The Witch of Endor

The witch of Endor is one of the many characters described in the Bible that are connected with magic, divination, and stuff that you superficially wouldn’t expect to find in the Bible. She appears in the First Book of Samuel, although she’s absent from the Book of Sirach where the same events are told. I […]

The witch of Endor is one of the many characters described in the Bible that are connected with magic, divination, and stuff that you superficially wouldn’t expect to find in the Bible. She appears in the First Book of Samuel, although she’s absent from the Book of Sirach where the same events are told. I have had this piece in stock for ages: today’s a good day to publish it for the guys down at #FaustianFriday.

As the story goes, King Saul was the one to drive away from Israel all necromancers and magicians, witches and diviners. Therefore, when he has to seek advice on how to defeat the Philistines in battle and no answer comes from God, he has no choice but to disguise himself and seek the aid of a witch. He finds a woman in the city of Endor, a Canaanite settlement located between the Hill of Moreh and Mount Tabor in the Jezreel Valley. In biblical Hebrew, the witch is described as אֵשֶׁת בַּעֲלַת־אֹוב בְּעֵין דֹּור (’êšeṯ ba‘ălaṯ-’ōḇ bə-‘ên dōr), which means “a woman, possessor of an ’ōḇ at Endor”.
According to some sources, the word אֹ֖וב (’ōḇ) refers to a ritual pit for summoning the dead and has correlations with the Sumerian ab, the Akkadian âbu, and the Hittite a-a-bi, or the Ugaritic ib. These sources consider the witch a medium as we would consider her in modern literature, who was able to connect with a ghost and make it tangible. The ritual performed by the witch to connect herself with a ghost has parallels in Babylonian and Hittite magical texts and in the Odyssey.
Other sources suggest that ’ōḇ refers to a familiar spirit, a talisman, or a wineskin. Should this be correct, the witch performs the actual summoning through the aid of this familiar spirit, but the interpretation is not particularly popular.
Other interpretations consider the witch of Endor a charlatan and consider ’ōḇ a reference to ventriloquism. This theory leads to the Greek Septuagint translation, where the witch is called ἐγγαστρίμυθος ἐν Αενδωρ (engastrímythos en Aendōr), literally meaning Endor’s ventriloquist, but the version doesn’t match well with the narrative of the story and what happens next, so I think we can scratch that.
Last but not least, the Latin Vulgate calls her pythonem in Aendor, creating a parallel with Sibillas, but the description of her ritual makes it strikingly different from the way the Sybil is being possessed by the god.

The witch, in fact, performs a ritual in which she claims to be able to see elohim arising from the ground, using the word for god but a verb in the plural form to refer to the spirits of the dead. The spirit she summons is the one of the prophet Samuel, who was buried in Ramah at his death and is either not very happy to be disturbed or, as some sources go, terrified at being raised because he believes it’s time to face God’s judgment.
In both cases, Samuel had already cursed Saul once, when he was alive, for etiquette infringement during a sacrifice before battle, so one really has to wonder why the King goes to all this trouble to talk to the spirit of a guy who clearly hates his gut.
The pissed-off spirit scolds Saul for disobeying God and predicts his downfall: on the next day, Saul will march into battle and his army will be defeated. Saul himself will die in battle. And so it happens: the next day, the King is fatally wounded and, according to some sources, commits suicide.

The witch herself seems to be scared by the revelation of Saul’s identity – he was the one banishing all magic after all – and he has to comfort her that no harm will come to her. She in turn comforts him with the news he’ll die the next day, gives him food and that’s all we know of her.

The witch of Endor in Music

The first significant composer to dedicate attention to the witch is probably Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a French baroque composer under King Louis XIV, with his opera David et Jonathas (1688). As it was customary, the witch was an haute-contre, a tenor voice in drag. It was first performed at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, in Paris, on 28 February 1688, and remained highly popular in Jesuits Colleges till 1741.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

In 1691, the famous and beloved English composer Henry Purcell wrote an oratorium titled In Guilty Night: Saul and the Witch of Endor. She also appears as a character in George Frideric Handel’s Saul (1738), which focuses on the death of the king.

Another more recent opera, titled Saul og David, was composed in 1902 by the Danish musician Carl Nielsen. The story mostly focuses on Saul’s jealousy of young David and the witch of Endor is played by a contralto, famously Elisabeth Dons in the November 28th premiere.

Study of the female singer Elisabeth Dons as Amneris in Aïda by Jens Ferdinand Willumsen

The Witch of Endor in Poetry

In 1919, a year after the death of his son at Loos, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called “En-Dor” (1919) in which he talks about communicating with the dead and explicitly refers to the biblical witch.

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!

In Endor, composed by Shaul Tchernichovsky, focuses on the encounter between the king and the witch, and Saul’s feelings upon discovering he has to die. It’s considered a major work of modern Hebrew poetry.

The Witch of Endor in Painting

There’s a lot of works of art featuring the witch of Endor, so here’s a brief selection of my favourites, in chronological order.

1526. Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen

The author was a Northern Netherlandish designer of woodcuts and painter working in Amsterdam. This painting was one of many religious subjects, like The temptation of Christ with a dark-skinned, hooded devil. The scene presents many elements of interest: the hybrid satyr holding the book for the witch and her divination tools, more similar to an architect’s tool than I would like to admit; the outdoor settings and the more traditional witches gathering on the right side of the painting with black cocks (the bird, you idiot), goats, wine and any kind of good time you can think of.
The boring people are on the left, with Saul’s army and a weird thing holding a shield.

