Nigromancy, meaning black magic together with six associated practices of black divination,[1] has traditionally referred to the use of supernatural powers or magic for evil and selfish purposes,[2] specifically the seven magical arts prohibited by canon law, as expounded by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456.[3]

Illustration by Martin van Maële, of a Witches' Sabbath, in the 1911 edition of La Sorciere, by Jules Michelet

In 1597, King James VI and I published a treatise, Daemonologie, a philosophical dissertation describing contemporary nigromancy and the historical relationships between the various methods of divination used in black magic. This book is believed to be one of the main sources used by William Shakespeare in the production of Macbeth.

The links and interaction between black magic and religion are many and varied. Beyond black magic's historical persecution by Christianity and its inquisitions, there are links between religious and black magic rituals. For example, 17th-century priest Étienne Guibourg is said to have performed a series of Black Mass rituals with alleged witch Catherine Monvoisin for Madame de Montespan.[4] During his period of scholarship, A. E. Waite provided a comprehensive account of black magic practices, rituals and traditions in The Book of Ceremonial Magic (1911).[5]

The influence of popular culture has allowed other practices to be drawn in under the broad banner of black magic, including the concept of Satanism. While the invocation of demons or spirits is an accepted part of black magic, this practice is distinct from the worship or deification of such spiritual beings.[6] The two are usually combined in medieval beliefs about witchcraft.


The lowest depths of black mysticism are well-nigh
as difficult to plumb as it is arduous to scale
the heights of sanctity. The Grand Masters of
the witch covens are men of genius – a foul genius,
crooked, distorted, disturbed, and diseased.

Montague Summers
Witchcraft and Black Magic

Like its counterpart white magic, the origins of black magic can be traced to the primitive, ritualistic worship of spirits as outlined in Robert M. Place's 2009 book, Magic and Alchemy.[7] Unlike white magic, in which Place sees parallels with primitive shamanistic efforts to achieve closeness with spiritual beings, the rituals that developed into modern black magic were designed to evoke those same spirits to produce beneficial outcomes for the practitioner. Place also provides a broad modern definition of both black and white magic, preferring instead to refer to them as "high magic" (white) and "low magic" (black) based primarily on intentions of the practitioner employing them. He acknowledges, though, that this broader definition (of "high" and "low") suffers from prejudices because good-intentioned folk magic may be considered "low" while ceremonial magic involving expensive or exclusive components may be considered by some as "high magic", regardless of intent.[8]

During the Renaissance, many magical practices and rituals were considered evil or irreligious and by extension, black magic in the broad sense. Witchcraft and non-mainstream esoteric study were prohibited and targeted by the Inquisition.[9] As a result, natural magic developed as a way for thinkers and intellectuals, like Marsilio Ficino, abbot Johannes Trithemius and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, to advance esoteric and ritualistic study (though still often in secret) without significant persecution.[9]

Malleus Maleficarum, 1669 edition

While "natural magic" became popular among the educated and upper classes of the 16th and 17th century, ritualistic magic and folk magic remained subject to persecution. Twentieth-century writer Montague Summers generally rejects the definitions of "white" and "black" magic as "contradictory", though he highlights the extent to which magic in general, regardless of intent, was considered "black" and cites William Perkins posthumous 1608 instructions in that regard:

All witches "convicted by the Magistrate" should be executed. He allows no exception and under this condemnation fall "all Diviners, Charmers, Jugglers, all Wizards, commonly called wise men or wise women". All those purported "good Witches which do not hurt but good, which do not spoil and destroy, but save and deliver" should come under the extreme sentence.[10]

In particular, though, the term was most commonly reserved for those accused of invoking demons and other evil spirits, those hexing or cursing their neighbours, those using magic to destroy crops, and those capable of leaving their earthly bodies and travelling great distances in spirit (to which the Malleus Maleficarum "devotes one long and important chapter"), usually to engage in devil-worship. Summers also highlights the etymological development of the term nigromancer, in common use from 1200 to approximately 1500, (Latin: niger, black; Greek: μαντεία, divination), broadly "one skilled in the black arts".[10]

In a modern context, the line between white magic and black magic is somewhat clearer and most modern definitions focus on intent rather than practice.[7] There is also an extent to which many modern Wicca and witchcraft practitioners have sought to distance themselves from those intent on practising black magic. Those who seek to do harm or evil are less likely to be accepted into mainstream Wiccan circles or covens in an era where benevolent magic is increasingly associated with new-age beliefs and practices, and self-help spiritualism.[6]

The artes prohibitae

John Dee and Edward Kelley using a magic circle ritual to invoke a spirit in a church graveyard

The seven artes prohibitae or artes magicae, arts prohibited by canon law as expounded by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456, their sevenfold partition reflecting that of the artes liberales and artes mechanicae, were:[3]

  1. nigromancy
  2. geomancy
  3. hydromancy
  4. aeromancy
  5. pyromancy
  6. chiromancy
  7. scapulimancy

The division between the four elemental disciplines (viz., geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy) is somewhat contrived. Chiromancy is the divination from a subject's palms as practiced by the Romani (at the time recently arrived in Europe), and scapulimancy is the divination from animal bones, in particular shoulder blades, as practiced in peasant superstition. Nigromancy is distinguished from scholarly high magic derived from High Medieval grimoires such as the Picatrix, Liber Juratus Honorii, and Liber Razielis Archangeli.


