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The damned arte of trying or pretending to communicate with the spirits of the dead has contaminated the great work of magic since its beginning.
In the late 19th century and during the 20th century, magic began to part company with necromancy in the west, in large part due to the efforts of Macgregor Mathers and the adepts of the Golden Dawn. They seemed to have viewed spiritualism with the derision it deserves and did not in general dabble in necromancy, despite that the PPN (Platonic Pagan-Monotheist) theory underlying their paradigm could have supported it.
Some of the magicians whose work contributed to the Golden Dawn corpus did dabble in necromancy for a while but with inconclusive results. Dee attempted to re-animate a graveyard corpse and communicate with it, and Eliphas Levi attempted to invoke the long dead magician Apollonius of Tyana.
Necromancy seems to persisted since at least the time of Stone Age ancestor veneration, through the Shamanic practices of contacting ancestral spirits, through Pagan magical practices of invoking various named dead people for information or favours, through Roman Catholic invocation of dead saints for similar purposes, to the spiritualist practices which developed in the 1840s in America and became prevalent on the fringes of many Protestant Christian cultures.
The Roman Catholics of course banned necromancy except where it involved the myths and bodily relics of official Christian Saints. Rather wisely perhaps, they decided that any other form of necromancy invokes only ‘demons’ masquerading as dead people. Nevertheless Catholicism still makes much of praying for the souls of the dead to ease their passage through the purgatory that Catholicism has in store for them, so long as the non-sainted dead don’t speak back of course.
The medieval tradition of the Goetia and the Grimoires developed within Catholicism and advocated the invocation of the dead and demons on a more or less interchangeable basis. Despite the apparent evil, the necromancer invoked in the name of the Neoplatonic most high, the supreme one-ness or godhead, even when conjuring devils or the dead to supply wealth, favours, fresh females, or revenge upon enemies. Macgregor Mathers did of course provide a modern translation of both Keys of Solomon, but seemingly more for scholastic interest than for use by the Golden Dawn. Necromancy depends for much of its effect on the gnosis of fear and transgression, the high anxiety of forbidden work with demons and corpses in graveyards in darkness.
As the Protestant Christian view of ‘The Afterlife’ became progressively more dismissive of hellfire and brimstone, and increasingly vague and unspecified, so did spiritualism grow into the mucky and exploitative business of reassuring the living that their dead remained happy and in heaven and up for intermediated conversation for a fee. Both world wars caused a big spike in business.
Esoteric interaction with the dead seems to have gone forth (and sometimes back) along an interesting trajectory during human history. The dead human body seems to evoke a certain fear and disgust response for good evolutionary reasons, fear of death and fear of disease from corpses increases survival prospects. Plus grief at loss, and/or guilt or a sense of unfinished business, all play their part in our attitudes to the dead. Humanity has at various times, feared the dead, placated the dead, revered or worshipped the dead, tried to control the dead with hells and heavens and purgatories, and tried to get the dead to give information or favours.
In the modern QNP (Quantum Neo-Pagan) Magical Paradigm, ‘Spirits’ cannot exist in the old-fashioned Neoplatonic sense. Living creatures and natural phenomena do have their non-local quantum wave-functions which the magician can sometimes interact with, but such ‘aetheric’ or ‘astral’ manifestations of reality depend on the existence of the physical forms; they do not predate them in the Platonic or Neo-Platonic sense, and they do not survive their destruction. All Gods and gods and goddesses and ghosts and demons exist as Imaginary Friends (and enemies) within human minds, yet they can still have quite astonishing psychological and parapsychological effects.
Thus the Roman Catholics inadvertently got it right about getting ‘demons’ when you conjure the dead. The dead no longer exist to respond, so you will at best simply achieve a reanimation of your memories and expectations of the dead in your subconscious, a Tulpa or created thought form, as the Tibetan magicians call it.
If necromancers really could get objective information from the dead then an enormous demand would exist for them in all parts of the world to assist in murder investigations.
Imaginary friends, Tulpas, and various gods and servitors can prove of considerable use and value to the magician, so long as the magician doesn’t fall into the trap of regarding them as objectively real and of uncritically accepting their advice, for then they really do become demons in the worst sense of the word, amplifying aspects of the magicians subconscious beyond their original remit and creating obsessions.
However we now have every reason to conclude that the dead persist only in our memories and imaginations of them. Eliphas Levi seems to have more or less realised this and tried to develop a theory of magic that depended on some sort of ‘Astral Light’ and the personal efforts of the magician, rather than entirely upon the celestial legions of the dead, the demonic, and the archangelic. The adepts of the Golden Dawn seem to have come to similar conclusions, and Crowley disdained to play around with necromancy.
The presence of the belief in life after death in many ancient and modern religions doesn’t make it so. No attempt to describe a disembodied afterlife in detail really makes any sense at all; (try it), it just makes a comforting (or frightening) contra-evidential belief. The appeal of necromancy to modern magicians, who should know better, lies entirely in its gothic necro-charisma and dark glamour - the frisson of fear. This can prove profitable in spooking the gullible, but spooking yourself with it just seems adolescent.
Work with necromancy and goetia only really gives personal effects if you persistently invoke the gnosis of fear, and this can upset the autonomic nervous system, leading to the skinny pallor and fidgety persona characteristic of high cortisol/anxiety levels. It doesn’t lead to self-understanding or much in the way of magical ability to interact with reality.
Here on Wizard’s Isle we have led the world in magic and esoterics for the last century or more. Theosophy, The Golden Dawn, Thelema, Modern Hermetics, Wicca, Neo-Paganism, Neo-Druidry and Chaos Magic all originated here, and they have all done much to call into question the conventional stupidities of established religions and the default assumptions of materialism, but the UK seems unlikely to become the home of a revival of the murky art of necromancy.
The magical revival which grew out of romanticism in the 1880s and which set the scene for the magical revival in the counter-culture of the late 20th century, attracted intelligent alternative thinkers precisely because of its rejection of the necromancy that had always featured in magic till then, and had made it look increasingly deluded to the modern mind.
The necromancy which features heavily in the Greek Magical Papyri would have, in Sir Terry Pratchett’s terms, qualified as the ‘Dragon Magic’ (i.e. the metaphysical ‘Rocket Science’) of Hellenic magic. Planetary Magic became the ‘Dragon Magic’ of the Renaissance. Stellar Magic, the attempt to interact with extra-terrestrial sources of consciousness and intelligence, may perhaps become the ‘Dragon Magic’ of the future.