Evoking the Dead

Necromancy & Curse Tablets in Ancient Greece

Gwendolyn Taunton


hellenic tomb door

Ancient Greek Tomb Door

Necromancy is the most infamous branch of the occult arts, and has not only beguiled many with its lure of ethereal power and unearthly nature, it also terrifies them, for the conjuration of the dead violates all moral and ethical boundaries, irrespective of whether the act is one of benign divination or one of the vilest curses. Over the centuries, it has known many forms, ranging from prophecy and divination, through to curse tablets, and eventually even the grimoires and the black magic of the Goetia.

The origin of necromancy in Greece is an interesting topic, with a variety of sources attesting to different terms, such as nekuia and nektomanteia, which begin to appear c. 300 BCE. Phrynichus Arabius also informs us that the ancients applied the term psuchogōgos to those who charmed the souls of the dead with acts of sorcery (goēteiais) and Synesius describes being attacked by ghosts sent through his dreams by psuchopompoi (ghost-sending) goetes.”[1] The etymology of the word goēs indicates that psuchogōgia constituted the original meaning of the concept as a derivative of goos (mourning song) and goaō (sing a song of mourning). Goēteiais, goetes, goēs, and goēteia are linked to the later word goetia which is associated with the collection of texts on ‘black magic’ known as grimoires. Many modern occult authors have reached conclusions that the demons referenced within the Grimoires are psychological manifestations, thus placing them more in line with Jungian theories than with the occult. This perspective, however, runs in direct opposition to the origins of the word, which explicitly involves necromancy and a very real belief in communication with the dead. Are the grimoires then, actually connected to ideas of Hell and Demons found in Christianity, or is this a later attempt to transpose a much older tradition of necromancy onto a Christian belief system? If this is indeed the case, a substantial amount of ‘black magic’ arising from the Grimoire has been grievously misinterpreted by conflating Christian soteriology with archaic Greek Paganism.

The original role of the goēs was as an officiator of funerary rites/mourning chants but this role progressed into being one that not only officially mourned the dead, but could also communicate with them. Furthermore, the original Indo-European root was *gow, which was onomatopoeic for grief.[2] Both psuchogōgia and goes originate from this original root term, which eventually evolved to become the Goetia. This is verified by Daniel Ogden who writes in Greek and Roman Necromancy that “Goēteia is the calling upon of evil demons that hang around tombs … Goēteia got its name from the gooi and thrēnoi of those around tombs.”[3] Therefore, the original spirits were evidentially supplanted by a preference for conjuring the ‘evil dead’, who were eventually escalated in rank to ‘demons’ in the Goetia, with goetia being the Latin form of the Greek word goēteia.

One aspect of archaic necromancy which deviates from the later Goetia concerns the locations. For Hellenic necromancy, location was important and many of the locations chosen had a physical or symbolic descent into the underworld dominion of Hades. These locations were called nekuomanteion (prophecy-place of the dead), psuchomanteion (prophecy-place of ghosts) or Psuchagögion (drawing-place of ghosts’). In terms of their geographical locations, a number of sites are mentioned. For example, Sophocles refers to an oracle of the dead at Tyrrhenia[4] and a Nekyomanteion at Ephyra, Pausanias refers to a necromantic shrine in Phigaleia as ‘an impressive and snake-haunted spot’,[5] and Heraclides Ponticus mentions an entrance to Hades at Heracleia.[6]

As would be expected many of the sites were located in caves or underground complexes. However, there is one other distinctive feature about the necromantic sites which is of significance – that being their proximity to bodies of water, specifically lakes. Both Avernus and Acheron are thought to have included lakeside precincts, and Tainaron is the only one which has no lake or pool associated with it.[7] The Acheron nekuomanteion is mentioned by Herodotus and Pausanias, both of whom use the term nekuomanteion, and an Odyssey scholiast, who refers to the limnē Nekuopompos (Lake Sending the·Dead).[8] The lakes are described as being still and aornos (birdless) which indicates that they are not normal lakes. Descriptions of the lakes are eerie and depict a lake that is incapable of sustaining life – a dead volcanic lake. Moreover, this would explain why no birds inhabited the lakes, as volcanic gases would make them ill. Daniel Ogden cites a theory on the volcanic nature of Avernus, stating that,

