Witch of Endor

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The Witch of Endor
Witch of Endor (Martynov) detail.jpg
"The Endorian Sorceress Causes the Shade of Samuel" (Martynov, Dmitry Nikiforovich, 1857)
NationalityEndor (Galilee), Canaanite city
OccupationNecromancer, mediumship

The Witch of Endor is a woman who, according to the Hebrew Bible, was consulted by Saul to summon the spirit of prophet Samuel in order to receive advice against the Philistines in battle, after prior attempts to consult God through sacred lots and prophets had failed (First Book of Samuel; 1 Samuel 28:3–25).[1] The Witch of Endor is absent from the version of that event recounted in the deuterocanonical Book of Sirach (46:19–20).


She is called in biblical Hebrew אֵשֶׁת בַּעֲלַת־אֹוב בְּעֵין דֹּור (’êšeṯ ba‘ălaṯ-’ōḇ bə-‘Êndōr), "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.[2][3] Other suggestions for a definition of ’ōḇ include a familiar spirit, a talisman,[4] wineskin, or a reference to ventriloquism[5] based on the Septuagint translation.

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.[6]

In the Greek Septuagint, she is called ἐγγαστρίμυθος ἐν Αενδωρ engastrímythos en Aendōr, while the Latin Vulgate as pythonem in Aendor, both terms referencing then-contemporary pagan oracles.


Witch of Endor by Adam Elsheimer

When Samuel dies, he is buried in Ramah. Saul, the current 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 driven out all necromancers and magicians from Israel, Saul searches for a witch anonymously and visits her in disguise. His search leads him to a woman living in the village of Endor, who claims that she can see the ghost of Samuel rising from the abode of the dead.[7]

The voice of the prophet's ghost at first frightens the witch of Endor, and after complaining of being disturbed, berates Saul for disobeying God, and predicts Saul's downfall. The spirit reiterates a pre-mortem prophecy by Samuel, adding that Saul will perish in battle the next day, along with his whole army. Saul is terrified (1 Samuel 28:12–20). The next day, his army is defeated as prophesied: Saul is fatally wounded by the Philistines, and in two different tellings of the event, commits suicide by using his own sword, (1 Samuel 31:1–4) or asks a young Amalekite to give him the coup de grâce (2 Samuel 1:6–10).

Although Saul is depicted as an enemy to witches and diviners, the Witch of Endor comforts Saul when she sees his distress and insists on feeding him before he leaves (1 Samuel 28:21–25).



The Witch of Endor: from the frontispiece to Saducismus Triumphatus by Joseph Glanvill.

The Yalkut Shimoni (11th century) identifies the anonymous witch as the mother of Abner.[8] 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.[4]

Antoine Augustin Calmet briefly mentioned the witch of Endor in his Traité sur les apparitions des esprits et sur les vampires ou les revenans de Hongrie, de Moravie, &c. (1759):[9]

The Israelites went sometimes to consult Beelzebub, god of Ekron, to know if they should recover from their sickness. The history of the evocation of Samuel by the witch of Endor is well known. I am aware that some difficulties are raised concerning this history. I shall deduce nothing from it here, except that this woman passed for a witch, that Saul esteemed her such, and that this prince had exterminated the magicians in his own states, or, at least, that he did not permit them to exercise their art.

— Calmet, Chapter 7 on Magic

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.

— Calmet, Chapter 40


William Blake: Saul, the shade of Samuel and the witch

The Church Fathers and some modern Christian writers have debated the theological issues raised by this text. The story of King Saul and the Witch of Endor would appear at first sight to affirm that it is possible (though forbidden) for humans to summon the spirits of the dead by magic.

In the Septuagint (2nd century BC) the woman is described as a "ventriloquist",[10] possibly reflecting the consistent view of the Alexandrian translators concerning "demons ... which exist not".[11] However, Josephus (1st century) appears to find the story completely credible (Antiquities of the Jews 6,14).

King James wrote in his philosophical treatise Daemonologie (1597) arguing against the ventriloquist theory, stating that the Devil is permitted at times to put himself in the likeness of the Saints, citing 2 Corinthians 11:14 that Satan can transform himself into an Angel of light.[12] James describes the witch of Endor as "Saul's Pythonese", likening her to Pythia from the Greek mythology of Python and the Oracle. It was the belief of James that the witch of Endor was an avid practitioner of necromancy:[13]

... that how soon that once the unclean spirit was fully risen, she called in upon Saul. For it is said in the text, that Saul knew him to be Samuel, which could not have been by the hearing tell only of an old man with a mantle ... But to prove this my first proposition, that there can be such a thing as witchcraft, & witches, there are many more places in the Scriptures than this (as I said before). As first in the law of God, it is plainly prohibited: (Exod. 22.) But 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.

— Epistemon; Daemonologie, Chapter 1

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.[14] 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."[15]

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; instead, this was the work of God.[16][17] Baldwin (1989)[18] 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."[18]


Witch of Endor by Nikolai Ge, 1857.

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.[19]

Calmet states,[20]

The pagans thought much in the same manner upon it. Lucan introduces Pompey, who consults a witch, and commands her to evoke the soul of a dead man to reveal to him what success he would meet with in his war against Cæsar; the poet makes this woman say, "Shade, obey my spells, for I evoke not a soul from gloomy Tartarus, but one which hath gone down thither a little while since, and which is still at the gate of hell."

Cultural references[edit]

Saul speaking to Samuel's spirit at the Witch of Endor 1675 by Gabriel Ehinger, Städelsches Kunstinstitut.

