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Question: Given the rules of my world as explained below, how can I justify "The First Iron Law of Necromancy?"


A living person can't simply raise the dead from their slumber, only somebody who is dead, themselves, can do it. This fact is reflected in "the first iron law of necromancy," which is commonly known by all practitioners of all kinds of magic. I would like to see possible reason for this law.

The Rules Thus Far

In necromancy, the word "dead" has a more precise meaning than in everyday speech.

  • A living person (regardless of species) has a soul. Compare this to, for example, plants, which have a living biological process, but do not have souls. In necromancy, a plant cannot be dead because, not having a soul, it was never "alive" to begin with.

  • A person is "alive" when their soul is not in the world of the dead, not even partly. Their soul is entirely in the world of the living.

  • A person is dead when their soul is either entirely or partly in the world of the dead. Once a soul has entered that world it cannot entirely leave it.

  • An undead person is one whose soul has been stretched between the two worlds. They are not partly alive and partly dead, they are 100% dead, as if you have a soul you can be either entirely alive or entirely dead, with no gradation between them.

Raising the dead means to stretch souls of the dead from the world of the dead partly into the world of the living, i.e. make them undead.

Because it is impossible to escape the world of the dead it is impossible to be fully resurrected. This is "The Second Iron Law of Necromancy," true resurrection (bringing a soul entirely into the world of the living) is impossible.

To get ability to raise the dead you need to pay a price: In order to become a necromancer you need to perform a ritual that will kill you, but at the same time will preserve some of your connections with the world of the living. You become, in my world, a lich. The ritual must be executed flawlessly or the wanna-be-necromancer will be just plain dead.

Many people would like to raise the dead without performing the ritual and paying the price. But alas, this is impossible.

You can help me to explain why it's impossible to break the First Iron Law of Necromancy and thus avoid need to perform the ritual.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Jul 27 at 2:41
  • $\begingroup$ It's mainly the "When i see it, I'll know it" that's the problem. You need to share your criteria, so that when we see it, we'll all know it. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jul 27 at 2:43
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Why do you necessarily must strive to "beat" my answer, why can't it be just as good as my answer? $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 27 at 2:49
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    $\begingroup$ Again, perfectionism is the nature of the Q&A format. There are many good answers here, but we have no clue which you'd pick if you didn't pick your own. You need to state, briefly, what sort of world this is set in. Traditional medieval fantasy? Modern urban fantasy? Something else? Do you have real, verifiable gods? If yes, did they make the world? This sort of detail is needed for other users to objectively judge the answers. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jul 27 at 4:01
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    $\begingroup$ Personally, I'm not a fan of substantially rewriting a heavily answered question to make it suitable for reopening. This tends to result in answers fractured between "answers to the new question" and "answers to the old question." $\endgroup$
    – Brian
    Jul 27 at 18:32

12 Answers 12

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You need to make your request in person.

orpheus in the underworld

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacquesson_de_la_Chevreuse_Orph%C3%A9e_aux_enfers_(2004_1_121).jpg

Orpheus wanted his dead love back, and so he went the the underworld and made the request in person. So too your necromancers. The lords of the dead will not come to you, but if you have the right introductions (like from your dad the god Apollo) and you show up in person, and your court manners are good, they will hear what you have to say.

You might return with your dead love. You might return with an army of the dead. You might not return. You yourself are one of the dead people whose return you are negotiating.

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  • $\begingroup$ The question was significantly rewritten in order to reopen the question. $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 26 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ @user161005 I didn't see the pre-edit version, it is still a pretty good answer with a small edit removing the return part - the necromancer has to go and find the soul in the underworld and "stretch" it in order to raise the dead $\endgroup$ Jul 29 at 12:47
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The liminal state is necessary.

"Liminal" means threshold, and by performing this rite, necromancers basically install themselves on the doorway between life and death. This gives them the power to usher people in and out.

Figuratively, they keep the door open by standing in it. If you are alive, the door is just shut. And if you are merely dead, you pass through the door, and it shuts again. Only necromancers stand between life and death.

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  • $\begingroup$ The question was significantly rewritten in order to reopen the question. $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 26 at 18:00
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There is a concept called sympathetic magic, which is a system where a magical act requires the caster to make use of an aspect of reality to amplify or direct it.

