Updated: Jan 15
A mirror is an object that reflects light in such a way that, for incident light in some range of wavelengths; the reflected light preserves many or most of the detailed physical characteristics of the original light, called specular reflection. This is different from other light-reflecting objects that do not preserve much of the original wave signal other than color and diffuse reflected light, such as flat-white paint.
The most familiar type of mirror is the plane mirror, which has a flat surface. Curved mirrors are also used, to produce magnified or diminished images or focus light or simply distort the reflected image.
Mirrors are commonly used for personal grooming, viewing oneself (where they are also called looking-glasses), viewing the area behind and on the sides on motor vehicles while driving, for decoration, and architecture. They are often used by technicians, mechanics and dentists for viewing around and behind obstructions. Mirrors are also used in scientific apparatus such as telescopes and lasers, cameras, and industrial machinery. Most mirrors are designed for visible light; however, mirrors designed for other wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation are also used.
Since mankind first saw its own reflection, we have been fascinated by surfaces that cast our image back to us. Possibly because of that fascination, there is an incredibly wide variety of superstitions, myths and urban legends surrounding mirrors specifically and reflective bodies in general.
There is a great deal of folklore associated with mirrors, including the belief that the soul projects out of the body and into mirrors in the form of reflection. This belief underlies the most widely known mirror superstition; that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck. Many cultures believe that breaking a mirror also breaks the soul of the one who broke it. The soul, angered at being hurt, exacts seven years of bad luck in payment for such carelessness. The Romans attributed the bad luck to their belief that life renews itself every seven years. To break mirror meant breaking one’s health, and this could not be remedied for seven years. In some cultures, breaking a mirror was thought to presage a death in the family. This association of mirrors with death is common and stems from the belief that the soul can become trapped in the mirror. For this reason, children were often not allowed to look in a mirror until they were at least one year old. Mirrors were covered during sleep and illness so that the soul, in its wanderings, would not become trapped and unable to return to the body. After a death, mirrors were also covered to prevent the soul of the newly departed from becoming caught in the mirror, delaying its journey to the afterlife.
The good news is that there are a number of folk remedies for relieving the seven years of bad luck. Early American slaves believed that the bad luck could be washed away by immersing the pieces of the broken mirror in south-flowing water for seven hours. Another tale says that the seven years of bad luck may be kept from taking effect by grinding the shards of the mirror into a fine powder so that they no longer reflect any images at all. Still another says that putting the broken pieces in a bag and burying it will accomplish the same thing.
Mirrors were often used in magical and psychic rituals for scrying – remotely viewing another person or place – and communicating. They could also be used in magical rituals of divination – fortune telling and reading of the future. This was known as catoptromancy or enoptromancy, and was described in an ancient Greek text as being performed by lowering a mirror on a thread until its lower edge touched the surface of a basin of water. The person performing the ritual would then pray to the appropriate god or goddess before gazing into the reflections created by the combination of water and mirror.
Along those same lines, some ancient cultures believe that mirrors reflected the ‘shadow soul,’ and could show the true nature of the person being reflected. This may have contributed to the legends about vampires and demons having no reflections, since they are said to have no souls to reflect. The absence of a reflection thus reveals their true nature.
In the Jewish religion, it is important to cover all mirrors in a house where someone has died while the family is sitting Shivah (the seven-day mourning period). It is said that if the mirrors aren’t covered, the spirit of the deceased may become trapped in one and not be able to move on to the afterlife.
Some cultures took this further, insisting that mirrors should be covered at night and when people in the house are sleeping, to make sure that a dreamer’s wandering soul doesn’t get trapped in one. In Serbo-Croatian culture, a mirror was sometimes buried with the dead, both to prevent the spirit from wandering and to keep evil men from rising.
Since mirrors are often considered to be portals in some way, one never knows what might come through when the conditions are right (or wrong, as the case may be). And what could be worse than being in a pitch-black room with a mirror and suddenly hearing something else moving around in the room with you when you know there was nothing there when you came in. If the fright doesn’t kill you, whatever has come through probably will.
Clearly, a mirror in a dark room with no or little light can be a dangerous thing. Viewing a mirror by candlelight also holds many dangers, if myths and legends are to be believed. One legend says that viewing a mirror by nothing but candlelight will show you your reflection – and that of any entities inhabiting your home, be they ghosts or otherwise. Needless to say, once you become aware of them, they also become aware of you…and odds are good that they won’t be friendly.
There are more superstitions involving mirrors than can easily be counted, but not all of them are negative. For example:
• If a new couple first catch sight of each other in a mirror, they will have a happy marriage.
