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Thursday, July 11, 2024

What do the Dead Know?

  I noticed two things recently. One was a slogan, “the dead teach us,” and one was someone asking for the source of a proclamation which JSK attributed to Crowley, in which Crowley asserted that there was no reason to bother with the dead because they don’t know anymore than they did while living. These represent two very opposing views on the dead. For a long time in modern magic, the dead were overlooked. Neither modern NeoPagan religions, nor ceremonial magic systems spent much time on necromancy or ancestor veneration. People would talk about how the dead and ancestors were important at Samhain. People didn’t teach or explore necromancy. As a teen, I collected together the handful of materials I could find on necromancy because I thought it was interesting and a rare approach to magic that wasn’t presented in readily available sources. I was proud at age 15, back in 1997, to have collected more necromancy items on my AOL webpage than I’d seen gathered in one place anywhere else. I think it only took about four pieces of material to achieve the goal of presenting more sources on necromancy in one place than I’d seen anywhere else. I’ve always assumed it was because relationships with the dead occur in religious areas of cultural development, and the “magical revival” developed in a social-fraternal context separate from the main culture rather than as a completely integrated cultural answer to religious needs. Maybe that’s why, or maybe people just thought like Crowley apparently did, that the dead don’t have much to offer so why bother?

The lack of conversation about the dead, about ancestor veneration, about necromancy, allowed space for people to come up with some weird weak-sauce ideas about the subjects. Despite the space for these ideas to take flight, fortunately, most haven’t spread. The main one I’ve encountered commonly is that all work with, or related to, the dead is necromancy. So, Samhain celebrations, much of Halloween, Dia de los Muertos, and any form of ancestor veneration are necromancy. That is…absolute nonsense - we’ll explain why in a little bit. I had the misfortune of attending a class where a teacher explained that fueling your car is necromancy because of the dead dinosaurs in the gasoline - hopefully they were joking, but I’m not so sure. These are examples of bad ideas and bad explanations that happen because people want things to be magical, but they don’t really have a grasp of the magic they’re trying to point to, so they just start applying magical thinking to every random thing. The aforementioned class did show me that there are a lot of other bad ideas about necromancy out there, as the teacher spent most of the class warning people about the nonsense they might encounter, but most of the other ideas fall into the territory of bad explanations that arise because people want to be creepy and spooky and so they make up outlandish things for shock value because it sells well to a certain audience. Fortunately, those ideas seem to stick to their niche of creepy books bound in black leather and sold for way too much money. Again, I wouldn’t have even known about (and honestly have forgotten about) most of those weird ideas had I not attended a class where the teacher began by disabusing everyone of the creepy nonsense out there. 

The lack of widespread acceptance of crazy ideas has had a practical benefit beyond protecting people from attempting silly or dangerous things. A little more than a decade ago, folks started digging more deeply into historical and traditional magical systems. A boom in publishing older magical source texts kicked off, and authors began to write about grimoires, goeteia, and all sorts of underexplored systems of magic, and magic-adjacent spirituality. As this exploration deepened we began to see more attention given to faeries and their forgotten place in learned magic. The works of cunning folk began to be explored and people began to realize that they weren’t the illiterate folk magicians NeoPagan books had long painted them to be, but they were educated professional magicians blending literate magic and folk magic into practical workable approaches. We began to understand that ancestor veneration was more than the occasional Dumb Supper at Samhain, and could be, and for many people should be, a major part of their spiritual and magical work. Connections between necromancy, goeteia, and witchcraft began to unfold into people’s awareness. The world of magic got deeper, and with that depth we found ourselves to be neighbors with the residents of the deep other spaces within the sphere of the earth, the faeries, the dead, the aerial spirits, and a host of other beings who previously were not so commonly discussed. 

The lack of weird ideas and misconceptions about ancestor work and the dead made it easier for good material and good ideas to spread without the pushback that new ideas and improved resources sometimes run into. 