For example, in order to cause rain over farmlands, the caster executes a ritual of sprinkling water over a plant. To lay waste to an enemy army, you sacrifice one of their soldiers in a blood ritual. To bring upon the winter solstice, you make a whole theatric play about the rebirth of the sun and so on.

Like produces like. To command the dead, you first become dead and command your own self. That will give you comprehension of the state of death that a living mind cannot attain, and thus you become able to properly cast necromantic spells.

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  • $\begingroup$ The question was significantly rewritten in order to reopen the question. $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 26 at 18:01
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Because only then can they survive with a partial soul.

Life is either 100% alive or 100% dead. It's boolean. When normal people become not 100% alive, they die.

By performing the ritual and becoming a lich, they are able to travel the grey area in-between and survive non 100% life force.

They are able to then lend part of their life force to those they animate. This also helps explain some useful limitations:

  • why they can animate an army of low intelligence beings for a big fight, or one high intelligence human that passes for alive. But can't get quality and quantity.
  • if they animate too many beings, they're weakened.
  • if they keep animating so much they die, their soul lives on distributed in their spawn. Another necromancer can reunite part of their soul with the body to bring them back.
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  • $\begingroup$ The question was significantly rewritten in order to reopen the question. $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 26 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ This answer is a brand new idea. It definitely goes against established fantasy tropes: you described a pool of life force that can only exist entirely or not at all. Normally life force pools like you have described decline as one ages, or can be sacrificed by powerful techniques or leeched, and subsequently recovered. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 at 21:21
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Magic uses energy channeled from a primal source. A mage who wants to cast a spell needs to pull energy from somewhere to power the spell since humans don't contain enough energy to manifest the effect. A fireball (to use the classic example) contains far more energy than any human can actually contain, barring conversion of mass. Therefore the energy for the spell has to be drawn from somewhere - the environment, the elemental plane of fire or some other source of energy.

Not only does the spell require a sufficient amount of energy, it needs the right type of energy. If you're casting a wall of ice then you need to channel cold energy, a lightning bolt needs lightning energy and so on. The caster gathers the energy, then channels it into the framework of the spell.

The act of channeling these energies is destructive to the caster's body, and any mage who attempts to over-draw these energies will suffer from it. Over time a mage builds up a resistance to these channelled energies, allowing them to cast more powerful spells with those energies. A powerful Fire Mage has built up resistance and mitigation techniques, perhaps learned to use external channels to beef up his total energy limit.

Necromancy on the other hand requires the channeling of Unlife, the energy of Death. Even the smallest amount of death energy is vastly disruptive to the life processes of a living caster. While a live mage may be able to channel tiny motes of death energy to perform cantrip-level Necromantic spells, it is almost impossible to perform feats of true Necromancy without harming yourself. The energy required to animate a corpse or 'raise' the dead through Necromancy is just flat out fatal to any living caster.

The only way to avoid being killed by the energy you are channeling is to already be dead.

But wait, I hear you ask, what about those external channels you mentioned earlier?

Ah, glad you were paying attention.

There are two ways you can mitigate the effects:

  • Practice hard enough for long enough to learn how to channel all of the energy outside of your body.
  • Use a different, opposed energy to protect you from the effects.

The second form is, of course, how the priestly types do it. When they have to channel death energy they do it through conduits reinforced with life energy, tightly bound to contain the energy without negating it. They're all about the life energy, the smug gits.

The other road is a lot more difficult, and the odds are pretty high that the process of learning is going to kill you before you get that far. Without the ability to directly channel fairly large amounts of energy initially you have to find a way to control the energy differently to how others work with their own energy. This is not just hard, it's time consuming. Like multiple decades to even get started, then many more decades to slowly build up the power to the point you need it. Humans don't have that much time, generally speaking, they can't just spend a couple of centuries mastering the basics. And one bad move in that time is probably going to kill you anyway. It's a risky path.

Elves though? Dragons? Other long-lived intelligent species? Yes, they could probably do it. Maybe there are some living Necromancers out there, but they're pretty rare.

