Teiresias.

Odysseus had been schooled by Circe, the famous witch-goddess written of by Robert Graves in his Greek mythology, who trapped Odysseus into living with her for years on her magical island of Aeaea (I’ve seen this combination of letters in Scrabble, too).

Eventually, of course, Odysseus tired of his witchy woman, and so, reluctantly, Circe sent him off with the information he needed, that to raise the shade of Teiresias, he would have to pour the blood of sacrificial animals into a trench, beat off all the other ghosts that came to feed, and wait for the dead seer to drink his fill.

Only then would Odysseus be able to ask his question, which was uncomplicated, really: “What happens when I reach Ithaca,” a subject fit for the dead, since the Greeks assumed only the dead had unexpurgated knowledge of what was to come.

Communing with the dead is a theme you see revisited in ghost stories, especially Charles Dickens’ spooky tale, “A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas,” in which Scrooge’s dead friend, Jacob Marley, is the psychopomp who prepares Ebenezer Scrooge for the vision of what is to come if he doesn’t mend his ways.

So as to avoid confusion, by the way, the word ‘psychopomp’ has been appropriated by psychology majors to connote some kind of Hermes-like messenger flitting from the conscious to the unconscious to the subconscious and back again; in this way, the word ‘psychopomp’ has become a metaphor.

In fact, its denotation is “a guide of souls to the place of the dead,” and I don’t know about you, but my subconscious is not actually dead. It might be hard to understand, but that doesn’t make it a ghostly shade I’m having trouble raising in some cold graveyard on All Hallow’s Eve while lighting candles, creating a perfect circle out of salt, and chanting spells under a full moon.

But I digress.

A WITCH, SUMMONING A GHOST FOR KING SAUL OF ISRAEL, EVEN THOUGH NECROMANCY WAS FROWNED ON BY THE ISRAELITES

Since necromancy is a form of witchcraft, in that to raise the dead, you need to know how to cast spells, mutter incantations, and be at the right place at the right time, witches have long been associated with this art.

Witches excel at ritual, since magic is made up of precisely enacted behaviors performed in the correct order depending on variables like the phase of the moon, the age of a sacrificial victim, the freshness or desiccation of hair or finger nails; that sort of thing. 

Rituals in necromancy involved magic circles, wands, talismans, bells, and incantations, so you can see that only those trained in this, with an eye to detail, would be drawn to this practice. It takes a lot of work to be a witch:

…[t]he necromancer would surround himself with morbid aspects of death, which often included wearing the deceased’s clothing, consumption of unsalted, unleavened black bread and unfermented grape juice, which symbolized decay and lifelessness. Necromancers even went as far as taking part in the mutilation and consumption of corpses. Rituals such as these, could carry on for hours, days, even weeks leading up the summoning of spirits. Often these practices took part in graveyards or in other melancholy venues that suited specific guidelines of the necromancer. Additionally, necromancers preferred summoning the recently departed, citing that their revelations were spoken more clearly; this timeframe usually consisted of 12 months following the death of the body. Once this time period lapsed, necromancers would summon the deceased’s ghostly spirit to appear instead.

Necromancy serves different purposes; it can be used as a means of divination, to tell the future, as for Odysseus, or a supplicant might enquire about the overall well-being of the ghost, since getting a ghost to lay quietly in its grave can be difficult.

Ghosts often have things to tell you about why and how they died (as in the movie The Sixth Sense, in which ghosts had no need of witchcraft to get them to spill their secrets). If in life they’d been murdered, raising their spirits could explain why they refused to settle down into their nicely prepared burial plot.

As usual, the Bible is tediously restrictive, this time about “bone-conjurers.” The Book of Deuteronomy (XVIII 9–12) explicitly warns the Israelites against the Canaanite practice of divination from the dead:

When thou art come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do according to the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one who maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or who useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all who do these things are an abomination unto the Lord, etc.

Pre-Christian societies were much more interesting, back when witches were taken seriously and could still get a good job with benefits. It really isn’t until the Middle Ages, though, that you start to see necromancy associated with raising demons, since nay-sayers of the early Christian era with too much time on their hands speculated that there was no such thing as being able to raise the dead, therefore, any such spirit that was raised was automatically a demon in disguise.

Religious guys are much better at the power of rhetoric than anybody else, because they can convince you two things that cannot both be true at once, ARE true! And yet not! And if you’re left confused, and question them, they’ll drown you for a witch! Rigid church doctrine, FTW!!

JOHN DEE, CONJURING SPIRITS IN THEIR NATURAL ENVIRONMENT, THE GRAVEYARD

Eventually, the practice of necromancy, which had been “tolerated” for a long time by the Catholic church, was explicitly linked to demonic worship, and by a convoluted series of theological arguments, became inevitably associated with the black arts, devil worship, and the like.

Whereas the initial reasons for summoning spirits was simply to ask them questions about the future, now if you wanted to raise the dead, you had to have a nefarious purpose, since raising a demon meant you wanted access to the power of the underworld.

Essentially, only God was supposed to know stuff (the consistent message you get from the Bible) and your pathetic attempts to know stuff were frowned upon, along with witches, diviners, and spirit conjurers in general being looked down upon.

And this, gentle readers, is why we have silly things that are nonetheless fun, like the Ouija board. I have done some research on Ouija boards; it does seem that, for modern people, they are our attempt to conjure the dead from basement, bedroom, or attic. The fact that you giggle while you’re doing this is just mean-spirited, cause the spirits are listening, and they do not like being mocked.