BMCR 2002.06.19

Greek and Roman Necromancy

, Greek and Roman necromancy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. xxxii, 313 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 069100904X. $47.50.

[Statement of reviewer’s relationship to author: I served as one of the Princeton University Press referees for a different version of this manuscript in early 1998.]

If the past twenty years of renewed interest in ancient magic and related topics have taught me anything, it’s that when scholars get pulled into the orbit of these fascinating subjects, methodology can fly out the window on a broomstick, and logic can turn as topsy-turvy as a witches’ sabbath. In the introduction to Greek and Roman Necromancy, Daniel Ogden states:

“A general point that is worth making … is that there is little in any of our fields of evidence — arguably even none of it — that, when pressed, can be taken to document any one specific historical performance of necromancy in antiquity. There is, then, a sense in which this is less a history of necromancy itself in antiquity, than a history of ancient ideas, beliefs and prejudices about it” (xxii-xxiii).

This is a very important point; similarly he states (22), “No ancient consultation of a nekuomanteion retains the appearance of historicity after scrutiny. Not even the most miserable piece of epigraphy can be associated with a nekuomanteion.”

And yet, having conceded that we can say nothing whatsoever about the reality, much less the specifics of real practice, of necromancy in antiquity, O. spends most of the rest of his book trying to arrange every bit of possible evidence for it into a tidy, coherent picture. To take just one example of what this leads to, even Homer, whose Od. 11 surprisingly represents, for O., an “already mature culture of necromancy,” is pressed into service as a historical source (xxii; on what basis can O. say it’s a mature culture, given our resounding lack of pre-Homeric information?). For instance, O. states that “The Odyssey account is … the earliest attestation of an oracle of the dead, or nekuomanteion, namely that of the Acheron in Thesprotia in northwest Greece” (xxiv-xxv). He subsequently supports this (43) by means of Pausanias’ statement (1.17.5) that in his opinion, Homer may have drawn on the geography of Thesprotia to invent his description of Hades. Not only does O. fail to appreciate the hesitancy and nuance of what Pausanias said — that he thinks Thesprotia (with or without a nekuomanteion) might have inspired Homer, rather than provided him with a blue-print for the infernal regions — but he goes on to use Homer’s assumed reliance on such a blue-print to argue that a Thesprotian nekuomanteion was already thriving by the time the Odyssey was composed, without any apparent concern for Homer’s insistence that the site of Odysseus’ consultation of the dead took place not at any geographically secure point in the real world of his own or any other time but rather by the side of Oceanus’ stream.

Having made this equation between Thesprotia and the landscape of Odyssey 11, O. then becomes entangled in a series of difficulties: for example, the Odyssey mentions three rivers near the entrance to Hades: Cocytus, Acheron and Pyriphlegethon, and yet in the real geography of historical Thesprotia, only Cocytus and Acheron can be located. What happened to Pyriphlegethon, he asks? Well, perhaps in view of its “speaking” name, he suggests, it never existed except at the mythic level (46). If we follow his logic, we must then ask how it happened that the Cocytus, which also has a “speaking” name really did exist as a river in Thesprotia. He is also concerned about the lack of a cave in Odyssey 11 and various other literary sources, apparently because he expects nekuomanteia to have caves. Perhaps, O. offers, this is what the rock at Od. 10.515 represents (46-7) — and so, with a bit of imaginative nipping and tucking on O.’s part, all is made to fit.

If we decide to engage in this game ourselves, we can invent further challenges for O. For example, considering that the ancients usually imagined Odysseus as sailing west to the land of the dead (or perhaps south-west, as the Odyssey itself would suggest, 10.507; cf. Heubeck and Hoekstra’s commentary ad Od. 11.14-19 in vol. 2 of the Oxford commentary on the Odyssey), and considering that as early as Hesiod they usually associated Circe herself with central Italy (see Heubeck and Hoekstra ad Od. 10.135-39) then how is it that Odysseus sailed to Thesprotia, which lies to the east of Italy, when he sailed to the land of the dead? The simple fact, which solves all such quandries but which O. fails to appreciate, is that the Odyssey is a work of literature, and Books 9-12 in particular are full of fantastical folk elements; they are not tourist guidebooks for any nekuomanteion that may once have been situated in Thesprotia or anywhere else. Nor is Aeschylus’ Psychagogoi, for example, a guide-book: O.’s discomfort with the differing modi operandi for the nekuomanteion in Thesprotia that he understands Homer and Aeschylus to be sketching (48, 53) is therefore unnecessary.