Now, there are a handful of books on ancestor veneration. There is at least one business devoted entirely to spiritual classes and retreats focused on ancestral wellness. Ideas no one spoke of before like “generational curses” and “ancestral trauma” have become popular buzzwords. Ancestor altars and ancestral veneration are commonplace. Necromancy even has a place in mainstream occult publishing and amongst classes taught at conferences. To some degree, the attention to these forgotten parts of spirituality and magic have resulted in some things being a bit overblown. That kind of instant ubiquity is common when something new and useful becomes familiar to more people. Unfortunately, the excess noise that constellates around sources of new excitement can cause some people to miss opportunities for deep engagement. It’s easy to get distracted by the sizzle that everyone is selling, and in that excitement, end up forgetting to actually eat the meat. Despite that, for many people, the new prominence held by the dead has opened up doorways to very meaningful experiences. 

I would usually kick off the transition towards actually discussing the nature of the dead and our ability to work with them by asking a question like “So, with this newfound popularity the dead have, who is right? Those who agree with Crowley, that the dead don’t know anything and shouldn’t be bothered with, or those who see them as teachers, leaders, protectors and guides?” The question, while an easy rhetorical set up, would seem ingenuine to anyone familiar with my work. It’s pretty clear that I see work with the dead as beneficial and meaningful. I clearly am on the ancestor veneration side of the fence with no real equivocation about whether or not it is an important or beneficial thing to have within our lives. I believe modern Anglophone culture has a severely unhealthy relationship with the dead, largely because we avoid any kind of real relationship with them. We’re hurt by this fact, and it’s good that the bolts are shaking loose and more of us are finding the door open to reconnecting with those who came before us. 

While I’m solidly on Team Dead People (I should put that on a t-shirt…), I can’t dismiss the alleged Crowley comment as an example of him simply not knowing any better because he didn’t have the best resources available to him. There are definitely opinions and practices in the post-Golden Dawn approach to magic that can easily be explained that way, but this isn’t one of them. The idea that the dead don’t know much wasn’t a new idea. 

This may surprise some people, but the idea that the dead more or less only know what they new in life is kind of well attested. Joshua Trachtenberg wrote a brief section on necromancy and the dead in Jewish Magic and Superstition.  In it he presents the dead as relatively banal, and not in a “fires of banal” kind of way, but in the sort of boring and pedestrian kind of way. He literally describes them as people who spend a lot of time complaining about the clothes they’re forced to wear because of what their families chose to bury them in. Trachtenberg suggests that magic to contact the dead wasn’t especially common in a Jewish context because the dead didn’t know anymore than they knew in life. He presents a picture which leaves the reader to suppose that the dead’s concerns were generally the same kinds of concerns they would have had while living, but within a smaller community formed from the people buried near them. 

This wasn’t just a Jewish perspective on the dead though. Daniel Ogden in Greek and Roman Necromancy describes similar beliefs around the dead. He doesn’t present the Greek and Roman dead as complaining about the clothes they’re buried in, but he describes them as only knowing what they knew in life, or what they might have heard from people passing by in the cemetery. The dead are essentially the same people they were before, but now they have time to pay attention to the good gossip, if someone happens to speak it within earshot. It’s neither an exciting picture of what one is able to get up to in the afterlife, nor of the dead’s ability to meaningfully give us useful information.

Those who have crossed Acheron may fare no better. Having traveled the River of Woe and entered into the underworld, the dead were greeted by a Cypress Tree and a question as to who they were. If one was not taught the mysteries which allow survival through death, then their soul would drink the waters of forgetfulness and who they were in life would more or less be erased. What happened from there varied. Some accounts describe hordes of passive souls in the dark and quiet gloom, others seemed to think that these souls became the material of new souls to be born into the world as new people, having had their old identities erased. This certainly does not indicate that the dead would be useful beings to call upon. 