• To see an image of her future husband, a girl was told to eat an apple while sitting in front of a mirror, then brush her hair. While doing so, an image of the man would appear behind her shoulder.
• If you feel sorrowful or troubled while home alone, with no one to talk to and no apparent way to control your depression, stand before a mirror and gaze into your eyes. Your anxiety should disappear.
• Ancient Chinese believed that mirrors frightened away evil spirits who were scared by their own appearance. If the mirror was broken, the protection was lost.
Needless to say, there are a vastly larger number of negative superstitions related to mirrors, including such things as:
• If a mirror falls and breaks by itself, someone in the house will soon die. • Someone seeing their reflection in a room where someone has recently died, will soon die themselves.
• Actors believe that it is bad luck to see their reflection while looking over the shoulder of another person.
• Ideally, no mirror should be hung so low that it “cuts off” the tallest household member’s head (doing so may cause headaches).
Sam: Right. I mean there’s a lot of folklore about mirrors-that they reveal all your lies, all your secrets, that they’re a true reflection of your soul, which is why it’s bad luck to break them.
Dean: Right, right. So maybe if you’ve got a secret, I mean like a really nasty one where someone died, then Mary sees it, and punishes you for it.
An urban legend that says that anyone who chants the words Bloody Mary three times in front of a mirror will summon a vengeful spirit. This spirit has been reported to do a variety of things to the person who summons her, including killing the person, scratching their eyes out, driving them mad or pulling them into the mirror with the spirit – generally referred to as the spirit of a woman or even a witch. This is an old legend, but in 1978 a folklorist named Janet Langlois published an essay on Bloody Mary, which led to the tale becoming a popular slumber party ritual done by girls as well as boys. No one knows the origins of the Bloody Mary legend; over the years, she has been rumored to be anything from a witch that was killed for practicing witchcraft to a modern-day woman killed in a car crash, depending on what part of the country you live in.
In folklore and children’s street culture, “Bloody Mary” is a game in which a ghost of the same name (or sometimes other names, such as “Mary Worth”) is said to appear in a mirror when summoned. One of the more common ways participants attempt to make her appear is to stand before a mirror in the dark (most commonly in a bathroom) and repeat her name three times, though there are many variations. Some include chanting a hundred times, chanting at midnight, spinning around, rubbing one’s eyes, running the water, or chanting her name thirteen times with a lit candle. Most of these are meant to disorient people. In some versions of the legend, the summoner must say, “Bloody Mary, I killed your son!” or “I killed your baby.” In these variants, Bloody Mary is often believed to be the spirit of a mother (often a widow) who murdered her children, or a young mother whose baby was stolen from her, which made her go mad in grief and she eventually committed suicide. In stories where Mary is supposed to have been wrongly accused of killing her children, the querent might say “I believe in Mary Worth.” This is similar to another game involving the summoning of the Bell Witch in a mirror at midnight. The game is often a test of courage, as it is said that if Bloody Mary is summoned, she would proceed to kill the summoner in an extremely violent way, such as ripping his or her face off, scratching his or her eyes out, driving the person insane or bringing the person into the mirror with her. Other variations say that the querent must not look directly at her, but at her image in the mirror; she will then reveal the asker’s future, particularly concerning marriage and children.
Bloody Mary Worth is typically described as a child-murderer who lived in the locality where the legend has taken root years ago. There is often a specific local graveyard or tombstone that becomes attached to the legend.
On the other hand, various people have surmised that the lore about taunting Bloody Mary about her baby may relate her tenuously to folklore about Queen Mary I, known in history by the sobriquet “Bloody Mary”. The queen’s life was marked by a number of miscarriages or false pregnancies. Had Mary I successfully borne a child, this would have established a Roman Catholic succession and threatened the continuance of her religious persecutions after her death. Speculation exists that the miscarriages were deliberately induced. As a result, some retellings of the tale make Bloody Mary the queen driven to madness by the loss of her children. It is likely, however, that Queen Mary I provided only her nickname to the Bloody Mary of folklore. She is also confused in some tellings of the story with Mary Queen of Scots.
The appearance of a ghostly figure in the mirror could be explained quite easily for the more complex rituals, for example spinning around whilst summoning Bloody Mary in front of a mirror lit by candles. The combination of dizziness, rapid movement and flickering lighting could easily fool the eye into seeing someone, especially when the idea has already been implanted. The participant may think that they have seen a spirit, it is, however, most likely a trick of the eye brought upon by the combination of darkness and fear.
