I have a friend who occasionally asks me questions about magic. While talking the other night when we got to the subject of conjuration he noted that he didn't really feel he had the position or connections to get heavy into spirit work yet, and so I of course asked “do you have any dead people?” I think a big hurdle for people with ancestor work is needing to have someone die. If you're not brought up in a culture of acknowledging your ancestors, it might be a little foreign to think of if you don't have your own dead people. In any case, he responded with a few questions about necromancy and the religious affiliations of the dead. Now the great thing about him asking questions, is I'm rather fond of him and enjoy talking with him, and so I tend to answer his questions by rambling out short extemporaneous essays...which...sometimes become blog posts. So what follows is me being pretty candid about different elements of different modes of work with the dead, with some of it expanded or clarified. I hope you enjoy it and it's useful to you.
I run a bit beyond the questions, but what kicked if off was essentially this:
“Concerning necromancy, what's your opinion when it comes to dealing with ancestors who in life would be completely opposed to the idea of magic and especially necromancy? Do you think those feelings would continue after death? Or do you think the rite of passing itself would distance them from their worldly dispositions and opinions? Or even simpler they'd have no care for religious matters?”
So there is a bit to unpack there...first...necromancy...and ancestors...and the rights of spirits to have opinions...
If you're working necromancy, it can often be more coercive, but doesn't have to be. So it depends a bit on the spirit and the relationship. If it's a random dead person then their views don't matter so much. If it's an ancestor that you're contacting through more necromantic means then you might use a method familiar to their religious view out of respect and to help maintain the relationship.
To really answer these questions we have to look at the particular sort of relationship we're dealing with. I would distinguish between necromancy -- ancestor work -- ancestor worship
Necromancy is ritual magic where you conjure and empower the dead with life and magical force and request that they perform tasks or provide information you need. Alternatively you can descend to the underworld to speak with them. But necromancy is largely associated with raising the dead because its mode of spirit magic involves bringing them into this world and feeding them with elements to enliven them to bolster their ability to interact with you or perform tasks for you.
A lot of time you'll use gods or spirits to exert authority, such as requesting access from Hades and then commanding that spirit in Hades name, or in a Christian context perhaps using Azazel. Similarly you might make a pact with the dead. You could gain access, feed them, and then ask them to do something with the offer that you might do something else for them or continue feeding them. Reginald Scot gives examples of procuring a pact with a dead person and then sending that now bound dead spirit to fetch and command other spirits for you. All of this falls under necromancy.
Ancestor worship is performing rights to honor the dead, or having meals with them to maintain a relationship so they look out for you and don't fuck shit up for you. A lot of traditional religion and magic recognizes that restless dead can be problematic and so you recognize and make offerings to them to help keep them from messing with you, or maybe to purge out missteps you've engaged in which might bring their ire. This is a sort of pagan version of “cooling the dead,” not so much removing the suffering or torment of purgatory, but soothing the difficulty an impact of being dead and displaced. There is a similar component with ancestors who have gone on to where they need to be. Ancestors want to be part of the family, they don't want to be forgotten, and they want to help their family continue well. But they also don't want you to do stupid shit, or mistreat what they've left behind. Ancestor worship maintains and strengthens the bond between living and dead members of the family so the dead ones stay happy, retain power and influence, and focus on having your back.
In my view ancestor working or ancestral magic is somewhere between ancestor worship and necromancy and has elements of both, but it also drops features from each. For example it isn't coercive like necromancy but it isn't passive like ancestor worship either. It kind of looks like ancestor worship but with a more direct expectation that they will help with specific things you ask for, introduce you to spirits or help keep good relations with you and spirits, assist in your magical work and maybe help guide spirits to outcomes you need. So you build a relationship like in ancestor worship and empower them like in Necromancy and they look out for you like in ancestor worship but they also do specific stuff for you like in Necromancy.
But the interaction differs, at least in my view. Both in terms of methods and the way each one feels as far as the interaction with the spirits.