Despite that, necromancy was present as a system of magic amongst Greeks and Romans. Not only do we know that people utilized necromancy, and that oracles associated with openings to the world of the dead existed, we also know ancestor veneration was common. Both the Greeks and the Romans had cults of the dead. Historians, Pagans, and NeoPagans alike will sometimes talk about the Iron Age Celts as having been head hunters who had a prominent cult of the dead, as if this was their primary religious engagement and as if it was a mode of religiosity that was unique relative to their Mediterranean neighbors. Given that we have information on other modes of religion amongst the Celts, I would imagine that their cult of the dead is not decontextualized from other religious behaviors and that it was a prominent and important part of their culture just like it was for Greeks, Romans, and numerous other traditional cultures. For the Greeks and Romans, in addition to having household religious practices focused around the dead, there were important figures who were honored collectively by the community as heroes or ancestors shared by the community as a whole. There were multiple holidays throughout the year focused on the dead. Some focused on propitiating the dead, some focused on honoring and affirming connections with them. 

The dead were important. The dead were ubiquitous. This is part of why I can easily say that necromancy does not encompass ancestor veneration. In the ancient world, necromancy was, like it is in many cultures today, the work of specialists. In some cultures, these specialists are priests or powerful figures in the community. In others, as seems to have been the case in much of Greece, those who did this kind of magical work were outsiders at the periphery of society. Roman literature continues this trend of showing the necromancer as one who does questionable things and who lives outside the bounds of normal society. Ancestor veneration was wholly within the social norms, and was a necessary part of complying with social norms. In the medieval and early modern periods we still encounter the idea of necromancy. Veneration of the dead, and spirituality founded upon concepts of death and the afterlife were the normative central form of religious devotion through medieval and early modern Europe. Necromancy was a separate series of illicit magical practices outside the bounds of normal religion and society. Necromancy has always been separate from what the average person does in relation to the dead in cultures where the dead remain actively present in the spaces of the living. 

Jumping back to antiquity, we find a world where myths and stories tell us of the dead having their memories erased. We encounter a world which viewed ghosts as limited to the knowledge they held in life. Still, it was a world where the dead were honored and respected. We might ask ourselves why they were honored and respected if they weren’t seen as knowledgeable or effective in the world. From a modern perspective, it’s easy to settle on an answer. Even if the dead are gone, and have no part of our world now, we respect what they gave to us in life; we respect the heritage we have received from them, and we respect the comfort their memory gives to us or to others who knew them. They don’t have to have personhood or agency or the ability to connect with us for us to respect them, so it doesn’t matter if once they die they’re essentially gone aside from their existence in our memories.

That answer works in a relatively materialist world where we give lip service to the idea that basic respect is the baseline that everyone should start with. The reality is that we don’t live in a materialist world, and the kind of respect that becomes veneration usually develops when there are reasons suggesting that someone or something deserves that attention from us. This would have been even more true from the perspective of the ancient world. Clearly, people felt there was value in connecting with their ancestors, and they believed that people who had the ability to raise and empower the dead could gain useful information or accomplish necessary tasks by doing so. 

While Crowley’s apparent perspective, “the dead only know what they knew while alive,” might have been a common perspective in some ancient and medieval cultures, the idea that this meant “don’t bother with them,” doesn’t seem to have been commonly held. If they only know what they knew, what can we learn from them? Why should we connect with them? 

Well, first off, that question is only necessary if we assume that the perspective that they don’t know more than they knew is true just because it’s old. That’s not necessarily the case. It might even be that in the ancient world there were competing views about the afterlife and our relationships with the dead. Maybe some people didn’t hold the view that they were the same as they were while alive, or maybe some people held a view that multiple things go on when you die and so more than one thing can be true at the same time. It would be hard for us to ever know for sure what people used to think. Even if we could know what the average person in 253 BCE thought, we have to answer these questions based on our own perspectives now since these answers will inform our lives, not the lives of people 2000 years ago. 

Answering these questions could mean asking what happens when we die. This is a question I get asked a lot, I suppose because people know that my personal spirituality and magic both involve a fair amount of interaction with the dead. I often demur to giving a solid answer when asked this. I think people find it surprising because one would assume working with the dead would include feeling some certainty about what happens after death. To me that’s a bad epistemological assumption. Personally, I believe lots of things probably happen in the afterlife, even things which would be contradictory in our own living perspective. I don’t think while we’re alive we can or should grasp it in full. Even if the spaces of the dead are open to us, they aren’t open to us in full. Walking too deeply within them, without balancing that association with vibrant living anchors, can open us up to certain dangers. 

