t is a common practice of Neopagans today to remember and reverence the ancestors only at Samhain. Pictures of dead loved ones are placed on the altars along with food offerings and candles lit for their remembrance. Other than this most Samhain rituals consist of the attendees letting go of something from the previous year in a spell during ritual. Today necromancy is a dirty word and the souls of the dead are no longer consulted for divination. However in other traditions like Hoodoo, Vodou, Santeria, Palo, Brujeria as well as other cultural folk traditions, the cult of the dead remains strong and ancestors are reverenced and called upon year round mimicking their place as spirit guides in shamanism. The shamans of old did not just have animal and plant spirit helpers, they also had ancestral ones aid them in their magic and ritual. Worship of and contact with the beloved dead shouldn’t be a once a year event, but instead they should be reverenced year round not just as a reminder of the eternal cycle of life and death, but also to keep our past close to us so we do not forget the wisdom of the ancients and break our lineage with them. This connection keeps them as the “beloved dead” rather than the pissed off “why haven’t you talked to your mother in 5 years” angry dead.
Necromancy is the art of conjuring up the spirits of the dead in order to commune with them to foretell the future, gain advice on events in your life, or to learn wisdom and knowledge. In general the practitioner does not journey to the underworld except in times of dire need such as initiation or soul retrieval. Instead, the practitioner calls the spirits to them within a safe and protected environment. Necromancy can be as simple as invoking the ancestral spirits you work with to help you with a tarot reading to a much more complicated ritual to summon a spirit of the dead to ask who killed them and what to do about it. Working with ancestral spirits can actually be easier than working with animal and plant allies as ancestral spirits were once mortal and understand us much better. Also, many practitioners work with deceased relatives giving the spirits an invested personal interest in their well-being and success in magic.
The trouble with working with spirits is that most people cannot see or hear them. There are ways around this for those who wish to learn. There is a seal from the Key of Solomon which allows those in its presence to see the spirits summoned (see right). There are also older natural methods to gain the sight, for instance in Celtic folklore it is believed that if you rub male fern spores onto your eyelids, carry a four-leaf clover, or look through a holey stone that you will be able to see all the different types of spirits. Others believe that the caul-born or those who had the baptism water fall in their eyes as children will be cursed with the ability to see ghosts and other spirits. Failing this one can always use divination or signs to commune with spirits. For example, if you ask a spirit a yes or no question ask for their affirmative response as a robin’s call and silence as the negative and for divination use throwing sticks or three differently coloured stones for responses. These methods can be used to ask the dead questions for a divinatory reading, spell working, or ritual for yourself or a client or they can be used for something as inane as playing a hand of cards with a ghost in a cemetery.
The Ancestral Shrine
Most cultures both ancient and modern who worship the ancestors have a shrine that is maintained at all times throughout the year. It is here they are told of all that happens in your life – your joys and sorrows – it is here offerings are given as the dead are believed to still require the nourishment they receive from our libations and burnt food offerings, and it is at this shrine that their spirits are petitioned for aid or advice. Whenever something is received from the spirits of the dead something must be given in return. This could be anything from a libation or burnt food offering to certain incenses whose fumes are as food to spirits.
The ancestral shrine can be anything from a small shelf with photos of loved ones, candles and an offeratory dish to a full altar with ritual and divinatory tools as well as spirit vessels to house the ancestors you work with. The most common way in folk traditions to work with ancestral spirits regularly is to have a vessel consecrated in ritual for them. In Haitian Vodou the vessel is known as the Govi which is a spirit pot that houses the ancestral spirits of the priest(ess) or the Ghédé themselves. In European witchcraft a spirit box is used which can also take the form of a fetiche like a real, wooden, or ceramic skull stuffed with taglocks of the deceased relative. If the spirit you work with is not one of the recently dead you can stuff the vessel with red thread instead to hold the spirit to the vessel. A quartz crystal is also a good addition as many cultures worldwide believe this stone has the ability to ground spirits and keep them in one place so you can commune with them. Ancestral spirits should never be bound or trapped in a vessel, they should be free to come and go as they please. They should also always be worked with out of love not force.
I have known people who have an open door policy with the spirits of the dead for their home. I have to say that this is a VERY dangerous thing to do, especially if you have children or do not live alone as you are endangering not just yourself but your family and roommates. Inviting a strange spirit into your house is like taking a stranger off the street into your home – they could either be a lovely person or they could kill you and steal everything you own – you just never know. Unfamiliar spirits should be summoned within a well-made protective circle only. Familiar ancestral spirits do not need such formalities, but just make sure it’s actually your ancestor your talking to and not a demonic imposter. This can be done by asking questions only your ancestor would know the answers to or by simply using their full name (including all middle names) or basic genealogy each time you call them.
To summon your ancestral spirits call to them while burning an incense that both facilitates attracting spirits as well as aiding in communication with them, essentially opening the doorway between worlds. Some trusted and true ingredients for such an incense include althea (marshmallow root), wormwood, copal, graveyard dirt, mullein, pomegranate skin, poppy seeds, and camphor. For an offeratory incense to be used as thanks for services rendered, preferred ingredients include rose, tobacco, lavender, damiana, frankincense, and bone meal. The rose and lavender also help to let the spirit(s) know it is time to leave and go back to their realm as lavender helps to break the tie between spirit and mortal and wild rose is used in Native rootwork to keep the souls of the dead from following you.
If you are a polytheist, the master of keys or the guardian of the threshold must be called upon to part the doorways and let the spirits of the dead through. A traditional offering to him/her is olive oil and honey together in a dish. There is more than one guardian, if you already work with a pyschopomp then they can also do this for you. Such deities include Hekate, Hermes, Prometheus, Heimdal, Anu, Gwyn ap Nudd, Cernunnos, Nicnevin, Manannán mac Lir, Anubis, Papa Legba, Baron Samedi… and such like. Do not mix and match these deities, stick to the culture you normally work within.
“I adjure you, O Spirit, Ram-bearer, who dwells among the graves upon the bones of the dead, that you will accept from my hand this offering, and do my will by bringing me _ son of _ who is dead. Raise him up so that he will speak to me without fear, and tell me the truth without deception. Let me not be afraid of him, and let him answer whatever questions I ask him.”
Sefer ha-Razim or Book of Mysteries, 300 CE
Lastly, do not forget to send back what you call forth! Especially if you are working with an unfamiliar spirit. Make sure either you or the master of the keys closes the doorway between worlds after your ritual is finished.
- An Archaeology of Ancestors: Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Early Greece by Carla M. Antonaccio
- Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead by James Frazer
- Communing with the Spirits: The Magical Practice of Necromancy by Martin Coleman
- Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Late Medieval Ritual Magic by Claire Fanger
- Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the 15th Century by Richard Kieckhefer
- Greek and Roman Necromancy by Daniel Ogden
- Key of Solomon (Clavicula Salomonis)
- Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds by Daniel Ogden
- Return of the Dead: Ancestors, Ghosts & the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux
- Seeing the Dead, Talking with Spirits: Shamanic Healing Through Contact with the Spirit World by Alexandra Leclere
- Spirit Speak: Knowing and Understanding Spirit Guides, Ancestors, Ghosts, Angels, and the Divine by Ivo Dominguez Jr.