“What’s the difference between necromancy and death witchcraft?” I receive that question often, which is why it’s in the “About Death Witchcraft” section of this website. But I want to expand upon it here.
To start, the term death witchcraft is relatively new. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were only a decade old. I first encountered it on Tumblr and Reddit forums around 2016, and very few people used the term. I actually changed my Tumblr URL to death-witch-envy so that others could find me.
Death witchcraft is a magical practice in which people communicate with and honor the dead. Death witches also work with the energy of death itself. We come to terms with our own mortality and work through spiritual “deaths” in our lives, such as a job loss, divorce, or moving to a new area.
If this sounds vague, it’s because every death witch path is different. Some people work with deceased children; others, only adults. Some work with dead plants and animals. There are religious death witches, secular ones, and ones who work as morticians or death doulas.
In most cases, death witches work to heal the dead. We help the dead through their trauma and pass on. We also honor the dead to keep their memories alive. While other magical paths focus on power, we aim for peace and charity.
It’s important that you understand how complex death witchcraft is, because necromancy is not nearly as varied.
The word necromancy comes from the Greek words nekrós ("dead body") and manteía ("divination by means of"). In short, it means “divination of the dead.”
Necromancers, both modern and ancient, communicate with the dead through divination. Why? Because the dead have wisdom. In almost every folklore and spirituality, the dead know facts about the past, future, and present that necromancers can learn from. The dead can also help with certain spells.
But what about “raising the dead”? What about raising corpses from their graves Lovecraft style? To understand where this idea came from, we need to examine the complex history of necromancy.
An Abridged History of Necromancy
Because necromancy is one of the world’s most ancient magical practices, its history is long and complicated. Necromancy has roots in ancient Babylon, Greece, Rome, and Egypt. It also went by many names; in ancient Greek literature, it was called nekyia.
Contrary to popular belief, the ancients viewed necromancy as taboo even back then. Most cultures believed that disturbing the dead came with spiritual risks. Necromancy was a last resort of sorts–think of Odysseus descending into the Underworld to learn how to sail home after 10 years.
That said, it was still a popular form of divination in some areas, especially Persia. Necromancy was usually conducted by priests or magicians. People contacted the dead to receive protection or prophecies. For example, if one believed that they were being haunted, they might have consulted a necromancer to ask what they should do.
Although the corpse was used in some cases, most forms of necromancy did not use the human body. Some magicians performed rites over the grave. Others used human bones for magical tools. But for the most part, the practice was similar to today: inducing trance states, chanting, discerning visions, calling upon deities, etc.
Necromancy was more taboo in Jewish and Christian religions. Because of this, it rapidly declined in popularity by the Early Middle Ages.
Medieval priests deemed necromancy as maleficium, or evil magic. They believed that, although necromancers could contact the dead, they needed the help of demons to do so. The Church claimed that demons took on the appearance of souls. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia,
“The Church does not deny that, with a special permission of God, the souls of the departed may appear to the living, and even manifest things unknown to the latter. But, understood as the art or science of evoking the dead, necromancy is held by theologians to be due to the agency of evil spirits.”
Despite necromancy being forbidden, classical magicians still performed it. The Middle Ages and early Renaissance periods feature incredibly complex necromantic rituals. This is where you find spells filled with garbled Latin, guttural trance states, seals, sigils, lengthy prayers–all the steps that many now associate with ceremonial magic.
Many ceremonial necromancers put the soul back into the corpse and let it speak. If you’re wondering where the idea of necromancy zombies came from, this is likely the origin. Necromancers would perform rituals in cemeteries and catacombs. Believing that the dead spoke softly, they would press their ears to the corpse’s lips.
But if you were to pick up a book on necromancy from the Late Middle Ages, these rituals would be few and far between. During this time, necromancy was associated with demonaltry and demonic magic. I’ve had a few people ask me why many necromancy books feature demons; this is why.
Obviously, I am generalizing here. Necromancy took on many different forms in different cultures and religions. For example, African necromancy looked nothing like European Christian necromancy. But I’m focusing on European necromancy to explain where the stereotypical “raising the dead” idea came from.
As a side note, “raising the dead” does not always mean “turn a corpse into a zombie.” The word raise, according to the Cambridge dictionary, also means “to cause to exist” or “to communicate with someone.” So this phrase still applies to divination.
But back to the history. Oddly enough, necromancy bounced back into popularity during the Victorian Era, mainly due to the Ouija board. Seances became the most popular method of necromancy during the 20th century. By the time of the New Age Movement, the word necromancy became associated with horror, fantasy, and D&D. Nowadays, most magicians don’t call themselves necromancers due to these connotations.
So What Are the Differences?
To summarize, divination of the dead, in any form, is necromancy. But death witchcraft encompasses much more: healing the dead, working with death energy, shadow work, and more.
You could say that necromancy is an aspect of death witchcraft.
If you’re reading this post to decide what to call yourself, know that you don’t have to choose between these terms. You can use both as I do. You could also use a different term, such as death worker, spirit worker, medium, or just witch. The label is not as important as the practice.