Another slumber party staple involving chanting in front of a mirror. In this one, you pretend to rock a baby in your arms and, while standing in the dark in front of the bathroom mirror, say the phrase “Blue Baby” thirteen times. It is said the cerulean infant in question will appear in your arms and scratch you, at which point, you better drop the child and run for your life, otherwise Blue Baby’s mother will appear and scream “Give me back my baby!” loud enough to shatter the mirror. If you still don’t drop the baby and run, Mama Blue will kill you.
Catoptromancy is the act of divination via a mirror. Also called enoptromancy, the process was used in ancient Greece and involved a sick person praying to the appropriate god or goddess, then lowering a mirror by a string into a fountain or well and examining the person’s visage. Whether the person’s reflection was ghastly or healthy presaged the individual’s death or recovery from their illness.
Vampires Cast No Reflection
Before the advent of vampires in popular culture, mirrors were not a universal tool to detect or ward off blood-sucking ghouls, as only certain cultures believed in this folklore. However, after Bram Stoker included this tidbit in his novel Dracula, the inability of vampires to cast a reflection in mirrors became one of the hallmark aspects of the creatures. They are sometimes depicted as shattering mirrors, as well.
Mirrors by Candlelight Reveal Surrounding Spirits
It is said that if you gaze into a mirror by candlelight, the spirits occupying your home will appear beside you. It isn’t clear whether hauntings will increase if you’ve seen what the ghosts in your house look like, though it seems likely that your nightmares will intensify.
If you place two mirrors facing each other in a dark room, you’ve effectively created a ghost portal, through which spirits can pass. Be careful, though: some negative spirits may not simply jump from one mirror to another – they might just take up residence in your house!
Mirrors Facing the Bed in Feng Shui
Mirrors that face your bed are considered bad feng shui because the body and the spirit are believed to be repaired while sleeping; thus, if a mirror faces your bed while you are snoozing away, all the negative energies seeping out of your body will be reflected back via the mirror, thus undoing all the benefits of sleeping.
Scrying mirrors are used by mediums to gaze into past, present, and future lives. Similar to the “crystal ball,” these mirrors are generally made of a black reflective material. According to Nature’s Energies, the scrying mirror “is a powerful metaphysical tool. It can reveal to the user secret hidden knowledge and clairvoyant ability and can act as a portal to other planes of existence in our universe.” Nostradamus and occultist Edward Kelley are well-known scrying mirror users.
The belief that the soul could be caught and trapped in a mirror appears in many other ways. The peoples of northern India considered it dangerous to look into a mirror that belonged to someone else. It was especially so to look into the mirrors of a house you were visiting: when you left, you would leave part of your soul behind trapped in the mirrors, which could then be manipulated by your host to his advantage. In 18th century India, women were seen to wave mirrors before the image of death goddess Kali, apparently to appease her need for human sacrifice with the reflection of a person rather than the sacrifice of a real human being.
In superstition and folklore, all mirrors are magical. They can be mirrors of water, metal, stone, or glass. Any reflective surface is a mirror. It can repel evil, bring good fortune, and protect a person from certain death. Mirrors have long been the focal point in numerous myths and stories throughout human history, and they continue to gain power in both fantasy and science fiction novels.
There were numerous magical mirrors in ancient mythology. Perhaps one of the least known of these was a mirror made by Vulcan (Hephaestus). Vulcan was the Roman god of the fire. He was master of the forge and metalworking. In myth he forged a magical mirror that could show him the past, present, and future.
Unfortunately, Vulcan had also made a magic mirror for Venus, his wife and goddess of love. Her magic mirror gave her the ability to cheat on Vulcan with Mars and helped prevent them from getting caught in the act.
Perseus, one of the most well-known Greek heroes of all time, was sent to fetch the head of Medusa. She was a frightening gorgon who could turn a man into stone if he looked upon her face.
Perseus carried with him a sword and a shield that also acted as a mirror. To defeat the dangerous Medusa, he used the reflection of Medusa in his shield to cut off her head and present it to King Polydectes.
In this myth, the mirror was an agent of protection and it is believed it was used to “fascinate” Medusa with her own reflection. Some accounts say her reflection turned her into stone just as Perseus cut through her neck.
Lord of the Smoking Mirror
The Aztecs made mirrors out of obsidian, a shiny black stone. Within their mythology was the god Tezcatlipoca who was also known as the Lord of the Smoking Mirror. This ancient deity was depicted as wearing a black mirror on his chest or headdress to symbolize this authority.
He was a god of communication and his people could commune with him by gazing into an obsidian mirror. In turn, he had his eye on their world through his magical obsidian mirror and was known to punish wrongdoers who would gaze into one of his mirrors among the people.
