Where were we? We’re in the middle of talking about what a “Hermetic afterlife” actually looks like and consists of, in terms of what the classical Hermetic texts have as teachings regarding what happens to us after we die beyond some vague notion of reincarnation or ascent. There’s only a handful of texts that actually talk about this in any way, and what they have don’t always match up well between each other. Last time, we talked about what this Hermetic model of the afterlife means for some rituals of religious import like funerals or ancestor veneration. If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!
Alright, let’s cut to the chase here. To continue our discussion from the last post, where we left off with describing how this Hermetic model of the afterlife both explains and informs religious rituals involving the dead, we’re now moving onto rituals and works that are less religious and more magical in nature. Let’s get right to it, and talk about necromancy! Of course, to be sure, “necromancy” is a really broad field of magic and divination that can take many forms, and many culturally-significant practices from across the world with various origins and thinkings behind them can all be classified as this. To make this easier, I’ll divide up “necromancy” for the purposes of this post into different sections.
Incubation, Mediumship, and Blessing of the Dead
The first kind of necromancy is what I would consider “intimate” necromancy, where one doesn’t so much communicate with the souls of the dead so much as we commune with them. Consider the practice of ancient Greek dream incubation: after making an offering to a spirit of the dead at their tomb, the necromancer lays down a rug and sleeps overnight on the tomb itself, thereby obtaining a dream where they communicate with the dead or otherwise receive visions from them. In modern Islamic mystical practices, one might visit (and sleep!) in the mausoleum of an Islamic or Sufi saint to receive their baraka. In lots of modern spiritualist/spiritist and other “shamanic” practices, one engages in trance-based mediumship where one channels messages from the dead, even leading to possession where the dead temporarily inhabits the body of the medium to communicate or perform works directly in a body that they “borrow”. Whether through works of incubation or states of mediumship, in either case, the dead might “descend” in some way to perform some sort of action or give us some sort of information for our benefit and blessing.
Recall what we said about ancestor veneration from before, where we posited that the works we do and offerings we make to venerate and elevate the souls of the dead creates an “updraft” that transmits the power of our offerings and prayers to the dwelling-place of the dead where they are. I posit now that works of necromancy, conversely, creates a “downdraft” that actively calls down the presence of a particular soul down to our world, at least temporarily, in order to commune with it. To an extent, we were already subtly relying on something like that last time when we posited that our souls might be able to “reach up” to make offerings to the souls in their own dwelling-place such that they might be able to “stoop down”, as well, but now we’re making it explicit and relying more on them coming down further than that, all the way down to our level. Because we can do this with out-and-out gods (as described in AH 24 and AH 37—38), at least to call them down into idols for the purpose of having their permanent presence on Earth with us, I don’t see why we couldn’t do this with souls, either.
As with ancestor veneration rituals having a natural “boost” when they take place at the tombs of the dead, it would make sense that the resting place of the physical remains of a soul’s incarnation would be a natural place where we might do necromantic works of various sorts, whether we create an “updraft” for us to reach them or a “downdraft” for them to reach us. However, for more intimate works where the focus is on us rather than them, it makes sense for a “downdraft” to be made instead, and while using the physical remains a soul left behind provides a natural “link” or “focus” to a soul (even if it’s more for us than for them), it’s not a required link, which is why we can do necromantic rites mostly anywhere we please, although it helps at a place that is pure enough for the dead to visit and to commune with us. Likewise, it also helps for us to be in a pure state for us to better achieve this, only because we’re the ones bringing them down but because we’re the ones that are interfacing with them in such a refined, subtle way that we need to be prepared for such refined, subtle works. After all, for a soul to travel out of its own dwelling-place would likely cause some further turbulence and disruption to their own stability and presence, just as if you were to be shunted suddenly from lying peacefully in your bed into a busy shopping mall. Doing what we can to put the soul at ease once it’s down here and doing what we can to ensure that we can maintain a good connection with them would be essential for such work.
