Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Necromancy" in the Irish Tradition

No, this is not going to be something to do with zombies, liches, weights, mad monks or dread eldritch horrors. This is going to be a concise examination of the ways in which the living can obtain knowledge from the dead, particularly in the Irish literary tradition. I use the term necromancy because it is probably the simplest and most widely known term to describe this particular activity. Derived from the ancient Greek necros, referring to a dead body, and manteia, referring to prophecy or divination, is a kind of magic or rite which when performed allows some means of divination to be derived from communication with the dead. Almost always associated with evil or witchcraft, it has necessarily been a magic of ill repute. This is not, however, at all the case when it comes to necromancy in the Irish tradition. While some of the rites or means of gaining knowledge or portents from the dead are achieved in similar ways (sleeping on graves, contact with a deceased human body) and the results are often the same (conversations with spirits or corpses themselves), there is a distinct lack of evil or darkness attached with it. For a culture which has wide ranging proscriptions in manners of taboo, especially through literary devices like geasa, and also has a revulsion for evil magic; it would appear that necromancy, while considered the "blackest of black arts" just about everywhere else, enjoys a rather lofty reputation, as will be explored in the first example below.

There is a wonderful article I stumbled upon some time ago, written by Grigory Bondarenko, called "Oral Past and Written Present in 'The Finding of the Tain". It is an absolutely fascinating piece which explores the way in which the mythic, and some later historic texts, explain the transmission of tales from orations to written accounts. If you can get your hands on a copy of it, it is definitely worth having a read. What piqued my interest however, was not the actual topic of the article, but one of the accounts of how the "transmission of the Tain" occurred.

According to one of the so called "pre-tales" of the Tain Bo Cuailnge, Do Fhallsigud Tana Bo Cuailnge (How the Tain Bo Cuailnge was found again), a fili named Muirgen mac Senchan is said to have found the grave of Fergus Mac Roich and chanted an invocation to him:
'If this your royal rock
were your own self mac Roich
halted here with sages
searching for a roof
Cuailnge we'd recover
plain and perfect Fergus'
A mist arises and Fergus appears to Muirgen, and proceeds to recite to him the entirety of the Tain. With this the Tain is now recovered in its entirety and (presumably) preserved for posterity. There are other versions of the tale, one involving Muirgen's father Senchan "fasting against" the Christian descendants of Fergus. Yet another which involves two filid setting out for mainland Europe who regain the Tain by trading it for the Cuilmen (Bondarenko). While all three do have their own narratives, Bondarenko does point out that listed among the "Triads of Ireland" is the following:
Three wonders concerning 'the Cattle-raid of Culange: that the cuilmen came to Ireland in its stead; the dead relating it to the living,viz. Fergus mac Roig reciting it to Ninnine the poet in the time of Cormac mac Faelain; one year's protection to him to whom it is recited.
It is the second wonder, however, which bears examination; while it is slightly different than the version listed in the fore-tales, Ninnine is the filid in stead of Muirgen, the mode of transmission remains the same. Fergus Mac Roigh is summoned, being deceased some countless generations ago, and recites the Tain in its entirety to the filids. Of all the manner of transmission of tales, certainly being recited by the dead deserves to be recounted as a wonder. Aside from being an interesting tale, in and of itself, we can also observe (at least one perspective anyway) on the nature of the state of the dead.

It is tales like this, and particularly other examples of the dead coming and speaking to the living, which make me personally question the assertions some make in regards to reincarnation. Certainly it would be difficult to have a hero, or the soul of that hero, coming to recite such tales, if they were supposed to have moved onto another incarnation. There are other examples, of course which offer other perspectives, but I think this is a good example of the idea of the soul/spirit of a hero surviving after death. As such it is not unreasonable to posit that that soul/spirit must have dwelt somewhere to be summoned from, and there are examples in the lore of such places, Tech Duinn chief among them. Of course, the other option which could be possible is that the soul/spirit of the dead reside within their grave, and certainly this tale makes this seem as plausible as other options. What is more, the custom of sleeping or fasting upon a grave to gain knowledge is not contained to this tale alone, and will often be remarked upon as one of the ways the filid received inspiration. Further, the practice or notion of communicating with the dead must have had enjoyed a great deal of prestige because in the Christianized texts (both the extant versions of the Tain, as well as the Triads), there is no hint of diabolism or demonic influences or dangers.

