The Witch of Endor (Hebrew: בַּעֲלַת־אֹוב בְּעֵין דּוֹר baʿălaṯ-ʾōḇ bəʿĒyn Dōr, "she who owns the ʾōḇ of Endor") is a woman who, according to the Hebrew Bible, was consulted by Saul to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel. Saul wished to receive advice on defeating the Philistines in battle, after prior attempts to consult God through sacred lots and other means had failed. When summoned, however, the spirit of Samuel only delivers a prophecy of doom against Saul. This event occurs in the First Book of Samuel; it is also mentioned in the deuterocanonical Book of Sirach.
The woman of the story is called in biblical Hebrew אֵשֶׁת בַּעֲלַת־אֹוב בְּעֵין דֹּור (ʾēšeṯ baʿălaṯ-ʾōḇ bəʿĒyn Dōr), "a woman, possessor of an ’ōḇ at Endor". The word אֹ֖וב ’ōḇ has been suggested by Harry Hoffner to refer to a ritual pit for summoning the dead from the netherworld, based on parallels in other Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. The word has cognates in other regional languages (cf. Sumerian ab, Akkadian âbu, Hittite a-a-bi, Ugaritic ib) and the witch of Endor's ritual has parallels in Babylonian and Hittite magical texts as well as the Odyssey. Other suggestions for a definition of ’ōḇ include a familiar spirit, a talisman, or a wineskin, in reference to ventriloquism.
The witch also claims to see "elohim arising" (plural verb) from the ground, using the word typically translated as "god(s)" to refer to the spirits of the dead. This is also paralleled by the use of the Akkadian cognate word ilu "god" in a similar fashion.
When the prophet Samuel dies, he is buried in Ramah. Saul, the king of Israel, seeks advice from God in choosing a course of action against the assembled forces of the Philistine army. He receives no answer from dreams, prophets, or the Urim and Thummim. Having previously driven out all necromancers and magicians from Israel, Saul searches for a witch anonymously and finds one living in the village of Endor. Saul visits her in disguise, and asks her to raise the spirit of Samuel. The woman at first refuses, on account of Saul's edict against sorcery, but Saul assures her she will not be punished.
The woman summons a spirit, which she describes as having the appearance of an old man wrapped in a robe. Saul bows down to the spirit, but is apparently unable to see it himself. The spirit complains of being disturbed, berates Saul for disobeying God, and predicts Saul's downfall. It reiterates a pre-mortem prophecy by Samuel, adding that Saul will perish in battle the next day, along with his whole army. Saul collapses in terror; the woman comforts him, and prepares him a meal of a fatted calf to restore his strength.
The following day, the Israelite army is defeated as prophesied: Saul is fatally wounded by the Philistines, and commits suicide by falling on his sword – or, according to a parallel account, by asking a young Amalekite to deliver the killing blow. In 1 Chronicles, it is stated that Saul's death was, in part, a punishment for seeking advice from a medium rather than from God.
In the Septuagint (2nd century BC) the woman is described as a ventriloquist, possibly reflecting the consistent view of the Alexandrian translators that demons do not exist. On the other hand, the Hebrew Book of Sirach, composed in the same period, represents it as a fact that Samuel prophesied to Saul after his death. Josephus, writing in the 1st century AD, also appears to find the story completely credible.
The Yalkut Shimoni (11th century) identifies the anonymous witch as the mother of Abner. Based upon the witch's claim to have seen something, and Saul having heard a disembodied voice, the Yalkut suggests that necromancers are able to see the spirits of the dead but are unable to hear their speech, while the person for whom the deceased was summoned hears the voice but fails to see anything.
The Jews of our days believe that after the body of a man is interred, his spirit goes and comes, and departs from the spot where it is destined to visit his body, and to know what passes around him; that it is wandering during a whole year after the death of the body, and that it was during that year of delay that the Pythoness of Endor evoked the soul of Samuel, after which time the evocation would have had no power over his spirit.
The Church Fathers and some modern Christian writers have debated the theological issues raised by this text, which would appear at first sight to affirm that it is possible (though forbidden) for humans to summon the spirits of the dead by magic.