I think the most fascinating thing here would be the work of mediumship. It’s one thing to merely perceive a spiritual entity (like a soul) and communicate what they have to say to others through speech, but it’s another thing entirely to have that spiritual entity take direct control of your body. Because, I mean…what’s really going on at that point? If our body is being ruled (at least nominally) by our soul, what happens to our soul when we enter a state of possession? While I’m not sure of the properly classical views on this that philosophers might have had of e.g. the oracle of Delphi who would be possessed by the god Apollōn which would better inform a discussion like this (and if you know of any, please share down in the comments!), I can think of several options here:
- The soul of the medium vacates the body in agreement with the soul of the deceased, allowing the soul of the deceased to temporarily “rent” the body. Since we know that the soul can temporarily leave the body (as in CH XI.19—21 or even in CH X.24 or CH XIII.4), it could be that a medium (in a controlled setting or following a protocol that both they and a spirit agree to follow) allows their body to become vacant and for another entity to temporarily inhabit it.
- The soul of the medium “diminishes” or “retreats” within their own body, allowing the mere presence of the soul of the deceased to control the body instead. They don’t leave their body, but they “make room” within it alongside their own soul and willingly turn over the reins of the body to the visiting soul, like a deacon in a church mass stepping aside to let the priest do their work or give the homily at the altar or pulpit.
- The soul of the deceased “overcomes” the soul of the medium in their body. This is effectively like the option above, but instead of the medium retracting to make room for a spirit, a spirit simply dominates the body regardless of the natural presence of the medium. (This is more common in unwanted or forced possessions, I suppose, and may well be seen as more risky, but may make more sense for divine possession where the presence of a god is significantly overwhelming for pretty much anyone.) Either such a soul of the deceased is naturally empowered to overcome such a medium’s own soul, or they become empowered through offerings and ritual in order to achieve such a feat.
What of the judgmental model of the Hermetic afterlife involving the daimōn? We’re not necessarily “freeing” the soul of the dead or anything or trying to change its soul-stratum (necessarily) in such a way that might conflict with whatever judgment such an avenging/judging daimōn might give, but rather, we’re more like giving the soul a chaperoned field-trip of sorts, after which it will return to its abode. While there may be some practical difference between calling down a god (as one might for a theagogy or theophany) versus a soul of a dead person who is watched over by a god, where one might have to entreat the daimōn (or SH 26.3’s Steward of Souls) for the soul to descend to perform such works down here for a time (and I can think of similar rituals from the PGM where one performs a similar observance and makes offerings to that end), I don’t think there’s ultimately any major obstacle here to worry about. After all, once a soul has been judged and allotted its proper soul-stratum, the only thing else on the docket for it is to hang out until fate dictates it to be incarnate again. Rituals such as this may well play into fate, even if at a some minor level, but it’s unclear to me in the end.
However, I do want to note: as with ancestor veneration and elevation practices from the last post, some spiritual traditions engage in works of mediumship and blessing of/from the dead specifically as a means for the soul to improve themselves and thereby receive further elevation and enlightenment. In other words, although calling a spirit down for the sake of medium possession or blessing is not inherently equivalent to elevation, in light (or in the custodial overview) of an avenging/judging daimōn or Steward of Souls, it may be reckoned for such work to be like “community service” in a way, and be a way to resolve whatever baggage/weight or punishment they’ve accrued before so that, when they return to the dwelling-place of souls, they end up going back to a lighter, higher stratum than they were at before by means of the work they’ve done down here. In a non-judgmental model, this is just them relieving themselves of their own “weight”; in a judgment model, this is like their sentence being commuted for good behavior. In being invited down here to perform good works, we essentially give these souls a second chance at “living” a “life” of reverence and devotion that they may not have been able to fulfill while living their own life.
Calling Down and Working the Dead
The second kind of necromancy, as opposed to the “intimate” kind described above, is what I might instead consider “confrontational”, in the sense that one must confront them to work with them as an external agent, either for issuing them or subjecting them to some task or otherwise communicating with them for some overall purpose or goal. Examples of this sort of necromancy would include all sorts of katadesmoi/defixiones/curse tablet-based works, evoking the dead (as in a Solomonic or goetic ritual), or binding/harnessing the dead to perform particular works or to be used in (or as the targets of) exorcism. Rather than being “intimate” with the dead where we share a close relationship with them to facilitate their activity among us, here the only type of relationship we engage in with them is “at arm’s length” to force them to do work for us. (To be fair, a good amount of necromancy is neither just intimate nor just confrontational, but may include elements of both. I’m just using this distinction as shorthand for illustrative purposes of this post.)