There are other tales which continue the idea of speaking to the dead, albeit in a little more overt format. Echtra Nerai or The Adventure of Nera, is yet again a tale which is related to the Ulster cycle. The premise is that Nera, a retainer of Ailill and Medb, is attending a feast on Samhain at Cruachan. Ailill offers a prise to any man with the courage to brave the ominous night, and tie a withe (a willow twig) around the leg of one of the two corpses who hang outside. Nera offers to do so, but fails after the third attempt. Seemingly annoyed, one of the corpses suggests he try using a peg, and succeeds. The corpse, however, informs Nera that he is thirsty, and Nera removes the corpse from the gallows and carries him around a rather long time, until they find water. Eventually they do find water, in a wash pail, and the corpse drinks all but the last sip, which he sprinkles on the sleeping family inside, all of whom are killed by this action. The practical point of this is to explain why one ought not to leave water in a wash pail over night. Nera returns the man to his noose, and returns to Cruachan to find all the inhabitants slain, and a trail of seeming sidhe folk making their way into a nearby cave. He decides to follow after them, but is found out because a living man weighs more than a dead one. It ought to be mentioned here, Mackillop interprets this insinuating that the denizens of the sidhe are not the Aes Sidhe, but rather, are dead men and women. Not an unreasonable assertion, especially considering that it is Samhain, and traditionally the day when the separation between this world and the otherworld is thinnest; or in this case non-existent.

Of course, within the narrative Nera's wife (the custom of the otherworld/sidhe mound, seemingly is providing heroes wives) tells him that the sidhe folk placed an enchantment upon Cruachan to make it appear destroyed, but that it will be destroyed if he does not return the following Samhain to destroy the Sidhe mound. Again there really is a blurry line between the sidhe folk as Aes sidhe, and as the dead. Nera, in turn, leaves the Sidhe (as well as his wife and child) with a promise of taking them, his cattle, and three splendid objects when he returns the following Samhain. He also takes with him, "three fruits of summer" to prove he had been to the Sidhe mound, and upon returning to Cruachan, finds almost no time has passed since he first ventured out. Ailill welcomes him back, hears his tale, (gives him his reward, a sword) and agrees to sack the Sidhe the following year. As an interesting aside, there is also a short narration regarding an alternate account of the cause of the events of the Tain. Ultimately, the Connacht men sack the Sidhe the following Samhain, preventing their own destruction, and Nera ends up remaining in the Sidhe with his wife, son, and cattle, "until doomsday".

So aside from being an interesting tale in and of itself, we once again observe necromancy in action. There is an obvious difference than in the earlier example, Nera talks with an actual corpse, the corpse talks back, makes demands and even performs actions. The time the event takes place is also significant, and considering the lore regarding Samhain and the Sidhe, makes a great deal of sense. What is similar between both stories is that those who communicate with the dead gain special knowledge, which will among other things, help the individual in their given functions. In the former, a filid is given what amounts to perhaps the most important epic in all of Irish story telling; certainly something of great worth to the esteem of a poet. In the later, a retainer is given foreknowledge of how to protect his lord and kinsmen, and is also rewarded with prestige goods both for himself and his kin.