King James, in his philosophical treatise Daemonologie (1597), rejected the theory that the witch was performing an act of ventriloquism, but also denied that she had truly summoned the spirit of Samuel. He wrote that the Devil is permitted at times to take on the likeness of the saints, citing 2 Corinthians 11:14, which says that "Satan can transform himself into an Angel of light". James describes the witch of Endor as "Saul's Pythonese", likening her to the ancient Greek oracle Pythia. He asserts the reality of witchcraft, arguing that if such things were not possible, they would not be prohibited in Scripture:
Certain it is, that the Law of God speaks nothing in vain, neither does it lay curses, or enjoin punishments upon shadows, condemning that to be ill, which is not in essence or being as we call it.
Other medieval glosses to the Bible also suggested that what the witch summoned was not the ghost of Samuel, but a demon taking his shape or an illusion crafted by the witch. Martin Luther, who believed that the dead were unconscious, read that it was "the Devil's ghost", whereas John Calvin read that "it was not the real Samuel, but a spectre."
Augustin Calmet briefly mentions the witch of Endor in his Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits (1759), among other scriptural proofs of "the reality of magic". He acknowledges that this interpretation is disputed, and says that he will deduce nothing from the passage "except that this woman passed for a witch, [and] that Saul esteemed her such".
Since this passage states the witch made a loud cry in fear when she saw Samuel's spirit, some interpreters reject the suggestion that the witch was responsible for summoning Samuel's spirit, claiming instead that this was the work of God. Joyce Baldwin (1989) writes that "the incident does not tell us anything about the veracity of claims to consult the dead on the part of mediums, because the indications [of the woman’s behavior] are that this was an extraordinary event for her, and a frightening one, because she was not in control."
Spiritualists have taken the story as evidence of spirit mediumship in ancient times. The story has been cited in debates between Spiritualist apologists and Christian critics. "The woman of Endor was a medium, respectable, honest, law-abiding, and far more Christ-like than" Christian critics of Spiritualism, asserted one Chicago Spiritualist paper in 1875.
The story of Saul's consultation with the witch of Endor has frequently been set to music, with many works expanding on the character of the witch. One early example is In guiltie night, an oratorio written by Robert Ramsey in the 1630s, which formed the basis of a better-known work of the same title by Henry Purcell in 1691.
The witch also appears in Mors Saulis et Jonathae by Charpentier (c. 1682), Saul by George Frideric Handel (1738), Die Könige in Israel by Ferdinand Ries (1837), and Le Roi David by Honegger (1921). Notable operas featuring the character include David et Jonathas by Charpentier (1688) and Saul og David by Carl Nielsen (1902). In 1965, the Martha Graham Dance Company premiered The Witch of Endor, a one act ballet with music by William Schuman. This was subsequently reworked into a short symphonic-style piece by Moondog, for his eponymous 1969 album.
Poetic works retelling the story include "Saul" by Lord Byron, published in his 1815 collection Hebrew Melodies, and "In Endor" by Shaul Tchernichovsky (1893), a major work of modern Hebrew poetry which paints Saul as a sympathetic figure. Rudyard Kipling, a year after the death of his son at the Battle of Loos, wrote a poem called "En-Dor" (published 1919), using the story as a device to criticise contemporary mediums.
In theatre, the witch of Endor figures in Laurence Housman's 1944 play Samuel the Kingmaker, and has a central role in Howard Nemerov's 1961 play Endor. The character has been portrayed cinematically by Israeli actor Dov Reiser in the 1976 television film The Story of David, and by Belgian actress Lyne Renée in the 2016 series Of Kings and Prophets.
- 1 Samuel 28:3–25
- Sirach 46:19–20
- Hoffner, Harry A. (1967). "Second Millenium Antecedents to the Hebrew 'Ôḇ". Journal of Biblical Literature. Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature. 86 (4): 385–401. doi:10.2307/3262793. JSTOR 3262793.
- King, Philip J.; Stager, Lawrence E. (2001). Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 380. ISBN 9780664221485.
- Hirsh, Emil G. (1911). "Endor, the witch of". Jewish Encyclopedia.
