The following post will investigate into the two literature archetypes - Prometheus and Necromancer – which inspired numerous written and visualized narratives. It will give you an idea about both ancient concepts and will show you how elements of both can still be identified in modern popular culture phenomena.
|Frankenstein meeting his creation in the 1931 movie adaption|
Since the historic past of the Prometheus myth takes us back to the genesis of the world and the recording of myths itself, we will start here: According to ancient Greek myths, Prometheus was the first pagan rebel. The myth identifies him as a Titan who did not fight in the war between Zeus and the elder Titans. Only afterwards he became a rebel against Zeus omnipresent power. Through trickery he managed to foster the development of the human race, known as “The Trick at Mekone” and the “The Bringer of Light”. In the “The Trick at Mekone” Prometheus presents Zeus two sacrificial offerings; beef hidden in a less pleasing looking stomach and ox-bones hidden under delicious looking fat. Zeus chooses the later and it is “…because of this the tribes of men upon earth burn white bones to the deathless gods upon fragrant altars.” (Hesiod, Theogony, 557 ff., 800 BC.) Tanks to Prometheus the humans were able to keep the nourishing parts of animals and only had to burn the uneatable bones as sacrifices to the Olympian gods.
|Prometheus forming a human, |
Gem stone, 300 BC, Italy,
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
|Prometheus Bound, National Gallery, Berlin|
Prometheus by his name means “Fore-sight” and having foreseen the event, he had warned his brother. But Epimetheus, namely the “After thought",
|Dr. Faustus meeting the devil, ca. 1825, |
rare books collection London
|Hecate with torches guiding Persephone to the underworld, |
Greek vase, 440 BC., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
If we follow the torch carrying goddess of the underworld, Hecate, we discover that she is the one invoked by magicians and witches to perform Necromancy. Tertullian, a 200 AD. Christian author, writes “… It was held that the unburied were not accepted into the underworld until they had received the due rites. […] Either it is excellent to be kept here with the “untimely dead” or it is awful to be kept here with the “dead-by- violence”, to employ the terms now voiced by the source of such beliefs, namely the magic […]. A famous promises to evocate even souls that have been laid to rest at their proper age, even souls separated from their bodies just death, and even souls dispatched with prompt burial…’” (Tertullian, De Anima, 56 f.).
|The ghost of Eplenor, Odysseus and Hermes|
reunited in the underworld,
Greek, 440 BC., Museum of Fine Arts Boston
As said before, Hecate guides the souls and spirits through the different worlds and it was therefore believed that she could bring back a dead soul. But not all souls could be utilized, for it was believed that violent and sudden deaths were ideal cases in which the soul of the diseased turned to haunt its burial place, trying to understand the circumstances of its death. For this reason battlefields were believed to be mass- haunted. Pausanius, a Greek geographer of the same time, writes about the famous battlefield of Marathon were the first Persian invasion of Greece had taken place 490 BC., that “…all night long there one can hear the sound of horses neighing and men at war” (Pausanius, 1,32,4 f.)
The Greek term Nekyomanteion for Necromancy is already documented in 500 BC and originally means death oracle. It goes back to Homers Iliad in which Achilles is visited by the ghost of Patroclus, who demands to be buried properly, otherwise his ghost would haunt the earth forever (Homer, Iliad, 23,62 f.). Another term used as a synonym from the same time onward was the Psychagogos – Soul incantator. Two different kinds of Necromancy developed from there onward:  To calm lost souls by giving mutilated corpses a proper burial and  to bind lost souls to task before they could rest. The former form developed into modern ghost stories and the later form into modern re-animation or zombie narratives. In Antiquity, both was offered by wandering magicians who were employed by males and females alike.
From ancient literature sources we have a case in which a woman “… sent the ghost of a woman killed by violence to kill [her husband]” (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 9,29 f., 200 AD.). Little tablets were often left at the burial sides of violent deaths in order to slay the restless ghosts. On a tablet from Boeotia a ghost is addressed as: “… Just as you , Theonnastos [name of the dead], have no power in your hands, feet or body to do, organize, love[...]”. After he has been addressed, he is ordered to make: “… Zoilos stay powerless to have sex with Antheira…” (Ziebarth 1934, no. 23, 300 BC-300 AD.). Ghost were utilized as demons in curse-, sex and love-binding spellsm for it was believed that they still could affect the living. From the last quote it could be suspected that ghosts could act detached from their body, for a proper burial however the corps was needed. This does not necessarily mean that ghost did not have a body, stories of bodily visitations also survived. Phlegon of Tralles tells a story in which a dead girl comes back to sleep with the new lodger of her former home (Phlegon of Tralles, Mirabilia, 1, 140 AD.).
|Female Necromancer |
with a mirror
summoning a male
ghost in a tunic,
Greek, ca. 330 BC.,
The J. Paul Getty Museum
There are three cases of reanimation, involving a corpse, handed down to us. All of them report stories or resemble persons outside of Greece or Rome. One is the foreign and mystified Thessaly, were numerous coins depicting Hecate were found and current research believes that she was extensively worshiped there. The reanimation scenes show similarities with Egyptian mummification and accordingly, various herbs were used. Because of the rigor mortis, in all cases the corpse rushes to its feet when called upon, as to demonstrate that the necromancy had indeed worked. Important is further that in all cases the ghosts which returned to their body, are angry. This might be, because corpses of violent deaths were used in all cases.
The most detailed description can be found in Lucan‘s novel on the civil war. In it, the Thessaly witch Erictho reanimates a throat cut Soldier for General Sextus Pompey.