The locals used to tell another myth that birds that flew over the gulf fell into the water, because they were destroyed by gases that came off it, as in ploutônia (sanctuaries with mephitic emissions). And they took this place for a ploutônion, and they believed that the Cimmerians lived there. Those who had sacrificed in advance and propitiated the underworld powers sailed into it. There were priests to guide one through the process, who managed the place under contract. There is a source there of drinkable water by the sea, but all kept back from this, considering it to be the water of the Styx. And the oracle is situated somewhere there. And they took the hot springs nearby, and the Acherusian Lake, to be evidence of Pyriphlegethon.[9]

The proximity of hot springs, allegedly undrinkable water, and gases which are toxic to birds suggest high volcanic/geothermal activity in the area at the time – which is not unlikely due to Greece being prone to seismic activity. Likewise, it is not unusual for such locations to be regarded as sacred sites for divinatory purposes. Delphi, the most famous of all Greek oracle sites was originally said to draw its power from a chasm deep in the earth, and it has been speculated that the first Pythias may have inhaled a form of gas released deep from within the earth, as prior to the Delphi’s ownership by Apollo it appears to have been a location primarily associated with chthonic rites.

Naturally, the practice of nekuia developed and expanded into further occult practices, which were no longer in the hands of the ‘official’ mourners, but those of sorcerers and magicians, and at this point ‘necromancy proper’ is encountered. Now the dead are no longer merely summoned, they are compelled to carry out actions on the sorcerer’s behalf. The location was also important again at this stage, with tombs and sites of death being preferred, as ghosts were thought to linger in the vicinity of these areas. The dead were now used as an intermediary between the world of mortals and that of Hades, who was implored to act at their bequest, with Hades carrying out a ‘judiciary’ function against the accused. The dead were conceived of as catalysts in the causal chain of a magical event involving the person laying the curse, the underworld divinities, and the victim, using an analogy to the juridical system. It is evident that when human law failed them, those skilled in the occult arts sought justice and retribution through Hades in his supreme role as the Judge of the Dead. Persephone and Hermes are also mentioned in a binding spell cited in the Attic Curse Tablets, which is based on a structure similar to that of the legal process found in the court of Athens.

The normal formula is katadô or katagraphô pros ton Hermen or pros tên Persephonen, I bind or I write down someone “in the presence of”, “before Hermes, Persephone”. Pros with accusative is often attested in the judicial realm. It means “register someone with someone else,” transferring someone into another person’s power. In the realm of magic, the victim of the spell is transferred to, handed over, devoted to the powers of the underworld gods, a morbid act indeed.[10]

Curse tablets contained inscriptions that were not intended to be read by the living, but by the dead and the Gods of the underworld. They were therefore deposited in graves, wells, or hidden in sanctuaries – places not frequented by mortals but by the deceased operating as conduits to Hades. Curse tablets that specifically required spirits to carry out magical acts of binding were often deposited in underground bodies of water,[11] which reinforces the connection to lakes. In other cases, the sorcerer placed the tablets into the right hand of the corpse, hoping that it would pollute the tablet and drag the victim down with it into Hades.[12]

Interestingly enough, the deity most often cited in curse tablets is not Hades, but rather Hermes Katochos (Hermes the Restrainer).[13] Considering the role that Hermes plays as a psychopomp[14] it is not surprising that he is the deity called upon to escort the victim down into the underworld. In the Papyri Graecae Magicae, Hekate is sometimes referenced in a similar fashion to Hermes.

In curse tablets and in magical orations, the method used to influence the spirits of the dead is what Plato calls peithô (persuasion). Rhetoric and magic are equated from Gorgias on, with the gifted speaker seen as a magician who can enchant the audience. Plato also speaks of peithô as characterizing the activities of the goêtes versus the Gods. This is in agreeance with other theories on linguistic prowess being linked to magic due to the ability of the performer to rouse an emotional response at both the participant and observer level. The word, spoken or written, possesses powers which are a fine craft, to be used at will by those who are skilled in composition. When dealing with the oral ritual component, language is the bridge between the two worlds, the subject and the object, the real and ideal (to borrow Plato’s terminology). When used effectively, it is a tool to focus the will into manifestation – careful use of constructed formulas will enhance this potential. A later occult text, the Corpus Hermeticum, explains the intimate relationship between speech and the preternatural.