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    $\begingroup$ Please, correct your answer. There are no living necromancers, even among non-human species. And living priests can't raise the dead. $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 26 at 3:04
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    $\begingroup$ @user161005 I mean, I could. Seems a little pointless now that your question got closed. Oh, and it wouldn't be as fun if there wasn't some way to get around the rules... what's a world with magic if you're stuck paying attention to silly things like cosmic rules? I mean, honestly, what's the point? If a priest can raise the dead through Divine Power, who's to say they - or their patron - aren't actually using necromancy to do it under the covers? Besides, your own "answer" is clearly ther one you want... so why ask? $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Jul 26 at 5:17
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    $\begingroup$ @user161005 Ah, a self-promotion post then? How droll. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Jul 26 at 5:35
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    $\begingroup$ @user161005 Cool story. But if you just want to exhibit your work, is this really the place to do it? WorldBuilding fundamentally is a place where people come to discuss things, get and give ideas. If you don't like my ideas, that's cool. But they're my ideas. Since you're not actually looking for an answer, just ignore me. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Jul 26 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ "But if you just want to exhibit your work, is this really the place to do it?" Yes, because I do it in form of sharing a solution to worldbuilding problems. And I'm thankful for answers of other people, as it allows to view possible alternative solutions to the problem, which is also interesting to me. $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 27 at 2:14
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No living soul remembers how anymore.

That knowledge is held only by the dead who have already been raised. The dead keep trying to tell the secret to the living...but the King's goons and bounty hunters ruthlessly burn out and run down anybody foolish enough to listen.

The King's penalty for necromancy (by the dead) is removal of all limbs, then ten years of impalement, followed by cremation.

The King's penalty for necromancy (by the living) is five days of torture followed by cremation while still (barely) alive.

The King is no fool, and doesn't want his realm overrun by a bunch of magical upstart warlords. That's why he's already dug up and incinerated all the corpses in the graveyards, and why his goons outnumber and hunt the few remaining risen dead. The realm's woodlands are quite a bit smaller, but they will grow back.

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    $\begingroup$ If it was due to such circumstances, then it wouldn't be called "the iron law of necromancy". $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 26 at 3:05
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    $\begingroup$ Depends upon who gave it that name. It's a catchy title, maybe somebody was trying to sell books. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jul 26 at 3:20
  • $\begingroup$ No, nothing like that. $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 26 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ I'll quite agree that it's not the kind of answer you were looking for, but do be prepared for unusual answers here. Note that the final paragraph is a sneaky frame challenge to your question: A world with necromancy suggests that cremation would be compulsory in most places with an adequate supply of fuel. Make sure you close that plot hole before too long. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Jul 26 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ The question was significantly rewritten in order to reopen the question. $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 26 at 18:02
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Connection is key.

In my own setting, to cast magic one must have a connection to the natural energies of the world itself (AKA mana). If we assume a similar mechanic for your world, then the First Iron Law makes perfect sense.

In order to be undead, one must emulate a state of undeath, and therefore one must understand undeath. What is undeath? Something dead, retaining or imitating some aspect or traits of life. In my mind, I'd define it as a "shadow" of life, not quite darkness (read: death) or light (read: life).

Shadow only exists through its connection to light and dark; it is defined by those two opposites, same as warm could not exist without hot and cold. Therefore, in order to be undead, one must have a connection to life and death, and this is where things get tricky.

When one is in a coma, often this entails that one is between life and death, as evidenced by the near-death experiences people have in this state. Therefore, in order to fulfill this condition and become capable of necromancy, one must enter a functional version of a comatose state, and thus walk the line between life and death, becoming a shadow of life itself.

How is this accomplished? That's for you to find out!

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... in order to communicate with souls of the dead that haven't been raised yet you need to have your soul in the world of the dead. A necromancer achieves this by stretching their own soul between both the world of the dead and the living. They anchor part of their soul in the world of the living (this is why they are able to raise themselves) and another part in the world of the dead (this is why they need to die in order to become a necromancer).

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  • $\begingroup$ There may be a loophole around this... in order to communicate with the dead, you must also be dead... given, but what about a necromancer who is alive, has never died, and sacrifices a living being with a compulsion to make the dead an offer they can't refuse? $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Jul 27 at 3:14
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The living don't know where to look for dead souls

In order to raise a soul to undeath, you must first find it. Necromancers have invented a number of different techniques to track down specific souls within the world of the dead, but none of these techniques work unless you already know how to get there—the path to take. And the only way to figure that out is to go there yourself. By dying.

Oh, some living wizards have tried to pin down the exact location of the world of the dead. They've interviewed necromancers, analyzed zombies, proposed new schemas for inter-dimensional coordinate systems...but nothing works. They're like people who have been blind from birth, trying to understand what colors are. There is simply no language for the knowledge they seek. If you've died, you just get it; if you haven't, you don't.

