The Biblical Witch of Endor: Contacting the Spirit of a Prophet
The Witch of Endor is also known as the biblical Medium of Endor. According to legend, she was a medium who apparently summoned the Prophet Samuel's spirit. She is known from the Old Testament but became a part of other traditions too.
A Legend in Ancient Books
The Witch of Endor became an important legend for Judaism, Christianity, and pagan spiritual practitioners. She appears as one of the most mysterious people described in the Old Testament in the First Book of Samuel, chapter 28:3-25.
She also appears in the Jewish Book of Sirach (46:19-20). She is called אֵ֥שֶׁת בַּֽעֲלַת־אֹ֖וב בְּעֵ֥ין דֹּֽור (’êšeṯ ba‘ălaṯ-’ōḇ bə-‘Êndōr), "a woman who has a familiar spirit at Endor" in the Biblical Hebrew language.
She is not named in the passages, but in the rabbinical tradition, she was perhaps the mother of Abner, Saul’s cousin and commander-in-chief of his army. She could also have been Sedecla, the daughter of a priest of Madian. Her name was connected with the Canaanite village Endor (or En Dor, Ein Dor), which was located in the Jezreel Valley in Lower Galilee, Israel.
Saul was the legendary first king of a United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. His reign is tentatively dated to the late 11th century BC. Both Saul and the Witch of Endor appear as historical persons, not just legends.
Witch of Endor by Nikolai Ge, 1857. (Public Domain)
It is said in the Bible that when Samuel died his body was buried in Ramah, five miles north-west of Jerusalem. The new king of Israel was Saul. He looked to God’s wisdom to choose the right path in his struggle with the Philistines. He wanted to solve the problem and take action against their assembled forces.
Saul didn't receive any answers from his dreams, the prophets he asked, or other places. He asked all the possible necromancers and magicians who lived in and around Israel. He was looking for a person who was a strong medium. Finally, he discovered the existence of a woman who lived in Endor. She claimed that she could see the ghost of Samuel.
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As the Bible says:
Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit that I may go to her, and enquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at Endor. And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee. And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?
Saul and the Witch of Endor (1635) by Matthias Stom. (Public Domain)
The ghost first complained of being disturbed, but with time, he started to collaborate with the Witch of Endor. He left a prophecy saying that Saul was going to perish with his army in a battle the next day.
Saul was shocked, but he decided not to listen to the words of the ghost. The Witch of Endor tried to cheer him up, but perhaps hoped that he would listen to the wise ghost. Unfortunately, Saul decided to attack the enemy and his army was defeated. After the battle, the king committed suicide.
The story of the Witch of Endor survived through the Jews, Christians, and Pagans. Her story was celebrated in the medieval Jewish text Yalkut Shimoni, but also appeared in many Christian texts. For centuries the bishops debated about the theological reasons for the popularity of this story. The most worrying was the case of using magic by the woman.
Saul and the Witch of Endor in a 15th century manuscript. (Public Domain)
In the 2nd century BC, in the Septuagint, they described her as ''ventriloquist'', which perhaps reflected the trend of the Alexandrian translators, who were responsible for describing the story. The base of all the stories seems to be the quote:
And Saul swore to her by the LORD, saying, As the LORD liveth, there shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing. Then said the woman, whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, bring me up Samuel. And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, why hast thou deceived me? For thou art Saul. And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth. And he said unto her, what form is he of? And she said, an old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself.
Saul and the Witch of Endor (1777) by Benjamin West. (Public Domain)
According to Josephus, who lived in the 1st century, the story was completely credible. The story of the Witch of Endor was also interesting for Martin Luther and John Calvin, who mentioned her in their works. In some medieval works, the authors wondered if she was a demon. For pagans, she became an example of an ancient witch.
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The Influence of the Witch of Endor
The Witch of Endor became a popular motif for fans of fantasy art and many people related to religious and non-religious trends. She is known as one of the first legendary women connected with witchcraft. Some specialists in religion suggest that she could also be considered a prophet. Her story influenced the imagination of many artists and writers.
Saul and the Witch of Endor (1526) by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen. (Public Domain)
Throughout the ages, many things have been inspired by the legendary witch. New versions of the story have also appeared quite often. For example, in the 16th century, the writer Gillaume du Bartas suggested in his influential poem about the creation of the world, La Semaine that the Witch of Endor used a “flambeau” made from the fat of her own son in the necromantic arts.
She also appears in a number of other tales, novels, and poems. The Witch of Endor was honored with a special place in the Star Wars saga as well. The planet where the Ewoks live is called Endor.
Top Image: Saul and the Witch of Endor (1828) by William Sidney Mount. Source: Public Domain
G. Vermes, The Resurrection, 2008.
E. Klostermann (ed.), Orígenes, Eustathius von Antiochien und Gregor von Nyssa über die Hexe von Endor, 1912