What then can we do with such information? Ought our modern filid's run out to their local cemeteries and start sleeping on the graves of interesting people, in order to learn new tales to expand their repertoires? Should soldiers make a habit of carrying around corpses, in the hope that they can predict and prevent ambush? Well not exactly. Again it comes back to what these stories tell us about the perspectives of the people who wrote about them, and how this reflects on their culture. A few things become clear in these narrations which can be observed in the wider body of tales as well:

The dead are sacred, but so to are their bodies. This is an important thing to realize, because it is at odds with a lot of the contemporary polytheistic cultures, especially the Hellenes and Romans. The Greeks viewed the dead human body as corrupt, as sources of pollution, at least from a theological perspective. Cleansing rites were commonly performed in areas where the death occurred, for relations of the deceased, albeit tailored to the individual, and heroes, kings, etc. generated very little of this pollution (Retief, Cilliers, Greece.) Similarly there were legal proscriptions in Rome which revolved around purification of the pollution which accompanied contact with a dead human body, or things associated with them (such as offerings), (Retief, Cilliers, Rome).

When one looks at the treatment of the dead in Irish literature, and to some degree in later folk custom, the contrast is stark. There may be some bias here, as those whose deaths are most remarked upon are heroes or important characters, and there is a possibility of their status making them special cases; this is, however, something which can be remarked upon to include any such inferences derived from the heroic literature. I do not see any sort of demarcation between the hero and the peasant to attest to such a distinction, and so find it reasonable to draw a wider conclusion from the source material. The touching, hugging, kissing and even drinking of blood (there is a version of the death of Cuchulain where Emer actually drinks some of Cu's blood) of the dead human body is quite telling of a certain level of comfort about it. The lack of any sort of purification rites or ceremonies following a death also reveals that the idea of the dead being spiritually polluting is not something which can be attested to in Irish tradition.

There was, however, also a lack of elaborate burial or funerary rites, at least if the depictions of the tales is to be taken at face value. Typically the dead were left where they fell, with a mound being raised over them and only occasionally were they moved to another location for burial, for example in the case of Cuchulain. The dindsenchas are rife with all manner of these kinds of tales, and of the mounds, hills, stones, rivers, and other natural features being sourced to the resting place of a dead figure from myths and history. Funeral games were often celebrated to commemorate particularly significant deaths; perhaps the most famous were those initiated by Lugh in memory of his foster mother Tailtu, providing the mythic origin of the holiday of La Lunasa/ Lughnasad.

Later folk traditions elaborated, altered and in some cases likely distorted pre-Christian perspectives. While there was still a certain level of comfort being around the deceased, and coming into contact with them, an effort is made to ensure that the ghost of the deceased does not find its way back to ones home; the reasoning behind the practice of taking the longest possible processional route to the cemetery (Evans). Likewise the destruction of the bed on which the deceased died, or was lain out, also became fairly common practice, as did taking snuff or salt in the pocket as a warding agent (Evans). Other traditions, and paradoxically even in more recent folk traditions, would see a great deal of effort put forth to allow the dead to return home, if for a short while, during liminal periods, especially Samhain. Turnip lanterns would be lit, food left out and even a place at the table set for the departed to partake in. Most commentators see in these later customs shades of ancestor worship, and so not surprisingly the idea of the dead existing in a sacred state being carried forward, unintentionally though it may be.

I think it is reasonable to conclude that because there was a noticible lack of belief associated with the dead, both physically and spiritually, causing any sort of pollution that the idea of necromancy not being associated with evil makes a great deal of sense. Perhaps it attests to the centrality of the reverence of ancestors, perhaps it is a reflex of broader Celtic moores concerning a level of comfort (and prestige) with human remains (especially the head). There are examples of similar attitudes in Welsh literature; the epilogue of the second branch of the Mabinogion has the surviving inhabitants of Wales cart around Bran's head, which continues to recount stories and provide a degree of protection even after it is buried. What is more, the idea of the ancestors being privileged in being "out of time", as those who are depicted inhabiting in the otherworld often are, which also allowed them access to secrets not available to those living temporally, appears to offer some logic concerning why seeking out the advice of the dead would be a worthwhile endeavour.

And there you have it. There are other examples and sources which come to mind, and I think it likely that in the future I may explore this idea in greater depth, but for now I think I've provided a decent summary of necromancy in the Irish tradition.




Branwen Daughter of Llyr.,Trans., Gantz, Jeffrey. The Mabinogion. (1976), pp. 66-82.