There are some things I’m comfortable saying based on my experience. The dead don’t gain access to omniscience or some deep well of all knowledge. They mostly know what they knew while alive, and a little beyond that because they experience things in the afterlife. The afterlife isn’t always entirely the same for everyone. There are better and worse experiences of the afterlife, and our interactions with the dead can and should include helping improve their experience of the afterlife just as we look for them to help us in our experience of life. The dead are more or less who they were while alive, but a lot of the baggage, and damage that is caused by that baggage, is stripped away and healed - death is a weakening of the body and a healing of the soul. In that regard, some of the bad elements of who they may have been, or how they seemed to us in life, aren’t always still there. Opinions and perspectives they had which were problematic might improve because death gives a new and broader perspective. This doesn’t mean the dead automatically become good, or who we want them to be. That broader perspective means that they may be aware of, or have insights into things we don’t see, both in the world of the living and the world of the dead. The elements which remain from who they were while living mean that they understand human experience and human needs in a way other spirits don’t, and it often means they are invested in us. The part of the person we interact with and see is not the only piece of them which exists; various components of our soul complex experience different things as the body separates from the rest of the complex. 

Learning from the dead, engaging with them, and connecting to them both for memory and for veneration, are not limited to an exploration of what knowledge they possess. In an esoteric sense, the world is built upon the sea of the dead. The world of the living sits upon the boundary between our world and the world of the dead. Elements of the afterlife mirror life. We are born into the world of the living, and we die from this world to be born in the afterlife. We grow and develop differently in life and afterlife, but both occur. The dead remember us, and we remember them, and when we support the dead we open doors for them to support us. We live adjacent to the dead even though a river separates us, and two worlds grow from that river, the world of Life and the world of Afterlife. 

Less esoterically speaking our world is built upon and from the dead themselves. Everything in our experience was once something else or a part of something else. The old thing is not what it was before, or is not in the condition it was before, and in a way no longer exists. It is the same idea expressed by the saying “you can’t step in the same river twice.” The very act of stepping into the river changes it in some way, even if it is a small and fleeting way. In a very direct sense, our furniture and our books are made from the bodies of slain trees. Our clothes and our food come from dead plants and animals, or at least parts of them that are no longer attached to a living organism. Plastics, gasoline, and natural gas come from the remains of ancient, now dead, organisms - but apparently, most likely not from dinosaurs. We think of things made from metal and stone as inert and not alive, but from an animistic perspective these things also have life and removing them from their context or changing them significantly might change elements of that life from what it was to something new. In terms of a continuity with organic material, as bodies decay, minerals which were in them leak out into soil and may become part of new stones or dirt, and so the more quotidian cycle of life and death might have touched the development of these non-organic materials as well.  

Living upon the sea of the dead in a world built from the dead means our potential for interaction with the dead and learning from the dead is near endless. There can be deep meaning in learning from the dead in fully exoteric ways. We can hear stories of those who came before us and learn what made them successful or what made them fail - both generally and in specific endeavors - and we can learn how to apply those lessons in our own lives. We can read books, journals, notes, instructions, and recipes left by those who came before us. We continue chains and lineages of teaching in numerous disciplines where things that were taught to someone generations ago are passed down to our teachers, through them to us, and then so forth to those that we will teach. We can look at remains that have been left behind, whether we mean clothing, tools, buildings, or bodies, and learn things about the world around us and how people once interacted with it and this can inform how we move forward. 

These means of learning from the dead are so necessary in life that they are virtually omnipresent. We don’t think of them as learning from the dead or engaging the dead most of the time. When we do, it can add deep meaning to them. When we do things like make a soup, or bake a cake, we might use a recipe our father taught us that he learned from his mother, that she learned from her father. When we prepare it we think back on memories of our father making it when we were young. We are reminded of visits to our grandmother, and her stories of her father who we might have never known. 

