Sometimes the spirit will manifest visually in some way, perhaps even as a traditional “ghost”. At other times, the spirit will be able to affect objects like a wineglass, a bell, or a candle. If a spirit has something important to say she or he may choose someone in the room to speak through – unless the magician has managed to bring the deceased’s body along, and the spirit is willing to inhabit it again for a while.
Technically, a person whom a spirit speaks through is referred to as a Medium. Frequently, the Medium is also the person who is performing the summoning, although that is not always the case. Being a true Medium – while remaining sane – takes training, and there is a certain amount of risk involved. Sometimes, the spirit that answers is not the spirit who was called – and not every departed soul is friendly.
Necromancy was a fairly widespread practice in ancient times. Strabo (64/63 BCE-24 CE) writes about its high status in Persia in his Geographica. Poets of the underworld also wrote about necromancy, the most well known example coming from Homer’s epic “Odyssey.” In that work, the sorceress, Circe, gives Odysseus extensive instructions in spirit-raising, so that he may speak with the departed seer Tiresias. Odysseus is not able to succeed in this endeavor by himself. In the Bible, the Witch of Endor summons the spirit of Samuel for King Saul. She seems rather surprised at her success, however. King Saul eventually pays for the summoning with his life.
In fact, the Bible takes a dim view of necromancy altogether. It is expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, for example. The Medieval Church held that, since only God could actually perform a resurrection, necromancers must have been summoning demons disguised as spirits. Medieval and Renaissance practitioners got around that problem by putting as many biblical references in their incantations as possible, so that they would appear to be praying.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, Spiritualism was all the rage, and séances became quite popular. The stereotypical image of a group of people gathered around a table, holding hands, while the spirits lift the table into the air, dates from this period. Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit”, a twentieth century play that has had several revivals in this century, is a classic comedy that nevertheless sounds a cautionary note. Dealing with the dead is best left to the professionals – because even the professionals may be in over their heads!
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