Like when I work with my dead, I make offerings, set lights, ask Charon to bring them, and thank them for stuff and ask for any help I need. If I want their help in magic I tell them what spirits I'm working with and ask them to help and maybe explain how. Alternatively I might call on them before beginning a conjuration or magical rite and ask for them to assist. Or I might leave a tool or object on their altar and ask for their blessing or empowerment before I use it for magic.
When I do necromancy it's got a more intense flavor. There's libations poured out on the ground, coins thrown into cross roads, chthonic gods called with Orphic hymns, maybe stuff involving blood and meat, or food abandoned in the night. Going to places where people died or where the dead are resting, or other liminal places at liminal times.
If I'm honoring an ancestor for like a birthday or holiday it's kind of like having dinner with them and is pretty laid back, and can also be pretty personal and emotional. There's some prayers and then we eat and I tell them what's new in my life or other family members. We maintain a familial relationship and connection the same way you would with living relatives, you basically visit with them, and keep them feeling like they're part of the living family.
Ancestral magic is kind of the daily traditional household magic, necromancy is intense goetic sorcery, and ancestor worship is visiting the dead for thanksgiving style catching up.
As to the religion thing...if they're Christian none of this will be familiar to them. Except in some traditional folk Catholic contexts, but anyone who is a product of a few generations of life in America as a Christian probably wouldn't die with the expectation that their relatives do this stuff. But once they're on the other side...maybe.
So I don't think it matters because for MOST people I don't think their expectations impact their afterlife. They get their and they find out what's what. At least the part of them that remains as that person continuing on.
If they weren't magical you probably want to talk with them about magic first and make sure they agree to help you with magic before you call on them to help with magic. You could still call on them to look out for you, and help you fix problems in your life. That's a little more of a hit the ground running kind of thing than being like “Hey, Aunt Judy, I know you didn't do magic...but I'm going to make this sweetening jar and I need you to help empower it, and maybe introduce me to a spirit who can help accomplish it's work.” I feel like it's like talking to a living person. You don't want to catch them off guard with a request. But just because it might catch them off guard if it wasn't discussed before that requests like that might happen, doesn't mean that they won't be cool with the request if they know it's coming. Make some offerings, have a conversation with them about the relationship you want, and what kind of help with magic you will want, listen for what they're cool with too, they should be talking back, it should be a conversation. Let them know you'll be working magic and you want them to be a part of it. I think most will be ok with that. Since you talking to them is kind of magic already.
But that said, they keep their opinions and ideas, at least on some level.
Like not 100% but if they were about helping people they still are, if they were about what's yours is yours they still are. Like basic core elements of how they saw things. But family is also important to them and contact and interaction and offerings and physical stuff, because that's what attaches them to our world, so it helps them maintain a piece of that existence. Even if it wasn't stuff that they'd be into when they were alive, the elements of this connection should become important to them now. But their thoughts and feelings and personality should also be similar to what it was in life.
These offerings, and this relationship isn't just important to them though, it should be important to you. It strengthens them to help us. So if you want the relationship to be useful to you this stuff needs to be there.
But yeah, as far as whether or not you need to call them within the context of their religion. Call them under the power of the gods who rule the world of the dead. They live in their kingdom now, whoever where their gods when they were living, the gods of the land of the dead are their gods while they're dead.
Unless it's like a Saint or a Blessed. If you're asking one of them to be in your ancestor court they're specifically empowered by Christian ritual and belief already. So it's like working with a god or mighty dead spirit from a religion, you contact them within that religious context. Part of what you're drawing on is the power associated with their religious role, so call on that within the context of that power. They're built into a different spiritual structure, and you're not working on the personal identity of that individual so much as that identity empowered with a religious iconography and spiritual power fed by a tradition of religious veneration. You're approaching a legend as much as a person.
So Azazel, Azrael, St. Peter, probably St. Christopher, St. Cyprian, St. Benedict, maybe St. Nicholas or some Saint associated with the dead or funeral customs would be the authority or the gate keeper, or assisting spirit to call upon when trying to access the spirit of a Saint or Blessed canon figure to work with in the context of your ancestors.
Otherwise, regular dead people, call them how you'd call them and talk with them about what you'd want and see if they're good with it.
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