As before, we would call down a soul of the deceased through a “downdraft”, perhaps making an offering to the daimōn/steward as before if one has such a model to allow for such a soul to descend. However, unlike before, we’re not communing with them, but instead engaging in any other number of ritual practices or approaches for engaging with them. One of the big things I want to point out here is how so much of this kind of “necromancy” is simply spirit-model approaches to magic that use the dead (often uneasy/intranquil/tormented dead) to “power” our magic or to facilitate our goals, like dropping off a curse tablet in the grave of some violently-killed maiden and relying on their unsettledness and unfulfilled desires to accomplish the will of the magician here. And that leads to a really insightful point about why we rely on such souls of the dead for such works, and that’s because they’re so readily accessible and willing to work in such ways.
Remember what we said about there being different soul-strata, different regions in the atmosphere accorded to different souls based on how they lived, and more troubled or suffering souls are to be found in lower strata. Depending on the text (AH 28 vs. SH 25), the lower strata themselves may be seen as more turbulent and thus more painful for the souls dwelling there or not, or may simply be an indication for their next incarnation into lower echelons of society or lower forms of life (i.e. animals). These lower strata are low, I should note, even down to the very ground itself we walk upon up to a little above hills and mountains. What this suggests is that, for particularly weighty souls (those who are so ignoble and undignified that they cannot or are not allowed to rise high, souls that are either so tormented from unfulfilled desires or addictions or who caused such torment because of their addictions and attachments), there’s really no need to make a “downdraft” to call them down when they’re already down here with us, and because of their tormented/tormenting nature, are already much closer to wild animals or unruly daimones than we might think—and given how many people die in such a state, it’s really no wonder why so much of goētia that focuses on daimones/demons was so readily accepting of or already bound up with the dead themselves.
As a result, so much of this kind of necromancy works because we don’t really need to do a whole lot of “calling down” of such souls, because they’re already here around us (which may well also offer a spiritual explanation why so many people perpetuate certain crimes and addictions, including perpetuating generational traumas and the like). Given their inclination, such souls are highly likely to respond to things like “you who died as an unloved maiden, help me find love by enflaming the heart of my desire to me” because it’s what they were either left unfulfilled by in life, or o things like “you who died as a rampaging warrior on the battlefield, restrain and murder my enemies” because it’s what they loved to do (or were addicted to doing) in life, and in either case because it gives them a chance to do it in death, perhaps as a way of experiencing the satisfaction of it vicariously. Depending on how we engage in such works as necromancers, we might do this merely because such souls make a ready set of premade slaves to do such work, or we engage in it as a way to relieve particularly troubled dead of their burdens and help them ascend and become elevated so as to ease them in the afterlife (being a kind of “community service” as with the earlier kind of necromancy above).
Also, something else neat to note: by the same mechanism that allows for such “base necromancy” that uses troubled/intranquil souls as a means of effecting magic, whereby such souls are just naturally already lower in the atmosphere closer to our own day-to-day life, note that hauntings are often said to occur in places where great pain, suffering, or trauma has been experienced. Given that the souls who experience such pain will often (not always!) be burdened with “weight” that prevents them from rising to a higher soul-stratum, it would follow that if they’re already down here, they end up “stuck” in places that caused them such pain and suffering while alive, like a person with PTSD reliving their traumatic experiences. It’s not a pleasant thing to think of, admittedly, and it’s one of the reasons why we should engage in funerals and ancestor elevation to allow such suffering souls to be eased of their burdens so that they’re not stuck in such a place, but the lowness of such souls in this Hermetic afterlife model would give a ready explanation for why hauntings happen right alongside why intranquil spirits or troubled souls make for such ready spirit-servants.
Binding and Enshrining the Dead (But Also Birth Into Living Bodies)
Instead of merely calling down the dead from their dwelling-places, either to commune or to communicate with them, to perform works with their assistance or just by them, there’s another necromantic option here: taking them from their dwelling-place entirely and keeping them here with us on Earth. In this, we give the dead a particular “body” or form to inhabit, keeping them from their dwelling-place and keeping them from reincarnating for a particular purpose. I mean, we can do this with gods by enshrining them into statues and idols; why can’t we do this with souls of the dead, too?
