What necromancers in space can teach us about the science of death
From haunted space stations to medieval lecture halls, death science and death magic have crossed paths in surprising ways.
For thousands of years, people have attempted to communicate with and even raise the dead using black magic known as necromancy. While a scientist might waive off such practices as pure fiction, in one popular work of fiction, necromancy is surprisingly scientific. Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb Trilogy—whose second installment, Harrow the Ninth, dropped in August—is set in a distant future in which armies of necromancers are fighting a cosmic war against the angry ghosts of undead planets. Their weapons include giant skeleton monsters, powerful spirit magic, and even darker forms of sorcery developed through diabolical laboratory experiments.
These books are heartbreaking, hilarious, and stupendously fun. For me, they also raise a question about our slightly less haunted world: Do science and necromancy actually have anything in common? After consulting with several medieval historians of death and the occult, I’ve concluded the answer is yes. Necromancy is not science, but the two have had some uncanny run-ins throughout history.
Caution: Spoilers (well, one spoiler) for the Locked Tomb Trilogy lie ahead.
In the world of the Locked Tomb, necromancy is kind of a big deal. Humanity’s descendants — the survivors of a terrible cataclysm that took place ten thousand years ago — are scattered across nine planets, or Houses, each of which is ruled by a family of powerful necromancers specializing in a different form of death magic. The Third House scions are flesh magicians who conjure oozing monsters from human meat and bodily fluids; the Fifth are spirit talkers capable of recalling the ghosts of long-dead heroes. The Ninth’s decrepit lineage is ruled by bone adepts who can raise hulking skeletons from a pinch of osseous matter. Ruling them all is the Necrolord Prime, a man who became God after resurrecting humanity from its near extinction event and using his power to reignite Dominicus, the undead star the Nine Houses orbit.
It sounds like high fantasy on a galactic stage, but in Muir’s universe, there’s more to necromancy than magic. In fact, its practitioners have advanced their craft using an approach that looks very much like the scientific method.
Necromancy, in this universe, is the manipulation of thanergy, a type of (fictional) energy released upon cellular death. Thanergy is both quantifiable and predictable, allowing necromancers to study it by running experiments. Through blood sacrifice and the slow accumulation of empirical knowledge, necromancers have developed theorems that describe the behavior of thanergy and how to control it. To raise a skeleton construct, a necromancer can’t simply wave a bone wand. It requires, as Ninth House swordswoman Gideon Nav might put it, an absolutely fucking tedious amount of math. (Along with a PhD-level understanding of human anatomy.)
The precise application of necromantic theorems can yield great and terrible results, a fact that is perhaps best illustrated by Ninth House heir and bone witch extraordinaire Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s unholy conception story. As Harrow tells the Necrolord Prime over tea and biscuits one day, her parents left nothing to chance in their quest for a powerful successor. Instead, they gassed 200 children and used the resultant thanergy bloom to genetically modify an embryo in order to ensure that their child would be a powerful necromancer. God responds by cursing under his breath.
“This was … all so different … before we discovered the scientific principles,” he says.
Of course, in our universe, there are no scientific principles behind necromancy. But Muir’s decision to build a necromantic lore that seamlessly integrates magic and science does have historical precedent. In the Middle Ages, the boundaries between natural philosophy, the medieval forerunner to modern science, and the supernatural were more porous than they are today; both were considered legitimate realms of knowledge that an educated person (typically a member of the clergy) might pursue.
And they bled together in ways that can feel unfamiliar to a modern eye. Astrology, for instance, would have been considered a science, said Richard Kieckhefer, a professor of religious studies at Northwestern University and the author of Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the 15th Century. And a person who wished to conjure demons — which is how necromancy was typically thought to work in the Middle Ages — had to be schooled in it. “Works on necromancy in that sense often posit a connection between the demons and the heavenly bodies, so it was thought important to conjure them under precise astrological conditions,” Kieckhefer wrote in an email.
Necromancy was “a clerical underworld,” said Nancy Caciola, a medieval historian at the University of California San Diego and the author of Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages. ”It's a learned tradition involving knowledge of Latin, which de facto limits you to a very elite segment of society. I wouldn’t say they [necromantic conjurations] had an experimental quality, but they’re being pursued by the same sector of society that would be involved in late medieval, early sciences.”
Like any branch of natural philosophy a learned clergyman might pursue, necromancy could be extremely complex. Caciola referred me to a procedure from a 15th-century spellbook, the Munich Manual of Demonic Magic, used to make a dead person appear alive (a translation can be found in Forbidden Rites). First, the necromancer had to forge a gold ring and inscribe the names of six demons on it. On a Sunday before sunrise, the ring had to be placed beneath running water and left there for five days, then moved to a tomb for another two days. The following Sunday, the necromancer would travel to a remote place before sunrise with the ring, draw a circle with a sword, write the names of the demons on it, enter the circle and recite a conjuration. The demonic spirits would then appear, and he would hand them the ring so that they could bestow the object the power to animate a corpse. This took another six days.
”You sort of think that you might just be able to say ‘abracadabra’ and, you know, get your result right,” Caciola said. “But instead, they're usually very long processes.”
So-called demonic magic even found its way into medical textbooks used by elite physicians. Take, for instance, The Sphere of Life and Death, a divination tool whose earliest surviving version dates back to fourth-century Greece.
The Sphere was a diagram, often circular, that could be used to predict binary outcomes, such as whether a person would live or die. To divine a patient’s fate using the Sphere, their physician added up numbers representing the letters of their first name, the planetary weekday, and the day in the lunar cycle that they fell ill, divided by the number thirty and examined where the remainder fell on the diagram. According to Jo Edge, a lecturer in medieval history at the University of Manchester in England and one of the foremost experts on the Sphere, the tool appeared in numerous medical texts by the late Middle Ages. It could be found in the libraries of physicians working in the highest echelons of society, including books on the medieval medical curriculum at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. This was despite the fact that according to the mainstream Christian theology of the time, acts of divination operated via the agency of demons. In other words, the Sphere was both a medical prognostic tool and, arguably, an illicit form of necromancy.
Of course, medieval doctors used more than divination to determine when the end was nigh. They also knew to look for a wide range of physical symptoms, or ‘mortal signs’, including a loss of pulse and cessation of breathing, a stiffening of the limbs, and skin discolorations resulting from liver mortis. By the late Middle Ages, Caciola says, medical certification of death had become increasingly important and doctors were incorporating a wide range of mortal signs into their handbooks. Fascinatingly, one reason for this was that the Church needed medical evidence to authenticate saintly resurrection events. (Another, of course, was to avoid burying people alive.)
“The Catholic Church and the people who compile these stories about miraculous resurrections are very concerned to establish that the person was genuinely dead, because if they weren't dead, then you don't have a resurrection,” Caciola said. “So if they're trying to pump up the reputation of their saint, one of the things that they have to do is establish this” using as much medical evidence as possible.
As these examples show, nature and the supernatural often intersected around death in the Middle Ages. People who wanted to perform an act of necromancy, determine when death was near, or confirm a resurrection were often well educated and might have been using magic to complement what could be gleaned by observing the natural world. While this doesn’t mean there’s science behind necromancy, it does show that our desire to understand the unfathomable has led us down paths at once empirical and numinous; paths that had depth, complexity, and their own form of logic.
As strange as it sounds, the Locked Tomb Trilogy’s spacefaring necromantic scientists have echoes of something deeply historical and human. I’ve reached out to Muir through her publisher to let her know, but she is presumably off slaying demons.
Top image: Walt Stoneburner/Flickr