God has endowed man beyond all mortal creatures with these two gifts: Nous and Speech, both as much valued as immortality. If he was these gifts rightly, he will be no different from the immortals, and on departing from the body he will be guided by both to the realm of the gods and the blessed ones … For Agathos Daimon, the blessed God, has said that the soul is in the body, Nous in Soul, and the Word in Nous, and that God is the father of these … The Word is an image of Nous, and Nous is an image of God; just as the body is an image of an idea, and the idea is an image of the soul.[15]

The effect of the power of words in rituals also works in a similar way with the word becoming the transitional point between subject and object – the power of the word or speech draws the desired goal of the ritual into manifestation.[16] The power of the words is in effect an operative mechanism by which the ritual specialist transcribes their will onto reality. It is the transitory point between subject and object – the power of their speech draws the desired goal of the ritual into manifestation. In the case of the Attic Curse Tablets, the language used is a direct analogy to the Attic judicial system, where speakers sought to persuade the judges of their version of incidents via peithô.[17] The magician puts the accused on trial, subject to the jurisdiction of Hades in his capacity as Judge of the Dead. Furthermore, the requests of the curser are expressed with the verb hypêretein which is related to hypêretês and denotes the ‘executioner’ in Attic legal language.[18] The sorcerer is, therefore, petitioning Hades for an execution.

The intended recipients of the message are not the spirits of the dead themselves, they merely convey the message to the chthonic divinities, but it is the dead who drag the victim down into Hades’ realm. Even Plato acknowledges that the daimones are the medium for the prophetic arts, incantation, divination, and sorcery, for the divine will not mingle directly with the human, and it is only through the mediation of the spirit world that man can have any communication, whether waking or sleeping, with a God.[19] The daimones are also said by Plutarch to be instrumental in running the oracles and the souls of the dead.

As to the type of spirits evoked in necromantic procedures, certain forms were considered more suitable for the purpose, such as those who had died recently, especially if their death had been violent or premature. Lucan even describes how a magician uses a man, whose throat had been recently cut and was not yet used to death, as an involuntary assistant.[20] In general, those who were conceived of as belonging to the category of the ‘restless dead’ were considered suitable for necromancy, namely the ataphoi, atelestoi, or insepulti (the deceased who had not received the appropriate funerary rites or burial), the aōroi (those who had a premature death), the biaiothanatoi (those who had suffered an unpleasant or violent death) and the malevolent undead, the larvae or lemures.[21] These forms of necromancy have nothing in common with ‘Reanimation necromancy’, which is the act of physically resurrecting the dead, as is popularized in zombie myths. The physical form is not restored to life, and evocations are strictly of an incorporeal kind. Accounts of reanimation necromancy are purely fictitious, occurring in fictional accounts such as Lucan’s Erictho and Menippus, Heliodorus’s Bessa, and Apuleius’s Zatchlas and Thelyphron.[22]

Over the centuries, necromancy has taken on a number of social functions. At its archaic root, necromancy seems to have had a positive role associated with funerary rites and the mourning process. This was followed by a shift towards a more magical role, perhaps in recognition of the unnatural ability these individuals possessed in being able to communicate with ghosts, spirits, and the restless dead. Through the advent of curse tablets, necromancy fully entered into the province of the dark arts and has remained under this aegis ever since, reaching its height of notoriety in the Goetia and the grimoire traditions. With the Christian conquest of Europe, certain necromantic elements survived and were syncretized with Christian soteriology and Jewish mysticism inherited from the Old Testament, which ultimately led to the chthonic Gods of the Hellenic world being stripped of their juridical function, and instead conflated with devils and demons from the Abrahamic Traditions. As such, though the linguistic roots are very similar, the Goetia has little in common with its necromantic predecessors.


[1] Ogden, D., Greek and Roman Necromancy (USA: Princeton University Press, 2001), 96

[2] Ibid., 110

[3] Ibid.

[4] Stoneman, R., The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak (USA: Yale University Press, 2011), 70

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ogden, D., Greek and Roman Necromancy, pp. 35-36

[8] Ibid., 44

[9] Ogden, D., Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Source Book (UK: Oxford University Press, 2002), 162

[10] Rieß, W, Agency on Attic Curse Tablets (Germany: Universität Hamburg), 2

[11] Ogden, D., Greek and Roman Necromancy, 48

[12] Rieß, W., Agency on Attic Curse Tablets, 4

[13] Ibid.

[14] Psychopomps act as ‘guides’ for the soul and transport them to the afterlife.

[15] Hermes Trismegistus, The Way of Hermes – The Corpus Hermeticum (Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, 1999), 77

[16] Ladriere, J., Language & Belief (Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2002), 177

[17] Rieß, W., Agency on Attic Curse Tablets, 3

[18] Ibid., 6

[19] Stoneman, R., The Ancient Oracles: Making the Gods Speak, 104

[20] Alfayé, S., Sit Tibi Terra Gravis: Magical-Religious Practices Against the Restless Dead in the Ancient World, (UK: University of Oxford), 187

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ogden, D., Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Source Book, 163

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