To be fair, I think such a comparison with enlivening idols with gods isn’t necessarily fair. Gods are slightly different, being “big” enough to play by different rules. Either they’re “big” enough to be more encompassing than a single soul and so can appear to be in multiple places at once by “concentrating” their otherwise ubiquitous presence in particular localized areas, or they’re “big” enough to let a shard of themselves be embodied in an idol to perform works on Earth, or they’re “big” enough to have a retinue of daimones who act on their behalf in their name with their “mask”, or they’re “big” enough to not actually be localized in their idol all the time but appear there when called upon (with the idol more acting as an as-needed point-of-contact rather than a continuously-inhabited body). There may be other possible mechanisms behind the enlivening of statues with the presence of gods, but these are a few of the big ones that come to my mind—and it’s not clear to me which of these, if any, apply to souls of the dead.
Personally, I don’t see any issue here of scale: if we can call a soul down for a time, I don’t see any hard-or-fast limit to how long a time as they might be called down. At the same time, we should consider why a soul leaves a body to begin with: because a body is no longer capable of supporting the soul (e.g. through the circulation of the blood which facilitates the activation and exchange of spirit/breath). In order for a soul to be down here for an extended period of time, it needs more than just some well-wishing and offerings; it needs an actual body to inhabit appropriate to its nature. If we can do that with gods—and we can—I don’t see why we couldn’t do that for souls. After all, consider AH 38:
“And the quality of these gods who are considered earthly—what sort of thing is it, Trismegistus?”
“It comes from a mixture of plants, stones and spices, Asclepius, that have in them a natural power of divinity. And this is why those gods are entertained with constant sacrifices, with hymns, praises and sweet sounds in tune with heaven’s harmony: so that the heavenly ingredient enticed into the idol by constant communication with heaven may gladly endure its long stay among humankind. Thus does man fashion his gods.”
The only thing I can think of that would prevent this is that there’s some fundamental mismatch between the nature of a god that permits it to be embodied within a statue made resonant with it through such a mixture of material things and that of a soul. However, throughout the Hermetic texts, we see notions that (at least the divine portion within) humans are considered to be gods or can become gods or can associate with gods (as in CH IV.7, CH VIII.5, CH X.22—25, CH XIII.14, etc.), so I’m not inclined to think that what we can do for the gods we can’t do for souls. The trick would be to find the right composition and form for such a body for such a soul to inhabit, and to keep it in such a way that allows the soul to continue inhabiting it; after all, a human body can only support a soul for as long as it eats, drinks, breathes, and lives. If a soul-idol were to be malformed, broken, or otherwise fall into neglect, I wouldn’t expect it to be able to serve as a vessel for a soul for particularly long.
What arises as an issue for me in this matter, however, is how this plays with reincarnation. Souls are seen in this Hermetic model of the afterlife to be “localized” in one sense or another, and so cannot be in two places at the same time; either a soul is incarnate or it is discarnate, and if it is incarnate, it can only be incarnate in one body at a time. If a soul is bound to a form that is not a human body, then, it cannot reincarnate until it is free of such a form. Reincarnation, however, is dictated by fate, because fate is what dictates bodies to be born, suffer whatever they suffer in life, and die—but would that not, then, also include bodies that happen to be made through acts of magic? I mean, consider this little excerpt from Diogenes Laertius about Stoicism’s own stance on fate in his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers (book VII, chapter 23):
We are told that [Zeno of Citium] was once chastising a slave for stealing, and when the latter pleaded that it was his fate to steal, “Yes, and to be beaten too,” said Zeno.
To that end, I don’t think calling down a soul is something that somehow abrogates or breaks the rule of fate; rather, at least to a large degree, it plays into fate. After all, consider: what is it that souls normally incarnate into? Living animal bodies (human or otherwise), formed through animal reproduction, the production of which is itself a work of fate. We know that reproduction was considered not just something important but a vital, sacred duty in many of the Hermetic texts (CH I.18, CH II.17, CH III.3, etc.), not only because it perpetuates the work of Creation, but because it allows souls to come into incarnate existence to further enjoy and rejoice in Creation. In a way, creating any kind of body for a soul to inhabit, whether animal or not, and then calling them down (whether through the mysteries of sexual reproduction or not, including other kinds of magical rites) would be just another form of this, albeit a weaker kind with extra restrictions imposed. In this case, it’s not so much “calling down a soul of the dead to be bound” but more just a specific case of a more general notion of reincarnation—and in that light, is as permissible (if not directed) by fate as actual living reincarnation would be.
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