The wizard of Arthurian legend had a magic mirror of his own although it was written that Merlin could use any reflective surface as a tool for scrying. Seeing into the future, Merlin’s mirror was used to protect Arthur’s kingdom. It would alert Merlin to any secret plots against the kingdom and it would show the faces of those who would commit treason against King Arthur.
Science fiction writer Andre Norton took the myth of the mirror and wove it into a science fiction Arthurian tale called Merlin’s Mirror in 1975. In her story, the mirror is an alien device and not a bowl of water or shined metal.
Mirror of Cambuscan
Imagine being able to tell if your best friend was true to you or if some disaster was on the way. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales gave the world of literature the mirror of Cambuscan. The mirror was a gift from king of Arabia and India to the king of Tartary and it showed the looker who was friend or foe. It also foretold of any forthcoming misfortunes and it could reveal signs of treason.
Other gifts were given along with the magical mirror, including a ring that would allow the wearer to understand the language of birds and plants and a sword that could penetrate any armor.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
In the Brothers Grimm tale of Snow White, we have a well-known magic looking glass. As the story goes, Snow White was born to a beautiful queen who died in childbirth. Snow White’s father, the king, took a new wife who was also beautiful, but cold. This cold hearted queen would gaze into her magic mirror and ask it who was the “fairest of all.” The mirror would always answer that the queen herself was fairest of all the land.
But as Snow White grew into a young woman, her beauty surpassed the queen’s until one day the mirror told the queen that she was no longer the fairest. Snow White had become incredibly beautiful. The aging queen grew envious and devised a plan to get rid of Snow White.
In The Fellowship of the Rings, Galadriel used a silver basin filled with water from a nearby stream as a scrying mirror. It could show a person “things that were, and things that are, and some things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees even the wisest cannot tell.” Both Sam and Frodo take the opportunity to look into the mirror, but they are both warned not to attempt to interpret the visions because of the danger involved.
Mirrors and death have long been intertwined with people covering mirrors after a death to prevent the soul of the deceased from becoming trapped. In the Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stoker invented the superstition that vampires, the undead, cast no reflection.
In the novel, Count Dracula despises mirrors and, upon his visit, Jonathan Harker can find no mirror in Dracula’s castle. Fortunately for Harker, he brought his own mirror for shaving and discovers that Dracula casts no reflection. Dracula, in anger, throws Harker’s mirror out the window.
It was at this moment that Harker realized that there was something dark and evil about Dracula and that he would probably never escape the castle.
Through The Looking Glass
Lewis Carroll published Through the Looking Glass as a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In this wonder-filled novel, Alice created a world where everything is backwards. To get there, she had to step through a mirror and onto its other side.
In this mirror world, things are the same and different. There are no straight, logical paths, and events happen backwards. Instead of there being a cause and effect, in the looking glass world, the outcome happens first and then the cause.
At the end of the story, Alice wakes up to find that she has dreamed up the whole thing.
Mirror of Erised
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter discovers the Mirror of Erised. In keeping with magical mirror tradition, this particular mirror had the power to show the viewer exactly what he desired more than anything else in the world. In it, Harry saw his loving parents alive and by his side.
Harry is drawn to the mirror and wants to live in the world it shows him, but Dumbledore discovers Harry gazing into the mirror and warns Harry of the dangers of the mirror. Harry’s life could pass him by as he looks longingly into the wishful scene of his parents. Instead of falling into the trap of desire, Dumbledore tells Harry not to visit the mirror again.
Scrying, also known by various names such as “seeing” or “peeping”, is the practice of looking into a suitable medium in the hope of detecting significant messages or visions. The objective might be personal guidance, prophecy, revelation, or inspiration, but down the ages, scrying in various forms also has been a prominent means of divination or fortune-telling. It remains popular in occult circles, discussed in many media, both modern and centuries old.
Definitions and terminology
There is no definitive distinction between scrying and other aids to clairvoyance, augury, or divination, but roughly speaking, scrying depends on fancied impressions of visions in the medium of choice. Ideally in this respect it differs from augury, which relies on interpretations of objectively observable objects or events (such as flight of birds); from divination, which depends on standardized processes or rituals; from oneiromancy, which depends on the interpretation of dreams; from the physiological effects of psychoactive drugs; and from clairvoyance, which notionally does not depend on objective sensory stimuli. Clairvoyance in other words, is regarded as amounting in essence to extrasensory perception.