- Aune, D. E. (1959). "Medium". In Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (ed.). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. William B. Eerdmans. p. 307.
... of 'ob (RSV 'medium'). According to one view it is the same word that means a 'bottle made out of skins' ('wineskin,' Job 32:19). The term would then refer to the technique of ventriloquism or, more accurately, 'belly-talking'.
- Walton, John H. (November 1, 2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Ada, Michigan: Baker Academic. p. 325. ISBN 9781585582914.
- Aune 1959, p. 307
- 1 Samuel 31:1–4
- 2 Samuel 1:6–10
- 1 Chronicles 10:13–14
- Klauck, Hans-Josef; McNeil, Brian (2003). Magic and Paganism in early Christianity: the world of the Acts of the Apostles. p. 66.
A classical example is King Saul's visit to the witch of Endor: The Septuagint says once that the seer engages in soothsaying and three times that she engages in ventriloquism (1 Sam 28:6–9).
- Andreasen, Milian Lauritz (2001). Isaiah the gospel prophet: A preacher of righteousness. p. 345.
The Septuagint translates: They burn incense on bricks to devils which exist not.
- Antiquities of the Jews 6.14.
- Yalḳ, Sam. 140, from Pirḳe R. El.
- Calmet, Augustin (2016). Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants: of Hungary, Moravia, et al. The Complete Volumes I & II. pp. 47, 237. ISBN 978-1-5331-4568-0.
- King James (2016). Annotated Daemonologie. A critical edition in modern English. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-1-5329-6891-4.
- "Necromancy". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 5 Sep 2012.
- Buckley, J.M. (2003). Faith Healing, Christian Science and Kindred Phenomena. p. 221.
The witch of Endor – The account of the "Witch of Endor" is the only instance in the Bible where a description of the processes and ... Luther held that it was "the Devil's ghost"; Calvin that "it was not the real Samuel, but a spectre".
- Beuken, Willem (1978). "1 Samuel 28: The prophet as 'hammer of witches'". Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 3 (6): 8–9. doi:10.1177/030908927800300602. S2CID 170802393.
- Keil, Carl Friedrich; Delitzsch, Franz (1956). Biblical Commentary on the Books of Samuel. Eerdmans. p. 262.
- Baldwin, Joyce (1989). 1 and 2 Samuel: An introduction and commentary. p. 159.
- "The Religion of Ghosts". Spiritualist at Work. Vol. 1, no. 19. Chicago. 24 April 1875. p. 1.
- Leneman, Helen (2017). "The Medium of En-dor Heard Through the Medium of Music". In Archie C.C. Lee, Archie; Brenner-Idan, Athalya (eds.). Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. Vol. 1. p. 149. ISBN 978-0-567-67115-8.
- Smallman, Basil (April 1965). "Endor Revisited: English Biblical Dialogues of the Seventeenth Century". Music & Letters. 46 (2): 137–145. doi:10.1093/ml/XLVI.2.137. JSTOR 732625.
- Long, Siobhan; Sawyer, John (2015). The Bible in Music. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 270. ISBN 978-0-8108-8451-9.
- Kinsley, William (1992). "Witch of Endor". In Jeffrey, David Lyle (ed.). A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 840–841. ISBN 978-0-8028-3634-2.
- Ofer, Rachel (2021). "A Wicked Witch or a Good Psychotherapist? The Medium of Endor in Modern Hebrew Literature". Hebrew Studies. 62: 184–185. doi:10.1353/hbr.2021.0018. JSTOR 27087000. S2CID 244914687.
- Holt, Tonie; Holt, Valmai (1998). My Boy Jack: The Search for Kipling's Only Son. Leo Cooper. p. 234.
Desperate as they were, there is no evidence that Rudyard and Carrie ever contemplated trying to reach John in this way and Rudyard's scorn for those who did was expressed in the poem En-dor, written the following year.
- Greer, R.A.; Mitchell, M.M. (2007). The "Belly-Myther" of Endor: Interpretations of 1 Kingdoms 28 in the Early Church. Society of Biblical Literature writings from the Greco-Roman world. Society of Biblical Literature. ISBN 978-1-58983-120-9.
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