Oh the road to En-dor is the oldest road
And the craziest road of all!
Straight it runs to the Witch’s abode,
As it did in the days of Saul,
And nothing has changed of the sorrow in store
For such as go down on the road to En-dor!

  • The Martha Graham Dance Company premiered The Witch of Endor in 1965 at the 54th Street Theater in New York. A one-act work, it had choreography and costumes by Martha Graham, music by William Schuman, sets by Ming Cho Lee, and lighting by Jean Rosenthal.
  • In Endor by Shaul Tchernichovsky, describing King Saul's encounter with the Witch of Endor, is considered a major work of modern Hebrew poetry. Tchernichovsky particularly identified with the character of Saul, perhaps due to his own name, and the poem expresses considerable empathy to this King's tragic fate.
  • An episode in the 1932 radio program NBC Mystery Serial written by Carlton E. Morse was called The Witch of Endor, and included a character who said she was a witch; the story was set in "a sparsely populated residential district in the suburbs of San Francisco called Endor Park".[22][23]
  • A ship named the Witch of Endor was also featured in the Horatio Hornblower book "Flying Colours". The cutter, with an armament of 10 guns, was used by Hornblower to escape from France after he was captured.
  • The Witch of Endor is a ship in Babylon's Ashes, the sixth book of The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey. She is destroyed early in book six on the orders of Marco Inaros, chief antagonist of the books five and six (Nemesis Games and Babylon's Ashes) for mutiny.[24]
  • Massachusetts playwright Jon Lipsky's 1978 play Beginner's Luck is based on King Saul's encounter with the Witch of Endor in the Bible.[25]
  • "Endora" is the name of a witch played by Agnes Moorehead in the 1964–72 television comedy Bewitched. While references are made to her great age it is never made explicit that she is the Biblical character.
  • "Witch of Endor" is the first track on the self-titled 2012 debut album of American occult rock band Bloody Hammers.
  • The Witch of Endor is a modern-day character in Michael Scott's novel, "The Alchemist: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel." (2007,Delacourt Press) In it, she is described as "not just a witch. She is the original Witch."
  • “Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)”, featured as the fifth track on the modern rock band Greta Van Fleet’s 2018 debut album Anthem of the Peaceful Army, references the Biblical tale of the Witch of Endor.

Oh God, hellfire
Witch of Endor raised
Saul would fall to his knees,
Watch the fire blaze
Satan plays his flute for him
The sound, it burns his ears
Watches as the peace of man
Slips and disappears

  • The Witch of Endor is mentioned several times (including a reference to a woodcut illustration) in the book The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs.
  • The Witch of Endor is a song on Moondog's 1969 album Moondog (not to be confused with his earlier album of the same name)

Dramatic representations[edit]


  1. ^ Barton, John; Muddiman, John, eds. (2007). The Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199277186.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ King, Philip J.; Stager, Lawrence E. (2001). Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 380. ISBN 9780664221485.
  4. ^ a b Hirsh, Emil G. (1911). "Endor, the witch of". Jewish Encyclopedia.
  5. ^ Aune, D. E. (1959). "Medium". In Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (ed.). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 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'.
  6. ^ 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. ISBN 9781585582914.
  7. ^ Vermes, Geza (2008). The Resurrection. London, UK: Penguin. pp. 25–26.
  8. ^ Yalḳ, Sam. 140, from Pirḳe R. El.
  9. ^ Calmet, Augustin (30 December 2015). Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants: of Hungary, Moravia, et al. The Complete Volumes I & II. 2016. p. 47;237. ISBN 978-1-5331-4568-0.
  10. ^ 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).
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ King James (2016). Annotated Daemonologie. A critical edition in modern English. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-1-5329-6891-4.
  13. ^ King James (2016). Annotated Daemonologie. A critical edition in modern English. p. 9. ISBN 978-1-5329-6891-4.
  14. ^ "Necromancy". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 5 Sep 2012.
  15. ^ 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".
  16. ^ Beuken, Willem (1978). "1 Samuel 28: The prophet as "hammer of witches"". Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 3 (6): 8–9.
  17. ^ Keil, Carl Friedrich; Delitzsch, Franz (1956). Biblical Commentary on the Books of Samuel. Eerdmans. p. 262.
  18. ^ a b Baldwin, Joyce (1989). 1 and 2 Samuel: An introduction and commentary. p. 159.
  19. ^ "The Religion of Ghosts". Spiritualist at Work. 1 (19). Chicago. 24 April 1875. p. 1.
  20. ^ Calmet, Augustin (2016). Traité sur les apparitions des esprits et sur les vampires ou les revenans de Hongrie, de Moravie, &c. [Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants: of Hungary, Moravia, etc.]. I & II. p. 237. ISBN 978-1-5331-4568-0.
  21. ^ Tonie Holt, Valmai Holt My Boy Jack: The Search for Kipling's Only Son (1998), 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."
  22. ^ "Today's Radio Program". San Bernardino Sun via the California Digital Newspaper Collection. 18 April 1932. p. 5.
  23. ^ "Radio history of The NBC Mystery Theater". RadioHorrorHosts.com. Retrieved 23 January 2017.
  24. ^ Corey, James S. A. (2016). Babylon's Ashes. Orbit. p. 305. ISBN 978-0-316-21763-7.
  25. ^ A Short Biography of Jon Lipsky, written by Jonah Lipsky for The Plays of Jon Lipsky: A Two-volume Collection

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]