“… She put a hook into a deathly noose round its neck and dragged the pitiful corpse, destined to live again, over the crags and rocks, Dour Erictho stationed it under the high roof of the mountain cave she had dedicated to her rites.[…]
|Candelstick depicting a burial mount |
with the ghost of warrior on top, ca. 500 BC,
Greek, Museum of Fine Arts Boston
After putting these common-or-garden and namable blights into her mixture, she added branches drenched in unspeakable spells, herbs on which her dread mouth had spat at the moment of their birth, and all the poisons she herself had contributed to the world. Then her voice, […], mutterings that were discordant and not all of which sounded like the products of a human tongue.[…]Then she pronounced more clearly a second set of utterances, in a Thessalian spell, and penetrated Tartarus with her tongue: “[…] Hecate, the lowest manifestation of my goddess, by whose grace the ghosts and I hold converse, with silent tongue; Doorkeeper of the broad house, you who throw human guts to the cruel dog [Cerberus], sister-fates, destined to take up the threads of life again and continue spinning […] I do not ask for a soul lying hidden in the cave of Tartarus and long accustomed to the dark, but one that is only just now abandoning the light and coming down”.[…]
The corpse did not raise itself from the ground gradually, one limb at a time. Rather, it shot up from the earth and was upright in an instant. The eye were laid bare, the mouth an open grimace. His appearance was of one not yet fully alive, but of a man still in the phase of dying….” (Lucan, Pharsalia, 6,588 ff., 65 AD.)
In Heliodorus’ writings a similar act is described: an Egyptian woman reanimates her son (Heliodorus, 6,12 f., 400 AD.). The sources differ in the reason for the death oracle: While Erictho brings the soldier back so he might give a prophecy on the upcoming war, the Egyptian woman reacts out of grief. In a story written by Apuleius another cause is presented to the reader: The Egyptian magician Zatchlas reanimates the corpses of a murdered man to ask him about the circumstances of his death: Zatchlas “… laid a spring of a certain herb on the corpse’s mouth and another on his breast. Then he faced east and prayed silently to the majesty of the rising sun. […] First the dead man’s chest swelled out, then an artery throbbed in jolts, and finally his body was suffused by his soul. The Corpse rose, and the young man gave voice: “Why, I beg you, do you restore me to the functions of live […] Stop now, I pray, stop, and leave me to my peace! […] I was killed by the evil crafts of my new bride” […] The people fell in tumult, and divided into opposite camps, one group insisting that the wicked woman should at once be buried alive together with the body of her husband, the other insisting that no faith should be placed in the lies of a corpse…” (Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 2,28 f., 200 AD.).
The corpse can prove that he is indeed telling the truth. He points towards the narrator of the story, who so far was watching the scene as part of the audience. The corps claims that the narrator himself is a reanimated corps. Since both have the same name, after his death, a witch tried to reanimated him so his wife could pretend that he is still alive, but got the wrong guy. A different man with the same name rose instead and while making his way from his grave to the place where he had been summoned, lost his ears and nose. “…To tidy up after their trick, they molded some wax into the shape of his chopped-off ears, fitted them onto him in exact fashion, and got him a nose like his own”. Terrified the narrator says: “ I was petrified by these words and made to test my face. I put my hand to my nose and grasped it. It came off. I felt my ears. They fell away. The people pointed at me with their fingers and nodded at me, and there was an outbreak of laughter. Drenched in cold sweat, I escaped…”(Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 2,30).
|Photo taken behind the scene of the 1931|
movie adaption of Frankenstein
The last part of this reanimation scene finds its later echo in Frankenstein’s monster. The Necromancer as traveling sages, magicians and witches were in their professions the first earthly incarnations of Prometheus. They challenged religious power dynamics by summoning the dead. They were tolerated and even praised for death oracles which helped the community, like court cases or calming of a poltergeist. But – like Prometheus – the potentially evil and harm they could bring, when utilizing the dead for curse and binding spells, was recognized too, and so they were often dispelled and executed – intensely under Christian doctrine after 200 AD.
They died out, but their material, like curses and magical papyri, survived and so early scientists transformed their mystical knowledge of herbs and philters into alchemy and from there into modern science. This is why, over time, different explanatory models of re-animation developed.
This we still can observe in the early Jewish golem
story, were the golem seems to be a product of alchemy, similar to the
homunculus.The later, modern reanimation stories, like Frankenstein or Herbert
West Re-animator, feature the Scientist as the necromancer, because science had
become by then the most familiar knowledge system to a contemporary audiences.
|Scene from the 1985 movie adaption of Herbert West Re-animator|
Still, the main characters and the conflict arising in this narrations as well as characteristics of the reanimated subjects outlasted: The ambitious scholar commits an act of hubris, deluding himself to be able to control powers beyond his reach. They then fight back, reestablishing the former order by not only destroying the scholar, but often annihilating him. Like in the ancient literature, in the modern too, the reanimated subjects had often experienced a violent death and come back to live angry. The main difference between the ancient stories and the development of the material into modern versions of it, is the aspect of horror. While ancient literature when talking about ghosts aimed to tell a fantastic tale or illustrate a religious argument, the modern stories with their blood and gore aim to terrify the reader.
This portrays a shift of sensationalism in readership over time. As for gender, it is surprising that while ancient sources portrait both, witches and magicians, in modernity, reanimation seems to be a man's business. Only recently with new television shows, like American Horror Story, and games, like Skyrim, daughters of Hecate and Erictho came back to live as well.
|A scene from Skyrim|
If you want to know more about famous Re-animators, check out our new podcast on H.P.Lovecraft's Herbert West - Re-animator or the previous post by Nicholas on Herbert West in the Army of Darkness Comic adaption.