Necromancy and Séance: Our Fascination With Voices of the Dead

As long as we have been in existence, the living have attempted to get in communication with the dead.

The Dead, The Wise

Necromancy, or the art of resurrecting the dead (sometimes just their spirits, other times their corpses, too) to reveal truths about unforeseen events has been part of Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, and Norse legends, and has made appearances in Homer’s The Odyssey and Virgil’s The Aeneid (1). The dead were called upon as the wise, as possessing knowledge that no living soul could possess as long as their heart was still beating, flushing their cheeks with life’s rosy hue. Necromancers, or those who acted as mediums between the living and the dead, were imbued with power not only because of what they claimed to do, but because of how their claims directly threatened the Church.

Necromancers of yore sometimes stood within protective magic circles in graveyards and used biblical verses and animal sacrifice as part of their rituals.

This clash of occultism with Christianity that gained steam in the Middle Ages would surface again in the Victorian Era, with the rise of American Spiritualism and something called the séance.

Séance: An Homage to Necromancy

“A séance is an attempt to communicate with spirits, usually through a gathering of people who often were seated around a table in a darkened room” (Ibid). Séances became a phenomena in mid nineteenth century America, when the young women known as the Fox Sisters, Maggie, Kate, and Leah Fox, claimed they could hear the dead and communicate with them using rapping sounds. This claim grew to even larger proportions when they moved to Rochester, NY (a former Rochestarian myself, I never knew about the Fox sisters until I moved away!). The three sisters began to monetize their talents by holding ‘performances,’ in theaters, which certainly would have been lucrative as the American Spiritualism movement grew.

The Rise of American Spiritualism 

American Spiritualism flourished during the Victorian Era, an Era where to be a child was a dangerous endeavor in and of itself. Though mortality rates were high for everyone (forty was old) they were especially nefarious for children. Death and dying, specifically the death of the young, was well-integrated into society because it happened so frequently. For the Victorians, death was not a taboo, but often a topic of conversation; it was not uncommon to display post-mortem photographs on the walls inside a home.

For many, mourning was a frequent state of existence, and so it makes sense why the Spiritualist movement grew. It especially resonated with those who were grieving, which unfortunately was a large majority. The movement spread from America to Victorian England, catching on in every socioeconomic class. Even Queen Victoria was a fan.

Spiritualism in Victorian England

In England, religious dissent during the mid nineteenth century paved the way for new religious movements to take hold. Even though people were beginning to turn away from the Church, they still needed a way to mourn, memorialize, and hold onto their dead, and Spiritualism provided them with the on-going, intimate connection they were seeking.

Whether those conversations actually took place between dead mouths and living ears is another topic entirely…

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  1. Pickover, Clifford A. Death and the Afterlife: A Chronological Journey from Cremation to Quantum Resurrection. New York: Sterling, n.d. Print.


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