Witch of Endor

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The witch of Endor
Book of Samuel character
Witch of Endor (Martynov) detail.jpg
"The Endorian Sorceress Causes the Shade of Samuel" (Martynov, Dmitry Nikiforovich, 1857)
Gender Female
Occupation necromancer, Mediumship
Nationality Endor (Galilee)

In the Hebrew Bible, the Witch of Endor was a woman who summoned the prophet Samuel's spirit, at the demand of King Saul of the Kingdom of Israel in the First Book of Samuel, chapter 28:3–25. The witch is absent from the version of that event recounted in the deuterocanonical Book of Sirach (46:19–20).

Witch of Endor by Adam Elsheimer
Saul speaking to Samuel's spirit at the Witch of Endor 1675 by Gabriel Ehinger, Städelsches Kunstinstitut
The Witch of Endor: from the frontispiece to Saducismus Triumphatus by Joseph Glanvill


She is called in Biblical Hebrew אֵ֥שֶׁת בַּֽעֲלַת־אֹ֖וב בְּעֵ֥ין דֹּֽור (’êšeṯ ba‘ălaṯ-’ōḇ bə-‘Êndōr), "a woman who has a familiar spirit at Endor". In other languages: Greek: Αενδωρ ἐγγαστρίμαθος; Latin: Endor pythonem.


When Samuel dies, he is buried in Ramah. Saul, the current King of Israel, seeks wisdom from God in choosing a course of action against the assembled forces of the Philistines. 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 in disguise. His search leads him to a woman of Endor, who claims that she can see the ghost of Samuel rising from the abode of the dead.[1] The voice of the prophet's ghost, 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 with his whole army in battle the next day. Saul is terrified. The next day, his army is defeated as prophesied, and Saul commits suicide.

Although Saul is depicted as an antagonist to witches and diviners, the Witch of Endor comforts Saul when she sees his distress and insists on feeding him before he leaves.

The woman is described as "a woman with an ob" (אוֹב, a talisman[2] or perhaps wineskin)[3] in Hebrew, which may be a reference to ventriloquism,[4] and she claims to see "elohim arising" (plural verb) from the ground.



The Yalkut Shimoni (11th century) identifies the anonymous witch as the mother of Abner.[5] 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.[6]

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), which he stated:[7]

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


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 BCE) the woman is described as a "ventriloquist",[8] possibly reflecting the consistent view of the Alexandrian translators concerning "demons... which exist not".[9] However Josephus (1st century) appears to find the story completely credible (Antiquities of the Jews 6,14).

Witch of Endor by Nikolai Ge, 1857.

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.[10] 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:[11]

"...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.[12] 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."[13]


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.[14]

Calmet states,[15]

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.

In popular culture[edit]

The witch appears as a character in oratorios (including Mors Saulis et Jonathae (c. 1682) by Charpentier, In Guilty Night: Saul and the Witch of Endor (1691) by Henry Purcell, Saul (1738) by George Frideric Handel on the death of Saul, and Le Roi David (1921) by Honegger), in dance music (The Witch of Endor (1969) by Louis Hardin) and operas (David et Jonathas (1688) by the afore-mentioned Charpentier and Saul og David (1902) by Carl Nielsen).

A year after the death of his son at Loos, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called "En-Dor" (1919), about supposed communication with the dead.[16] It concludes,

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".[17][18]

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.[19]


  1. ^ Geza Vermes (2008) The Resurrection. London, Penguin: 25–6
  2. ^ Emil G. Hirsch Jewish Encyclopedia 1911 Endor, the witch of
  3. ^ Blueletterbible.org
  4. ^ The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia p307 ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley – 1959 "... 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".
  5. ^ Yalḳ, Sam. 140, from Pirḳe R. El.
  6. ^ Emil G. Hirsch Jewish Encyclopedia 1911 Endor, the witch of
  7. ^ Calmet, Augustin. 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. 
  8. ^ Hans-Josef Klauck, Brian McNeil Magic and paganism in early Christianity: the world of the Acts of the Apostles p66 2003 "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)."
  9. ^ Milian Lauritz Andreasen Isaiah the gospel prophet: a preacher of righteousness 2001 p345"The Septuagint translates: They "burn incense on bricks to devils which exist not."
  10. ^ King James. Annotated Daemonologie. A Critical Edition. In Modern English. 2016. p. 9-10. ISBN 1-5329-6891-4. 
  11. ^ King James. Annotated Daemonologie. A Critical Edition. In Modern English. 2016. p. 9. ISBN 1-5329-6891-4. 
  12. ^ "Necromancy". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 5 Sep 2012. 
  13. ^ J. M. Buckley. Faith Healing, Christian Science and Kindred Phenomena. p. 221 2003, "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. "
  14. ^ "The Religion of Ghosts." Spiritualist At Work, Vol. 1, No. 19. April 24, 1875. (Chicago.) p. 1
  15. ^ Calmet, Augustin. Treatise on the Apparitions of Spirits and on Vampires or Revenants: of Hungary, Moravia, et al. The Complete Volumes I & II. 2016. p. 237. ISBN 978-1-5331-4568-0. 
  16. ^ 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."
  17. ^ "Today's Radio Program". San Bernardino Sun via the California Digital Newspaper Collection. 18 April 1932. p. 5. 
  18. ^ "Radio history of The NBC Mystery Theater". RadioHorrorHosts.com. Retrieved 23 January 2017. 
  19. ^ Corey, James S. A. (2016). Babylon's Ashes. Orbit. p. 305. ISBN 978-0-316-21763-7. 

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