Review: Martin Coleman’s “Communing with the Spirits”

Compared to most of my friends (but not you, Kalagni), I have a pretty extensive Amazon wishlist filled mostly with books.  Every year in early autumn, I start prioritizing the things I want for my birthday and Christmas, and usually get a good haul, even if only by blowing my holiday bonus and Christmas checks on the stuff.  (Also, if you ever wanted to get me anything from my list to support my magical endeavors, rest assured I will definitely give you a shoutout and put a good word or eight in for you with the spirits.)  This past winter was particularly bountiful, getting something like eighteen new books from my Amazon wishlist, which is pretty awesome.  I’m slowly making my way through them all, and one of the more interesting ones was the book Communing with the Spirits: The Magical Practice of Necromancy by Martin Coleman.  It’s basically a beginner’s text on necromancy, or communing and working with the spirits of the dead; though I probably won’t have much opportunity to use the knowledge, I still wanted a good reference for the art to at least know my stuff on it.  Plus, it had good reviews on Amazon, which made it appealing to add to my library.

This is the second edition of the text, published in 2005 by Xlibris Press.  The 196pp. book is on the better side of standard quality, with a suitably formal and plain cover, spine, and back design.  The text quality has a number of errors and could definitely use some better editing (I found too many typographic and punctuation-based errors to track, and some of the pages seem slightly skewed, both of which detract and distract from the content of the text.  While the author had a few lucid points here and there, Coleman’s favorite word throughout the book was “must”; the book halfway read like a catechism of dogmatic faith and a rulebook for tabletop RPGs with all its strict delineations of how the world is and must be.  At a high level, the book’s method is elegant and simple though not without its fair share of work, but comes across as overly condescending to the spirits, if not outright controlling and forceful.  While indicating a very few good techniques and tricks, the book is more distasteful and stunted in reach than it denies.

Cover of "Communing with the Spirits", Martin Coleman

Coleman begins with defining necromancy as literally “seeing with the dead”, a method of divination or obtaining information through the agency of dead spirits.  The book is pretty clear from the start that this is not an introduction to magic: there are no basics on banishing or shielding, breathing or meditating, or any other introductory topics.  It assumes a basic faith in magic, non-physical entities a.k.a. spirits, and Divinity, and goes from there.  For being a guide to necromancy, this is where the book shines, especially since the method used by Coleman is fairly tradition-independent, able to fit into any paradigm or method of magic or devotional practice.  It focuses on the use of three sets of spirits (one’s ancestors, one’s divinatory spirit, and one’s operative spirit) as well as how to begin working with them and how to maintain a relationship with them.

The structure of the book starts with the basics of what magic is and how spirits fit into magic, how to begin working with the spirits of the dead in the form of one’s own ancestors, how to set up and maintain an ancestor altar, how to control and manage effects of the spirits on one’s life, how to obtain and work with a divinatory spirit, how to conjure or summon spirits, how to obtain and work with an operative spirit for work besides intel-gathering, and other methods of working with the dead.  The book follows a fairly natural procession from basic necromantic practice to more detailed applications of the art, and Coleman has warnings and injunctions throughout the book indicating that one should not continue to read without having done X months of practice with some type of spirit or other.  At the end of most chapters Coleman includes a set of criteria by which one can judge their success or efforts in working with the spirits of the dead, which is helpful to one learning the art.

However, Coleman seems to have several rules that dictate all workings with the spirits:

  1. Spirits cannot inherently be trusted.
  2. Spirits are basically children that must be watched and governed strictly.
  3. Spirits must be trained rigorously like pets (at best) or beasts (at worst) in order to be of any use.
  4. Spirits will always try to take advantage of the necromancer and, once the necromancer makes a single misstep, will be of no further use to the necromancer.
  5. Spirits will easily fall into depression and once they fail at a task even once will be of no further use to the necromancer.
  6. Absolute control of all spirits to the letter must be maintained at all times.
  7. Everything in the spirit world works exactly one way, which is the way Coleman describes them.

Like I mentioned before, Coleman’s favorite word is “must”, as in how the necromancer-to-be must treat spirits in this manner, must give spirits only so much food to feed them, must know that such-and-such rules apply in all circumstances, and so forth.  It gets real old after a while, especially from my point of view, where reality (on all planes and in all worlds) works more-or-less by consensus or by fluctuating rules or models.  In other words, Coleman has a fairly rigid worldview that cannot account for experiences that happen outside his dogmatic style of necromancy, and many workable or beneficial things that one can do would be illegal or offensive to him.  While I understand the dangers in working with spirits of the dead and why Coleman proposes so much caution in dealing with them via a set of strict guidelines, he comes across as pompous and commanding to the point of ridicule.

Then again, Coleman also has a number of contradictions or flaws in the details.  For example, one part of the book mentions that strong alcoholic drinks are never to be given to the spirits of the dead, then that shots of whiskey can be given as favors or rewards in shot glasses, then only if they’re given in bowls, and so forth.  Another time, Coleman says that necromancers are, on the whole, unable or unfit for working with divine powers or religious frameworks, but also references and discusses magico-religious traditions and arts that involve both devotion to higher powers and working with lower ones.  From my experience in talking with my own psychopomp patron and my other necromancer friends, a lot of what Coleman teaches just doesn’t hold up; for one, I and my friends would consider it a dangerous thing to work with the dead without going through or walking with some divinity or other.  Coleman himself even proposes prayers and workings involving the angel Raphael and the Abrahamic God to release or send off the dead, so I’m unsure where he gets some of this stuff from.

