The Necromancer from Endor – John Walton and Phil Long

ZA Blog on September 25th, 2009.

ZA Blog


Saul’s visit to the so-called "witch" of Endor in 1 Samuel 28 provides one of the most mysterious and troubling accounts in the Old Testament. These are the sorts of narratives that we can expect information from the ancient world to illuminate. Phil Long sorts through the data in his commentary on Samuel in ZIBBCOT as he looks at the practitioners and their procedures.

The chief function of such practitioners was evidently to communicate with the spirit world, particularly with the dead. In the present instance, the Hebrew for "medium" reads literally "ghostwife" or perhaps "ghostmistress."1 The "ghost" (Heb. ôb) was understood as the spirit of the dead, and the function of the medium was to call up the spirit through necromancy, in order that it might speak.

Necromancy was practiced throughout the ancient Near East.2 In Mesopotamia, the necromancer rubbed salve on his or her face in an effort to contact or perhaps embody the spirit of the dead, or used "skulls or figurines as temporary houses for the spirit which was being summoned."3 Although evidence of specifics is sparse, similar practices took place in Hittite Anatolia, where a distinguishing feature was the prominent role played by "old women."4

In Egypt necromancy is first attested in the first half of the first millennium B.C., but there is evidence, such as in the Letters to the Dead, that necromancy may have been practiced much earlier. Egyptian necromancy sometimes used cadavers or scrying (gazing) cups.5 From Ugarit, the so-called Protocol of a Necromancy offers direct evidence of the practice, and there is indirect evidence as well.6 The only direct evidence of necromancy being practiced in Israel is the present encounter between Saul and the medium at Endor, and in this context the practice is evaluated negatively.

The etymological origin of the word for "spirit" (ôb) is much debated,7 but one attractive proposal in the light of the present context (note, e.g., the spirit coming up "out of the ground," v. 13) is that the word derives from a non-Semitic loanword meaning "sacrificial pit." Proposed by Hoffner first on the basis of the occurrence of a cognate word meaning "pit" in Hittite religious texts,8 he finds additional cognates in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Ugaritic.9 He argues that the Hebrew term, like its Hittite cognate, is to be understood as designating

1) a pit dug in the ground, which served as a means of access between infernal spirits of gods or deceased persons and the upper world. Among the Hittites, rituals were carried out which involved the opening up of such pits in places selected by oracle, the lowering of offerings into the pits, and the luring up of spirits out of the pit to eat the sacrifices and drink the blood libations and show their favour and superior knowledge to the sacrificers.10

Among the offerings lowered in the pit were foodstuffs, often including a black sacrificial animal (a hog or a dog), silver objects such as a model of a human ear (symbolizing the practitioner’s desire to hear from the underworld), and a ladder or staircase (to encourage the spirit to ascend).11 Sumerian and Akkadian versions of the Gilgamesh Epic also attest the use of pits or holes in the ground as portals through which the dead could ascend from the underworld; Gilgamesh used such a pit to summon his departed companion Enkidu.12 In the Old Testament, the Hebrew term ôb is extended to connote not only the "ghost" that comes out of the pit but also the necromancer who calls forth the spirit.

As regards Saul’s night visit to the necromancer at Endor, opinion is divided over whether the real Samuel appeared or a mere apparition. The startled reaction of the woman in verse 12, her immediate realization that she has been deceived (she is not dealing with her "familiar" spirits), and the narrator’s unqualified statement that the woman "saw Samuel" all suggest that Samuel really appears. That in this instance Yahweh should deign to return Samuel from the grave—to the surprise of the woman and the dismay of Saul—in no way represents a validation either of the efficacy or the acceptability of necromancy.

This information from the ancient world helps us to understand the account in light of its own cultural context rather than thinking of it I light of current practices of séances or mediums. Samuel’s spirit does not possess the woman nor speak through her in any way—it appears.

[1]McCarter (1 Samuel, 418, 420) assumes a conflation of both readings in the Hebrew of 28:7.

[2] As well as in the Greco-Roman world: “Greek and Latin literature contains a whole series of necromancies, starting from the Homeric Nekyia … and Aeschylus’s rite of The Persians down to the fictions in the late novels and the parodies of Lucian” (F. Graf, Magic in the Ancient World, trans. Franklin Philip [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997], 194).

[3] J. A. Scurlock, “Magic (ANE),” ABD, 4:465, which see for literature, esp. I. Finkel, “Necromancy in Ancient Mesopotamia,” AfO 29/30 (1983–84): 1–17.

[4] Scurlock, “Magic (ANE),” ABD, 4:465–66. See, e.g., the “Old Woman” practitioner of Hittite rituals presented in ANET, 347, 350–51.

[5] Ibid., 466; cf. C. L. Nihan, “1 Samuel 28 and the Condemnation of Necromancy in Persian Yehud,” in Magic in the Biblical World: From the Rod of Aaron to the Ring of Solomon, ed. T. E. Klutz (London: T. & T. Clark, 2003), 23–54 (see 28 n. 13). Nihan offers a succinct and well documented discussion of necromancy in the ancient Near East and the Hebrew Bible (esp. 24–32).

[6] KTU 1:124, mentioned by Nihan, “1 Samuel 28,” 28 n. 13, referring to the critical edition of the text by M. Dietrich and O. Loretz, Mantik in Ugarit: Keilalphabetische Texte der Opferschau, Ommensammlungen, Nekromantie (Abhandlungen zur Literatur Alt-Syrien-Palästinas 3; Munich: Ugarit-Verlag, 1990).

[7] The chief theories variously connect the word to an Arabic verb meaning “to return” (thus, the spirit is “one who returns’); to a Hittite term meaning “pit”; to the Heb. word “father, ancestor” (thus relating the practice to ancestor worship). For discussion by one who prefers the latter, see Nihan, “1 Samuel 28,” 30–32.

[8] Hoffner, “Hittites and Hurrians,” in Peoples of the Old Testament World, 216; cf. idem, “Second Millennium Antecedents to the Hebrew ,ôbh,” JBL 86 (1967): 386–401.

[9] H. A. Hoffner, “b„a,” TDOT, 1:131.

[10] Hoffner, “Hittites and Hurrians,” 216.

[11] So Hoffner, “b„a,” 1:132.

[12] Ibid., 1:131.

  • William Ross 7 years ago

    What an informative article! Wow! Thanks so much!

    Am I correct that the term “familiar spirits” might be better rendered “breaths of family members?” My understanding of this practice is that family members might need to contact their dearly departed in order to resolve questions of inheritance, or ask, “Joe, where did you bury the gold?!”

    It also seems apparent that the disciples thought that Jesus might just be the breath of the recently dead Jesus en route to God “who gave it.”

    Ec 3:21 Who knoweth the spirit [breath] of man that goeth upward, and the spirit [breath] of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?

    Ec 12:7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit [breath] shall return unto God who gave it.

    Again, thank you for this great article.