Scrying is neither a single, clearly-defined, nor formal discipline and there is no uniformity in the procedures, which repeatedly and independently have been reinvented or elaborated in many ages and regions. Furthermore, practitioners and authors coin terminology so arbitrarily, and often artificially, that no one system of nomenclature can be taken as authoritative and definitive. Commonly terms in use are Latinisations or Hellenisations of descriptions of the media or activities. Examples of names coined for crystal gazing include ‘crystallomancy’, ‘spheromancy’, and ‘catoptromancy’. As an example of the looseness of such terms, catoptromancy should refer more specifically to scrying by use of mirrors or other reflective objects rather than by crystal gazing. Other names that have been coined for the use of various scrying media include anthracomancy for glowing coals, turifumy for scrying into smoke, and hydromancy for scrying into water. There is no clear limit to the coining and application of such terms and media.
Scrying has been practiced in many cultures in the belief that it can reveal the past, present, or future. Some practitioners assert that visions that come when one stares into the media are from the subconscious or imagination, while others say that they come from gods, spirits, devils, or the psychic mind, depending on the culture and practice. There is neither any systematic body of empirical support for any such views in general however, nor for their respective rival merits; individual preferences in such matters are arbitrary at best.
The media most commonly used in scrying are reflective, refractive, translucent, or luminescent surfaces or objects such as crystals, stones, or glass in various shapes such as crystal balls, mirrors, reflective black surfaces such as obsidian, water surfaces, fire, or smoke, but there is no special limitation on the preferences or prejudices of the scryer; some may stare into pitch dark, clear sky, clouds, shadows, or light patterns against walls, ceilings, or pond beds. Some prefer glowing coals or shimmering mirages. Some simply close their eyes, notionally staring at the insides of their own eyelids, and speak of “eyelid scrying”.
Scrying media generally either suggest images directly (such as figures in fire, fluid eddies or clouds), or else they distort or reflect the observers’ vision confusingly, in the manner to be seen in crystals or transparent balls.
Alternatively the medium might reduce visual stimuli to thresholds below which any clear impressions could interfere with fancied visions or free association. Examples include darkened reflections of night sky, or plain shadow or darkness.
One class of methods of scrying involves a self-induced trance, with or without the aid of a medium such as a crystal ball or, even via modern technology such as a smartphone among other things. Some say that the sensation is drug-like, some that various drugs can potentiate the experience; others categorically exclude any connection with drug usage, claiming that it invalidates any images observed.
Many practitioners say that the scrying medium initially serves to focus attention, removing unwanted thoughts from the mind in much the same way as repetition of a mantra, concentration on a mandala, inducing the relaxation response, or possibly by hypnosis. Once this stage is achieved, the scryer may begin free association with the perceived images. The technique of deliberately looking for and declaring these initial images aloud, however trivial or irrelevant they may seem to the conscious mind, attempts to deepen the trance state. In this state some scryers hear their own disassociated voices affirming what they see, in a mental feedback loop.
Practitioners apply the process until they achieve a satisfactory state of perception in which rich visual images and dramatic stories seem to be projected within the medium itself, or in the mind’s eye of the scryer. They claim that the technique allows them to see relevant events or images within the chosen medium.
Nostradamus practiced scrying; he would stare into a bowl of water or a “magic mirror” to see the future while he was in trance.
Divination is briefly mentioned in chapter 44 of the Book of Genesis. A silver chalice or cup is deliberately planted in Benjamin’s sack when he leaves Egypt, later to be used as evidence of theft. It is revealed the cup belongs to Joseph, the vizier of Egypt, whose steward claimed was used for drinking and divination during the course of his accusation. This is mentioned to reinforce his disguise as an Egyptian nobleman.
The Shahnameh, a 10th-century epic work narrating historical and mythological past of Persia, gives a description of what was called the Cup of Jamshid (Jaam-e Jam), which was used by the ancient (mythological) Persian kings for observing all of the seven layers of the universe. The cup was said to contain an elixir of immortality, but without cogent explanation for any relevance of the elixir to the scrying function.
Latter Day Saint Movement
In the late 1820s, Joseph Smith founded the Latter Day Saint movement based in part on what was said to be information obtained miraculously from the reflections of seer stones. Smith had at least three separate stones, including his favorite, a brown stone he found during excavation of a neighbor’s well. He initially used these stones in various treasure-digging quests in the early 1820s, placing the stone inside the crown of his hat and putting his face in the hat to read what he believed were the miraculous reflections from the stone. Smith also said that he had access to a separate set of spectacles composed of seer stones, which he called the Urim and Thummim. He said that, through these stones, he could translate the golden plates that are the stated source of the Book of Mormon.