Equally unnecessary is his creative attempt to flesh out the details of how one consulted ghosts at the Thesprotian nekuomanteion (47 cf. 53). He begins by telling us that Ampelius, a fourth-century CE compiler of weird information, described a marvelous 1000-foot bridge that Medea had built across a lake at Epiran Argos, near a “descent to the dead”; O. then suggests that this was the same as the 1000-foot bridge that Pliny says stretched across a lake called Acheron in Thesprotia (although Pliny says this bridge was built by the Thesprotians themselves, not Medea: NH 4.1). Why would Medea be associated with such a feat of engineering? O. asks, ignoring the obvious reason, which he buries in a footnote, that she was associated elsewhere with engineering feats as well (see Philostr. VAp 1.25) and more generally with technological cleverness of all kinds. All would be explained, O. suggests, if we posit that the bridge had necromantic functions. This solution apparently rests on the assumption that Medea herself had necromantic connections, but how so? It’s only in Seneca that we find her invoking the dead, as far as I can recall, and there it’s not for purposes of obtaining information but rather to gain the ghosts’ aid in cursing Jason’s new love, as any writer of a curse tablet might. But to continue: although no traces of any bridge remain anywhere, O. suggests that it might have been from such a bridge that people poured their offerings into a necromantic lake below, which might have been associated with the Thesprotian nekuomanteion. An ancient Japanese ceremony in which parents left offerings for dead children at the side of a lake is adduced as a parallel (47n.17). O.’s suggestion that Hermes appears in the second Homeric nekuia but not in the first because Hermes only became associated with the Thesprotian nekuomanteion between the compositions of the two (52), is similarly unnecessary and similarly bespeaks a desire simultaneously to tidy up literature by referring to the real world and to tidy up the real world by referring to literature. This methodologically troubled technique of forcing literary sources to agree both with each other and with what we know of “real life” in antiquity is at play not only in O’s chapter-long analysis of a the Thesprotian nekuomanteion but throughout the book.

Another significant methodological problem concerns O.’s definition of necromancy. Early in the book he states that his own approach will be a linguistic one, which frees him from worrying about the “essentialist” definitions of magic et sim. that he feels have led many other scholars astray. The conceptual boundaries of his study will be dictated by:

“ancient vocabulary, in the first instance the Greek terms ‘nekuomanteion,’ which we may provisionally translate as ‘place of necromancy’ or ‘oracle of the dead,’ and ‘nekuomanteia,’ which we may provisionally translate as ‘necromancy.’ These terms referred for the most part to what may in English be termed ‘necromancy proper,’ that is to say, communication with the dead in order to receive prophecy from them. But necromancy proper was not always separable from the wider magical exploitation of ghosts, a significance often given to the word in English, and so related aspects of ghost-magic will receive occasional attention” (xix-xx).

If we are going to play by these rules (which I am not sure that we should; some of the so-called essentialist definitions that O. dismisses have much to offer the scholar who seriously contemplates how such heuristic categories can be used to clarify our thinking), then why does O. eventually bring into his discussion of necromancy (for example) Erictho’s dismemberment of corpses in order to obtain body parts (14), the spontaneous reanimation of an apparently dead person (15), purposefully raising the dead back to life for their own benefit (118), divining by the preserved skin of a tattooed man (122), reincarnation (119), joking about reincarnation (125), rejuvenation ceremonies such as Medea performed on Aeson (189, 206-07), Pythagoras’ use of blood and a mirror to cast letters upon the moon (195-6), and time spent by the living in underground chambers to acquire knowledge (118)? The term “ghost-magic” would have to be amazingly elastic to embrace all of these acts. Why does he further suggest that we might include tomb attendance in general (8), Trophonius’ decapitation of Agamedes, even though there is absolutely no mention in ancient sources of Trophonius doing anything with the head later on (208-209)? One swallow doth not a summer make, and the merest whiff of death or death-like states doth not necromancy make, either.