Echtra Nerai (The Adventures of Nera) (1889), ed. Meyer, Kuno.
Revue celtique 10 (1889), pp. 212-228. PDF

How the Tain Bo Cuailnge was found again.,Trans. Kinsella, Thomas. The Tain. (2002), pp. 1-2.

Tailtu, (2005), Trans., Gwynn, Edward. The Metrical Dindshenchas, Vol 4. Poem 33. LINK

Three Wonders concerning the Tain Bo Cualinge., Trans., Meyer, Kuno., The Triads of Ireland., (2007), Triad 62. LINK


Bondarenko, G., (2009), Oral past and written present in ‘The Finding of the Táin’. Ulidia 2, 2 . pp. 18-24. PDF

Evans, E.E., (2000), Irish Folk Ways. pp. 292-293.

Mackillop, J., (1998), Echtra Nerai: Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. pp. 149-150.

Retief, F.P., Cilliers, L., (2006), Burial customs, the afterlife and pollution of death in ancient Greece. Acta Theologica, vol 26. No 2. pp. 44-61. PDF

Retief, F.P., Cilliers, L., (2006), Burial customs and the pollution of death in ancient Rome, procedures and paradoxes. Acta Theologica, Vol. 26. No 2., pp. 128-146. PDF


  1. This is an amazing post, Gorm, thanks for putting it together!

    "Perhaps it attests to the centrality of the reverence of ancestors, perhaps it is a reflex of broader Celtic moores concerning a level of comfort (and prestige) with human remains (especially the head)."

    I think that's it exactly. Unlike Rome or Greece I don't think the dead were such a problem in terms of spreading disease because there weren't really any large urban areas on the scale of those found in Classical areas, which would increase the risk of disease from rotting corpses spreading (hence why they were buried on the outskirts of the town). I think perhaps that led to different attitudes towards the dead in Ireland, where the dead were much more visible in the landscape, and archaeological evidence shows that the dead were much more a part of life than in other countries. It wasn't unheard of, in the Iron Age, for bodies to be left out on platforms so that birds might pick the flesh off the bones. There's evidence that these bones might then be interred in a mound (and occasionally rearranged or removed), or kept for use (possibly ritual - the go to assumption when nobody has a clue what people were doing). And then there are the limed heads or brains of notable warriors slain in battle, that were kept by the warrior who killed them (like the brain of Mes Gegra, which killed Conchobar).

    Another tale where the dead come back to life is the story of Odran, who was willingly buried as a foundation sacrifice by Colum Cille at the founding of Iona. Some time after being buried alive, he came back to life and poked his head through to tell everyone that there was no heaven or hell, which frightened the life out of Colum Cille and he had Odran buried more thoroughly. In spite of the slightly blasphemous nature of the story, I think it plays with motifs of the dead being in possession of wisdom and knowledge beyond that which the living might possess. And that feeds into ancestor veneration; not just venerating them for what they have contributed, but for what they still can and do for a community.

    1. I really do appreciate the feedback, coming from you it means a lot.

      I can also recall, aside from the use of lime as a preservative, instances where it is recounted that the head of an honoured foe would be pickled in cedar oil (or wine) and brought out for display when guests would come by for a visit. At the very least cedar oil was understood to have preservative qualities, and was employed by other cultures as a medium to embalm. Tantalizingly corroborative evidence of the continuance of the so called "cult of the head" in Ireland.

      It also occurs to me now, that I ought to have pointed out the likely reasoning behind Nera being able to talk to the corpse, was that unburied/cremated corpses necessarily exist in a liminal state; being neither living in this world nor laid to rest (that they may live in the otherworld).

  2. Brilliant post!! I hope to hear more from you on subjects such as this :)

    1. go raibh maith agat, mo chara!

      I do indeed intend on writing more articles pertaining to this sort of subject matter.

  3. Many Thanks for creating this,
    love it, and you certainly have an extremely helpful article.
    A brief favor, if you may,
    if you could peek at my site...
    we really appreciate your help ;-)