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1526). Saul and the Witch of Endor. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

1635. Matthias Stom

Also known as Matthias Stomer, this little-known Flemish painted gives us a more traditional setting, in the witch’s cave, with the prophet appearing wrapped in the traditional blanket you used to bury the dead. The witch seems to have drawn something on the floor and the ghost is lit by the torch she’s holding. People accompanying Saul (who doesn’t seem very much in disguise) don’t seem very happy with what they’re seeing.

Matthias Stom (1635). Saul and the Witch of Endor. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

1675. Godfried Schalcken

They look like two people searching for the recipe of the Christmas turkey but no, they are King Saul and the Witch: the former is explaining in detail what he wants like he wants a specific kind of prophet with a certain vibe, and the witch is looking for the right way to summon him in her book of spells. If you have a better picture than mine, you can also try and zoom in to see if you can read the book. Good luck with your summoning.

Godfried Schalcken (1675). The pythoness of Endor.

1675. Gabriel Ehinger

Look at this thing and tell me it’s from 1675, if you dare. This incredible drawing shows a twisted witch, without any of the traditional female attributes, drawing her incantation on the ground with her stick while, in the background and at the top of the wall, the dead are rising from their coffins and other creatures are flying in the sky, one of them on a horse, one of them holding a staff. Both the setting, the composition and the style of the figures are absolutely amazing.

Gabriel Ehinger (1675). Saul Consulting the Spirit of Samuel. Drawing. Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie in Frankfurt.

1737. J. Mynde

Compared to the previous one, even this one looks less powerful: the prophet is surely pissed, though, and the wind in the cave is portrayed with extraordinary power through his robes, the position of the other character and the burning fire. People are dressed the way people thought ancient Romans were dressed because it’s the 1730s, baby.

J. Mynde (1737). Saul consults the witch of Endor. Engraving.

1753. Januarius Zick

Getting out of neoclassicism and diving into what will be the Romantic era, we get this powerful indoor setting from Januarius Zick, a German painter, architect and mathematician. And you can see his love for architecture in the effort he makes with the space. There’s also a bat-signal, on top of the jar, should you need help defeating the ghost afterwards.

Januarius Zick (1753). Saul speaks with the ghost of Samuel by the Witch of Endor. Painting.

1777. Henry Fuseli

Our favourite romantic (well, at least my favourite romantic) couldn’t have been the one to skip the subject and, of course, he doesn’t disappoint: we get a scene of a fainting King Saul, in all his glory, and the prophet seems to be thinking “I shouldn’t have answered the door, I was sleeping”.

Henry Fuseli (1777). Study for Saul and the Witch of Endor. Pen and Walsh. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

1777. Benjamin West

In the same year, Benjamin West gives us a proper painting, in which the main focus is the prophet, bright in his white robes, and again the soldier seems to be saying “I’ll wait for you guys outside”. The witch looks a lot like a character from Michelangelo and there’s theories of her being drawn from a character in the Sistine Chapel, but I found no evidence of it.

Benjamin West (1777). Saul and the Witch of Endor. Painting.

1783. William Blake

Do you remember when I said that Fuseli was my favourite romantic? Well, I lied. And, of course, His Majesty William Blake also meddles with the subject, being both Biblical and supernatural. If the dates were reversed, we would have no hesitation in saying that Fuseli was influenced by Blake, but this seems to be the other way around. Did Blake know Fuseli’s work? This article gives you some insight into the topic.

William Blake (1783). The Witch of Endor Raising The Spirit of Samuel. Pen and watercolour on paper.

1900s. Ary Scheffer

A French-Dutch romantic painter, he mostly did works based on Dante, Goethe, and Lord Byron. He had strong ties to King Louis Philippe I and taught art to his children until the French Revolution in 1848. He died in 1858.
Another work of interest is his Lénore, les morts vont vite, huile sur toile, an illustration to the omonimous Gothic ballad from 1773.

Ary Scheffer (XIX Century). Pen and brown ink, brush and gray wash, graphite. The MET.

1900s. Edward Henry Corbould

The composition of this painting is incredible, with the cave’s entrance showing the thunderstorm outside and the contrast between the golden light that seems to emanate from the ghost and the fury of the elements in the night. The witch’s altar presents also some interesting details aside from the skull and, for the first time, a little effort seems to be put into her. Lots of other paintings are titled after the witch but then focus on either the king or the spirit.

Edward Henry Corbould (XIX Century). Watercolor with Bodycolor.

1857. Dmitry Nikiforovich Martynov

Another wonderful painting in terms of composition and lights presents a bright light springing from the witch’s hand and a pale, colder light responding from the ghost’s body. The King, as usual, doesn’t feel well, but his subjects seem to be taking it better.

Dmitry Nikiforovich Martynov (1857). The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul.

1857. Nikolai Ge

Nikolai Ge (1857). Witch of Endor.

1866. Gustav Doré

Last but not least, a favourite etcher who couldn’t be missing. Doré gives us the witch pointing at the prophet, but my favourite detail is the couple of snakes just chilling at the bottom of the cauldron because they’ve seen it all already.

Gustav Doré (1866). Saul and the Witch of Endor.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.