One would never think to utter the words ‘necromancy’ and ‘logic’ in the same breath, but that odd dichotomy is one of the things I’ve been wrestling with where The Lion of Cairo is concerned. To wit: how to make the necromancy of my villain, Ibn Sharr, both life-like and fantastic.
Necromancy (Greek nekromantia) is, of course, the art of speaking with the dead for the purposes of divination. In the Odyssey, Odysseus travels to the realm of Hades and uses spells learned from Circe to summon and speak with spirits. The Witch of Endor from the Old Testament Book of Samuel raises the prophet’s shade at the request of King Saul. In the Norse Voluspa, Odin summons a seeress back from the dead in order to divine the future. And thus and so.
Among Muslims, the practice of necromancy was and is anathema – which fits well with my concept of the villainous Ibn Sharr, who would not hesitate to risk his immortal soul for the acquisition of power. Also in play for my purposes is the spectre of ancient Egypt, with its rich traditions of magic and well-documented affinity for the mysteries of death. The challenge has been marrying what little I know of Muslim sorcery (gleaned in the main from folktales and certain stories from Burton's translation of 1001 Nights) with Egyptian magic and giving the whole a pulp twist.
What, I ask you, would be the greatest stumbling block for a medieval Muslim necromancer who is trying to communicate with an ancient Egyptian spirit? If you said language, I think you’d be right. Knowledge of spoken and written Egyptian faded out in late Antiquity. Coptic formed something of a bridge, but it was written in Greek rather than in native Egyptian hieroglyphs (or its cursive counterpart, hieratic). And while Ibn Sharr can speak some Coptic, earlier dialects are incomprehensible to him and hieroglyphs/hieratic are but mysterious markings. Thus, before he could speak with an ancient spirit (or read a scroll in search of wisdom), he would need to first summon the ka of a priest of the Greco-Roman period – one who spoke Greek as well as Egyptian . . . a ‘Rosetta stone’ spirit, if you will. It would take months, perhaps years, but in time he could develop a rudimentary understanding of ancient Egyptian. Enough of an understanding, at least, to prosecute his nefarious plans . . .
Another facet of this system is the need for a relatively intact corpse. This follows the ancient Egyptian belief that the ka must have a body to return to; Ibn Sharr can’t simply summon a spirit from aether and incense. And, as an added hurdle, it’s nigh impossible to communicate with a mummy – it’s a dried husk with useless vocal chords and withered lungs. How would he overcome that? It seems Ibn Sharr is a crafty devil; he introduced me to the notion of an intermediary, what he calls al-saut al-maiyit, the voice of the dead. It’s a fresh corpse, murdered via slow strangulation using a ritually-prepared cord of silk and hair. He then uses the mummy as a focus and the new corpse as a destination (and, before anyone asks, the dead are not ambulatory . . . at least, not right now).
I’m still creating and compiling the lexicon of terms for this black art, and figuring out how it will mesh with the ideas I have regarding Assad’s ensorcelled knife. What say ye, Gentle Readers? Any holes in the logic? What would trigger your own “aww, cool!” response?