Sometimes the same familiar concept looks completely different from different angles.

Take necromancy, a pillar of fantasy storytelling, usually defined as something involving manipulating the bodies or spirits of the dead. There are so many different ways of exploring and defining this idea, yet we each tend to default to one particular definition. So even though I have half a notebook full of ideas for a novel involving Frankensteinesque science and resurrection medicine, it wasn’t until I found a couple of interesting blog posts this morning that I thought of that as necromancy.

If I'm coming back from the dead, I'm coming back drunk

If I’m coming back from the dead, I’m coming back drunk

The first post, from Michal Wojcik’s One Last Sketch blog, looks at necromancy from a historical perspective – where did this idea come from? what were medieval people talking about when they talked about this? was there some secret criminal cult of priests peddling dark powers for money (probably not, but great idea)?

The second post, from H. Anthe Davis’s The War of Memory Project, looks at necromancy as a fantasy trope, how it’s usually used and how H. uses it in his work. A brief comment conversation with H. got me thinking more about this subject, about why necromancy fascinates us so much, why it works so well as a symbol of darkness.

My current thought is that it’s about taboos. As human beings we have lots of taboos around the disruption of bodies, living or dead. These mostly started as perfectly sensible practices – sticking spikey things in your flesh can lead to infections, as can keeping corpses around. But over time they evolved into customs, then subconscious squirming, then taboos of varying degrees of rationality. It means that stories that prod at dead bodies are likely to hit a very live nerve.

But this is really just a first thought on the subject, and it’s a subject that I’m interested in, on which I’d be fascinated to read your thoughts. What do you think are the great examples of necromancy in fiction? Why is it so appealing, or so repeatedly awful, in our eyes? Care to expand on any of the points Michal and H. have raised? Leave a comment, let me know what you think.


Picture by Diego Torres Silvestre via Flickr creative commons

  1. Dan says:

    I think there’s something interesting there – care in burials is regarded as the first clear markings of group society (in part because hell, that’s pretty much all we’ll have in the physical evidence). And its so fundamental that burial rites = religious practices. Its a clear divergence from animals.
    Not really a point, just a musing – I think there’s something interesting in what you’ve said.

    • I think there’s something here, thematically at least, in connecting that link between the taboo and the rise of the group with the outsider status necromancers often have as villains in stories. These things become frowned upon as much because of how they disrupt the ability of a group to develop as because of the harm they do. Something like that.

  2. north5 says:

    I’ve always found it interesting that the archetypical fantasy novel treats necromancy in a way that’s totally at odds with the now “classic” depiction.

    In any other novel, a man claiming to be king, turning up at a battle with an enormous host of unliving monstrosities at his back, would be considered a baddie … but Aragorn’s Army of the Dead save the day, and liberate the ports of Gondor. In fact his mastery of the dead is considered a positive trait (contrast with Gimli’s evident fear of the dead) – Aragorn is so heroic, even the dead do what he says.

    • Weird, isn’t it? And while I can’t remember how that host is described in the novels (probably in an extended elf song), in Jackson’s film they’re the one monstrous-looking element on a side that’s otherwise made up of folks who look fifteen flavours of classic heroic.

  3. Ben Hodgson says:

    Necromancy has its roots in divination from dead things. It has developed into high fantasy, with animated armies of corpses and spirits. If we take a look back to the origins, what do we find? Hamlet staring into the eyes of a skull, seeking… something. The holistic path to enlightenment asserts that all paths lead to the divine, and the more taboo the path, the more empowering it promises to be. Stories abound of traps and hubris, as one expects when humanity in any imperfect form becomes empowered. Setting that aside for now, necromancy offers many things to us as we reflect on our own mortality, the wisdom and secrets of the past. We question our fear of death, and in that questioning we forge ourselves anew. We seek meaning in mortality, and in doing so seek out gods/ideals. Medicine is largely based on a study of the dead. Friends and relatives who have passed beyond are still with us, in memories and dreams, thus constituting an important part of our lives it seems imprudent to ignore. What is clear is that necromancy, as any form of divination, is empowering. The taboo nature means it is potentially even more so. It is natural that fictional treatment should portray it somewhat as a gilded lily, much akin to how a golden box with shiny sequins and the word ‘Power’ written on it makes a handy referent in narratives…

    • That makes an interesting connection with what Dan said about the origin of burials and taboos around them. So trying to put the dead safely out of the way empowers the group, but looking more deeply empowers the individual. Conflict built in from the start.

      It’s interesting how much that divinatory element is neglected in modern fiction. Anything anticipating the future creates problems for storytelling, but opportunities as well. So where’s the roadside necromancer reading cut price futures in the entrails? Or the princess reading her future in what was once her father’s prized peasant?

      • Ben Hodgson says:

        Obsession with the dead/past is a real hazard given our asymmetric experience of past/future (c.f. memory). We can learn from the past, but run many risks that we can see reflected in fantasy tropes: Morbid attitudes (a lack of vivacity and joy in the present), becoming trapped in old traditions and habits (dusty revenenants re-enacting past events), emotional traumas holding us back (vampire angst, lack of mindfulness), a lack of self-respect (in the depths of the past, we may seem but a blip in the timestream), arrogance and hubris (from basic induction errors – everything has been great, so it will continue to be so)… As you can see, a lot of them derive from the qualities of human experience of the time-stream. Without latching onto grisly wights and grand guignol, the haruspex is evocative of truths hiding in plain sight. Where’s the roadside necromancer? Don’t historians practice a form of necromancy?

        • That final thought makes my degree so much cooler. And actually seems like an interesting character idea, with the telling of history literally reviving the spirits of the dead.

  4. brennalayne says:

    There’s got to be something to be said about the prevalence of zombies in pop culture and the relative dearth of necromancer stuff–we seem to be fascinated/repelled by the uncontrollable dead. My first thoughts on reading your post, though, were of the skeleton in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, and of Arawn’s undead cauldron-born in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Neither is explicitly identified as necromancy, if I’m remembering correctly, but both have definite necromantic (is that a word??) overtones. Cool topic idea, and great comments, too–I think there’s definitely much, much more to be done with this concept in fantasy/sci-fi.

    • I have a vague recollection that some ’90s-era depictions of the Arthurian grail, going back to its supposed roots as a Celtic cauldron, also had effects that in other stories would have been labelled necromantic, but in that context were labelled differently and used by the protagonists – I’m thinking of the 2000AD Slaine comics and possibly Bernard Cornwall’s Arthurian books, though those generally shied away from unambiguous magic so I could be misremembering.

      The prevalence of zombies in pop culture is often presented as being because they give us a way to explore issues about society, a shambling canvass upon which to project other thoughts and metaphors. The necromancer surely provides a way to do the same for questions of individual choice and empowerment, so I wonder why it hasn’t been used to the same extent.

  5. I’ve always felt bad for necromancy, as a thing.
    it’s always used as a symbol of the evil. When, in my opinion, there’s nothing inherent in the concept that requires evil.
    I try to fight against that sort of prejudicial stereotyping in my fantasy worlds.

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