Witch of Endor

Dangerous times

In the first four sentences of this story, the Bible gives us some essential background details:

1. The great prophet and adviser to the king, Samuel, has died. His wisdom is missed by all, high and low alike. Oddly enough, one of the people who misses him most is King Saul, even though Samuel has repudiated him and given his support to young David instead.

2. King Saul has made some sweeping reforms in Israel. Among them is the banning of all forms of magic and witchcraft. This included séances or any attempt to contact the dead. Saul has not killed the séance ‘mediums’, as they are called, but expelled them from the land of Israel. But it should be noted that the woman in this story faced death by stoning if she was caught trying to make contact with the dead.

A skull

3. The whole country is on the brink of an annihilating war, and Saul’s rule is about to end, amid wholesale slaughter of his family, soldiers and followers. He cannot match or hope to defeat the Philistine forces assembled at Shunem. They have a new tactic: previously they had fought in the hills, where their more sophisticated weapons gave them little advantage, and where the Israelites were on familiar terrain. Now they marched into the plain of Jezreel, keeping to level ground, and threatened to cut off Saul from the northern tribes who might have supported him.

4. Death stares him in the face. Saul prays desperately to God for help, but is greeted by silence. God, it seems, has abandoned him.

Map of the region where King Saul fought his last battle

Endor, where the witch lived in a cave; site of Saul’s last battle, and his death

The witch/medium of Endor

Driven to desperation, Saul reverts to the old ways. He asks his servants to find him a medium, someone who can speak with the dead. He longs to hear Samuel’s wisdom once more.

The search cannot have been easy for Saul’s servants, since all mediums have supposedly been expelled. But they are just as desperate as Saul, and they find just such a woman living in a cave at Endor.

Saul, of course, cannot be seen consorting with mediums, so he takes off his kingly robes and wears a disguise. The journey is difficult and dangerous: that he makes it at all is a sign of his desperation. When he meets the woman he immediately asks her to consult a spirit. There is no time to be lost, since the Philistines will probably attack at dawn.

She is reluctant. As events will show, she is no fool. Probably she knows quite well who Saul is. He is the king who has ordered the expulsion of all ‘witches’ like herself. But Saul insists, guaranteeing her safety. So the woman, the ‘witch’ of Endor, consents. She summons Samuel from the grave – or from Sheol, the Israelite land of the dead.

No comfort for Saul

The witch of Endor summons Samule

Samuel appears – to the woman, but not to the people beside her. Only she can see him or speak with him. Saul is overwhelmed, convinced that his old mentor is truly present.

Through the woman, Saul begs Samuel for help. He tells Samuel of the Philistine threat, and worse, of God’s silence. What is he to do?

He gets little comfort from the ‘spirit’ of Samuel – which is in reality the woman’s voice, and therefore her assessment of the situation. ‘Samuel’ tells Saul that God has turned away from him, that the Philistines will triumph, and that David, not Saul, will rule. Saul’s army, including Saul’s three sons, will be destroyed.

Keep in mind as you read these predictions that it is the medium/witch who is making them, not Samuel. This astute woman is able to predict the future because she is shrewd and well-informed, not because she has ‘magic’. Being a medium gives her freedom the speak the truth – a truth that no ordinary subject of Saul’s would dare to utter.

Deep in his heart Saul knows this, and he knows she is speaking the horrifying truth. He will die, his family and soldiers will be destroyed, and Israel will for the time being at least come under the heel of the Philistines. Saul collapses on the floor of the cave, unable to move.

Swords from ancient Canaan

Swords from ancient Canaan

The woman comforts Saul

Plate of hot food with bread

This is when the woman shows the compassion and good sense that are the qualities of a woman of worth. Instead of retreating from the broken figure of Saul, she does the sensible and compassionate thing: she offers him food. She knows that, in the turmoil of this terrible day he has probably not eaten.

Now she offers this man, who has persecuted and exiled all the mediums like herself, a simple, nourishing meal. She gives him fresh-baked bread and succulent calf meat. Strengthened, Saul gets up and goes out to meet his fate.