In theory, a necromancer who was fully restored to life would retain all their necromantic powers, since it's only the knowledge that matters and not the state of being dead. Or so some scholars think. It's not like anyone's had a chance to test the idea.

P.S. Under this framework, it's entirely plausible that souls raised by necromancers could become necromancers themselves. If you don't want to allow that, you may need to establish a separate restriction (Third Iron Law?). Or perhaps this is not an issue for social reasons (e.g. necromancers are wary of rivals, so they immediately un-raise any minions who show interest in necromancy themselves).

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The living are still playing the game and so have to abide by the rules. The dead are out of the game, and so the rules don't apply.

Imagine a game where you play a role. You are a Hero who faces boundless adversity, and daily danger of death, who must endlessly solve puzzles to survive and prosper. You can get so involved in the game that you forget that it isn't real. You are totally immersed, you suspend disbelief. And within the game, the rules are unbreakable.

But then you 'die', and you 'remember' the game world isn't real and you was always partly outside it, reaching in. Only those who have left the game and come back remember that it is a game. Indeed, they can no longer ever quite forget, and so the 'undead' become strange and uncanny. They have a mysterious occult knowledge of things it should be impossible for them to know, and have seemingly-magical powers over reality. Because they have seen the world from the outside, they now know the real rules and how to cheat. They can learn the Incantations and how to recognise the Artefacts by which a being may temporarily gain various arcane powers, speed, strength, invulnerability, or healing, all the way up to the widely-sought "GOD MODE" rune. From outside they can maybe interfere a little with the workings of the world, and change a few things in their favour. They maybe even know a little of the future, if they are resurrected some time before their death, and can decide not to open the door this time "because last time round I opened it and an ogre killed me". This requires a special ritual of 'Salvation', that must be performed at intervals, especially just before doing something dangerous. Salvation is the key to eternal life.

But it takes an outstanding intelligence and decades of deep learning while alive to have a chance of decoding outer reality quickly enough to get back in before a soul's interest fades. You might see the cogs and mechanisms of reality laid out before you, but would you understand what you was seeing well enough to be able to hack your way back in? And let other players who left before you back in also? For the World Outside the World has rules and restrictions, too.

"To get ability to raise the dead you need to pay a price"

Oh, yes. That's right. As you die, the Dread Words of the Ferryman on the River Styx appear floating in the air before you in letters of fire...

Game Over. Insert Coin.

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The price is semantic, not literal

Many real world cultures have a set of taboos that, when crossed, confer an 'impure' status on someone or something. (You see this a lot in Christianity and derivatives thereof, which are also the general cultural background for most English-language fiction involving "necromancy")

In this context, what the necromancer is destroying may be more along the lines of their personhood according to society. If you raise the dead successfully, you've completed the ritual (the forbidden has been done, you are seen as unsouled, which (irl symbologies of the cultures of people likely to write on this Stack) has connotations of evil...); if you haven't, well, you died trying so it's irrelevant (normal-dead also means you have no soul)

It's possible that, to non-necromancers, the nature of a soul is taken quite literally, whereas to necromancers (who are the only ones with the personal experience of what changes in the process of doing the ritual) stating any of the two laws is actually an elaborate black comedy in-joke.

In the real world, sentiments like that are extremely common in discussions between trauma survivors, who are often ostracized for simply knowing too much about the things that happened in their life, which are topics whose mere conceptual existence is considered unacceptable. Looking into these conversations as they're freely accessible on the net and incorporating elements of what you find might lend an interesting/evocative metaphorical element to your narrative(s).

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The act of necromancy invokes an Aura of Death itself.

It is not that you need to be (un?) dead to perform a necromantic ritual, it is more a case that the ritual will destroy all true life within its domain,
including the caster.

So a living person could cast a Necromantic ritual.... Once.
After which act he would then be in need of a Necromancer's services himself.

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  • $\begingroup$ No, no. It's impossible for a living caster to complete a Necromantic ritual even once. But the idea is quite interesting. I suggest you to change it to something like "a living caster can't complete a Necromantic ritual of rising the dead because s/he will be killed in the middle of it by Aura of Death" $\endgroup$
    – user161005
    Jul 29 at 10:06

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