While the term "nigromancy" broadly construed includes the six associated divinatory practices, it more specifically refers to the demonic magic of the Late Middle Ages. Demonic magic was performed in groups surrounding a leader in possession of a grimoire. Practitioners were typically members of the educated elite, as most grimoires were written in Latin. One such case in 1444, Inquisitor Gaspare Sighicelli took action against a group active in Bologna. Marco Mattei of Gesso and friar Jacopo of Viterbo confessed to taking part in magical practices. Nigromancy may include, but is not a synonym for, necromancy ("death magic").[11]


The art of geomancy was one of the more popular forms of divination practiced during the Renaissance. It is a form of divination in which any question may be answered by casting sand, stone, or dirt on the ground and reading the shapes, using tables of geomantic figures for interpretation.[12]


Hydromancy, a form of divination using water, is typically used with scrying. Water is used as a medium for scrying to allow the practitioner to see illusionary pictures within it. Hydromancy originated from Babylonia and was popular during Byzantine times whereas in medieval Europe, it was associated with witchcraft.[13]


Aeromancy divination consisted in tossing sand, dirt, or seeds into the air and studying and interpreting the patterns of the dust cloud or the settling of the seeds.[14] This also includes divination coming from thunder, comets, falling stars, and the shape of clouds.[15]


Pyromancy is the art of divination which consisted of signs and patterns from flames. There are many variations of pyromancy depending on the material thrown into a fire and it is thought to be used for sacrifices to the gods and that the deity is present within the flames with priests interpreting the omens conveyed.[14]


Chiromancy is a form of divination based on reading palms and based on intuitions and symbolism with some symbols tying into astrology. A line from a person's hand that resembles a square is considered a bad omen whereas a triangle would be a good omen. This idea comes from the trine and square aspect in the astrological aspects.[16]


Scapulimancy was a form of divination using an animal's scapula. The scapula would be broken and based on how it was broken, it could be used to read the future. It was generally broken by heating it with hot coals until it broke.[17]


A Voodoo doll

Voodoo has been associated with modern black magic; drawn together in popular culture and fiction. However, while hexing or cursing may be accepted black magic practices, Voodoo has its own distinct history and traditions.[18][6]

Voodoo tradition makes its own distinction between black and white magic, with sorcerers like the Bokor known for using magic and rituals of both. But practitioners' penchant for magic associated with curses, poisons and zombies means they, and Voodoo in general, are regularly associated with black magic.[19]

In popular culture

Concepts related to black magic or described as black magic are a regular feature of books, films and other popular culture. Examples include:

See also



Works cited

  • Bergstrom, Lisa A. (2011). "Nigromancy in the Later Middle Ages". Inquiries. 3 (6).
  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (January 1931). "Sorcery and Native Opinion". Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. 4 (1): 22–55. doi:10.2307/1155736. JSTOR 1155736. S2CID 146139860.
  • Gault, Matthew (5 May 2022). "Russian State Media Claims to Discover Militarized Ukrainian Witches". Vice. Retrieved 18 May 2022.
  • Heiduk, Matthias; Herbers, Klaus; Lehner, Hans-Christian, eds. (2020). Prognostication in the Medieval World: A Handbook. De Gruyter. ISBN 978-3110499773.
  • Herzig, Tamar (Winter 2011). "The Demons and the Friars: Illicit Magic and Mendicant Rivalry in Renaissance Bologna". Renaissance Quarterly. 64 (4): 1025–1058. doi:10.1086/664084. S2CID 162081348.
  • Lewis, James R. (1996). Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0791428894.
  • Kosloki, Philip (9 October 2018). "What is a "Black Mass"?". Aleteia. Retrieved 21 January 2020.
  • Long, Carolyn Morrow (October 2002). "Perceptions of New Orleans Voodoo: Sin, Fraud, Entertainment, and Religion". Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. 6 (1): 86–101. doi:10.1525/nr.2002.6.1.86.
  • Luck, Georg (2006). Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Collection of Ancient Texts (2nd ed.). The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Mathews, Chris (2009). Modern Satanism: Anatomy of a Radical Subculture. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0313366390.
  • Melton, J. Gordon, ed. (2001). "Black Magic". Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology. Vol. 1: A–L (5th ed.). Gale Research Inc. ISBN 0-8103-9488-X.
  • Pegg, Carole (2001). Mongolian Music, Dance, & Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities. University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0295981123.
  • Owusu, Heike (2002). Voodoo Rituals: A User's Guide. Sterling Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1402700354.
  • Petersen, Jesper Aagaard (2009). Contemporary religious Satanism: A Critical Anthology. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 978-0-7546-5286-1.
  • Place, Robert M. (2009). Magic and Alchemy. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 978-0791093900.
  • Shimamura, Ippei (2004). "Yellow Shamans (Mongolia)". In Walter, Mariko Namba; Neumann Fridman, Eva Jane (eds.). Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture. Vol. 1. ABC-CLIO. pp. 649–651. ISBN 978-1576076453.
  • Summers, Montague (2012) [1946]. Witchcraft and Black Magic. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 978-0486411255.
  • Summers, Montague (2013) [1927]. The Geography of Witchcraft. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415847933.
  • Thorndike, Lynn (1923). A history of magic and experimental science. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0231088008.
  • Turner, Kevin B. (2016). Sky Shamans of Mongolia: Meetings with Remarkable Healers. North Atlantic Books. ISBN 978-1583949986.
  • van Brugen, Isabel (6 May 2022). "'Witches and Sorcerers': Russian Media Peddles Ukraine Black Magic Claims". Newsweek. Retrieved 18 May 2022.
  • Waite, A. E. (2011) [1911]. The Book of Ceremonial Magic: Including the Rites and Mysteries of Goetic Theurgy, Sorcery, and Infernal Necromancy. Martino Fine Books. ISBN 978-1614271567.
  • Zambelli, Paola (2007). White Magic, Black Magic in the European Renaissance. Brill Publishers. ISBN 978-9004160989.