Scrying in Folklore
Rituals that involve many acts similar to scrying in ceremonial magic are retained in the form of folklore and superstition. A formerly widespread tradition held that young women gazing into a mirror in a darkened room (often on Halloween) could catch a glimpse of their future husband’s face in the mirror — or a skull personifying Death if their fate was to die before they married.
Another form of the tale, involving the same actions of gazing into a mirror in a darkened room, is used as a supernatural dare in the tale of “Bloody Mary”. Here, the motive is usually to test the adolescent gazers’ mettle against a malevolent witch or ghost, in a ritual designed to allow the scryers’ easy escape if the visions summoned prove too frightening.
While, as with any sort of folklore, the details may vary, this particular tale (Bloody Mary) encouraged young women to walk up a flight of stairs backwards, holding a candle and a hand mirror, in a darkened house. As they gazed into the mirror, they were supposed to be able to catch a view of their future husband’s face. There was, however, a chance that they would see the skull-face of the Grim Reaper instead; this meant that they were destined to die before they married.
Folklore superstitions such as those just mentioned, are not to be distinguished clearly from traditional tales, within which the reality of such media are taken for granted. In the fairytale of Snow White for example, the jealous queen consults a magic mirror, which she asks “Magic mirror on the wall / Who is the fairest of them all?” to which the mirror always replies “You, my queen, are fairest of all.” But when Snow White reaches the age of seven, she becomes as beautiful as the day, and when the queen asks her mirror, it responds: “Queen, you are full fair, ’tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you.” There is no uniformity among believers, in how seriously they prefer to take such tales and superstitions.
Scrying is not supported by science as a method of predicting the future or obtaining information unavailable to empirical investigation. Some critics consider it to be a pseudoscience. Skeptics consider scrying to be the result of delusion or wishful thinking.
Psychologist Leonard Zusne suggested that scrying images are hallucinations or hypnagogic experiences.
A 2010 paper in the journal Perception identified one specific method of reliably reproducing a scrying illusion in a mirror and hypothesized that it “might be caused by low level fluctuations in the stability of edges, shading and outlines affecting the perceived definition of the face, which gets over-interpreted as ‘someone else’ by the face recognition system.”
Necromancy is a practice of magic involving communication with the dead – either by summoning their spirits as apparitions or raising them bodily – for the purpose of divination, imparting the means to foretell future events, discover hidden knowledge, to bring someone back from the dead, or to use the dead as a weapon. Sometimes referred to as “Death Magic”, the term may also sometimes be used in a more general sense to refer to black magic or witchcraft.
The word “necromancy” is adapted from Late Latin necromantia, itself borrowed from post-Classical Greek νεκρομαντεία (nekromanteía), a compound of Ancient Greek νεκρός (nekrós), “dead body”, and μαντεία (manteía), “divination by means of”; this compound form was first used by Origen of Alexandria in the 3rd century AD. The Classical Greek term was ἡ νέκυια (nekyia), from the episode of the Odyssey in which Odysseus visits the realm of the dead and νεκρομαντεία in Hellenistic Greek, rendered as necromantīa in Latin, and as necromancy in 17th-century English.
Early necromancy was related to – and most likely evolved from – shamanism, which calls upon spirits such as the ghosts of ancestors. Classical necromancers addressed the dead in “a mixture of high-pitch squeaking and low droning”, comparable to the trance-state mutterings of shamans. Necromancy was prevalent throughout Western antiquity with records of its practice in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece and Rome. In his Geographica, Strabo refers to νεκρομαντία (nekromantia), or “diviners by the dead”, as the foremost practitioners of divination among the people of Persia, and it is believed to have also been widespread among the peoples of Chaldea (particularly the Sabians, or “star-worshipers”), Etruria and Babylonia. The Babylonian necromancers were called manzazuu or sha’etemmu, and the spirits they raised were called etemmu.
The oldest literary account of necromancy is found in Homer’s Odyssey. Under the direction of Circe, a powerful sorceress, Odysseus travels to the underworld (katabasis) in order to gain insight about his impending voyage home by raising the spirits of the dead through the use of spells which Circe has taught him. He wishes to invoke and question the shade of Tiresias in particular; however, he is unable to summon the seer’s spirit without the assistance of others. The Odyssey’s passages contain many descriptive references to necromantic rituals: rites must be performed around a pit with fire during nocturnal hours, and Odysseus has to follow a specific recipe, which includes the blood of sacrificial animals, to concoct a libation for the ghosts to drink while he recites prayers to both the ghosts and gods of the underworld.