One of the biggest issues I had with Coleman’s book was how he treated spirits.  Though he initially described building friendships with his ancestors and divinatory/operative spirits, he constantly instructs the reader to never build anything more warm than a business or transactional relationship with their spirits.  Even then, Coleman considers spirits to be untrustworthy, and so should be treated like pets or trained servants.  He considers the art of necromancy to be a benefit for his spirits, elevating them to higher spiritual states, but keeps them on short leashes and never describes how the work a necromancer does with a spirit is beneficial for the spirits themselves.  While working in magic is always going to be dangerous to an extent, it’s almost absurd the degree to which Coleman pushes the reader to never give spirits any slack or independence.  It fits in closely with a medieval Christian or Solomonic view of the spirits in that anything that isn’t angelic or divine is inherently evil and untrustworthy, but beyond that, even the Lemegeton and Clavicula Solomonis deals with spirits better and more thoroughly than Coleman does.

While I like the framework for necromantic practice Coleman proposes, as well as some of the details of technique (protective charms, cleansing washes, incense for summoning and working with spirits, etc.), “Communing with the Spirits” read like an extra-dry Dungeons and Dragons book on necromancy.  It would fall fairly solidly in the tradition of Solomonic magic, though it claims tradition-independence, due to how it views and treats spirits of the dead as inherently wicked or untrustworthy.  The method of practice Coleman proposes is slow, steady, and solid, with the book indicating a two- or three-year practice before all the book’s subject matter can be applied fully, which I like (cf. Draja Mickaharic’s methods).  However, while the method is good, the means is disrespectful to the spirits as I read it.  The book lacks sources and references, and though the progression of practice is well-structured in the book, Coleman appears to become confused between some of his contradictions and flaws.  The number of typos and odd formatting in some places is weird for a second edition, too.  Overall, the book isn’t the greatest, and should be taken with a pretty large grain of salt or four if read or applied.  It’s a decent introduction to working with the dead at a high level, but otherwise, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Martin Coleman’s “Communing with the Spirits”

  1. I didn’t like the book either. Thank you for making it clear exactly why. —It’s a shame really, because there’s an available niche for a book on this topic. But this book does not fill that gap.

  2. I personally liked his angle. So many other (and few books) about working with spirits(of any kind) that are contemporary come across as big ole cosmic hug parties where every incorporeal intelligence is your friend and only wants to help you. I have seen more then a few people absorb that viewpoint fully and watch their lives quickly spiral out of control as they go around doing whatever a spirit or two asks, and never setting boundaries for themselves. Just like you wouldn’t automatically take the advice of any person who happens to wander into your home or if you dial a random number and asked a complete stranger for advice, why would you assume that a now deceased person would also be fully reasonable person to take advice from. I also agree with a lot of his suggestions that if a spirit of the dead of any kind starts spouting off transcendent mumbo jumbo, that they are probably not going to really be useful. It’s fine is an Archangel does it, it’s something else if great uncle Robert starts saying it, when all he did in his life was fix cars, make babies and drink beers. Discernment is a good thing
    I think a business relationship can be very close, understanding, and positive. Business people who have worked together for a while often have a pretty casual but strong connection, as do co-workers, or Employers/employees, especially in a small owned setting, which is more like what Coleman describes.

    1. I’m not saying that a gigantic spiritual lovefest is the proper modus operandi for a serious magician, either. I’ve learned to treat spirits as I would strangers: polite but firmly and with a grain of salt until shown otherwise; this much makes sense, and I agree with Coleman in this. But the tone and style of working Coleman uses reads as unduly harsh, and from some of my friends who work closely with the dead and spirits of all kinds, human and inhuman, they agree that it comes across as someone who wants obedient slaves rather than business partners. What you describe is one extreme (total willingness and blind trust) and what Coleman describes is the other extreme (total and strict control over spirits); neither is good, and one can be guarded and efficient without being totalitarian over one’s partners.

      It’s true that the advice Coleman gives won’t lead someone’s life into the garbage heap, sure. It’s also true that a well-inspected, well-controlled group of slaves won’t stage an uprising. One doesn’t have to have an innate, deep-seated mistrust of all spirits and keep draconian practices in place in order to keep oneself safe from trickster or malefic spiritual influences, and if one messes up bad that one’s gonna have some shit to work through, Coleman’s book won’t prepare the poor guy from that kind of wrath.

  3. “One doesn’t have to have an innate, deep-seated mistrust of all spirits and keep draconian practices in place in order to keep oneself safe from trickster or malefic spiritual influences”

    The statement reminds me of how not too long ago (a decade at most) that most grimoire texts were thought of in that way. The exorcists thought of having an innate deep-seated mistrust of all spirits and that their practices were draconian so as to keep the exorcists in charge. Of course that concept originated in the occult revival of the 60’s and 70’s, but since then with the proliferation of people who have actually revived it, been proven to a false concept projected onto it from people put the current societies views of freedom, love and relationship without considering how it might have been different or viewed differently in the middle ages.

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