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Basic Information

Necromancy1 is a form of divination magic which involves calling up and consulting the spirits of the dead, either about information they knew in life or because the dead are thought to be outside time and therefore know the future as well. In some cases - mostly fantasy fiction and fRPGs - necromancy is blown out into a larger school of magic that, ironically, involves very little divination and is more concerned with the undead - creating them, controlling them and aping their powers. Those with more respect for etymology may well call this expanded brief thanaturgy2 In some settings necromancy (or thanaturgy) may also have other 'dark' (and not so 'dark') functions to do with the manipulation of life generally - often these are about death and disease, but in some cases they may include biothaumaturgy and other forms of grim medicine.

One who practices necromancy is a necromancer3.

Necromancy is generally considered black magic or left-hand path working - indeed it is one of the forms of magic explicitly forbidden in The Bible4 - and this, as much as the general squick of messing about with corpses, leads to most depictions of the necromancer as either a monster or a madman.

This is not necessarily the case - in a culture that practices ancestor worship or shamanism necromancy (in its strictest form) should be a lot more acceptable … indeed the undead bothering version may be acceptable as well to some cultures that can tolerate a 'walking ancestor' hanging about. The earliest literary depiction of necromancy is probably in the Odyssey when Odysseus calls up the spirits of the dead for information concerning his route home. The Bible gives a less positive portrayal to King Saul's contracting a witch to summon up the ghost of the Prophet Samuel in 1SAM28:3-25, but then the Greeks had no absolute religious prohibition about bothering the dead. "White" … or at least "grey" necromancy is also frequently concerned with healing magic.

Where necromancy is considered black magic, expect there to be fairly stiff penalties against it, possibly enforced by the secular powers, religious authorities or the wizard's guild. Or all three. In less clear cut settings those three power centres - and others - may disagree5.

In edgier settings, resurrection magic may be part of necromancy6.

Where the undead are concerned, some or all of the following may need to be considered with regard to the role of necromancy:

  • The relationship between "spontaneous" undead (that is, not those deliberately created by mortal agents) and necromancy:
    • Whether, in dealing with them, a necromancer is interfering with some sort of divine/cosmic justice (where such undead exist to right a wrong, diverting them to other work should probably be considered sinful).
    • Whether he is enslaving and/or exploiting things that have a reasonable expectation of autonomy (if undead are nothing but spiritual automata, assigning them new tasks is unlikely to be wrong in itself).
    • What, exactly he does with them and what the consequences of that are.
  • The creation of undead - especially with regard to how this is achieved:
    • Using the soul of the body's original occupant to control it (probably the "blackest" technique and should require dominating the soul in question somehow): this should give you access to the skills of the deceased to some degree, but may create an unreliable servitor due to it retaining a variety of its own ideas. Probably needs a fairly fresh corpse as well, to the extent of the necromancer murdering the prospective undead, but it may also be possible to drag the soul/spirit of the deceased back from the afterlife. Very pulp-fantasy (e.g. Clark Ashton-Smith).
      • This, in turn, may depend on what exactly this animating force is - if, like some cultures, the personality/spirit and the immortal soul are different things, a process that only uses the personality bit may be less sinful than using the immortal soul. The blackest model of this, of course, burns the immortal portion as fuel.
      • The binding of the soul need not, necessarily, require a death - the voodoo zombie may also encompass living humans with their souls stolen by a bokor.
      • Generally the process of breaking someone down enough to make their spirit/soul submit to being bound into undeath is liable to be transgressive in its own right - bokors are said to use a poison to cause their victims to be buried alive under the influence of powerful psychotropic drugs, but prolonged torture and/or psychological abuse or out-and-out magical domination are also said to work. Some individuals may be more at risk due to others due to poor lifestyle choices and/or background issues.
      • Speaking of which, prior consent may make a huge difference - those who can be actually persuaded to consent to this process are liable to be far easier to transform: those seeking to become liches are expected to transform themselves, some mummies are also said to be volunteers - often fanatics carrying their duty beyond the grave7. Of course, buyer's remorse8 may set in, leaving an extremely disgruntled undead creature.
      • Of course, assisting the creation of sapient undead may turn out to be a wrong act in its own right - depending on the exact nature of undead, it's likely that the caster is, at minimum, creating something immortal, probably evil and likely predatory as well. Even where a creature would seem to have a mostly positive purpose (like a revenant created to avenge a murder) there is no guarantee that it will turn out to be a remotely safe thing to have around. Revenants permitted to take their revenge could well do so in a terrifyingly indiscriminate way, find themselves unable to face death again (or just unable to stop killing) once finished or just become generally angry about everyone else not being dead…
    • Using a third party spirit to drive a corpse about depends a lot on the spirit and may yield a varying level of skill, aggression and competence. The most competent are also liable to be the least pleasant and the necromancer is advised to inspect all spirits very carefully before giving them a corpse to drive about in. Botches will include spirits completely incapable of driving and those too powerful, cunning or alien to control. Mindlessly aggressive spirits may or may not be useful for any given application.
    • Where it is possible to build an animating spirit, this may, more or less, create a "meat golem" with reliability dependant on the creator's competence. This may not count as "black magic" and is mostly likely to yield a relatively user-safe zombie. Good for "zombie labourer" magitek settings. Of course, this still involves meddling with someone's corpse.

"You don't come to the dead for wisdom, Lennier. My head was cut from my body. Even now, it rots on a pole outside the Imperial Palace. Birds have taken the hair for their nests. Maggots ate my flesh. And you want wisdom?"

(the Ghost of) Mr Morden Babylon 5


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Having a necromancy tolerant society is a great subversion for PCs used to necromancers who are always chaotic evil. A setting where necromancy is normal even more so.
  • The sort of setting in which necromancy is one end of a school which also enables magical surgery is also great for values dissonance - in order to understand life, a wizard must first comprehend death…
  • The nature of necromancy may also affect its in game 'flavour' - does it drag spirits back from the afterlife and torment them, or does it entice them out with offerings? Are the dead always bitter and hateful towards the living9 or much as they were in life?
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