Practices such as these, varying from the mundane to the grotesque, were commonly associated with necromancy. Rituals could be quite elaborate, involving magic circles, wands, talismans, and incantations. The necromancer might also surround himself with morbid aspects of death, which often included wearing the deceased’s clothing and consuming foods that symbolized lifelessness and decay such as unleavened black bread and unfermented grape juice. Some necromancers even went so far as to take part in the mutilation and consumption of corpses. These ceremonies could carry on for hours, days, or even weeks, leading up to the eventual summoning of spirits. Frequently they were performed in places of interment or other melancholy venues that suited specific guidelines of the necromancer. Additionally, necromancers preferred to summon the recently departed based on the premise that their revelations were spoken more clearly. This timeframe was usually limited to the twelve months following the death of the physical body; once this period elapsed, necromancers would evoke the deceased’s ghostly spirit instead.
While some cultures considered the knowledge of the dead to be unlimited, ancient Greeks and Romans believed that individual shades knew only certain things. The apparent value of their counsel may have been based on things they knew in life or knowledge they acquired after death. Ovid writes in his Metamorphoses of a marketplace in the underworld where the dead convene to exchange news and gossip.
There are also several references to necromancers – called “bone-conjurers” among Jews of the later Hellenistic period – in the Bible. The Book of Deuteronomy (18:9–12) explicitly warns the Israelites against engaging in the Canaanite practice of divination from the dead:
9When 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. 10There 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, 11or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. 12For all who do these things are an abomination unto the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee (KJV).
Though Mosaic Law prescribed the death penalty to practitioners of necromancy (Leviticus 20:27), this warning was not always heeded. One of the foremost examples is when King Saul had the Witch of Endor invoke the spirit of Samuel, a judge and prophet, from Sheol using a ritual conjuring pit (1 Samuel 28:3–25). However, the so-called witch was shocked at the presence of the real spirit of Samuel for in I Sam 28:12 it says, “When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out in a loud voice.” Samuel questioned his reawakening asking, “Why hast thou disquieted me?” Saul did not receive a death penalty (his being the highest authority in the land) but he did receive it from God himself as prophesied by Samuel during that conjuration – within a day he died in battle along with his son Jonathan.
Some Christian writers later rejected the idea that humans could bring back the spirits of the dead and interpreted such shades as disguised demons instead, thus conflating necromancy with demon summoning. Caesarius of Arles entreats his audience to put no stock in any demons or gods other than the Christian God, even if the working of spells appears to provide benefit. He states that demons only act with divine permission and are permitted by God to test Christian people. Caesarius does not condemn man here; he only states that the art of necromancy exists, although it is prohibited by the Bible.
On the other hand, some Christians believe that necromancy is real (along with other facets of the occult “magic”) but God has not suffered Christians to deal with those spirits (Deuteronomy 18:14). Still others believe the phantom of Samuel to be a trick, like the hoax séances conducted by many early 20th century illusionist spiritualists, which fooled those recording the events of Samuel’s life.
Early and High Middle Ages
Many medieval writers believed that actual resurrection required the assistance of God. They saw the practice of necromancy as conjuring demons who took the appearance of spirits. The practice became known explicitly as maleficium, and the Catholic Church condemned it. Though the practitioners of necromancy were linked by many common threads, there is no evidence that these necromancers ever organized as a group. One noted commonality among practitioners of necromancy was usually the utilization of certain toxic and hallucinogenic plants from the nightshade family such as black henbane, jimson weed, belladonna or mandrake. Usually in magic salves or potions.
Medieval necromancy is believed to be a synthesis of astral magic derived from Arabic influences and exorcism derived from Christian and Jewish teachings. Arabic influences are evident in rituals that involve moon phases, sun placement, day and time. Fumigation and the act of burying images are also found in both astral magic and necromancy. Christian and Jewish influences appear in the symbols and in the conjuration formulas used in summoning rituals.
Practitioners were often members of the Christian clergy, though some nonclerical practitioners are recorded. In some instances, mere apprentices or those ordained to lower orders dabbled in the practice. They were connected by a belief in the manipulation of spiritual beings – especially demons – and magical practices. These practitioners were almost always literate and well educated. Most possessed basic knowledge of exorcism and had access to texts of astrology and of demonology. Clerical training was informal and university-based education rare. Most were trained under apprenticeships and were expected to have a basic knowledge of Latin, ritual and doctrine. This education was not always linked to spiritual guidance and seminaries were almost non-existent. This situation allowed some aspiring clerics to combine Christian rites with occult practices despite its condemnation in Christian doctrine.
