Originally, the word necromantīa referred to a sort of divination using ghosts, like what Odysseus did on his journey home: he made an offering and summoned the shade of Tiresias, in order to ask him questions.

Nowadays, of course, "necromancy" generally refers to manipulating death in other, less savory ways, such as reanimating armies of corpses.

This sort of dark magic is definitely mentioned in Roman literature, such as Lucan's Pharsalia VI:

…Tunc omnis palpitat artus,
tenduntur nerui; nec se tellure cadauer
paulatim per membra leuat, terraque repulsum est
erectumque semel. Distento lumina rictu
nudantur. Nondum facies uiuentis in illo,
iam morientis erat: remanet pallorque rigorque,
et stupet inlatus mundo. Sed murmure nullo
ora astricta sonant: uox illi linguaque tantum
responsura datur…

(My translation:)

Every limb twitched and shuddered, tendons strained, and the corpse rose up from the ground—not slowly or bit by bit, but standing up all at once, forced out by the earth. Its mouth hung gaping and its eyes were held open: it didn't seem properly alive, more like a person dying. Its deathly pallor and stiffness remained, and it looked dazed from being brought back into the world. But no sound came from its twisted mouth: it had been given a voice and a tongue only to respond[, not to speak for itself].

And Lucan makes it very clear that this sort of corpse-defiling is a dark, unclean sort of magic, not the sort of thing you'd associate with Odysseus and Aeneas.

So: what would a Roman call this type of magic (the dreadful reanimation of corpses, as opposed to Aeneas's civilized catabasis)? Was there ever a specific term used for this?

  • Have you been watching "Game-of-Thrones"? Am guessing that a Roman would call it, what we would call it, evil. Fools who have dabbled with ouija boards and invited the forces of evil into their living rooms, fled, in terror. But, there is nothing wrong with an academic interest in the "dark side" of Latin. Did you find the "expletive-intensifier" that you were seeking?
    – tony
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 9:33
  • @tony I'm afraid I did not (find the intensifier), but this would potentially be a good use for it! Lucan spends the majority of an entire book of his epic describing how horrific this magic is.
    – Draconis
    Commented May 21, 2019 at 16:16
  • @Draconis did you read the book I showed you? That series was full of expletives and intensifiers. Commented May 22, 2019 at 13:30

1 Answer 1


Lucan offers a few poetic descriptions, earlier in Pharsalia VI:

…siquid tacitum sed fas erat. ille supernis
detestanda deis saevorum arcana magorum
noverat et tristis sacris feralibus aras,
umbrarum Ditisque fidem, miseroque liquebat
scire parum superos…

(Trans. mine:)

[Sextus rejected] whatever [practices] were secret but still fell within the laws of the gods. Instead, he sought the secrets of savage mages, denounced by the gods above, and the mournful altars of deathly sacraments; he placed his faith in Dis and the shades of the dead, and it seemed to the poor man that those in the heavens knew too little…

He also refers to these necromancers as Haemonidae and Thessalidae (both declined in the Greek style), and canentes arcanum ferale magos ("wizards chanting a deathly secret").

Haemonidae and Thessalidae clearly refer to the location rather than the practices: Thessaly was apparently famous for dark magic, which is referenced by e.g. Aristophanes (in the Clouds):

Γυναῖκα φαρμακίδ' εἰ πριάμενος Θετταλὴν
καθέλοιμι νύκτωρ τὴν σελήνην…

(Trans. mine:)

What if I hired one of those Thessalian women who makes poisons, and then at night, sent the moon crashing down out of the sky…

So it seems like Lucan's best adjective for the practice itself is fērālis, "deathly", sometimes coupled with saevus, "savage", or nefas, "counter to divine law". Noun-wise, magical knowledge is arcāna (neuter plural, "secrets"), a magic-user is a magus, and a spell is a carmen.

Thus, I'd go with arcāna fērālia, "deathly secrets". It seems like this on its own has a negative connotation, not like what Odysseus and Aeneas did; if you need to specify further, add saeva or nefas. An individual rite, likewise, would be a carmen fērāle.

  • Have you answered your own Q? Used to end up doing that on ChemistryStack. Been looking on net: "mala vota, carmina sussurrae"--to whisper evil spells, incantations; "malis avibus"--under evil auspices (lit. "under bad birds"); "mala mente esse"--to be out of one´´s mind, there are others. Evil has the same seductive power as sex; money; gambling; ouija; Tarot and the Devil comes in many guises--beware.
    – tony
    Commented May 22, 2019 at 9:47

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