Witch of Endor According to the story related in Samuel I of the Old Testament, the Witch of Endor was a pythoness and necromancer who raised the spirit of Samuel at the request of king Saul of Israel (see necromancy). Although she is called a “witch,” it is likely not an accurate description of her.
The Bible relates that Saul was afraid of an impending attack by a mighty army of Philistines, who had been joined by his rival, David. He gathered up the Israelites and camped at mount Gilboa. He sought advice from prophets and divination by sacred lot and from the Lord, but he received no answer as to his fate or the action he should take. Saul instructed his servants,
“Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her.”
His servants directed him to the pythoness at Endor, whose name is never given. Saul disguised himself and went to the witch the same night. At first, she was frightened that he had come to expose her as a witch: “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 assured the woman he meant her no harm and instructed her to conjure Samuel from the dead. She performed her ritual and claimed to see gods rising out of the earth, followed by a spirit like an old man, wrapped in a robe. Saul, who could see nothing, believed the old spirit was Samuel and prostrated himself on the ground. Samuel was not pleased to be disturbed from the grave. Saul said he faced war and had been abandoned by God.
But Samuel’s reply was not what Saul wanted to hear: that God was displeased with Saul for his disobedience and had torn his kingdom from his hand and given it to David.
“moreover, the Lord will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and tomorrow shalt thou and the sons be with me: the Lord shall also deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.”
Upon hearing this condemnation, Saul fell into a faint. The spirit of Samuel vanished. The woman went to Saul and offered him food for strength, but he refused. His servants and the witch helped him get up. She killed a fatted calf she had and cooked it, and made some unleavened bread. Before he left, Saul relented and ate the meal she offered him.
The next day, the Philistines attacked the Israelites, who fled in terror and were slain. Saul’s sons Jonathan, Abinadab and malchishua were slain, and Saul was badly wounded. Saul ordered an armor-bearer to kill him with his sword, but the soldier refused. Saul took his sword and fell upon it.
When the Philistines found his body, they cut off the head, fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan and put his armor in the temple of Astarte. His headless body was removed by the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead, who burned the body and buried the bones. David succeeded Saul as king of Israel.
Among those who considered the conjuration of Samuel to be a hoax was Reginald Scot, the 16th-century English writer who attempted to debunk beliefs about witchcraft in his book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft. Scot devoted several chapters to a discussion of the story, asserting that the distraught Saul was taken for a fool by a clever woman whose familiar was a “counterfeit”:
When Saule had told hir, that he would have Samuel brought up to him, she departed from his presence into hir closet, where doubtles she had hir familiar; to wit, some lewd craftie preest, and made Saule stand at the door like a foole (as it were with his finger in a hole), to hear the cousening [deceitful] answers, but not see the counsening [sic] handling thereof, and the couterfetting [sic] of the matter.
The witch, Scot said, knew who Saul was despite his disguise. She played out her incantations, lied about seeing gods or angels ascending from the earth and about seeing the spirit of old Samuel. Scot discounts that such a spirit could have been Samuel, for it was clothed in a new mantle such as he was buried in and surely would have been rotted by the time he was conjured.
Theologians such as Augustine and Tertullian, and the French Demonologist, JeAn bodIn (a contemporary of Scot’s), said a spirit was conjured, but it was the Devil, not Samuel. Scot disagreed, saying the Devil would have been banished by the word “God” or “Jehovah,” spoken five times during the conjuration. Furthermore, Scot said, the Devil would not appear to rebuke and punish someone for evil but to encourage them to do more evil.
The witch, said Scot, was a ventriloquist, “that is, Speaking at it were from the bottome of her bellie, did cast herself into a transe [sic] and so abused Saule, answering to Saule in Samuels name, in his counterfeit hollow voice.”
- de Givry, Emile Grillot. Witchcraft, Magic and Alchemy. 1931. reprint, New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
- Hill, Douglas, and Pat Williams. The Supernatural. London: Aldus Books, 1965.