The ‘witch’ of Endor has

  • made a shrewd assessment of the political situation and its likely outcome
  • forgiven Saul for the misery he brought to all the mediums of the land and
  • helped and comforted him as best she could.
The death of Saul on Mount Gilboa

The death of Saul and his sons on Mount Gilboa

The death of Saul and his sons on Mount Gilboa


Notes, extra information on this story

Women gleaning in the fields

Israel’s religion flatly rejected the practice of magic. It was strictly forbidden. Despite this, superstition and magic always persisted among the Israelite people. In times of religious revival it might seem as if magical practices had been eradicated, but in fact they remained bubbling away below the surface, ready to reappear on the slightest excuse – even though, for example, witchcraft could be a capital offense (Exodus 22:18). It should be noted that the woman in this story faced death by stoning if she was caught trying to make contact with the dead.

Of course, ordinary people got around these laws in various ways. For instance, Leviticus l9:9-l0 directs that at harvest-time, the corners of fields, the gleanings of corn and the fallen grapes in vineyards shall be left for the poor and the foreigner (see the story of Ruth). This probably continued an ancient custom of leaving some of the harvest for the spirits of the corn and other crops, so as to ensure a good harvest the following year.

Necromancy

The Bible forbade necromancy (seeking guidance from the dead) in no uncertain terms:
“There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, Copy (2) of Eye asny one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).

Necromancers who invoked “ghosts and familiar spirits” were apparently fairly numerous, for more than one king attempted to stamp out the practice. Saul tried to ban the activities of sorcerers and necromancers, yet at the end of his life even he turned to such a woman (l Samuel 28:7-25). The urge to seek guidance from ancestors and the recently dead was apparently strongly rooted in the hearts of men and withstood official opposition and outright prohibition.


Paintings: the Witch, Samuel, and Saul

Samuel and the Witch of Endor, Martynov, detail of the witch

Samuel and the Witch of Endor, Martynov, detail of the witch
Martynov’s witch is calm, solemn, sure of her power.

Martynov, Saul, Samuel and the Witch of Endor

Martynov, Saul, Samuel and the Witch of Endor
Saul seems to have already received Samuel’s forecast of doom, and clasps his forehead in anguish. He turns towards the viewer, as if to face his future. The witch is the dominating figure in this painting: it is she who holds the power.

Witch of Endor, Edward Henry Corbould

Witch of Endor, Edward Henry Corbould
Corbould seems to have drawn on a gypsy woman for inspiration for his witch. Her face is in shadow, but her summoning hand is still raised. Samuel is bowed. He can offer no hope to his former favorite, Saul.

The Witch of Endor, painted in 1777

The Witch of Endor, painted in 1777
The gates of Sheol are parted, and Samuel appears. Saul’s body language shows a man making one last, desperate plea for help from his former mentor, Samual.
The witch is nowhere in sight.

The Witch of Endor, Nicolai Gey

The Witch of Endor, Nicolai Gey
The red of Saul’s cloak evokes a horrifying image of how his blood, and the blood of his three sons, will be spilt on the following day. Samuel is a remote figure, other-worldly, without pity or emotion

The Witch of Endor, Mattias Stom

The Witch of Endor, Matthias Stom
This later painting is more realistic. Samuel clasps the shroud around him as he tells Saul there is no hope. The witch is almost like a nurse or healer, not a frightening figure as in other paintings. Saul too seems calm as he listens to his former friend and adviser.


Bible text for the Witch of Endor

3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land. 4 The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6 And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. 7 Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at En-dor.”

8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9 The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” 10 But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.

15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16 And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 18 Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. 19 Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”

20 Then Saul fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. 21 And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your servant has obeyed you. I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me. 22 Now therefore, you also obey your servant. Let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” 23 He refused and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him, and he listened to their words. So he arose from the earth and sat on the bed. 24 Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, 25 and she put it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.

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