There is a comfort and connection produced in linking together these people who now reside within us and whose impact continues through our own interactions with the world. This gives us a space in which we can understand the comfort of ancestor veneration and the continuity that it solidifies into meaningful contact and connection without us needing to consider at all what the dead know or how we can speak to them to learn the secrets of the afterlife. The dead teach us in numerous ways. Those ways gain meaning when we understand that they are the dead teaching us and that the dead continue through us as we will then continue through those who learn from us. 

This is not all there is though. Nothing about what I described there is magic. It can be spiritually meaningful, and may even be part of how we engage the dead spiritually. The broader use of the word magical to explain a sort of comfortable sense of wonder certainly applies there, but the more proper “magical” -  the magical that is intended when we speak of sorcery and witchcraft - doesn’t have to enter into those exoteric ways of learning from the dead at all. The magic remains, and so that tells us that there is more. 

We live upon the sea of the dead, and from that sea forms and currents can arise which take the shape of powers and personages recognizable by different cultures. Elements of the dead give power and life to these forms which coalesce from our communal awareness, our aspirations, our needs, and our desires, interacting with echoes of people, legends, myths and stories that tell us about what came before and which carry the character and nature of those desires and aspirations. The power and life these forms have comes from the power and life of the collective dead, and their knowledge comes from the collective insight of that power spoken through the voice of the identity through which it manifests. 

The dead themselves can also, often with our help, arise through that sea. With the heat of fire, and the exchange of gifts, they can move through the river from which both worlds arise and speak with us, work with us, and aid us. Depending on how clearly we need them to speak, or how powerfully we need them to work, we might use different techniques to contact them and bring them forth. We might give them different things to give them a stronger voice, or to empower their hands to shape things in our world. We might have to link them to the world more, or speed their wit and brighten their memory. This is part of the depiction of the dead in the dark gloom of Avernus. The fog of beings who have forgotten who they are and who have lost the voice with which to speak becomes able to interact with us and aid us when given elements of life. That necromantic approach doesn’t require that we buy fully into an afterlife predicated upon drinking the waters of forgetfulness. It does imply that we understand that the state of the dead is not the same as the state of the living, and that some types of communication and interaction are more difficult and need more empowerment. 

Getting into the specifics of an ancestor work approach versus a necromantic approach and when to use one or another is outside the scope of what we’re exploring here. But, we’ve touched on both in the paragraph above. We can reach out to the dead and connect with them in a variety of ways. Those ways will impact our experience, as well as the experience of those we call upon. The different ways we call upon them and interact with them will color how they’re able to interact with the world - but we can experience communication with them either way, even though there may be differences in how we experience communication depending upon the mode of contact used. 

When we call upon the dead to speak with them and learn from them directly it is not unlike calling upon an older relative, friend, or mentor for guidance. We don’t have to be looking for deep esoteric secrets. We don’t have to be asking for hidden truths beyond the depths of the perceptions and understanding of the living. We can ask them about how to deal with the things we’re experiencing. We can ask them to guide us to answers that will show us how to do things or understand things that they didn’t have the chance to teach us in life. They will have perspectives based in their own life experiences, but also in their afterlife experiences. Those afterlife experiences may include awareness of elements of our lives and the spiritual components impacting our lives which we do not see. The dead have helped me figure out what spirits to call upon to deal with things, how to pray about a situation, how to adapt the magic I was going to work. They have also shown me simple things like when to wait, when to be patient or kind, or when to neglect or ignore things that seemed important to me so I can focus on things that truly needed my attention more. These aren’t necessarily the big questions that John Dee called upon angels to get answered, but they’re useful things that speak guidance and help to us drawn from the perspective of someone near to us, but who can see far more broadly than us. 

With that in mind, it doesn’t matter so much that the dead don’t tap into the expansive sources of universal knowledge. It’s ok if they’re like us. It’s good that they’re human. They understand us and our lives in ways other spirits don’t. Even if they only know what they knew in life that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother with them. Living life means we can’t opt not to bother with the dead because everything is touched in some way by death and the dead. But like those of us who are living, the dead still learn things about their world, and observe things when they have access to our world. Their knowledge remains a form of human knowledge, but it isn’t bounded solely by the moments which held their first and last breaths.

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