This laxity of categorization does more than just confuse the reader and mistakenly support the assumption that necromancy was alive and thriving in antiquity; it also threatens to shed a paralyzing simplicity over all of ancient culture. Not all things that go bump in the night were necessarily identical to each other within what we fondly call the ancient mentality. Why do some twentieth century scholars think that they were? Because contemporary fiction and movies have lumped them together, under the premise that anything that causes a frisson along the reader’s/viewer’s spine is as good as another, just as long it brings in dollars? (Publishers apparently agree with this.) Because most of these practices were condemned by Christianity (and to a lesser degree Judaism) as matters into which we should not inquire and therefore came to share a tantalizing air of the forbidden? I am not sure what the answer is, but I am sure that we cannot lump these things together into any single category, including necromancy — or magic, for that matter. Each of the phenomena that O. discusses deserves, and in many cases has already received, its own treatment, which inter alia carefully delineates other phenomena to which it is similar and, at just as importantly, how it differs from them.

Smaller, but similar, methodological problems dog O.’s analysis as well as he makes his way through 16 chapters that focus on topics ranging from “Tombs and Battlefields” to “Shamans, Pythagoras and Orpheus”. It is true that one type of crow ( κόραξ) is once associated with a temporarily disembodied soul (that of Aristeas, Hdt. 4.14), but a dominant association in antiquity of the sort of bird that O. discusses at one point ( κορώνη; its primary meaning is “sea-bird” although it also can mean “crow”) is with weddings and long life (LSJ s.v. κορώνη); thus O.’s proposal that the name “Coronides” implies a ghostly connection is open to challenge (32). The fact that ghosts are often compared to dreams in literary sources (e.g., Od. 11.208) does not support the idea that all necromancy was done through incubation, as O. suggests (74-77), but rather bespeaks the insubstantiality of ghosts (as he admits later at 220; remembering this would have saved him a lot of trouble at 163-64 where he wrestles with texts for necromancy that have the ghosts arising before inquirers who are fully awake). Neither the fact that both mystery religions and necromancy dismiss the profane before their ceremonies begin nor the fact that both sorts of rituals require purification, or the fact that Vergil’s Sibyl and initiates into various mysteries carried branches from assorted types of trees, in and of themselves, individually or collectively, signify that necromancy and mystery religions are similar in significant ways (125-6). To go further with this line of thought, Hermes’ caduceus might validly count as a necromantic tool, but throwing all wands, Odysseus’ sword, Teiresias’ staff, Aristeas’ golden arrow and the staff on which Oedipus leans in Euripides’ Phoenician Women into the necromantic mix (183) only makes one think of a certain joke about Freud. Lamps used by victims in haunted house stories do not imply that such stories originated in tales of ghosts raised through lynchomancy (195); more probably they are simply used by these characters to see through the darkness in which most such stories are set (otherwise, we would have to make Apuleius’ Psyche a necromancer as well). We should not understand antiquity’s varying claims that Heracles dragged up Cerberus at Tainaron, Acheron, Hieropolis, Heracleia, Avernus, etcetera, to signify that Underworld features were believed to be capable of bilocation, as O. suggests (253) — nor can his appeal to the fact that “shamans,” whom he associates with the Underworld, bilocate adequately sustain this thesis. Rather, to solve this quandary we must simply remember, once more, that we are talking about myth, not reality, and that one of the beauties of myth, especially local myth, is its extraordinary flexibility, its capacity to ignore what it doesn’t wish to acknowledge for the moment, such as alternative versions. Pausanias, whom O. is shocked to find was not bothered by Heracles’ multiple exits, knew this quite well.

And this is what many of the faults in Greek and Roman Necromancy boil down to: O. fails to realize that we cannot treat our scant and highly varied corpus of knowledge concerning ancient religious beliefs and their mythic expressions simply as “evidence” on which to build securely self-consistent pictures of given practices and beliefs. Trying to flesh out the scantness of evidence by adding to the mix further information that is at best only marginally relevant only makes the situation worse. And so, regrettably (for the topic itself is fascinating) I must conclude that, rather than advancing our understanding of ancient necromancy, O. has set us back.