Medieval practitioners believed they could accomplish three things with necromancy: will manipulation, illusions, and knowledge:
Will manipulation affects the mind and will of another person, animal, or spirit. Demons are summoned to cause various afflictions on others, “to drive them mad, to inflame them to love or hatred, to gain their favor, or to constrain them to do or not do some deed.”
Illusions involve reanimation of the dead or conjuring food, entertainment, or a mode of transportation.
Knowledge is allegedly discovered when demons provide information about various things. This might involve identifying criminals, finding items, or revealing future events.
The act of performing medieval necromancy usually involved magic circles, conjurations, and sacrifices such as those shown in the Munich Manual of Demonic Magic:
Circles were usually traced on the ground, though cloth and parchment were sometimes used. Various objects, shapes, symbols, and letters may be drawn or placed within that represent a mixture of Christian and occult ideas. Circles were believed to empower and protect what was contained within, including protecting the necromancer from the conjured demons.
Conjuration is the method of communicating with the demons to have them enter the physical world. It usually employs the power of special words and stances to call out the demons and often incorporated the use of Christian prayers or biblical verses. These conjurations may be repeated in succession or repeated to different directions until the summoning is complete.
Sacrifice was the payment for summoning; though it may involve the flesh of a human being or animal, it could sometimes be as simple as offering a certain object. Instructions for obtaining these items were usually specific. The time, location, and method of gathering items for sacrifice could also play an important role in the ritual.
The rare confessions of those accused of necromancy suggest that there was a range of spell casting and related magical experimentation. It is difficult to determine if these details were due to their practices, as opposed to the whims of their interrogators. John of Salisbury is one of the first examples related by Richard Kieckhefer, but as a Parisian ecclesiastical court record of 1323 shows, a “group who were plotting to invoke the demon Berich from inside a circle made from strips of cat skin” were obviously participating in what the Church would define as “necromancy”.
Herbert Stanley Redgrove claims necromancy as one of three chief branches of medieval ceremonial magic, alongside black magic and white magic. This does not correspond to contemporary classifications, which often conflate “nigromancy” (“black-knowledge”) with “necromancy” (“death-knowledge”).
Late Middle Ages to Renaissance
In the wake of inconsistencies of judgment, necromancers and other practitioners of the magic arts were able to utilize spells featuring holy names with impunity, as any biblical references in such rituals could be construed as prayers rather than spells. As a consequence, the necromancy that appears in the Munich Manual is an evolution of these theoretical understandings. It has been suggested that the authors of the Manual knowingly designed the book to be in discord with ecclesiastical law. The main recipe employed throughout the Manual used the same religious language and names of power alongside demonic names. An understanding of the names of God derived from apocryphal texts and the Hebrew Torah required that the author of such rites have at least a casual familiarity with these sources.
Within the tales related in occult manuals are found connections with stories from other cultures’ literary traditions. For instance, the ceremony for conjuring a horse closely relates to the Arabic One Thousand and One Nights and French romances; Chaucer’s The Squire’s Tale also bears marked similarities. This becomes a parallel evolution of spells to foreign gods or demons that were once acceptable, and frames them into a new Christian context, albeit demonic and forbidden. As the material for these manuals was apparently derived from scholarly magical and religious texts from a variety of sources in many languages, the scholars who studied these texts likely manufactured their own aggregate sourcebook and manual with which to work spells or magic.
In the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, it is stated that “Of all human opinions that is to be reputed the most foolish which deals with the belief in Necromancy, the sister of Alchemy, which gives birth to simple and natural things.”
In the present day, necromancy is more generally used as a term to describe the pretense of manipulation of death and the dead, often facilitated through the use of ritual magic or some other kind of occult ceremony. Contemporary séances, channeling and Spiritualism verge on necromancy when supposedly invoked spirits are asked to reveal future events or secret information. Necromancy may also be presented as sciomancy, a branch of theurgic magic.
Because of their themes of spirit contact, the long-running show Supernatural Chicago and the annual Harry Houdini séance, both of which are held at the Excalibur nightclub in Chicago, Illinois, dub their lead performer “Neil Tobin, Necromancer”.
As to the practice of necromancy having endured in one form or another throughout the millennia, An Encyclopædia of Occultism states:
The art is of almost universal usage. Considerable difference of opinion exists among modern adepts as to the exact methods to be properly pursued in the necromantic art, and it must be borne in mind that necromancy, which in the Middle Ages was called sorcery, shades into modern spiritualistic practice. There is no doubt, however, that necromancy is the touch-stone of occultism, for if, after careful preparation the adept can carry through to a successful issue, the raising of the soul from the other world, he has proved the value of his art.