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The Dark Art of the Necromancer

23 Dec

Tolkien used the term ‘Necromancer’ in The Hobbit as an alias for Sauron, his chief villain in The Lord of the Rings. The ‘Dark Lord’ Sauron is depicted as having an unnatural power over death – most notably in the form of his chief ‘undead’ henchmen, the Nazgul or Ringwraiths. Similarly, in other fantasy novels and role-playing games in which necromancers have appeared, the word has been used to describe mortal practitioners of death magic. For example, there is Sabriel by Garth Nix, Gail Z Martin’s Chronicles of the Necromancer and the Flesh and Bone trilogy by A J Dalton. But where did the term ‘necromancy’ come from and did necromancers ever really exist? During the Renaissance, a time of discovery of all sorts of new forms of learning in Europe, necromancy was classified as one of the seven ‘forbidden arts’. The word ‘necromancy’ itself is a compound of the Ancient Greek words for ‘dead body’ and ‘prophecy’. In its original sense it meant communication with the deceased – either by summoning their spirit as an apparition or raising them bodily – for the purpose of divination, imparting the means to foretell future events or discover hidden knowledge. Meddling with life and death in this way was seen as dangerous even at the time of often reckless discovery that was the Renaissance and it was not long before necromancers acquired a reputation as the very worst practitioners of the dark arts.

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