Necromancy is generally frowned upon across cultures, though it was quite prevalent, especially in ancient pagan societies. It is the practice of conjuring the spirits of the dead in order to magically determine the future, or to influence the course of events. There are at least three underlying assumptions: that the souls of the human beings survive death, that such spirits possess a superior knowledge and awareness of the universe and that communication with them is possible.
The necromancer’s motives are usually selfish at best, and often evil. Yet, to be fair, the desire to remain in some sort of communication with one’s deceased friends, loved ones and ancestors is not uncommon. It may be that in prehistory, necromancy may have preceded more elaborate forms of polytheism and monotheism because of this very human interest.
In some cultures, notably those of ancient Greece and Rome, necromancy was conducted in caves, near the sites of volcanic activity, or by rivers and lakes—places where it was felt that the spirits were closer and easier to evoke. A familiar example of this can be found in the Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus travels to the ‘Land of the Dead’, a mist shrouded place at the western edge of the world. He digs a trench, pours in milk, honey, wine and pure water, and then sprinkles it with barley. He completes the ritual by slaying a ram and a ewe, so that the spirits of the dead will be drawn to the animals’ blood. He is then able to consult with the prophet Tiresias, his mother, Agamemnon, Achilles, and others.
Necromancy is condemned in the Bible, especially in the book of Deuteronomy, where the Mosaic Law makes it punishable by death. Interestingly, there is an incident of necromancy in the Bible: In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul is unable to receive guidance from the Lord during his war with the Philistines. He consults a woman in Endor, (the “Witch of Endor”), who is able to channel the spirit of the prophet Samuel.
Then the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
“Bring up Samuel,” he said.
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”
The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?”
The woman said, “I see a spirit coming up out of the ground.”
“What does he look like?” he asked.
“An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said.
Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.
Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” (1 Samuel 28: 11-15)
Two necromancers run amok in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Empire of the Necromancers (1932). The story was originally published in the September issue of Weird Tales. Here the intent is not so much to consult the spirits of the dead, as to reanimate their remains and enslave them. Mmatmuor and Sodosma, the necromantic duo, are forced to flee the city of Tinarath, which considers their trade an abomination. They plot a terrible revenge: they will reanimate and rule over the dead city of Yethlyreom, and take their cadaverous troops back to destroy Tinarath.
Clark Ashton Smith was heavily influenced by Lord Dunsany, as was H.P. Lovecraft for a time, and that influence is strongly seen here. The Empire of the Necromancers is told in the form of a fable, with archaic language, and odd, difficult to pronounce names for characters and places. It is very reminiscent of the early work of Lord Dunsany, especially The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and Time and the Gods, (1906). However, Smith’s vision is considerably darker, and his distinctive style permeates the story. It is not clear what the moral of the fable might be. Perhaps: 'don't mess with the dead.'
For awhile, Mmatmuor and Sodosma are able to hold court over their reanimated minions, whom they treat as slaves. They are able to do so because the dead have poor memories of their previous existence as living beings—they do not know of any different experience. But one of their number, the youngest and last of the original emperors, begins to remember…
The Empire of the Necromancers is interesting in its conception of a future earth, many millennia hence, in which the sun is barely an ember about to flicker out. A feeling of impending doom has spread out across the ruined surface of the planet. The scenes in which horses, soldiers and mummies are brought back to a living, moving death, and the description of an entire society going through the motions, though long dead, is genuinely creepy. Mmatmuor and Sodosma are depicted as cruel, gluttonous, self-indulgent oppressors. One wonders if this is a comment on capitalism circa the early 1930s—at the beginning of the Great Depression.