52 Weeks of Writing: Week 29—How to make a necromantic skull

52 Weeks of Writing: Week 29—How to make a necromantic skull
Photo by Max Kleinen / Unsplash


You know when you get that pre-cold feeling? Hmm, yeah. That's how I'm feeling today. It's been an incredible week with my family and friends. But graduation day is a strange thing. Six years of work preparing for the PhD and doing the PhD and then finishing, and it's all over in about five seconds after my former Greek professor said, "I present to you for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Classics and Ancient History..."

And now I think I'm getting a cold.

I will say this about graduating—if you haven't experienced it—it's ninety percent queuing. Queuing for registration, queuing for robing, queuing to get into the ceremony, and then finally, queuing to get up to the stage for the presentation.

Oh, also, queuing for photography. We were all zombies by the end.

I note that Nottingham Trent has been putting on relaxed ceremonies for us neurodivergent, learning different, and other individuals who struggle with the intensity of graduation day. This is something I'd like to see more widely-spread. It isn't easy to go through the whole process and I was exhausted at the end of the day.

The recovery time is about 3-5 business days.

Now, let's get on because I do have some exciting things to talk about aside from graduation ceremonies.

Object Spotlight: Necromantic Skulls

Exciting news! There has been a new find of human skulls, lamps, and weaponry from first-century Jerusalem, which are believed to be part of necromantic practice. This makes me want to start up a blog called, "Wait! I've got a spell for that!" Because I DO.

In fact, I have two of them. Now, I have to be cautious here, because the procedures are written in a fourth to fifth-century magical codex. The materiality of these documents is important. Whilst the early magical handbooks we have show signs of having been frequently used, possibly during rituals, the later codices don't (Faraone and Torallas Tovar 2022).

This means that when we look at the procedures we have to be aware that we don't have such strong evidence that these texts describe procedures that were actually being completed. There are also substantial differences between what the procedures describe and the material condition of the skulls found in this discovery.

For example, the procedures don't refer to depositing the skulls in any kind of cave, and there is no suggestion of using weaponry during the rituals I have.

Despite this, the new discovery does provide us with some valuable linking information, that the idea of using skulls was carried with populations when they moved to new areas. The basic idea of the skull as a tool of communication with the dead is important, too. It would be very interesting to examine this new find from a material perspective to understand what the role of the cave was as a liminal space between the living and the dead, as well as the specific details of the lamps.

I'm tempted to write a longer piece about this. However, I've also got to do a presentation for my department in November, and I realised this morning it would make a great way to link between the archaeologists and Classicists in my audience.

What I have is one procedure that describes how to use a skull (or body) as an anchor for an assistant daimon to provide oracles for a practitioner. This is a complicated process, with three or four stages (depending on how you break up the actions), and some very specific associations between materials, tools, and the deities and supernatural agents being invoked.

The very next section of text describes what to do if the necromantic skull doesn't work properly. It's my favourite procedure because it shows that practitioners understood magic as something that could fail, and that it might not be the practitioner's fault. Sometimes, magical technology fails, and something needs to be done to fix the problem.

Bonus! This Week in Ancient Writing

There's been another discovery. Although yes, I work in ancient languages and I'm studying sign language right now, but I haven't made this a priority on the blog because I'm not a philologist. But I wanted to share this because it's fascinating to me.

Another study has been reported, this one about a partial translation of a previously unknown language. Kushan script was first found in the 1950s, but it's remained untranslatable until now. The recent unearthing of a rock face with two scripts written on it, Rosetta Stone-style, has allowed a partial translation of Kushan.

The reason I'm sharing this is because the Kushan script comes from an empire that existed at the same time as the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians, but I hadn't heard of them. I know, the shame. I felt bad for not knowing more about the political geography of this area, but it reveals there is so little we know, and so much more we have to discover.

If you do world-building, it is a reminder that there are always so many more civilisations and cultures than you can possibly conceive of. I've been thinking about this because I recently got a copy of the Deck of Worlds from The Story Engine Deck people, and it's made me conscious of the need to show that even if you don't develop all the cultures and civilisations of your world, it needs to be evident that they are out there.

This Week in Writing

This is old but I'm going to share it anyway. Lee Child was on a podcast called In The Studio, describing and demonstrating his writing practice. He's a pantser. He sits down with a vague idea and just writes.

This is what I used to do. For the last ten years, I've been trying to make myself into a planner. I've tried to figure out everything before I even put words on the page. It hasn't worked. I have to respect my process, and my process is a little wild.

I recommend a lot of the In the Studio episodes. They're a fascinating insight into the weirdness of the human creative process.

My week in writing has been hard work. It's tough to keep writing when also graduating, socialising, and generally living my life. I have somehow managed to keep up with the basics of Camp Nanowrimo, but at the same time, I haven't done as much.

In order to survive this week, I developed a different strategy for writing. I assumed I'd be too tired in the evening (I was correct), so I wrote in the morning. I set my expectations very low in terms of quantity and quality. Sometimes you've just got to get through it.

We're going into the last week of Camp Nano next week and I have a quiet weekend ahead. Yet, honestly, could I not get a cold? That'd be great, thanks.

Faraone, C and Torallas Tovar, S (2022) The Greek and Egyptian Magical Formularies, University of Chicago Oriental Institute.